Manga Mondays: Mushishi Review

(Image Courtesy of Del Rey)

I recently noticed an odd recurring trend in all of my manga reviews up to this point.  The three titles I’ve reviewed thus far all start with the letter “B.”  This by no means is an indicator that all good manga titles start with “B,” or that if that familiar second letter of the alphabet graces the beginning of a title that it’s automatically destined for greatness (Take titles like Bleach or Burst Angel for example. Both are as generic and bland as vanilla paste). That odd occurrence aside, this week we’ll be looking at another manga which uses an episodic style of storytelling, in the form of the often surreal and atmospheric Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara. The series began in 1999 and ran until 2008 where it finished its 10 volume run. It was also adapted into a 26 episode anime in 2005.

Mushishi is set in a world similar to pre-Meiji era Japan (before 1868 when Japan was still primarily a closed country) but features nineteenth century technology. In this world, there exists an odd strain of creatures known as Mushi. While Mushi is actually the Japanese word for bug, these life forms occupy a much more interesting role in this universe.  The Mushi are considered life in its most pure and basic form and are often viewed as more of a supernatural force.  Because of their otherworldly nature, Mushi are only able to be seen by a handful of people.  One such individual is the manga’s protagonist, Ginko, a wandering Mushi master (Mushi-shi in Japanese, hence the title) who travels from town to town, researching Mushi and even helping mankind learn how to deal with some of the more parasitic and deadly strains of Mushi.

The Mushi are often just as disturbing in nature as they are fascinating as evidenced from this scene from an early chapter.

In a way, Mushishi resembles Black Jack in that in many cases, stories often deal with people suffering unique medical maladies due to the influence of Mushi.  The key difference, however, is that the health problems that those infected or affected by Mushi require a more supernatural remedy.  For example, an early story involves Ginko encountering a girl who locks herself in a cellar to avoid sunlight, as even the tiniest exposure to the sun causes her intense pain.  I won’t spoil the exact method Ginko uses to solve the issue, but let’s just say that it involves being enveloped in a sea of Mushi that expel themselves from the girl’s eye sockets and trying to catch a specific Mushi in said sea. A literal needle in a haystack kind of scenario if you will. Not all of the Mushi cause medical problems however, as some cases see Gink doing things like chasing after the source of a rainbow, following a traveling swamp, and being trapped inside a seemingly endless bamboo forest.  Each scenario is unique and with the exception of one or two recurring strains, the Mushi behind each scenario is equally unique and different.

The art in Mushishi is a joy to look at.  Urushibara’s designs for characters, nature, and civilization are all fantastic.  Most of the human characters resemble Japanese citizens during the Edo period, often wearing simple kimono styles or outfits suited to fieldwork and manual labor.  Ginko on the other hand, has a more modern look, often clothed in a white button up shirt, long dark colored trench coat, and a long scarf.  Since nature plays an important role in many of the stories, the multitude of flora and fauna are well-detailed and help really bring the world to life.  The designs for the Mushi are some of the most interesting aesthetic elements found in the manga.  The creatures resemble something of a bacteria and plant hybrid, while also exhibiting insect like qualities, particularly in the way they move.  Since we often see the Mushi en masse, these colonies often make for quite the eerie yet beautiful visual spectacle.  While much of the art is exquisite and serene, a few of the conditions caused by the Mushi or the means by which they are purged can sometimes look pretty disturbing.

The artwork in Mushishi is some of the best you’ll find in any manga currently available in English. The combination of strong natural tones and surreal designs make for a unique aesthetic experience.

I don’t typically talk much about the anime adaptations of the manga I review, but in this particular case I feel it’s worth a brief discussion.  While the manga does an excellent job using all of the visual elements in tandem with the written narrative to create an interesting and engaging storytelling experience, I feel that the anime actually improves upon its source material through the use of sound and motion.  I mentioned in the last paragraph that Urushibara’s designs for the Mushi make them appear very insect-like in their movement.  The anime really captures this aspect and makes what was already a very impressive visual treat that much better.  The anime’s ambient soundtrack also helps to set the mood, be it relaxing, tense, or thoughtful.  Not all of the manga is covered in the anime however, so if you want more stories, the manga is the way to go.  I highly recommend you check out both versions, as each of them do an excellent job marrying the various elements that comprise them into one of the most unique and intriguing stories I’ve had the pleasure to experience.