Mushishi (2005) Review: Short Story-telling at its Finest
It is not often that one comes across an anime that is not bogged down with fan service, tiresome gags, and pointless dialogue that are all there simply for the sake of filling up the 20-something minutes of the allotted time of each episode. Most viewers have come to expect at least SOME of this to be sprinkled in here and there throughout the run of a series, but fortunately, Mushishi manages to escape these moments of excess by doing exactly what every show is supposed to do: devote itself completely and solely to the presentation of a story.
Adapted from the manga series by Yuki Urushibara, Mushishi is a collection of short stories that is steeped in the mystical while still managing to seem as realistic as possible. By this I mean that while the series is set in a world filled with paranormal entities called “mushi,” it would be a great disservice to place the show in the same boat with the generic supernatural horrors that deal with exorcism and evil spirits. First of all, Mushishi is not a horror, nor does it ever refer or treat the relationship between living things and mushi in the black and white manner of “mushi are evil, and everything else is good.” In the same way the world is filled with plants and animals, mushi are strongly tied to nature and live with just as much right as any other living thing. The “mystical” aspect arises from the fact that not everyone can see mushi, and though they are not necessarily among the “living,” they are spirit-like creatures that are very much alive in the sense that they affect all other living things that they come into contact with.
However, despite the fact that the villagers in the show often recognize these beings as “paranormal,” the show still manages to create an atmosphere approaching realism. The most significant way the show does this is by hammering into viewers the idea that mushi are a natural and inseparable part of the world—that without mushi, every other living creature would not survive, and vice versa. And in order to supplement the notion that mushi are within the bounds of a “realistic world,” the show portrays the part of life that viewers are most familiar with: the daily life and struggles of a human being. The show does an excellent job in presenting the lives of its villagers as not ideal or picturesque, but rather fraught with their own complex web of difficulties and hardships. Moreover, the fact that the show refuses to always provide viewers with a “happy” ending is also well within the spirit of realistic fiction; while Ginko (the main character) is at times successful in aiding others who cannot co-exist with mushi, there are times when there is nothing he can do and the only option left is to adapt to the situation as best as possible.
Thus, Mushishi is a show that certainly falls in the “supernatural” genre, but the manner in which it portrays its story grounds it as closely as possible to the world we live in. It is a show that stays true to its vision, consistently striving to carve an accurate representation of what it means to be human, to be vulnerable, to love, and to survive. And while the series is certainly not completely flawless, it comes pretty damn close.
Below is a 1 minute clip from one of the 26 short stories that are featured in the first season:
Story and Structure
Each episode is a short story in and of itself, opening with a couple cryptic lines about a particular mushi that will be featured, and then either introducing the character(s) who is/are experiencing some form of struggle, or showing Ginko as he travels on some sort of path to a village that called for his help. From this point, an episode goes in one of several possible paths of presentation, but the outcome is always uncertain.
In the first couple of episodes, however, viewers may come to view Ginko as the deus ex machina of the show, since it begins with him figuring out what mushi is responsible, and then proceeding to solve whatever problem is present. Even though this occurs in the very beginning, the show gradually becomes more and more unpredictable as mushi involvement in a person’s life comes to affect not only that one person, but an entire village. During such instances, it no longer becomes something as simple as “any problem can be fixed by Ginko” because multiple factors come to play an influence in shaping people’s decisions and actions. As a result, an episode often reaches its conclusion on a not so “perfect” note, and at times, an even tragic one.
In terms of how well the show explores its concept of mushi and their roles in the world, it is highly versatile. At first, viewers may come to view mushi as nothing more than trouble-making entities that need to be eliminated, particularly because so many people come to be victims of their influence. However, the show goes on to prove that in addition to providing the life force for all living things, and providing other benefits to people as well, the problems mushi may at times create are inadvertent, for they are the same as any other living being: trying to survive the only way they know they can.
Perhaps the line that best captures the show’s perspective of mushi is when Ginko says, “Don’t let yourself be blinded by fear or anger. Everything is only as it is.” This line is particularly significant because even though it is directed towards the villagers’ usually quick-to-kill behavior against mushi, the concept of mushi itself can be representative of all things that are unknown or strange to people—things which we often react to with bias, hatred, and ignorance. If we are to view the show from this perspective, the entire show can be understood as an allegory for our general treatment towards the unfamiliar. Whether or not this is what is intended, the presentation of mushi and their relationship to humanity accurately depicts life as not so simplistic as we may wish it to be, but in fact often complicated by multiple factors that may or may not be beyond our control.
Aside from some of the brilliant things the show does with its presentation of humanity’s relationship to mushi, the show has just a couple of episodes where it opts for mysteriousness rather than a complex story. By this I mean that in these episodes, focus is given to the effects of a particular mushi and figuring out its identity rather than placing emphasis on how the mushi’s relationship is viewed by and impacts society. At times, the situations seem tailored to what some people may find personally intriguing (for example, seeing a patch of nature as it would appear in the springtime while the surrounding area is a cold winter landscape), but the issue with this is that it inevitably leaves a certain part of the audience disinterested, particularly since up until these moments, many episodes have been focusing on a variety of elements dealing with mushi rather than just on the single aspect of having an “air of mystery.” Some people may find this to be a refreshing change of pace, while others may point to it as a flaw; as it is difficult to achieve an objective consensus on this, I will leave viewers of the show to decide for themselves.
Another aspect of the show that may deter certain viewers is the pacing. The first season has 26 episodes, and if viewers go in with the understanding that each one is packed with material solely devoted to telling a single, complex story with a consistently brooding—though occasionally lighter—tone, then the gradual presentation of a story may not be much of an issue. But for those who prefer fast-paced stories with bigger overarching arcs, the slow pacing and episodic nature may be a big turn-off. In general, if you are fan of the short story genre, or well-crafted realistic fantasy tales, then Mushishi is a must-watch.
Characters and their Development
The only character in the first season that has a recurring role is Ginko—an enigmatic, traveling mushishi (a person whose profession is to deal with mushi who are causing trouble for people) who cares a great deal about helping both people and mushi without having to resort to killing the latter in order to solve the problems that arise. And while the show does delve a little into Ginko’s past, he still may come across as a mysterious character. Part of the reason for this is because the show focuses primarily on shaping the lives and back-stories of the villagers he comes to aid, their relationships to the mushi they are afflicted by, and how Ginko goes about figuring out what kind of mushi they are and how to deal with them instead of portraying every aspect of Ginko’s personality to the viewer.
However, because the story’s structure and Ginko’s circumstances require his constant moving-about, it may explain why it is so difficult to learn more about Ginko. As a character who cannot remember anything about his life prior to the age of 10, who is forced to keep moving because mushi are attracted to him, and who is always trying to learn about others’ lives, it actually is not that surprising that viewers learn so little about him. As a result, from the viewers’ perspective, Ginko may come to resemble more of a device that propels the story forward rather than a unique character with his own voice. Fortunately, the show adds occasional moments here and there during his interactions with people and mushi to indicate that there is a unique voice underneath. So despite how mysterious and different he is from everyone else around him, not only from his physical appearance but his way of thinking as well, Ginko ultimately comes across as someone who refuses to be a burden to anyone, who sympathizes with the struggles of others, and who, more than anything, wishes for all animals, humans, plants, and mushi to live in continuous harmony.
The rest of the show is filled with villagers or the occasional mushishi other than Ginko, but as mentioned before, almost none of them ever appear more than once, and some of them (particularly other mushishi) may appear for only a few seconds. Within each short story, however, a lot of attention is given to who a particular villager is in relation to the mushi being investigated and how their life was prior and after to being affected by the mushi. This is the primary reason why the pacing is generally slow as each episode is completely devoted to shaping the villager and mushi in question. The decisions and feelings of certain characters at times significantly complicate the situation, while at other moments, the circumstances characters find themselves in make that impossible. Ultimately, however, it is refreshing to see that the characters do not always follow every single thing Ginko advises them to do, which keeps each episode from becoming formulaic or predictable. And with each episode being as imaginative and—usually—complex as the one before it, the show manages to create an in-depth and satisfying experience with each tale.
Aesthetics and Conclusion
In terms of the overall look and feel of the show, it generally has a very “relaxed” atmosphere—partly as a result of the pacing, the use of warm colors during the warm seasons, and especially the soundtrack. Episodes vary between the vibrant greener colors during the warm seasons, and dark dimmer colors during the colder ones. And as a show that features villages that are deep inland, close to sea, or even situated on islands, all types of weather are represented which keeps the background for each episode from ever growing stale.
The music in the show gives off an “older” vibe—as if the instruments being used are the same ones that were played during the time period in which the show is set. Whenever a character’s back-story is being explained, the music is often calm and contemplative, while moments in the show where there is serious cause for alarm feature fast-paced percussion to heighten the tension of the situation—and since scenes like these are only occasionally employed, the effect on the viewer is practically spell-binding. One downside to consider is that the character designs for the villagers often appear hardly any different from the previous village, so for viewers who prefer everything to be completely different each time, this aspect may be off-putting. However, with stories that are as complex and truly riveting as they are in this show, viewers are guaranteed a solid viewing experience.
For veteran anime watchers: If you are a fan of short stories and a blend of the supernatural with realism, then you will love this show. And with the first half of the second season already aired, 2 specials, and more episodes to come, you will have plenty to watch if you enjoy the first season. For those who are uncertain as to whether or not the genre may appeal to them, give the first episode a shot—if you like it, then you will appreciate the rest of the series, but if not, it may not be the show for you.
For non-anime watchers: I believe Mushishi can definitely be viewed as a “gateway” anime. By this I mean that if you are skeptical about the anime medium, but are a fan of the supernatural genre, then I strongly recommend giving this show a chance—it might just be the thing that gets you into watching and appreciating other anime as well.
What do you think? Leave a comment.