“Mushi are … things that are somewhere between life and death. They’re like beings… and like things. Like they are living, but on the verge of death.”
So says a mushishi, or mushi master, in Yuki Urishibara’s eponymous manga. That’s a fair summary of the human condition.
Urushibara presents the cycle of life and the search for its meaning in a manner reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka, but from the tiny end of the telescope. In Phoenix Tezuka shows the endless striving of life towards eternity, the struggle to understand its meaning, the grandeur and sweep of the cycle of life from the largest forms to the smallest. Urushibara focusses on a few particles caught up in that cycle, the smallest working out their destiny in complete harmony with what is, while the slightly larger ones known as humans spend their time either struggling against the flow of life, or trying to understand it. Living, but on the verge of death. Part of a mighty ocean, but mostly unable to see further than the ends of our own noses.
Mushi master Ginko wanders rural Japan, investigating and trying to resolve problems related to mushi, unique primeval life forms that predate all other life. They survive, independent of the rest of evolution, invisible to all but a few. When their ancient lives collide with our more recent ones, a mushi master is called in to deal with the consequences. Ginko’s story unfolds through a series of vignettes that gradually reveal the unity and interdependence of all life, however strange its forms.
The manga was Urushibara’s debut, and it’s an astonishingly assured one. It’s no surprise that both animated and live action versions followed. I took a look back at all three recently at London’s Barbican Cinema, where we screened episodes of the anime TV series alongside Katsuhiro Otomo’s live-action theatrical version.
Urushibara’s original vision was so seductive that the anime and movie follow her art and storytelling style very closely. Stylistically caught in a timewarp somewhere between Showa-era rural Japan and an imagined past, the art is striking and powerful, but the most compelling things about the manga are the stories and characterisations. Delicate, almost dreamlike, unfolding slowly and obliquely, they are true miniatures, multi-faceted and beautiful, imaginary jewels. First published in 1999, the manga ran until August 2008 and won several major prizes.
Mushishi is made up of a series of short episodic narratives. They build into a coherent and satisfying picture of a world not unlike our own, but with just enough dislocation to make it interesting. Since mushi, like Japan’s younger nature spirits and goblins, the yokai, don’t thrive in crowded places, her tales unfold in rural areas, villages and isolated houses, the traditional setting for ghost stories. They aren’t scary in the usual sense, but they’re disturbing, leaving one with a strong sense that the link between the spiritual and physical worlds is far more complex than we realise.
Family and community are vital to the stories. Urushibara obviously empathises with traditional social structures, writing of protective grandmothers, loving wives, close-knit communities. Even the mushi are shown as part of a benign natural system, despite the mistakes and failures of communication that require Ginko’s intervention. The mushishi themselves have a loose, fluid organisation that enables them to wander as free agents, but gives them a network of support and knowledge to fall back on – a community of their own, outside the ordinary human world but linked to it. It’s no surprise to find that the only barriers between humans and mushi are those of misunderstanding and fear.
Urushibara isn’t concerned with time. She’s vague about Mushishi’s period; most of the characters wear old-fashioned clothes, but such clothes were still common in rural Japan even after World War II. Ginko’s Western garb would fit anywhere in the last century. Her stories loop and twist, the narrative line overlaid with images, thoughts and memories. Her text boxes and layouts create an impression of multiple sensory inputs, things going on just out of sight or just below our range of hearing. Some panel arrangements are almost ritualistic, echoing Ginko’s ancient spells.
Her art is unusual. She isn’t afraid to mix scrappy, scribbled line and dense background details. The mushi are especially intriguing. They can be animated futurist doodles, huge shadow-creatures, rivers of light, sound-eating spirals or simple jelly. Their diversity typifies Mushishi – quietly original, strangely beautiful, completely unforgettable.
Like the manga, the Mushishi anime won a clutch of awards in Japan. Directed by Hiroshi Nagahama, it was animated in 26 episodes by Artland, the studio founded in 1978 by Noboru Ishiguro. The first 20 episodes aired between October 2005 and March 2006 on Fuji TV, and last six on the network’s free digital satellite channel BS Fuji in May and June 2006. The music, from Glaswegian Ally Kerr’s opening theme The Sore Feet Song to the last note of Toshio Masuda’s score, is exquisite, and the beautifully balanced soundtrack supports and enhances the musical magic, rather than competing with it.
Nothing is overstated, nothing rushed, nothing compromised. The visuals ooze quality and style, their delicacy and beauty echoing Urushibara’s artwork, adding movement and colour without sacrificing subtleties of plot and character. Breathtaking moments abound – a summer sky clouded with delicate, feathery mushi, the deep, silent recesses of an ancient forest. There’s also plenty of quiet fun, like the flight of characters off a page as a boy makes mushi simply by drawing.
Characterisation is quiet and subtle, but it can crackle with controlled tension, like a glimpse of lightning behind distant mountains. The Japanese voice cast do their jobs to perfection. Travis Willingham ,whose understated reading of Roy Mustang was so impressive in Fullmetal Alchemist, brings the same level of quiet control to the leading role of Ginko, so those who prefer the American version won’t be short-changed on the acting front.
The depths of the story, packed as any Platonic symposium with philosophic enquiry, are never far out of sight. They shimmer alluringly just below the ravishing surface of the narrative, never allowed to intrude in the story’s quiet progress, as light and seemingly aimless as a butterfly’s flight. There’s plenty to think about here, if you want it, but you can simply relax and luxuriate in the artful flow of beauty and emotion, so convincingly natural, so perfectly controlled. There are very, very few anime as well done as this one in any decade, let alone any year.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s live-action movie Mushishi appeared in Japan in 2006. It covers episodes 3, 7, 12 and 20 of the anime. It’s interesting to compare them with the same episodes of Nagahama’s anime and the manga. Both moving versions capture the eerie atmosphere of the manga very well, and both pay tribute to the beauty of its delicate yet complex world. Otomo’s version is structurally the weaker and, for me, the less satisfying of the two.
Otomo created the epic manga and anime Akira. (His less well-known, but equally effective, manga Domu is one of the greatest Japanese comics never to have been animated, a real loss to anime. I’d love to see what Satoshi Kon could do with it.) Mushishi is his second live-action movie, following 1991’s World Apartment Horror.
Otomo was the first Japanese animator since Tezuka to make a real splash in the English-speaking world, when the film version of Akira kick-started the UK anime market in 1991. He has two outstanding characteristics that make him hell for studios and heaven for audiences. He’s a self-driven perfectionist, and he has absolutely no regard for budgets or schedules. This means that his movies usually look gorgeous, and age very well in technical terms. Twenty years on from its debut, Akira’s beautifully crafted frames still dazzle. But such a focussed and powerful director doesn’t always listen to outside input. The results can be excellent but they can also fall prey to what we might call the Peter Jackson effect, where a director’s influence is so great that the usual checks and balances of film-making don’t operate and the product suffers as a result. Otomo’s Steam Boy is technically stunning but could have used a more assertive editor.
Mushishi deserves most of the brickbats aimed at it for incoherence, and for playing with the details of the manga and its characters without compensating gains in pace or focus – two of Akira‘s outstanding characteristics. It’s a beautiful movie, perfectly cast, with a charismatic Ginko in Joe Odagiri. The atmosphere can’t be faulted – the quality of Takahide Shibanushi’s cinematography is truly transformative, carrying the audience into the quiet forests and deep silences of the manga. Its structural weaknesses and lack of narrative clarity leave most audiences baffled: I’ve never hosted an anime screening where so many people came up to me afterwards to ask what happened at the end; yet its magical visuals and brilliant use of silence and natural background sounds offer considerable compensations for its incoherence.
At the Japanese box-office, Otomo’s movie tied for 21st place among 2007’s top-grossing movies, with just over $4 million US in ticket sales. It was far behind the top three – Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($102.46 million), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hero, and Spiderman 3. It trailed top anime earners Pokemon, Doraemon and Detective Conan, as well as the year’s other major live-action adaptation, Akihiko Shiota’s Dororo. Otomo’s movie also lost out to Shiota’s at Sitges Film Festival in 2007, Dororo‘s Best Motion Picture award trumping Mushishi‘s best special effects and best soundtrack titles.
All three versions of Urushibara’s vision have something to offer. The big-budget big-picture version strays further from the simplicity and purity of her narrative line, but all three keep faith with the heart of her story – the idea that striving to understand life’s unity and richness, and co-existing in peace with the world, is a necessary step in human evolution.
Note: Some of the 2007 Japanese box office statistics were verified by reference to Jason Gray’s columns in Screen International, a valuable ongoing resource.