Mushi-Shi: The Complete Collection

Mushi-Shi: The Complete Collection


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

There is no shortage of made-for-TV picaresque narratives in which a stranger wanders a strange land (from the Lone Ranger to Kung Fu to Ninja Scroll), nor of Japanese animes featuring epicene heroes – but for all this, Mushi-Shi is something entirely different. Adapted from the manga by Yuki Urushibara, it follows the itinerant adventures of Ginko (voiced by Yuuto Nakano), the Mushi-Shi, or Mushi Master of the title, as he travels a pre-industrial Japan in search of the invisible, primordial creatures known as Mushi, and endeavours to right any imbalances between them and the humans they occasionally trouble.

Ginko certainly cuts a striking figure, with his lanky frame, his quiet tones, his ever-present herbal cigarette, his one working eye (bright green in a land where eyes are almost always brown), and his unnaturally white hair hanging over half his face to conceal the other, false eye. Most striking of all, though, is Ginko's near complete eschewal of violence, singling him out even from other Mushi Masters much as it singles this series out from other manga adaptations.

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Here aggression, revenge, and martial prowess are replaced by reason, curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge matched only by a love of life. "A wise Mushi Master", as one mentor puts it (in Episode 12), "always chooses understanding over extermination." It is a precept which gives this anime a markedly philosophical bent. Mushi-shi is at times eerie, to be sure, but also unusually calming and contemplative.

The calm begins with the credit sequence that opens all but three (18, 24, 26) of the 26 half-hour episodes of the series – a montage of unfocussed, near abstract photo-images of lush verdure, accompanied by the haunting acoustic strains of folk singer Ally Kerr's The Sore Feet Song. Each episode follows Ginko's attempts to get to the bottom of a mystery involving the Mushi, which appear to him (and to the few others able to see them) variously as airborne motes, strange fungi, DNA-like strands, or in the guise of meteorological phenomena, plants, animals or even occasionally humans.

These odd primeval entities are neither flora nor fauna, but are driven by the same Darwinian compulsion to survive, whether through symbiotic, parasitic or more competitive interrelations with other lifeforms – and it takes an enquiring mind like Ginko's to ensure their continued coexistence with humankind.

Apart from Ginko himself, the only recurring characters are a Mushi-collecting doctor (Episodes five, 10 and 18; voiced by Yuji Oeda) and the female narrator (voiced by Mika Doi) who introduces the stories. Otherwise, each episode is entirely self-contained, so that they can, in effect, be watched in any order. Like the Mushi themselves, these narratives vary greatly, and are often composed of complex systems of flashbacks as Ginko learns the history of those he encounters on his travels.

Accordingly, there are also occasionally references, or even flashbacks, to the Mushi Master's own backstory (especially in Episodes two, 12, 25 and 26), offering a gradual picture of how he came to be a wandering, one-eyed expert on invisible forms. The stories are presented elliptically, almost like little poems (one hesitates to say haiku), with their events never over-explained, and often only partially resolved. Here nature is not a problem to be solved, but a system to be respected, studied and occasionally recalibrated – and if the clashes between the species shown here end mostly in stalemate, that, the series implies, is exactly as things should be.

It would be tempting to reduce Mushi-Shi to a gentle allegory of environmental concerns, as Ginko works tirelessly to harmonise unseen forces that can so easily, if misunderstood and mistreated, bring danger and destruction to other living things. That, however, would be to disregard the series' equal focus on the human condition, as the phantom presence of the Mushi merely amplifies and refracts engaging anthropocentric dramas of love, memory and loss. What makes this series unique is that it works so well on both these levels, while also being a moving idyll of death, metamorphosis and time's passing. Add to this the exquisite aesthetic pleasures of the episodes' visual and auditory design, and you have one of the most elegant, soothing and thoughtful animes in years. To see it is to take a long, relaxed journey into places unknown, rich and strange.

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2009
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Mushi-Shi: The Complete Collection packshot
Anime sees a 'Mushi-master' maintain a balance between humans and the primordial creatures who live, unseen, alongside them.
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Director: Hiroshi Nagahama, (Mike McFarland directs the English dub)

Writer: Aki Itami, Yuka Yamada, from the manga by Yuki Urushibara

Starring: Yuuto Nakano, Yuji Oeda, Mika Doi

Year: 2005

Runtime: 625 minutes

Country: Japan


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