WATCHED VIA DVD
PLOT: Mushishi is one of the few series about "spirits" that I can stand. Scratch that, I don't just tolerate it, I adore it. Maybe it's the presentation, or the mythical quality of the story-telling, but this series goes above and beyond the traditional spirit/folklore type in a multitude of ways.
Alright, so the plot boils down to the essential premise of the protagonist, Ginko, traveling throughout Japan in order to heal those afflicted by strange maladies, created by mushi. Mushi often act a lot like a fungi, but are spiritual in nature, and unable to be seen by the average person. These little critters flow like energy. There is even a metaphorical river of life that flows with mushi energy. I saw this as an embodiment of life force and the gateway to the spiritual realm.
So why is Mushishi so great? I think it stems from my adoration of bacteria and viruses. Rather than presenting the spiritual influences of the show as people or monsters that have to be slain, instead you have a parasitic entity that must be cured. Unlike most mushishi, Ginko doesn't just kill and remove the antagonistic mushi, he tries to save and return it to the wild. Often these encounters with mushi are not ill intentioned, just caused by folks accidentally being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Due to Ginko traveling around the countryside, each episode, for the most part, stands alone. Ginko is the only real character we see time and again with maybe a colleague or two of his popping up more than once. So it stands that there isn't much in the way of character development. Instead, Mushishi is more of a healing series, meant to be watched one-at-a-time and for the sole purpose of relaxation.
PLOT: In the world of Mushishi, there are supernatural lifeforms known as "mushi," which roughly translates to a more complex version of the word "bug." Mushi are more primal than other lifeforms and have purer energy, and as such they don't follow human rules and tend to become parasites on humans. Mushishi's main character, Ginko, is a mushishi (mushi master) who travels and helps people whose lives are changed because of the mushi. Unlike most mushishi, Ginko values the lives of the mushi, too, and he will do as much as he can to save both the humans and the mushi he encounters.
Due to this premise, Mushishi is very formulaic, with each episode showing Ginko going to a new place and helping people with a new variety of mushi. Ginko's the only real recurring character, as he primarily works alone, only receiving help from his friends a couple of times. Fortunately, Ginko's a very interesting and laid-back character who's easy to follow along with. His vast knowledge of mushi and compassion for them make him a strong main character, even though he doesn't develop much. There are some flashbacks to his childhood and bits where he connects with humans, but mostly this series is about the mushi and the humans they affect.
You can probably tell already whether or not this is your kind of show. I love Japanese-style horror where we learn about different lifeforms and see how they affect humans, so I was ready for Mushishi's slow pace and clear focus on the mushi. This is definitely not the kind of show you can marathon, but it's got a relaxing pace that makes it good to watch before bed, like Aria.
The only thing they possibly could have improved upon with the story is making another season. Y/Y?
SETTING: I was initially bewildered as to what time/place this series takes place. While the culture of the villages visited would paint a pre-Meiji picture, Ginko himself seems a bit too modern and western to fit into that era. The outfits, professions, and architecture of the villages all point to a period in time where families lived mostly in seclusion and would occasionally travel into a neighboring town for supplies. For the most part people are self sufficient, which is evidenced by the mere profession of a mushishi. Mushishi are a lot like traveling physicians, who make house calls. Either they are called directly, or they happen upon a house and ask if anyone needs assistance.
Ginko and some of his colleagues seem to have stepped out of another, later, time period. This seems to be used more for style rather than anything. Either way, it helps set Ginko apart, almost as if he stepped out of another spirit world himself.
SETTING: Mushishi's setting is deliberately vague. All of the secondary characters wear old-fashioned Japanese clothing that makes the show look pre-Meiji, and the technology seems about at that time, too. However, Ginko wears distinctly Western (and therefore more modern) clothing, which is kind of confusing. I think Ginko's clothing is a holdover from the first, experimental chapter of the manga, so I just accept this as pre-Meiji and move on.
The exact time of the setting doesn't really matter, aside from the fact that humans in Japan have less-developed technology and are therefore closer to nature. Humans interact with nature on a daily basis, and they're also more willing to believe in supernatural forces like the mushi than they are now. The majority of this show features Ginko moving between small towns across Japan, from farming villages to those in the mountains or by the ocean, and at each location Ginko finds people who see and believe in the mushi. The technology and the omnipresence of the mushi have the greatest effect on Mushishi's setting, making it stand out from other anime I've seen that use similar themes.
So I was thinking about this. The characters who seem more modern seem to be the ones who Ginko talks to as part of his profession. Part of his traveling involves him relating his stories to one of his colleagues for documentation. Perhaps the cultural differences are meant to highlight what is part of a story of a past event, and what is in the "present".
CHARACTERS: Watching Mushishi is kind of like watching the discovery channel. Ginko is the host, and he's taking us around the countryside on an adventure to find and cure those affected by mushi. Along the way we learn a bit about his backstory and his motivations for becoming a mushishi, but his authority and capabilities are never in question. This leaves his character with little room for growth and development, since he is already seen as proficient in his field.
The real intrigue comes in with his daily interactions with people and the mushi that affect their lives. Through the lens of an outsider we get a glimpse into this special era where people's lives so deeply intertwine with nature. As Crystal mentions, the characters Ginko runs into do start feeling a bit too similar, but the mushi and circumstances always feel new and exciting.
The manga-ka who came up with the story based a lot of the mushi on urban legends passed down to her through family as well as through folklore. Each mushi and situation has a bit of a personal touch and is built up with a lot of consideration given to back story. I always felt that while each side story was brief, that all of them were dutifully deliberated over to the point that each could easily have been drawn out into a larger story.
I suppose then there are the mushi, little spirits of energy somewhere between an animal and a fungi. For the most part these little guys are just hopping a ride and hoping for the best, but there are some mushi that truly are a menace to humanity. Ginko does his best to return them to their natural states and to the wild where they can thrive and flourish as nature intended. I was always intrigued by how this typically meant continuing to be parasitic, just on animals or plants instead. I always felt that Mushishi continually pointed out that while nature can live hand in hand with mushi, that human beings could never quite cross over into the natural world enough to be at a natural balance with the spirits.
I always found it interesting that, as much as Ginko wants to save the mushi, he always sides with the humans over the mushi. Ginko's less black-and-white than the other mushishi, but he's still biased towards humans. Makes me wonder why sentient life is considered more valuable than other life.
CHARACTERS: Since there's only one main character in Mushishi, he needs to be strong and interesting enough to keep viewers coming back. Thankfully, Ginko fulfills that role easily. He knows a lot about the mushi, so he's a great guide through this world, and his strong moral compass makes him easy to empathize with, as well. Personally, I agree with Ginko about preservation of life if possible, so I was glad to see his struggles against those who think the mushi should be killed. Finally, Ginko's a very intellectual man who always wants to learn more, which I also find easy to understand. As he wants to gather information about the mushi, I wanted to absorb it from this show.
Ginko also has an interesting backstory, though that's less developed in the anime than in the manga. As you'd expect, his backstory brings in the mushi and explains why he's a mushishi. Ginko's backstory does affect his life a little throughout the series, but primarily it's just interesting information to know.
The remainder of the characters are people who show up in one or two episodes only. The mushishi or collectors are the most interesting to me, as they further flesh out the mushi-related world, but the normal humans Ginko meets are also very important. After a while there seems to be repetition as far as personality types, but that's pretty hard to avoid when you're creating so many people for Ginko to meet. One mark in Mushishi's favor is that the humans always feel realistic, and a lot of the time each episode chooses one or two characters to develop in relation to the mushi. And finally, the mushi never see much development beyond being primal lifeforms, but they're always intriguing with their similarities and differences from humans.
I very much enjoyed the tone that was set for the mushi. Sure they were alive and conscious, but they always remained as an "other". Something that couldn't be fully understood or related with, just respected.
ART STYLE/ANIMATION: The original manga designs for Mushishi left the characters feeling very repetitive. The manga-ka herself once stated that she preferred drawing a series more episodic, so she wouldn't have to worry about getting the characters to look right all the time. With that said, I think the anime does an excellent job of adopting her original designs while keeping them to a higher standard of discernment. To a certain extent the characters all look the same because of their traditional outfits, but they all have different facial and hair appearances, and well as behaviors and temperaments. There is also the added bonus of voice acting, with each character having their own way of speaking. That level of individuality could never have been achieved in the manga.
The color palette choices and "brush strokes" look very much like watercolor. This causes the series to have a very mythical and traditional feel to it. I believe this goes hand-in-hand very well with the tone of the story-telling within the series, since it is inferred these are supposed to be a collection of stories passed from one character to another.
Above all else, the mushi are gorgeous. They are drawn with such attention to detail that they are awe inspiring to watch. Honestly, the beauty of the mushi, and how their actions unfold is what drove me to watch episode after episode of this series.
I find this show worth watching for both the human and the mushi elements, but the mushi are definitely more creative and better animated than in most anime with this subject matter.
ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Mushishi is gorgeous in a simple and detailed way. It's not over-the-top with bright colors or flashy character designs like Code Geass or Macross Frontier. Instead, Mushishi's goal is to believably bring to life the mushi Ginko encounters throughout the show. I remember reading somewhere that everything in this show was hand-animated, including the mushi during their most complicated moments. This deliberate attention to the smallest details of the mushi make this series shine, as the mushi really do feel like they could be all around us if we just knew how to look. The animation of the other characters is fine, but Mushishi really wanted to get the mushi right, which is very important in creating the correct atmosphere.
To go with the detailed animation, the mushi always look and act different, without the kind of overlap that can make this kind of show seem cheap. The humans also manage to look different in each episode, which I found surprising. The characters all have very traditional and normal appearances for the setting, but somehow they all have individual hairstyles and facial designs, despite the simple art style. Ginko, of course, stands out with his white hair and green eyes, but I was more impressed by the subtle variety among everyone else. And, in case you're worried, there's a good reason for Ginko's extreme appearance.
OVERALL: Mushishi may seem like a bit of a snooze fest. There were definitely times where I was lulled into a comfy nap on my couch while watching an episode or two. That said, it is one of the best series I've ever watched. It is a very low energy show, and may take some getting used to, but the story-telling, characters, and setting are all one of a kind and brilliant. I wouldn't recommend marathoning this series, or watching it without some caffeine in hand, but do watch it. If you keep finding yourself inexplicably asleep, then go out and buy the manga instead, it is magnificent as well, and less snooze inducing. Either way, Mushishi shouldn't be left without at least giving it a try in some form or another.
OVERALL: Mushishi is a quietly strong series that stands out for being quite different from most anime. Instead of wanting to catch your attention with flashy designs or a huge range of characters, Mushishi just wants to tell some solid stories about the mushi and the humans who interact with them. Like Ginko, it moves at a slow and steady pace towards that goal, always bringing in enough genuine human emotion to keep me invested. If you're up for a slow, inquisitive show about the possibilities of other lifeforms all around us, then check this out. It's not going to blow anyone's mind for its subversive ideas or use of the most popular tropes, but it will surprise you with its narrative strength and gorgeous art.
FINAL SCORE: (10/10)
FINAL SCORE: (9/10)