Adding manga to my curriculum was a last minute thought. I’ve never been drawn to manga (Japanese comic books), despite my love of Japanese pop-culture and appreciation of certain animes (Japanese animated movies and shows). It’s always seemed so…ridiculous. I say this as a man who loves ridiculous and absurd things. Why something both Japanese and ridiculous does not appeal to me is a mystery. Nevertheless, I decided to give Mushishi a shot, partially because I had watched some of the adapted anime and partially out of a desire to experience more aspects of Japan. Though the anime was slow compared to others I’d seen, I knew that its themes of mythology and mystery would appeal to me in book form. After reading the ten volume set of Mushishi, by Yuki Urushibara, I am delighted that my last minute decision proved worthwhile.
I’m unsure when in Japanese history Mushishi is set. The main character, Ginko, walks around in what looks like relatively modern clothing, but every town he visits appears like something from the medieval age. There are guns, but nothing more advanced than that (no cars), and no town seems to have more than a dozen inhabitants. This could be Japan in the 1700s or Japan in the 1900s. Ginko’s purpose in life is to help people deal with a natural phenomenon known as mushi, which means ‘bugs’ in Japanese. Mushi are atypical bugs in that they have far larger and more immediate consequences on the environment around them. The only folk who can see the mushi are specially trained mushishi; thus the title. Ginko happens to be an especially great mushishi and seems capable of performing feats no other mushishi ever has.
Each of the ten volumes has five different stories in it. Some overarching characteristics stretch across each volume, but every story is unique and can conceivably be read on its own. It’s almost like a television show in that regard, which makes it especially well suited to an anime format. As this is my first manga, it occurs to me that perhaps this style of storytelling is common with the serial nature of the medium. Every story has supernatural aspects to it, and each tale has Ginko trying to solve the mystery of which mushi is affecting people he meets. No two stories feature the same mushi, and so the array of mysteries involved is impressive. Urushibara is given freedom to follow any whim or creative jaunt that she pleases as there do not seem to be any wonders that these mushi are incapable of (for good or ill).
Thankfully, Mushishi isn’t a murder-mystery-manga. Though the mushi aren’t always benevolent (as nature is not always kind), they don’t murder or maim indiscriminately. Ginko might cure an illness caused by a mushi or in fact save someone’s life, but any darkness inherent in the story are those shadows and demons at the periphery of our own vision; not malevolent forces of evil. It creates a rich narrative full of mythological influences and simple human motives.
The artwork is similarly subdued, unlike many manga which often seem overdrawn and unrealistic (not that I’m arguing for realistic manga). Instead, Urushibara’s line-work is elegant and stylish. My favorite parts of her illustrations come at the beginning of each story, where she takes great pains to create watercolor pages. They’re so gorgeous that I often found myself pausing, not really wanting to move on with the story because the initial panels were so beautiful. I understand how time consuming creating those parts likely was, but I couldn’t help wishing for the whole book to follow this format. Mushishi doesn’t feature exaggerated reactions or superheroes throwing moon-sized fireballs around. The magical effects of the mushi are understated and often invisible. It’s the reactions of the human characters that form the narrative of each tale, making these stories ring true to human experience.
I won’t review each volume, but I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite stories.
- The final volume has a story called “The Eternal Tree,” and as anyone reading this likely knows my love for trees it should be no surprise that this one speaks to me. It’s about a massive Japanese cedar tree that is chopped down. A man who once came across the tree happens to eat one of its fruits, and thus has all the memories of the tree planted in his mind. The age and size of the tree are mushi enhanced, and so Ginko knows what’s happening even if there’s little he can do. It’s a story about how trees and humans can have special connections, and the apex of the tale comes when the man realizes that the tree has been protecting his village for as long as the village has existed (even after the tree’s death).
- In Volume 6 there is a story called “Banquet in the Farthest Field” that is about a special sake that only mushishi can really make full use of. I liked this story because it lets readers into the shadowy world of the mushishi, offering tantalizing glimpses of things that Urushibara has left unsaid for most of the series. It also has lots of lovely looking sake in it.
- In Volume 3, a story called “The Heavy Seed” appealed to me. This one is about a seed that appears at random on someone in a village (caused by mushi of course), and when that seed sprouts it makes for an unusually bountiful harvest. The side-effect of this is that the villager dies. I liked this story because it speaks of self-sacrifice, and because it was one of those stories where Ginko can only offer information to people, allowing them to choose whether or not to keep things as they are or change them.
- And the very first story in the first volume is called “The Green Gathering”, and tells of a boy whose drawings come to life. My love for this story is evident; what writer doesn’t want to see their stories come to life? It’s a wonderful launch to the series.
I think what makes Mushishi so good is what makes many tales of speculative fiction good: it weaves the mystical nature of the supernatural in with real human stories. We can connect to this type of storytelling, but also feel the mystery and magic that some of us so heartily crave. At this point, I am resolved and excited to try and re-watch the anime version of Mushishi. I wasn’t ready for it the first time, and while the stories will all feel familiar to me, I’m positive I’ll have a new appreciation for seeing them in motion.