Mushi-shi: Emotional Generosity

Cover of Mushi-Shi DVD set

Title: Mushi-shi

Author (manga): Yuki Urushibara

Studio: Funimation (American distribution)

Publication Date: 2005

On July 4, I got a text message from my friend asking how I was, and I responded that it was just a quiet evening at home watching anime. This seems to me like a very nice evening activity, holiday or no (and it was Wednesday in any case!), but the more I think about it, the more I thought I’d like to clarify on that; I’ve written about anime before, but this has almost nothing* in common with the aforementioned series. So: I’m in the midst of a series called Mushi-shi. Actually, I’m nearing the end, and it makes me want to slow down a little, because it’s sad to think of not watching it anymore. It’s the kind of show that quickly begins to feel like an old friend, and spending time with it feels reassuring, familiar, but still engaging and still capable of teaching me something new.

In a way, the show is almost a procedural drama.  The central character is called Ginko, and in every episode he turns up in somewhere people are having trouble. Because he is a master of the art of showing up exactly where he needs to be,** this trouble is always somehow related to mushi, and because he is a mushi master, he is able to find out exactly what the problem is and attempt to do something about it. Mushi  are essentially spirits, though they’re not described that way in the show—tiny creatures which are almost completely different from humans or animals or plants,  and which are invisible to most humans. They interact with people in various ways, often causing illnesses or other problems.  Ginko asks questions, listens to people, and does what he can.

I’m very fond of fantasy stories that take place on a very small scale, and that is almost the correct way to describe Mushi-shi, although calling it fantasy is a bit of a stretch because it doesn’t quite feel like that.  The setting is traditional rural Japan at some unspecified time in the past, and the characters are all ordinary people with practical concerns.  The problems they face are of real consequence to them, but it is very far from  being save-the-world stuff.  There’s a girl who is catatonic after falling from a bridge as she tried to escape an arranged marriage. There’s a boy who grew horns on his head after his mother’s death. There’s a woman who is slowly losing her memory. There’s a man who is obsessed with rainbows.  Their situations are somewhat bizarre, strange enough to merit the use of a quasi-supernatural element in the story, but their concerns are personal and they feel like real people you’d meet any day.

Aside from one other character, though, Ginko is the only one who appears more than once, and he’s a great character, because he is not a hero, or, at least, he definitely doesn’t think of himself that way.  He is remarkable for his empathy, or what I think of as his great emotional generosity. The things that are notable about him are not dramatic things but consist in his quiet voice, unassuming demeanor and perceptive eye. One of my favorite moments of the series so far comes when he is helping a woman who has lost her twin sister.  He knows how she was lost and he understands the impossibility of getting her back.  He speaks with the remaining twin, and when he realizes that she cannot accept this, he takes her to a passageway that intersects with this world.  He leads her through it, showing her in the most gentle way possible that her sister is gone. In another episode, he plays amateur therapist/marriage counselor to a man whose fiancée has become invisible, telling him that she feels her prospective groom has rejected her while blaming it on his parents.  A male protagonist who solves problems with empathy is a pretty rare creature, but the show never makes a big deal about it.  And ultimately, the show isn’t really about Ginko, or rather, in important ways, it’s about not being about Ginko.  He isn’t there to show off his amazing mushi master powers, and he never rushes to take credit. He’s more likely to stand in the background with his cigarette, watching.  But he does what he can and he takes his responsibilities (both to people and to mushi) seriously.  Sometimes he fails, and he accepts this failure as part of life, apparently not assuming that he is able to solve all the problems, all the time, no matter what! When he does fail, it is often a somber moment, but it does not feel like a disaster. Actually, the tone is very similar to the episodes in which he succeeds. The show gives you a small reflective moment and then ends.

And of course, Ginko has problems of his own due to his encounters with mushi, but we learn about them slowly, and most of the people he encounters never hear about them, because after all, he doesn’t believe that life is all about him, so he doesn’t go around telling everyone his life story. There is a moment in which another character tells Ginko that he wishes he could see mushi, to which Ginko smiles and says simply, “Do you? Be careful what you wish for.”  And that’s it.

So it’s an unusual show in lots of ways, and a really beautiful one, and that’s even aside from the artwork, which is wonderful.  Since it takes the Japanese countryside as its subject, the art could hardly fail to be attractive, but it makes the most of this:

Ginko watching the sunset

A picture of the sun setting behind the mountain. In the foreground, Ginko watches, with his back to us. Between him and the mountain, you can see the curves of the rice fields, and a stand of bamboo to his left.

Anyway, a great show and I’d kind of like to watch it forever.

 *************************************************************

Okay, a totally unrelated note, maybe one that should have its own post but eh:

The voice acting in this show is fantastic.  Ginko’s voice is a very important part of his character; I mentioned before how it stands out.  So it was kind of mindbending to learn that the actor in the English translation, Travis Willingham, was the same who had played Roy Mustang in Full Metal Alchemist.  Mindbending because, well, his voice hasn’t really changed and it should be very clear that it is the same actor, but I never would have recognized it, because these characters are just as different from each other as they look:

 

Picture of Roy Mustang

Roy Mustang of Full Metal Alchemist. He is quite handsome, with dark hair arranged in an artfully messy way. He glances down toward the viewer in a self-assured way, even though he is not that tall and is probably on a level with you. He wears a military uniform with a high collar and holds his shoulders straight as one would probably expect.

Picture of Ginko

Ginko of Mushi-shi. He looks straight at the viewer with a serious and slightly confused or perhaps concerned expression. His hair is an uncombed white mop which conceals his missing left eye. His right eye, bright green, is focused on you. His left hand holds his cigarette near the corner of his mouth. The straps of a very old-fashioned backpack are visible. He wears a light coat over a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned.

…and you could play a fun game where you attach an adjective to one and the antonym to the other, with a really high degree of accuracy, and yet their voices are both perfect and completely convincing and both seem to be absolutely a natural part of them. So this is just a moment in which I express my appreciation for the voice actor’s art.

*Well, they do have one thing in common. More on that later.

**my spouse’s comment: “it’s almost like he has a TARDIS!”

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1 Comment

Filed under Anime, Television

One response to “Mushi-shi: Emotional Generosity

  1. Another word or two about the invisible wife episode referenced above. What was really remarkable to me about that episode (and really, it is one of my favorites) was the extent to which Ginko aligned himself with the woman, who even before becoming invisible was considered a strange person who had come from somewhere else and did not fit in here. The episode sets it up so that rather than seeking her out on behalf of her husband, he comes across her first, and helps her to get home. The groom invites Ginko to the wedding, but he declines, until she asks him. And then, when she becomes invisible, he sees her, he understands her struggle, and he refuses to accept the husband’s excuses about how it is his parents’ fault (though politely noting, “You could just tell me to mind my own business”). It would have been pretty easy to have written this as an episode about how she is unreasonable and bizarre and what can you do about it, but Mushi-shi is a better show than that, so it seeks to understand her, and does.

    This is pretty typical of Ginko’s approach, too–he is a stranger and he is often sympathetic to the people who are considered strange and gently resists the orders of the entitled.

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