The Lost Backlog of Summer 2014 #6: Mushishi

mushishi14aSeeing as I had no confidence in the summer season, I decided to invent a backlog of shows to watch from one of three different areas. The sixth show on this list was Mushishi a show that began airing in the fall of 2005 and that I had never attempted to watch. I marathoned it, and these are my thoughts on the series.

I was very hesitant about watching Mushishi going into this particular watch. This is a show that is the 21st-highest rated on MAL, but really 7th when discounting any shows that suffer from incredible survivorship bias. All I really knew about it going in was that it was a show where the protagonist Ginko just traveled around and got involved with spirits called ‘Mushi,’ and that there was no over-arching plot involved. It seemed kind of ridiculous to me that an episodic show where not a lot happens would be so incredibly well-received. Hell, there weren’t even recurring cute girls like in some of the higher rated shows.

mushishi22aSo how can I best describe Mushishi in my own words? I would say that it is an anthology of stories about people in the old Japanese countryside and how they deal with strange situations created by the Mushi. Ginko’s role in all of this is to be more of an historian when dealing with the people in these situations. He has expertise, so he can get involved in a problem as much as he does or does not want to. As a result, and in much the same sense as a good science fiction story does, the viewer is able to get deeper into the behavior of other people than they did before the episode.

Honestly, it took a lot of episodes before I finally started to understand what this show was doing so well. Early on it felt as though Ginko in his modern clothes (more on that later), would show up, and then either save the day or at least get the people involved to stop messing about with nature and the supernatural. I think the moment when I finally got it was an episode where Ginko runs into a man and his family that are trapped in the forest. Ginko does little more than mention that there is a horrible way to get the man out and back to his original village, but his half-mushi wife commits that act since she thinks her husband will be happier if he can return home. Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case.

mushishi20aThe episode did illustrate what Mushishi is in a nutshell, though. In just 20 minutes, it can tell a story about the follies of humanity and elicit sympathy for characters without feeling that it is forced by a protagonist’s actions. Ginko was merely a passenger to the experience in this case.

There was also another episode further in the series that I liked. The character of Karibusa Tanyuu is introduced, and she happens to be the fourth Recorder. Cursed with having a forbidden mushi sealed in her unusable leg, she has to spend her days training to seal mushi by writing the about the stories behind them. The nice moment came when Tanyuu as a child wanted to go out and play instead of training. So Tama, her caretaker and former Mushishi says she is going to invite a bunch of her former colleagues over to tell her about their adventures with the Mushi. It seemed like an oddly kind thing even if it was part of her training. Yeah, of course, Ginko shows up and by showing willingness not to kill all the Mushi, Tanyuu basically falls for him, but that’s a topic for another day.

For all that Mushishi excels at in portraying humanity, there was one small detail that I could not get over. The series is set in the distant past as Ginko travels from place to place where there is no sign of modern convenience. However, Ginko’s attire can really be described as modern business-casual while he chain-smoked cigarettes like mad. So to get an answer as to this discrepancy, I went to the wise people of twitter. They told me that it was to further emphasize Ginko’s position as an outsider, and also that the series was originally going to be set in the modern day, but they left his character design the same because they thought it still worked. I’m a fan of leaving artifacts like that behind, so I really stopped complaining about it at that point.

mushishi05aIn the end, I realized that this truly is a classic anime. It accomplished all that it set out to do and made me think more about people in general. There are very few shows that are able to do that with subtlety. The modern trend in that regard is to simply have a character say the name of a book and then make an episode revolve around the themes of that particular book. It’s a show that I’m more than willing to recommend to other people now, though I still don’t think it would qualify as one of my personal favorites. It’s probably the best purely episodic anime I’ve ever seen, but not a show I would leap at to watch again. That takes nothing away from the fact that I’m pleased that I’ve managed to get one truly excellent show out of this particular series.

Next Week: The one anime the guy at Kotaku didn’t like.