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Master of the Ignored
Mushi-Shi Starter Set (DVD)
Member Name: miwa
Mushi-Shi Starter Set (DVD)
Date: 09/02/13, updated on 28/06/13 (100 review reads)
Advantages: Stunning animation, beautiful OST, excellent characters and story
However there have always been more mature or artistic anime, but usually they don't sell as well or receive as much outright praise, perhaps because they aren't mainstream enough to appeal to the preexisting fandom, perhaps because the audience it's aimed at aren't the type to readily admit to watching it, creating a behavioural moebius strip that ultimately results in the oxymoron state of underground popularity.
Mushishi is one of these rare gems, in the sand-dunes of an industry that usually relies heavily on simulated sex, over-the-top gore or insipid cuteness to sell. When it comes to Mushishi, the classification of maturity is not implicit to violence or scenes of a sexual nature; in this case it is synonymous with the perception and comprehension of "meaning".
Mushishi introduces us to the enigmatic Ginko, our only recurring character, a man with white hair and one-eye who smokes herbal cigarettes near-constantly. Ginko lives a peripatetic life in alternate-universe ancient Japan, but instead of the shinsengumi (secret police) of the Edo period running around after samurai or kami (gods) coming down from heaven to taunt humanity, the world is a place of transitional hard work and repose. People live in villages near the sea or in remote hamlets in the mountains where they fish, hunt and farm, while the arts of kimono-making, screen painting, and calligraphy are still prevalent.
For the few aware of it, these times are not as simple as they might seem. Mushishi combines preconceived notions of esoteric folklore with facets of animism, and the result are "mushi".
Mushi (literally, "insect" or "ignored") are ubiquitous, ethereal creatures who share our mortal realm. To paraphrase Ginko, if nature is an allegory to the human body, humanity is furthest away from the essence of life itself, at the fingertip of the middle finger; animals are in the wrist, plants are at the shoulder, while mushi reside at the center of the heart.
However, being the closest thing to the essence of life itself, does not mean mushi are particularly intelligent or capable of any special power alone; though there are presumably millions around us at any one time, most people are incapable of perceiving them and remain oblivious. When mushi do occasionally interact with humans, they often cause problems, on an individual or societal level; thus Ginko travels, to cure those with mushi-related afflictions, as the mushi master, or Mushishi.
There is no overarching plot line to the series, and each individual episode of the 26 long, 25-minute each series tells a different tale of the mushi. Most characters do not appear more than once or twice. Despite this, there is a sense of belonging to each character introduced, a sense that they have a past and a personality beyond this juncture at which they meet Ginko. The mushi themselves manifest in unique ways throughout the series, often both physiologically and spiritually. A mushi causes small horns to grow on a child's forehead, while a man is trapped inside a bamboo forest due to the mischief of a mushi, and in one case a mushi even restores sight to a blind woman - with unforeseen consequences.
Mushishi is not so easily labelled optimistic or pessimistic - every story pans out differently. We learn the back stories of individual characters, often tragic, whether in relation to the mushi or not. Intrinsically, there is a tinge of sadness to every story, because for every human 'cured' there is a mushi that must be dispelled, and vice versa, often resulting in death.
Throughout the series mushi are never painted as malicious, unwanted or a pest - though the people involved, especially the afflicted, may see them that way, Ginko takes care to treat mushi with respect. It is not an exorcism he performs, but a mediation, between the needs of the people and the right of the mushi to live. This is a subtle but profound lesson, which effects us all, and an admonition of the current state of humanity. With it's long silences and fantastical situations, Mushishi triggers introspection, but never lapses into sophistry. The implicit quiet dignity of the world of Mushishi applies to the audience, too.
Mushishi is aesthetically stunning. Surreal scenes of the mushi and their effects are no more important or beautifully presented than the scenery bursting with life Ginko moves within. Green is the colour of the blood of nature, and in Mushishi it is as varied as the manifestations of mushi. Ginko's first words spoken are: "It's like a sea of green in all directions, I could lose myself in it." Mostly painted in watercolours, the backgrounds evoke the aesthetics of ancient scroll paintings. Small details like the crumbling texture of bark, a raindrop dripping off the veins of a leaf, and the sheen of a ceramic bowl are impressively rendered within fluid animation, with no permeation of excessive CGI that haunted early-2000s anime. Compared to the magnificence of nature, the character designs are almost harsh - spare and simple, they often just consist of a few lines to outline the features; but this does give a sense of perspective to the series' philosophy. Humans are but one of the many pieces of the world, and it wouldn't be fair to render them excessive detail or complexity.
Composed by Toshio Masuda, the soundtrack to Mushishi is an exquisite accompaniment to the visuals. A refined combination of traditional instruments, such as shamisen (cat-gut lyre) and shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and silence, it lends an atmosphere of mysticism as well as what can only be described as a distinct and colourful aural palette. A contrast to this - but not garishly so - is the opening song, by Scottish band Ally Kerr, "The Sore Feet Song", sung entirely in English. Both catchy and melancholic, with the warmth of acoustic guitar like sunlight filtering through foliage, it fits Mushishi surprisingly well. Aside from hearing it in the series, I often listen to the OST whenever I want to feel soothed after a long day.
Similarly well-done is the voice acting, both in the original Japanese and English dub. Of course, there are no overtly high-pitched female voices nor hammy displays of vocalised evil - Mushishi displays its naturalistic tendencies here, too, and every character sounds as realistic as possible. As in all dubs, some specifics are lost and attributed in the reinterpretation. Travis Willingham gives Ginko a rather lazy drawl, while Yuto Nakano's rough voice adds a sense of resilience to his character. Whichever way you're most comfortable with watching foreign-language media - dub or sub - are both high quality.
Occasionally voice actors are reused episode to episode. This is especially prevalent in the dub where Luci Christian voices two or three different characters - but this isn't overtly distracting.
Mushishi is available on DVD via six volumes or a boxset, though these are expensive, only available online and may not be Region 2. This starter set contains vol 1-3. Currently, Funimation is allowing UK users to stream this for free via their Youtube, so I would recommend this service.
Mushishi was based on a manga written by Yuki Urushibara, and it also has a live-action movie. Speaking only for myself, I feel that the world of Mushishi is best conveyed in the beauty and sadness of moving watercolour, while the chords of the shamisen ring out, and both human and mushi strive to survive in imperfect harmony.
While Mushishi can be considered almost ignored compared to the popularity of other anime series, I believe it cannot be classed as anything other than a true masterpiece of the genre.
Summary: A man cures afflictions of those affected by pseudo-supernatural beings called mushi