‘They have existed since the dawn of time. Some live in the deep darkness behind your eyelids. Some eat silence. Some thoughtlessly kill. Some simply drive men mad. Shortly after life emerged from the primordial ooze. these deadly creatures, mushi, came into terrifying being.’*
Ginko is a Mushi-shi, or Mushi Master; he travels from village to village, helping those afflicted by mushi. There are five stories in this first volume, as in the manga, although the order is slightly altered: ‘The Green Seat’, ‘The Light of the Eyelid’, ‘Tender Horns’, ‘The Pillow Pathway’ and ‘The Traveling Swamp’.
A boy, Shinra, is writing in kanji with his left hand because his right has been hurt. The ink strokes on the page come to life. “I should have known this would happen,” he mutters as he leaps up to try and catch one that flies away into the forest outside. A white-haired stranger is approaching and, astonished, lifts his hand to trap the flying creature – only to see it melt back into the ink character for ‘bird’ on his palm. It is Ginko, who has come to help Shinra who is ‘gifted’; anything he draws with his left hand comes to life. Troubled by his unique gift, he and his grandmother Renzu had withdrawn from village life to live in the forest – until her recent death. And yet Ginko soon divines that Renzu’s spirit lingers on, keeping watch over her grandson. There is a mystery involving mushi that must be solved before Shinra can live an untroubled life.
From the first grey-green washes of forest colours of ‘The Green Seat’, the viewer is drawn into Ginko’s world as he encounters moments of astonishing beauty – and stark horror caused by mushi. Ginko himself is an enigmatic man; one-eyed, shaggy pale hair covering half of his face, a half-smoked cigarette drooping out of one corner of his mouth, we learn little about him apart from the fact that he has acquired considerable knowledge about mushi in his travels. Though even with his experience, he doesn’t always get it right; as in ‘The Pillow Pathway’, the most tragic of the five first tales. Jin has been troubled by prophetic dreams and seeks Ginko’s help. But when disaster strikes in the form of a tsunami that he has not been able to predict, he stops taking Ginko’s medicine. But worse is to come; when Ginko returns, he finds the village deserted except for Jin. Only the dreamer has survived, alone and wretched. ‘If I’m the cause of all this tragedy,’ he demands, ‘why the hell did you keep me alive?’ Only now does realize that the mushi within him are making his dreams come true. ‘Imenonoawai. They live within the host’s dreams…but there are times when they come out of dreams,’ Ginko tells him. ‘Then…they emerge from the host to become an open Petri dish that infects reality.’
Yuki Urushibara’s manga ‘Mushishi’ creates a unique atmosphere; her delicate artwork evokes a remote, rural Japan where in lonely snow-wreathed mountains or wooded valleys, strange and disturbing phenomena can occur. Each tale is imbued with the spirit of folk legend and myth, yet the very concept of the mushi brings a new and fresh of approach to the old, traditional stories. She explains, ‘Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved the old stories. I loved insects and I loved science (at least up through grade-school level). And so now I’m drawing this story…’
I was concerned that, in the transfer from manga to anime, something of the special qualities of her work might be lost – but I need not have worried. From the very first frames, it becomes obvious that director Hiroshi Nagahama and his team were determined to preserve the haunting atmosphere of Urushibara’s tales and create something special. And they have succeeded; the muted colours, the wonderfully subtle palette of sounds used by composer Toshiro Masuda, the faithfulness to the text and images of the manga itself, all work together to create an unforgettable anime experience that lingers with the viewer long after watching. The many different kinds of mushi that Ginko encounters may even remind some of the forest spirits of Miyazaki in ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’.
Composer Toshio Masuda has created subtle and shifting soundscapes to mirror the tales; at the conclusion of each episode, a different group of instruments play over the closing credits, sometimes a flute and guitar, or a piano, or even just tuned bells and drums, sustaining the mood that has gone before. The opening sequence, however, uses Ally Kerr’s ‘The Sore Feet Song’, a quirky, yet surprisingly apt choice. Yet it’s not just Masudo’s understated music that helps to enhance the atmosphere, it’s also the sound effects; listen out for the icy crunch of walking through snow in ‘Tender Horns’, the forest birdsong, or the different rhythms of flowing water in ‘The Traveling Swamp’.
The sympathetic English dub from Funimation casts Travis Willingham (Roy Mustang in FMA) as Ginko; the lazy, relaxed tone of voice he uses really suits the laid-back travelling Mushi Master, making his portrayal a worthy rival to Yuto Nakano’s. Other regulars from the Funimation ‘repertory company’ acquit themselves well, especially Laura Bailey as the sightless child Sui in ‘The Light of the Eyelid’, Kent Williams as Jin, the man haunted by his prophetic dreams, and Kira Vincent Davis as Io, the enigmatic green-haired girl Ginko encounters at a swamp.
‘Mushishi’ is a rare and subtle treat: words, images, and soundscapes combine to evoke a rural Japan where there are many mysteries still to be solved emanating from the darker side of myth and folklore.
* ‘Mushishi’ Volume 1, Del Rey Manga