Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVDs 3 and 4
Eight more stories of the mushi master (aka mushi-shi) Ginko's journeys across the land and his encounters with assorted mushi play out, including “The One-Eyed Fish,” which involves the circumstances that led to Ginko adopting his name and becoming a mushi master himself. Others in volume 3 include “The Sleeping Mountain,” concerning a fellow mushi master who serves the guardian of a mountain; “The One-Night Bridge,” concerning a young man whose beloved fell through a bridge into a ravine and survived, but has behaved abnormally ever since; and “Inside the Cage,” about a man who seems unable to leave the bamboo forest he has come to call home. Those in volume 4 include “Pretense of Spring,” about a boy thrown into a hibernating state by his winter encounter with mushi that mimic spring; “Sunrise Serpent,” about a woman whose mushi infection causes her to gradually lose her memories; “Picker of Empty Cocoons,” about a twin sister lost in a mushi-related accident; and “Clothes That Embrace the Mountain,” about a man who left his home mountain behind to become a famous painter, only to be drawn back years later.
That Mushi-Shi is a unique series of extraordinary merit is beyond reproach. To deny this is to refuse to acknowledge that the series has done something truly different. By melding its music, visuals, voice work, and storytelling into a unified whole, it spins stand-alone stories of sublime beauty which speak to the essence of life and death in a style which harkens back to ancient fables told around a fire at night. The serene mood it establishes, even when dealing with the fantastic and/or dangerous mushi, can wrap a viewer up in its wonder. It can also, unfortunately, bore viewers unable or unwilling to slide into the comfortable place the series constructs, and can get tedious if too much of it is watched at once.
While the quality of the series may be inarguable, its entertainment value is very much subject to debate. So much of its ability to involve its viewers depends on acceptance of the low-key, spiritual tone that some are going to find the series intolerable, and volumes 3 and 4 do nothing to change that. Those who prefer an ongoing storyline of some sort, or like to become attached to characters over the long term and watch them grow, may also find it hard to connect with the series, since nearly every episode is completely independent of the others and the only recurring character – Ginko – never develops much beyond his base persona.
Those who can get into the spirit of the series will find several captivating stories about ordinary people's interaction with phenomenon beyond their comprehension, ones which Ginko can try to help them understand and live with. The mushi, as portrayed here, are neither good nor evil, neither outwardly benevolent nor inherently malicious, although they can be dangerous and certainly have both positive and adverse effects on those who get too closely involved with them. Dealing with them is like dealing with nature; there are no foes to be defeated here, just creatures to be understood and compensated for. That storytelling approach incontrovertibly set the series apart from all of the brighter and flashier anime series out there.
While no episode in this span ever completely fails at being compelling, their effectiveness varies. Some feel rushed in working all of their elements into a single 24-minute episode, or end too quickly; this is a particular problem with “Clothes That Embrace The Mountain.” The episode “Picker of Empty Cocoons” is the most gimmicky but still has its moments, while “The Sleeping Mountain” and “One-Eyed Fish” arguably make the strongest impressions. The average story quality is slightly lower in volume 4, but those episodes are still better than most stand-alone fare.
As mentioned before, the artistry and music function more to craft a unified whole than impress individually, creating a beautiful overall package which absorbs its minor flaws without being weighted down by them. The character designs never impress but nonetheless suit the style of a series more about plain, ordinary people trying to live their lives than flashy individuals trying to do great things. The background art and mushi designs do impress, but the true visual appeal lies in how the series frames its shots, uses its special visual effects, and combines everything to promote a certain effect; one of the Extras on volume 3 reports that about 80% of the series was re-shot in pursuit of just the right look, and that attention to quality control shows. The gentle musical score flows smoothly out of the English language opener and into the closers without a hiccup or change in style, along the way gently punctuating key moments and evenly promoting the spiritual tone and subdued mood.
That mood also carries through the voice acting in both dubs, as the number of times in these eight episodes that characters actually raise their voices can probably be counted on one hand. That doesn't allow much room for expressive acting, and on top of that the English dub is even more dedicated to maintaining the atmosphere than the Japanese dub. The one-shot performances encompass a myriad of normal Funimation and ADV dub actors, from old-timers like Tiffany Grant to prominent newcomers like Brittney Karbowski, and will neither excite nor disappoint in most cases. In this case, though, it is probably more important that a given performance doesn't stand out.
For Extras, both volumes include the standard textless opener and closer, accompanying booklet with character profiles and sketches, and pair of Mushi-Shi postcards. Both also have two more parts of the “Mushi Talks” Director interviews. In volume 3, Part 4 focuses on the sound direction, while Part 5 focuses on the filming. In volume 4, Part 6 deals with music direction and Part 7 concerns opener direction. These can be quite enlightening and should be considered must-views by dedicated fans of the series. Both volumes also come inside cardboard slipcovers.
If the first two volumes worked for you then so will these, but if neither of them worked for you then these will not, either. If you have held off on watching this series, whether because you just have not gotten around to it or because you don't think its style would suit you, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. Whether you like it or not, this is one of the year's best.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Beautiful look, incredible job of establishing and maintaining a unified mood and tone.
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