The hardest part of this review was deciding to go with “Mushishi” or “Mushi-Shi”.
Whether they be ‘90s classics like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion, modern hits like Steins;Gate and Madoka Magica, or the innumerable others that fit in between, there is a lot of popular and well-received anime out there. One series that fits comfortably into the latter but not exactly the former is a little show called Mushishi. It’s sat in our backlog for well over a year now (when the entire span of your anime-watching career is only two years, that’s a significant amount of time) and, in the lull between summer and fall seasons, we felt it was finally time to check this thing out. So, forty-six episodes and three double-length specials later, we can say with confidence that we have experienced Mushishi.
In this wide world, populated by its myriad of flora and fauna, there exists a type of life more ethereal, more basic, more fundamental. This life treads the boundary between living and dead, physical and spiritual.
They exist everywhere, omnipresent, an observer of all and participant of many. Their forms are indescribable, their presence nearly eternal, their influence often invisible. Over time, these creatures, these elements of nature, have come to be known as Mushi.
Builds a World
Mushishi is one of those very rare but very interesting series that is completely episodic, yet not a comedy. You could feasibly watch the entire show in any order you choose and (barring a shift in visual quality between its two runs) get practically the same experience as the release order. (At one point, we accidentally skipped an episode and didn’t even notice until later.) There are very occasional recurring characters or references to certain events, but never in a significant enough capacity to render the episode in question inaccessible to a new viewer. Some of you may scoff and think to yourselves “completely episodic? That sounds terrible! we love overarching storylines.” So do we, but with Mushishi, it just fits. Why?
Well, the way we see it, Mushishi does not build a “story”, in the traditional sense. Rather, it builds a world. Each episode exposes you to a new type of mushi, and a new family (or a new village) that interacts with it. Every step of the way, you get bits of so many characters’ arcs and small tastes of all the weird, mystical things that populate the world. It’s subtle, gradual, and incredibly effective at immersing you into this supernatural setting, even if there’s no real “beginning” or “end” to its tale.
Who You Gonna Call?
And in that sprawling spectrum of reality, there is one golden rule: don’t mess with the mushi. Seriously, any viewer will quickly realize that the mushi are nothing but a disaster waiting to happen, ready and able to wreak complete havoc in almost any way imaginable. Sure, there are the rare occasions when they help or, at the very least, don’t hurt, but the usual side effects of mushi use include fevers, amnesia, blindness, deafness, insomnia, obsession, voice loss, unnatural growths, drunkenness, comas, hallucinations, delusions, family deaths, deforestation, time loops, immortality, body snatching, eternal nighttime, lightning strikes, drowning, evaporation, disintegration, interdimensional travel, structural damage, shadow monsters, extreme thirst, and death.
So, when people inevitably break the golden rule, triggering any or all of the effects above, the only choice is to call in a professional.
The main and only real character of Mushishi is Ginko, the mushishi (or mushi master), and he is that professional. What this really means is that he has been trained in the ways of the mushi, full of knowledge on all their quirks, habits, territories, and, most importantly, cures. Whether by request or because he happens to be in the right place at the right time, Ginko is called upon time and again to solve the mushi-related troubles of the common people, and he does, because (as he puts it) it’s how he makes his living. Ginko’s presence in every episode is the cornerstone of the series, the foundation on which it is built, and the only kind of unifying factor to be seen. It helps, of course, that Ginko is an entertaining man to watch.
Prior to actually watching the show, we knew next to nothing about Ginko (and truthfully, Mushishi as a whole) except what we could glean from the covers on MyAnimeList and Arkada’s schpiel in his “Top 25-ish Recommended Anime“ video. From that, we expected Ginko’s character to be a wispy, philosophical wise man, solving the world’s problems by spouting vague metaphors and cryptic questions… but he’s not. At all. In reality, Ginko is surprisingly likable and down to earth. He’ll crack an occasional joke or make sarcastic comments, get visibly upset at the loss of life, and be excited at the prospect of new research but, above all, he is still a mushishi. He knows when to get serious when to press people and when to back off to give them the help they need.
Also, we watched no more than a few very short clips of the English dub and cannot comment on its quality, but it is worth noting that only the first twenty-six episodes are dubbed regardless. In Japanese, however, Ginko is voiced by Yuto Nakano. Curiously, the man has no major roles in any other anime production, but part of us thought that’s appropriate because it further serves to make Mushishi truly one-of-a-kind.
Not Always A Happy Ending
Ginko does try his best, but human nature, as it so often does, precludes true happiness. Even when everything has gone perfectly, Ginko’s cures are flawless and the “happy ever after” is in sight, a new wrinkle can present itself and push things to the breaking point. At other times, even the mighty Ginko cannot successfully combat the mushi. He is, after all, just one fallible man and cannot foresee every outcome. This unpredictability is one of the things that best prevents Mushishi from getting stale because you never know if each story will lead to a tragic finale, a bittersweet resolution, or a rare happy ending.
Calm and Deliberate
No matter how dire things get, Mushishi is unique in that it maintains an atmosphere of utter calm and tranquility. The presentation mimics nature (and, by extension, the mushi themselves): in motion, but slow and deliberate. As such, dialogue is frequent but action is almost nonexistent. The peaceful tone obviously applies to the characters as well. We’re not sure we saw Ginko run at any time for the entire duration of Mushishi’s nearly fifty episodes. His pace was capped out at a brisk walk, and normally a leisurely stroll.
This mood is further reinforced by the opening and endings. Every episode has been supplied with an original and instrumental ending theme, but even then, it’s not uncommon for the credits to simply bleed over onto the final scenes. The two opening themes, “The Sore Feet Song” and “Shiver”, are vocal, lightly instrumented pieces (in English, no less) which, again, perfectly compliment the feel of the narrative.
Man, It’s Pretty
The lack of budget-intensive action scenes allows Mushishi to spread its money evenly across all aspects of production. The entire thing, and especially the more recent Zoku Shou seasons, look like works of art. You won’t be wowed in the exact same way as when watching Fate/stay night or some such visual feast, but the serene beauty of the environment is breathtaking in its own way. The high-quality presentation is especially interesting to us because Mushishi’s animation company, Artland, is one we hadn’t even heard of beforehand.
The mushi defy common sense by nature, and that can carry through to Ginko’s cures. At a point, you just have to roll with the mushishi’s knowledge and trust that he knows what he’s talking about, that his devised solutions make sense in their own supernatural way. If you try to think too hard about why clasping your ears causes silence-eating mushi to explode or how ingesting a seed that creates fertile land leads to longer life, you’ll miss the bigger picture. Mushishi isn’t a show where you’re supposed to analyze the intricate logic behind every little thing, and doing so would actually dampen the experience.
The basic premise of almost any Mushishi episode reads more or less the same. Someone has a problem that is unknowingly caused by mushi, Ginko arrives in the nick of time to diagnose or treat the issue, some complication occurs and is dealt with, then Ginko leaves to continue his travels. Of course, variations arise from the type of mushi, the exact circumstances or victims, and the story’s resolution, but it cannot be denied that there is a certain repetition to Mushishi. After a while, it can even get predictable, because you’re familiar enough with the story formation that basic twists can be foreseen far ahead of time. This is far more apparent if the series is taken in as massive chunks, not small bits. Mushishi is therefore much better if you watch a few episodes here, a few episodes there, rather than ten or more in a single day.
Everyone Looks The Same
It’s not only the episode-by-episode plot that can get repetitive but the character designs as well. Ginko stands out with his trademark white hair, single green eye, and almost out-of-place modern clothing, but everyone else looks like an extra at best. It’s not just the standard anime thing where their faces are the same, either. These people look identical because they’re all in the same basic Japanese garb with the same basic haircut. If it weren’t for the episodic nature of the series, ensuring that every character sans Ginko is someone you’ve never met before, it wouldn’t be possible to keep anyone straight. (True, there are a very small handful of recurring characters besides Ginko, but they have slight alterations to the traditional character getup, such as a monocle, that lets the viewer know who they are.)
Finally, to put it simply, Mushishi is a slow show. If something like FLCL is anime at its zaniest and most hyperactive, Mushishi is the exact opposite, anime at its calmest and most laid back. We don’t consider this inherently a bad thing, but if it hasn’t already been made crystal clear, this is not a series to search out if you want to get your heart racing and adrenaline pumping. Consequently, we can think of several friends we’d have a hard time recommending Mushishi to because chances are they’d be bored to tears. We hesitate to say it’s too “thoughtful” for some people because that makes us sound sort of snobbish, but… that’s pretty much how it is.
What’s that, you say? We skipped “The Ugly”? Hm, you must be mistaken.
We were skeptical of Mushishi. We hate self-indulgent philosophy and endless artsy monologues, and from the outside, that’s all it seemed to be. (we had, at one time, heard Mushishi compared to Bartender, a series which we consider to be a pinnacle of those pretentious traits, so that didn’t help matters.) Perhaps for that reason, we put it off for quite a long time, but now, after the fact, we’re almost sorry we hadn’t seen it sooner.
we would hesitate to recommend Mushishi to a diehard action fan. we wouldn’t immediately recommend it to a diehard comedy or slice of life fan, either. More than most series, Mushishi has narrow appeal. we’d go so far as to say that, if you’re not interested in the first episode, it will not be a show for you. However, for whatever subset of people that are looking for a calmer, mellower piece of entertainment, we cannot recommend Mushishi highly enough. For that reason, after taking everything into account (as well as our own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… we think we knew what we were going to give after only the second episode. S, unequivocally.