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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Mushishi

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XXXVI: Mushishi

"Only a little while back, monsters lived very close to people. I'm very envious of that."
—Yuki Urushibara

I love science, particularly biological science. I love reading about strange animals and plants, and particularly about microorganisms and primitive life forms. When I discovered that most scientists no longer divide life forms into three kingdoms like I was taught as a kid—Animals, Plants and Fungus—but instead into six or even more kingdoms—Animals, Plants, Fungus, Protists, Archaea and Bacteria are the most common ones—I got excited thinking about all the countless directions of evolution, which make a slime mold and a green algae, for instance, as different as a Radiolarian and a dog. (Fact: fungus is more closely related to animals than it is to plants, and mushrooms are made partially of chitin, the same material in insects' carapaces.) I also like ghost stories and horror stories. This makes me the perfect audience for Yuki Urushibara's Mushishi.

Mushishi ("mushi master") is a spooky, strange, wistful manga about bizarre life forms—if you can even call them life forms—in ancient rural Japan. It has been adapted into an anime series, a live-action film and a Nintendo DS game, but it's all based on a manga drawn from 1999 to 2008, a leisurely rate of one volume a year—the pace of a high-quality, not high-quantity, mangaka. "Winner of the Kodansha Manga of the Year Award!" boasts the covers of the Del Rey editions. And while it's not as old or out-of-print as many of the manga I write about for this column, it's an excellent manga, a very unique mix of ideas.

Like Petshop of Horrors, Nightmare Inspector and many other horror/fantasy manga, Mushishi is an episodic manga with no real ongoing story; each chapter involves a new location, new people and new mushi. The only common thread is Ginko, the wandering mushishi who studies the mushi and, sometimes, cures people suffering from their effects. But what are mushi anyway? The kanji mushi basically just means "bugs" (it's made of three smaller "bug" kanji lumped together); the same word is used, for instance, to describe the bad guy with symbiotic worms and tentacles and slimy things growing out of his body in Kazushi Hagiwara's Bastard!!. But Urushibara's mushi are not your typical monsters; they rarely appear as giant scary beasts or even unusual forest creatures a la Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. They are something even more foreign than monsters. Ginko himself explains it best:

"If the four fingers on my hand represent all of the animals and my thumb represents present-day plants, then people would be on the very tip of the middle finger and the farthest place from the heart. The inside of your hand represents all the other levels of living things below us. As you follow the veins downward, it all winds into one large artery…about there are the fungi and microorganisms. As you go farther down it becomes harder to tell the difference between animals and plants. But there are things that are even earlier than that. You can trace all the way down the arm and past the shoulder. And if you get to just about the heart, there's life there. Mushi."

Mushi are a little like spirits and a little like monsters, but they are more like microorganisms. They are the bacteria and archaea of the supernatural world, not the charismatic megafauna (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charismatic_megafauna) like werewolves and vampires.  Only rarely do they take human form (apart from the stories when they possess people), and rarer still are the stories like "The Mud Weeds," when they seem to follow any human moral code. In the first chapter, "The Green Gathering," the mushi take human forms and speak, but Urushibara moves away from this as the series progresses, making the mushi weirder and weirder. In one of the most immediately recognizable touches in the series, Urushibara draws the mushi like giant microorganisms or floaters (the hallucinatory, refracted specks of dust you get on your eye). In one story they are called "verdancy" or "the green things," and indeed, they usually look more like plants than animals. Urushibara loves drawing plants and lush, plant-covered landscapes. You get the feeling that if she wasn't drawing manga, she might be a nature illustrator like Ernst Haeckel, or would just sit around and draw ferns and grass all day.

But if Mushishi were just a list of strange creatures, it'd be a Monster Wikipedia, not a manga. All the stories have some human element. Many involve mothers and children and strange quirks of birth, such as one of the most horrific stories, "The Veil Spore," in which a mold-like spot appears on a bride's wedding veil and she later gives birth to, not a child, but a living puddle of green slime. In "Heaven's Thread," a poor servant girl pulls a thread which she sees hanging down from the open sky, and it pulls her into the sky out of sight; the story really begins, however, when she returns to earth, and her employer's son, who in a moment of grief had vowed to marry her if she ever returned, doesn't do such a good job keeping his promise. In "They That Breathe Ephemeral Life," a cult forms the "God of Life," a mushi-infected woman who ages from a teenage girl to an old woman each day, then restarts her "life" the next morning. Ginko cures the girl's condition, but after living a full life from youth to death every 24 hours, she finds normal life impossible to bear. ("When I was the God of Life, the sun would go down, as I'd weaken and fall asleep…I'd have this feeling of being fulfilled. But now, when I wake up in the morning, the only thing waiting for me is a continuation of the same reality as yesterday. The enormous amount of pointless time makes my knees go weak.") In one of the early stories, "The Pillow Path," a mushi-possessed man is haunted by dreams of the future. At first it is a blessing, but then he fails to predict a disaster, and he loses his wife, his family and friends. Eventually he realizes that his dreams aren't predicting the future; they're coming true. Enraged at his twisted curse of a power, he commits a desperate act…

The mushi don't care about human concepts like justice; the mushi don't care about humans at all. Repeatedly, Urushibara describes mushi as "flowing life," creatures which are less like life than natural phenomena, like floods and typhoons. In "Rain Comes and a Rainbow is Born," we meet a mushi which looks and behaves almost exactly like a rainbow, but which drives a man mad searching for its source. In "The Chirping Shell" we meet the mushi that causes seashells to make the sound of the sea when you hold them up to your ear. In "The Traveling Bog," the mushi takes a form very similar to water itself—a living swamp that, once in a very long time, overflows its banks and takes a different form as it floods towards the sea. This life cycle is a recurring pattern of Mushishi. Many of the mushi are like salmon which live at sea and return to the rivers to spawn…or tapeworms in the human digestive system…or that parasite which grows on caterpillars and, in the final stages, controls their nervous system so they climb as high as possible so the caterpillar will be eaten by birds and pass on the disease…

There is a horror element in Mushishi, at least in some stories, although Urushibara doesn't call it a horror manga. It is slow, creepy horror, not shock horror; there are few moments here like in Kazuo Umezu and Junji Ito where you turn the page and are punched in the face by some gruesome scene. (Though we do get to see some disturbing images, like a flood of ooze pouring out of a girl's eyes.) Also, Mushishi has almost no violence or blood. People do die, but they evaporate into mist, they turn into plants, they return to the earth from whence they came—"returned to their basic forms," as the mushi themselves say in one tale. Some of the chapters remind me of Algernon Blackwood's classic horror story The Willows, in which the protagonists go on a trip down the river and encounter a strange elemental force which has no real physical form but which leaves behind corpses riddled with funnel-shaped holes. Or the entity in H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour out of Space, not one of his famous Cthulhu-esque tales where some giant world-destroying monster awakens from the prehistoric era (Cthulhu is like the Godzilla of the horror genre), but one of his quieter stories about a meteorite which lands in the woods and—without ever showing itself or taking a shape or a name—sickens and mutates the surrounding people, animal and plantlife in increasingly disturbing ways. Or, to use a manga example, like the force in Junji Ito's Lovecraft-influenced Uzumaki, which manifests in spirals, driving people insane and eventually reshaping the people and the entire town into bigger and bigger spiral shapes. (Urushibara even uses one of the same images as Uzumaki, in a story when we meet the "Un," snail-shaped mushi who feed on sounds and dwell in the spiral of the human ear.) The idea of a pattern or a shape being alive is very Mushishi; this is a manga where sound, light, water and even kanji can be living things.

If "horror" simply means stories which are scary, only about 1/5th of the stories in Mushishi are horror; the others have endings which are melancholy, thoughtful or happy. Mushishi has less of a feeling of fear and more of a feeling of folktales or fairy tales crossed with the flavor of modern biological science. According to Urushibara's notes, some of the stories are inspired by tales told by her 90something-year-old grandmother, tales of fox spirits and ghosts and mysterious disappearances. "Ever since I was a child I've always loved the old stories…Of course, Mushishi is nothing compared to the real old stories," Urushibara writes. "The Thread of Light" (volume 10) seems inspired by the legends of Tennyô (celestial maidens) and their magic garments, and "In the Cage" (volume 4) recalls the legend of Kaguya-hime who was born from a stalk of bamboo. Perhaps Urushibara's love of folk tales is one of the reasons that Mushishi always takes place in rural settings; the characters never go to the big city. In one of Urushibara's notes she gushes adoringly about a trip to Shirakawa village, the remote Japanese village with ancient thatch-covered houses also used as inspiration for the village in Higurashi: When They Cry. To further increase the old-timey rural feeling, Mushishi is set sometime in historical Japan, "like an age between the Edo and Meiji periods," according to Urushibara's notes. It's a time and place when you might imagine that strange things would happen, unseen by civilization. And yet the one common element in every story is Ginko, a very modern-seeming man, who even smokes a cigarette and wears modern-day clothes.

Ginko, the incongruously 21st-century hero of the stories, has his own mystique, although we never do find out why he wears a trenchcoat, shirt and pants instead of a yukata. (In an interview, Urushibara mentioned that Mushishi was originally conceived as a modern-day story and Ginko's clothes are a relic from that version, but she never comes up with an in-story excuse.) He has green eyes and white hair, and a single eye, the result of an encounter with an eye-eating mushi. (In the first few chapters, Ginko has both eyes, but Urushibara later explains that he sometimes wears a false eye—a retcon, maybe?) It isn't until volume 9's "The Bed of Grass" that we learn Ginko's origin. Since birth, he was cursed with the ability to attract mushi, which forces him to wander from place to place lest he bring disaster. ("Your body draws mushi to it. The strange-looking kid who brings disaster wherever he goes…") As a child, he met Suguro, a mushishi who taught him how to identify medicinal plants and make mushi tobacco (his cigarettes), which helps stave off the negative physical effects of having mushi around all the time. Ginko is not particularly sad about his lot in life, his fate of forever traveling. Although he rarely shows too much emotion, he seems to like what he does, and he seems to see it as his duty to help the unfortunate people he encounters, usually with some solution from his cabinet of potions, powders, medicines and herbs. As in real life, things often go wrong when the patient goes off their meds.

Ginko is not alone in his work; he is a member of a loose confederation of mushishi who travel Japan or live in certain areas as resident doctors and mushi-slayers. We don't meet many of the other mushishi; just about the only recurring character apart from Ginko is Adashino, a canny collector/reseller of mushi artifacts, and even he doesn't really do much. In "Picking the Empty Cocoon" we discover that the mushishi send messages to one another, not using letters or telephones, but using mushi: the Uro, tiny creatures which connect closed spaces like cocoons and dark locked-up rooms, forming interdimensional passages between them (although if you aren't careful, you can end up trapped inside…). In "The Sound of Trodden Grass" we meet the Watari, a wandering class of people who make a living by following mushi trails and selling information to mushishi. But mostly, the world of the mushishi is unknown to us, just like the world of the mushi themselves. Urushibara never pulls the curtain back quite that far; although we discover the names of all the mushi Ginko encounters, she never quite fixes the story in space and time.

There are a few recurring elements in Mushishi, though. On are the "masters," the silent but very real personifications of nature, who dwell in wild places and mountains and sometimes take physical forms. A giant snake, a giant catfish, a giant turtle with plants growing from its back—these are the shapes of the masters of nature, a bit like primitive gods, or the Japanese concept of kami as the spirit of a place, maybe the spirit of a rock or a tree. The sensory apparatus of the "masters" are the mugura, which appear to be vines or grasses but are actually the nervous system of an entire mountain. If something happens to the "master," the plant and animal life in the area will be harmed or even die. (To her credit, though, Urushibara doesn't write many clichéd cautionary tales about humans destroying the environment.)

But the core element in all of Mushishi, which literally flows underneath everything, is the kôki. Also known as the "light flow" or the "water of life," kôki is something like a glowing river that runs underground in certain patterns, like ley lines. Where the light flow is thick, plants grow rampant, and kôki can be gathered in liquid form; it apparently tastes very much like sake. The mushi sometimes gather at these spots, in nearly human form, and have a drinking party. Mushishi begins and ends with a mushi gathering, with a tiny glimpse of the mysterious "gods" of this world. 

For some readers, Mushishi may be too mellow. It doesn't have a lot of blatantly weird-looking monsters, it doesn't have much action or the hyper-emotion associated with manga, and it has many, many pages of landscape scenes, misty forests, grass speckled with rain. The later volumes are arguably calmer and less spooky than the earlier ones; the stories don't jump out to me as much (except for the climax), although maybe they just blur together a little because the final three volumes are printed in English in a single 600+ page book named simply Mushishi 8-9-10. But it's a manga with a very original vision, with a sort of "flowing life" of its own, a biologist's precision mixed with creepy fairytales and a surreal, dreamy feel which reminds me of underground manga like the works of Yuko Tsuno. It's a manga about the feeling that there are forces in this world which humans can't control or understand…but maybe, says the mushishi and the scientist, you can at least bear witness. Maybe Urushibara should write that Mushi Wikipedia. I'd read it.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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