'Mushishi' series infused with spirits


POSTED: Sunday, May 24, 2009

There's a certain quiet, imaginative charm that exists around Japanese folk tales.





        Anime » Complete 26-episode series available on DVD from Funimation or online at http://www.hsblinks.com/ai

Manga » Seven volumes (out of 10) available now from Del Rey; volume 8 release date TBA


Suggested age range » Older teens 16+




The concept of animism, the belief that souls and spirits dwell in all entities of the natural environment, from humans and animals to plants, rocks and weather phenomena, runs though many of these tales. Perhaps the most familiar example of this to U.S. audiences is “;Spirited Away,”; Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning animated feature about a girl working in the bathhouse of the gods.

It's that sort of charm that manga artist Yuki Urushibara tapped in “;Mushishi,”; a 10-volume, 50-chapter series serialized in Kodansha's monthly Afternoon magazine from 1999 through 2008. The first 26 chapters were adapted into a 26-episode anime series that aired from October 2005 through June 2006 on Japanese TV.

In the world of “;Mushishi,”; humans coexist with creatures known as “;mushi.”; These creatures, which can take the form of anything from small ink squiggles and snails to giant swamps and rainbows, go unnoticed by most humans. When mushi merge with humans, the humans often fall ill or are crippled in some way. But all is not lost; some people (known as “;mushishi,”; or mushi masters) have the ability to see mushi and treat those with mushi-related afflictions.

Ginko, a white-haired man with one green eye and one glass eye who's always sporting a cigarette, is a mushishi. He's also the only major recurring character throughout the series. While there are a few nods to continuity—Ginko crosses paths every so often with his friend Adashino, a doctor at a rural fishing village and a collector of rare artifacts—each chapter is a stand-alone story, following Ginko as he wanders around rural Japan from the mountains to the sea. It's this quality that allows the anime to tinker with the manga's story order—for example, the manga's seventh chapter, “;The Sea of Brushstrokes,”; doesn't show up until the 20th anime episode—yet still deliver the same content in the end.

THERE'S A meditative quality to Ginko's encounters with mushi-afflicted people that might turn off fans used to going on action-packed thrill rides with their anime and manga. The stories aren't meant to be quickly digested and forgotten; rather, it takes a fair amount of concentration to fully appreciate what is going on, with subtle plot twists that keep audiences guessing. Del Rey's manga translation notes reveal how much thought Urushibara put into naming each mushi and her characters; each kanji character she uses has a meaning that reflects upon that mushi or character as a whole.

An example of these elements at work is “;The Pillow Pathway,”; the story of a man whose dreams end up becoming reality. While his premonitions help his fellow villagers at first, they ultimately destroy everyone close to him. Ginko helps him determine that a parasitic mushi, the “;imenonoawai”; (using kanji that translate into “;within the field of dreams”;), are affecting his dreams and tries to treat him. But the man's mind is too far gone and the mushi too deeply rooted within him, and he ultimately takes his own life.

The anime at its core is the manga brought to life, without any gimmicks or deviations in the story. Animation and sound, however, add depth to the stories, fleshing out the environment with quiet voices and a background soundtrack that remains largely silent, punctuated only by the sounds of cicadas and birds chirping and the occasional soft music piece. It's a peaceful experience, one worth seeing for anyone interested in the spiritual, traditional aspects of Japan.