Tag Archives: Mushi-shi

Anime Reviews

Okay, so here’s the thing. I’m not very knowledgeable about anime. However, I’ve recently realized that I’ve actually seen more than I thought I had, and it occurred to me I’d like to keep track of them, and perhaps even of what I thought of them.  In any case, there are a few people with whom I’d like to share this, so…

I’m using a mostly three-point rating system for this: Great, Good and Okay.  Okay isn’t necessarily the lowest possible rating, though; if at some point I see something I totally hate, I reserve the right to add “poor” to the list, and possibly not to watch the entire thing.  But so far, even the series I haven’t really cared for have had some redeeming qualities.

My parameters:  These are series I’ve watched in full.  As of the initial posting of this blog, I’d seen them all on Netflix, but I’ll add to this post as I watch more series on other streaming services, as Netflix seems to have mostly given up on anime. I’d watched a couple series (Angelic Layer and Haibane Renmei) before this, but that is long enough ago that I don’t feel comfortable writing about them in this way, and there are a couple series that I watched for a while and didn’t finish (Naruto and Bleach. What?).  Editing it now (March 2014), I’ve added some series on Crunchyroll.

That said, as I indicated above, it doesn’t follow that all these shows are still on Netflix.  In fact, after I started working on this but before I finished (October 1), most of them disappeared.  So, this list  no longer has practical application as far as Netflix is concerned.  I have to admit that I am disappointed about this.

One more point: I’m a somewhat idiosyncratic person and my opinions are specific to me. I watched all of this stuff with another person who might have different opinions about all of these.

I intend to keep updating this post.

Scenario: Well, okay, it’s a little difficult to figure out what is really going on here, but it’s set in 1920s New York (it looks more like Chicago, actually, but whatever), with gangsters, some of whom are immortal.  A lot of the action takes place on a train, the Flying Pussyfoot, which is rumored to be under attack from the infamous Rail Tracer.  This doesn’t sound too confusing, but because the story is told out of order, it takes a while to piece it together.
Pros: Well, I really enjoy the difficulty of this, the time you spend figuring out exactly what happened and why you saw what you did, earlier.  It makes it, not so much a show about weird immortal gangsters and disturbing serial killers but a show about figuring out what is going on. I like that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the story itself is best described as zany; there’s plenty of intrigue going on, but how seriously do we take any of it?  There are two characters running around who are perhaps the most pure comic relief characters I have ever encountered, but all the other characters are also peculiar and somewhat exaggerated. Oh, and the music is great.
Cons: If the above description sounds too silly or too “concept” for you, you’re probably right; it’s a pretty weird show.  Oh, and there’s lots of violence. The Rail Tracer is fairly disturbing (there’s a train murder scene that, um… um), plus there is Ladd, who takes a woman around with him everywhere because he plans to kill her later. So, this is my warning about that.
Verdict: Great.

Beast Player Erin  (NEW)
Scenario: Okay, I don’t want to have too many spoilers here. Let’s see… There’s a kingdom in which the Shin-Oh, a female monarch, holds political power, while the Taikoh (which often seems to be translated as Duke?) has the military power. Wars are waged using Tohdas, large creatures which seem to remind a lot of people of dragons but which are very alligator-like in their temperament and behavior, while the creatures associated with the Shin-Oh are Ohjus, which are giant beasts with the bodies of large birds and the heads of wolves. That’s the context, but it takes a while for the show to be about that. It starts out with a focus on the daughter of a woman who cares for the Tohdas. The mother is a Person of the Mist–in essence, she’s a racial minority–and Erin, her daughter, has the green eyes and green hair that mark her as being of that heritage. The political situation, the nature of these animals, and the personal lives of these people all intersect in troubling ways.
Pros: Erin is a great character. She’s remarkably intelligent and determined, but still a believable character; she deals with things that go wrong in her life in a realistic way and while maintaining her personality. And it’s a great personality; she’s a cheerful and enthusiastic person who cares about things and as an audience, we care about her too. She grows up over the course of the series. The political situation gradually becomes more important as we learn more and more about the it and the role of the Tohdas and Ohjus. Most of the other characters in the show are also pretty interesting people and it’s enjoyable getting to know them. The plot is complex, and while things happen slowly enough that some time skips are necessary to cover everything that happens, the benefit of this is that as our perspective gets wider, everything is quite naturally folded in to what we already know. The ending is the closest to a totally satisfying ending that I’ve seen in one of these shows so far (endings are hard).
Cons: I dunno, I don’t think there are many weaknesses to this show. It does start out slowly, but that’s for good artistic reasons. There is a strong contrast in the feel of the show from the beginning to the end as it gradually gets darker, so it could be misleading for people, I guess. Again, though, taken as a whole I think this is well justified. There are some conflicts toward the end of the show that aren’t explained to my satisfaction (the whole Ia-lu/Kirik thing), and Daimiyah never makes a lot of sense to me. Also, the series is hard to explain. Is that a knock?
Verdict: Great.

Darker Than Black
Scenario: There are people called Contractors who have special powers, but whenever they use them, they need to “pay the price of their contract,” which takes the form of weird compulsions.  Contractors don’t generally work independently; rather, they are employed by governments and secret agencies.  There’s a lot of conflict among them and the show is largely about shifting loyalties and the place of such people in society.  There is also some focus on a government agency which keeps track of contractors and stops them when they get out of control.
Pros:  The art is very nice, and the plot includes lots of intrigue, which is fun. It’s really about the milieu, though; exploring the meaning of contractors’ existence and figuring out what disaster predated the plot.  I especially enjoyed the episodes which featured unusual contractors who broke the rules and explained something about the world.
Cons: I didn’t find the characters that interesting; the main character is kind of an unreadable stone wall, and many other characters either have a short tenure on the show or just seemed flat to me. The most interesting character in the show is probably November 11, a British Contractor whose loyalties are uncertain, but he only shows up so often.  I also didn’t find the ending of the show very satisfying.
Verdict: Good.

Eden of the East
Scenario: A young Japanese woman visits Washington, D.C. and encounters a young Japanese man who suffers from memory loss and appears very suspicious in several ways. Back in Japan, we find that there is a some mysterious scheme to give certain people, called Seleção,  a large amount of money so that they can enact whatever scheme they want to use to improve society. It’s a contest; the losers are killed.
Pros: Now that’s a scenario, and the show does a really good job of developing this story over what I think is exactly the correct number of episodes.
Cons: Basically, this was a show that was really well done but failed to make a deep impression on me. Part of that is probably because the characters weren’t highly compelling to me, which looking over these reviews appears to be something that I care about more than I thought I did. I didn’t buy the love story, either, but I’m difficult to please in that respect. I was also slightly annoyed that the ending of the plot happened in movies which needed to be sought out separately.
Verdict: Good.

Gankutsuo: The Count of Monte Cristo
Scenario: This is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in a weird, science-fiction universe. Unlike the original novel, the count is simply evil, and the action focuses mostly on Albert.
Pros: This is a pretty interesting idea, and I really like it when well-known works are retold in different contexts.  The character design was mostly good (except for Mercedes, who looks like some kind of blow-up doll), and I enjoyed the relationship between Albert and Franz.
Cons: By making the Count a literal demon, the story loses some complexity.  It also increases the focus on Albert, who is kind of whiny and tedious; I’d rather have focused on almost anybody else. Eugenie? Franz? Mercedes? Yes, yes, yes.  Not only that, the Count’s openly evil behavior makes Albert’s attachment to him both inexplicable and frustrating. One more complaint: the notable thing about the art in this series is that patterns on clothes and hair seemed to move separately from the characters. I don’t think this is a inherently terrible idea; it is slightly distracting but fun. The problem is that many of these textures are just ugly. Albert has some horrible black-and-gray plaid thing of which he seems to be unaccountably fond, and the eye keeps being drawn to it because it’s shifting around and ARGH.
Verdict: Okay.

Ghost in the Shell
Scenario: This one is pretty famous, but basically: it takes place in a cyberpunk future world in which many people have become cyborgs to a greater or lesser extent.  The main character, Kusanagi, works for Section Nine, which is an elite crime fighting unit.  There are lots of versions of this, but what I did was watch the movie first, then the TV series, which was split into two parts.  There are different plots in each of them, but they’re all weird cyberpunk things.
Pros: Okay, so the movie is one of the few anime things that’s gotten much scholarly attention, and I’d like to say I like it more on those grounds, but it turns out.. well, let’s not get ahead of myself. Here are some things I liked.  First, it does some interesting things from a science fiction point of view, including pointing out that the cyborgs don’t own their bodies.  Second, there are the Tachikoma, which are these cheerful, spider-like AI robots who spend most of their time talking philosophy and trying to make sense of their own existence.  It’s hard to follow these arguments in spoken form, but it’s still pretty endearing.  Third, the semi-villain of the first TV series is fairly interesting, although I wouldn’t say I totally understand him.  Finally, it is nice to have a female protagonist for a story like this, although this is somewhat undermined by the fact that all the characters around her are men, not to mention the ridiculous outfit they have her wearing.
Cons: The vagaries of alphabetization may have already made this clear, but I watch with someone who enjoys this spy-story stuff much more than I do, so.  This kind of plot isn’t the kind that’s most interesting to me.  I also don’t really care for the art; it seems kind of stiff and two-dimensional compared to a lot of the other series I’ve seen—this is probably a technology issue.  And seriously, Kusanagi’s outfit is ridiculous.
Verdict: Good.

Fullmetal Alchemist
I definitely need to write more about Fullmetal Alchemist, right?
Scenario: Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, are alchemists who attempted forbidden human transmutation and as a result, Ed lost his arm and his leg, while Al lost his entire body, but is still alive because Ed attached his soul to a suit of armor.  Ed joins the military as a State Alchemist, so that he can have better access to the research that might allow them to get their bodies back. Instead, they end up uncovering a conspiracy and a lot of other weird and frequently disquieting stuff. The world is loosely based on Weimar Republic-era Germany, but has a distinct steampunk flavor to it, with advanced mechanical technology and lots and lots of trains.
Pros: Well, let’s see. I think the most obvious draw to this is the characters; the main characters are appealing in ways I’ve discussed elsewhere, but most of the minor characters are very interesting, too—Hughes probably belongs in some kind of Anime Character Hall of Fame, but I also love Sheska, the absent-minded librarian (what?); Izumi, the fierce hippie teacher; Ross, who is put in charge of managing the Elrics and treats them with motherly concern; Marta, the wronged and disillusioned veteran who has thrown in her lot with Greed; Pinako who… is Pinako, and, uh, some of the male characters too, I mean, Mustang is interesting even if he is more or less a study in Traditionally Masculine Emotional Suppression, and you could try reading some depth into Armstrong, but even if you don’t, he’s hilarious.  Even the homunculi become interesting as the series goes on, especially Greed and Lust.  All these characters are given plenty to do, which is to say, the plot is also quite engrossing. This is partly because one is invested in these characters and really cares what happens to them, and partly because there are strange and mysterious things happening on both a political and a metaphysical scale.  But there’s more to it than that. For one thing, the things that the Elrics learn about human limitations and underlying principles of the world feel really hard-won and important, even if they’re difficult to articulate outside the context of the show. For another (and this is quite important to me, even if I did put it at the end), the show does some really interesting things with disability and trauma and what war means and what adulthood means.  Blake Charlton says that fantasy is the literature of disability; FMA is the example through which I make sense of this.
Cons: Well, it’s all a bit much, and if you don’t accept the show’s invitation to become deeply emotionally involved, you’re certain to raise an eyebrow at how very dramatic everything gets.  There’s lots of violence in the show, and it can be kind of hard to watch at times. Also, I had some issues with the ending which you can read about in some of my many posts. I didn’t really like the explanation of what is on the other side of the gate, and the final resolution was frustrating and worrisome to me.
Verdict: Great. At least, Lives In My Brain Forever isn’t really a rating I want to give, so “Great” is the closest approximation I can come up with.

Last Exile
Scenario: Two children, Klaus and Lavie, are couriers in the midst of a war which is fought by factions in airships.  An independent airship, the Silvana, has a mysterious captain named Alex who seems to be  involved in an agenda which is not immediately clear. Klaus and Lavie end up in charge of a young girl who appears to be the key to it all.
Pros: It’s set in a world that is very appealing to me. Much to my surprise, I turn out to quite like steampunk milieus; I guess it’s just fun to think about alternate technology.  The intrigue and the initially mysterious nature of the war drew me in to the series.  Also, I like the art very much. It has an old-fashioned, almost watercolor look to it.
Cons: The plot didn’t really live up to my expectations.  The setup was fun and the characters, especially Lavie, had a great deal of immediate charm, but they didn’t really develop in an interesting way over the course of the series. The story got bogged down in a love triangle that wasn’t very compelling to me, and the later episodes just didn’t live up to the promise of the first.  By the end, I was mostly watching for Dio, and then his character takes a turn that isn’t fully explained, which was frustrating.  The ending, also, made no sense—I do not mean that it didn’t fit the characters or the series, but rather that I couldn’t understand what had happened. That’s not usually a good sign.
Verdict: Okay.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (NEW)
Scenario: Kyon, a totally ordinary schoolboy, sits in front of the new girl, Haruhi, who is both eccentric and extremely pushy. She is disappointed that to find strange things happening around her, so she ropes Kyon into a club and also invites three other students to look for espers (that is, individuals with ESP powers), aliens and time travelers. It turns out she has a talent for attracting strange people and events.
Pros: I think that “zany” is the right word to describe this. It’s pretty funny; Haruhi isn’t likeable, but she’s certainly interesting, and I love the conceit that everybody knows about the thing that she’s looking for except for Haruhi herself. Kyon is an entertaining narrator; his resigned, world-weary snarkiness ends up actually being funny, perhaps partly because we are not totally sympathetic with him. Emotionless Yuki and cheerful, untrustworthy Koizumi are also pretty fun–and then there’s Tsuruya. The plots are–well, some of them are better than others, but ultimately I’m not even sure the plot is the point. The show is very clever in its awareness and little jabs are common anime (and other) tropes, several of which I’m actually able to pick up on by now.
Cons: Okay, a lot of people will complain about Endless Eight, which is an eight-episode Groundhog’s Day-type plot in which events are repeated over and over, but I won’t, because a) the payoff made me laugh, hard, and b) I will never get tired of tired of the conversation between Kyon and Yuki in which this is revealed. I did have a problem with the way that Mikuru is treated, especially by Haruhi–she’s the “cute girl” and Haruhi manipulates others by groping her, physically forces her into sexy costumes, casts her the love interest in a movie, etc–some of this is pretty clearly sexual assault and it’s played for laughs, which doesn’t make me happy. At least Kyon knows better, although he’s not especially helpful. The other criticism that needs to be mentioned is that the episodes are in some apparently random order that makes no sense, but I used this page to make sure I watched them in the right order, so they made a little more sense.
Verdict: Good.

Scenario: Ginko is a mushi master, which means that he travels the countryside solving the problems caused by mushi. These are small creatures which behave a little like spirits, causing odd things to happen which disrupt people’s lives.  For the most part, each episode is independent from the others; Ginko is the link between them.
Pros: This is a beautiful show. The art is the best I have seen in any anime, and  you get to see a lot of the Japanese countryside, which is quite stunning.  The stories themselves are quiet, full of interest but not large in scale, and often thought-provoking. While things that happen as a result of mushi infestations are certainly strange, they affect ordinary people and thus end up showing us something about life (or love, or family, or responsibility), but never in a way I’d consider heavy-handed.  Ginko is wonderful—compassionate, insightful, fallible, and comfortable with himself.  He’s a reassuring person to spend time with, and to be perfectly honest, I’d really love to see more male characters who, like Ginko, value empathy, humility and a sense of proportion.
Cons: If you’re looking for an action-packed adventure show, this really isn’t it.  One could also criticize the show for romanticizing whatever vague historical period it is supposed to occupy (Samurai Champloo, in my reading, is actually making this criticism, though perhaps not of Mushi-shi specifically).  Or one could notice the use of Gilligan’s-Island style technology; it is kind of hilarious when Ginko uses a makeshift microscope.
Verdict: Great. And now I need to find a way to watch it again.

Samurai 7
Scenario: This is an anime series based on the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, but in a science-fiction setting.  However, the series does not follow the film exactly; it adds characters and continues on after the plot of the film has ended.  The plot is this: the war has ended and the merchant class is now the most powerful.  Bandits are attacking villages full of peasants and forcing them to pay them rice. One village decides to send its water priestess, Kirara, to hire some samurai to defend them.
Pros:  This is probably the most cinematic anime series I have ever watched; great care is taken with the visual composition, the fight choreography, and the music.  As I haven’t watched the movie (I want to, but haven’t yet), I can’t say for sure how much of this is carefully imitated from scenes in the movie, and how much is originally composed. In any case, it’s very well done, although there are some episodes later in the series when the art doesn’t look quite as good. Much of the series is about the interactions among the samurai, which are very interesting because they are very different from each other and have all joined the group for different reasons.  Most of them are interesting themselves—there’s not too much you can say about Kyuza, and Heihachi is a bit difficult to understand, but I could certainly write at least a paragraph on each of the others.  Gorobei is probably my favorite, but Kanbei is the most important, and seems to have the most subtleties to his character.  For one thing, I enjoyed how the series implicitly allowed some space around Kanbei’s sexuality through some of his interactions with Kyuza and Shichiraji; a viewer can’t assume him to be straight, gay, or asexual, although he does say, “My heart dried up long ago.”  The film, as I understand, focuses mostly on the battle, while the anime series goes on to explore the political stuff that happens afterward.  I enjoy it, but others may not.
Cons: Well, purist fans of the movie may be annoyed by the changes, but I’d have to watch the movie to really understand why they might be objectionable.  There are certainly a lot of characters here—not just the samurai, but also the village folk, and there are quite a few aristocrats and then you get into the Guardians and the farmers who work for them.  It gets a little tricky to remember all the names, but it’s pretty impressive how distinctive each character is. The series also doesn’t quite seem to know exactly when it should end—I’m okay with the not-entirely-conclusive ending, but its timing is somewhat awkward.
Verdict: Great.

Samurai Champloo
Scenario: Uhh.. okay, so Fuu is a waitress, and she’s wants to find someone (the samurai who smells of sunflowers) and she somehow manages to rope two drifters with highly developed combat skills into coming along to help her. One is Jin, a taciturn ronin with a murky and questionable past, and the other is Mugen, a loudmouthed street punk. They have a long way to walk and spend a lot of their  time stopping in various villages where they try to get enough money to keep going, and usually end up getting mixed up in something shady that happens to be going on there.  Jin and Mugen don’t really care about Fuu’s quest and really just want to fight each other, but on the other hand, they don’t have anything better to do than follow her around.
Pros: I’ve mentioned before that this seems to me to be an answer to shows like Mushi-shi—it is not even remotely interested in realistically representing the Edo era, or any era, but it does explode some of the idealized images of old Japan by showing a seamy, violent place in which laws are flouted and many people live underground lives.  I enjoy this.  Fuu, Jin and Mugen aren’t highly engaging characters in which I became immediately invested, but they are characters who one enjoys following around if only because it’s fun to watch them and see what they do.  The show is often very funny in a way that sometimes stems from pure silliness (for instance, the baseball episode) and sometimes is a little more character-based.  The art is a very different style from what I’m used to seeing. People are drawn a little more realistically but there’s also less of an attempt at three-dimensionality. I wouldn’t want everything to have this art style, but it works very well for this series.
Cons: There’s not a really strong ongoing plot; it’s more episodic.  Also, amidst all the violence there are a couple moments that are still bothering me, including one from the first episode. There are some ridiculous caricatures, including one of a secret Dutch immigrant who is depicted in his homeland, sniffing tulips in front of a windmill (but then, everything is so broad in this series that I’m not sure this is really offensive).  On the whole, if you read the pros and thought that the series sounded enjoyable, that is pretty much what it is.
Verdict: Somewhere between good and great.

Soul Eater
Scenario: Out in the desert, a strangely… cute… Death runs a school for humans who can transform into weapons, and maesters, who wield them.  Several crises arise, which must be attended to largely by students and teachers at the school (Death himself is unable to leave the premises).
Pros: Actually, maybe I don’t quite have the knowledge and authority to say so, but this really, really strikes me as a spoof of action anime in general.  We’ll see if anyone else thinks so. Black*Star is definitely Naruto, and there’s a moment that would appear to reference the common saying among fans that a certain character needs a hug, when Maka hugs Crona at a crucial moment.  And Crona, well, I could easily see how people could be annoyed by hir (Crona’s gender is ambiguous), because zie can be fairly whiny, but here’s the thing: Crona is a very good depiction of a rejected/abused child, who can’t immediately overcome the trauma that zie has experienced.  In fact, the series really ended up to be about confidence and maintaining one’s psychological control in difficult circumstances. Even the final battle is really just about staring down one’s fears.  This is interesting and I kind of enjoyed it, although it is weird. Also, I really enjoyed Stein’s monotone voice in the English dub.
Cons: Haha, kind of what I just said, right?  Whiny Crona, excessive wackiness, a focus on characters’ psychology although they are not psychologically deep characters, and a very weird final battle that’s hardly a battle at all.  But, see, it’s fun.
Verdict: Good. (possibly only okay if not for Crona and Stein, but you know).

Scenario: In a world somewhat resembling the Old West, a reward is offered for one Vash the Stampede, for reasons that aren’t really clear.  He turns out to be a person who unintentionally causes the destruction of whatever town he visits, but this appears to be mostly the fault of the people who go after him for the reward; Vash is nonviolent but doesn’t care about property damage.
Pros: While this scenario turns out to be less interesting than it sounds, actually, there is a character called Wolfwood, a cynical priest who is skeptical of Vash’s philosophy and carries around a giant cross which is also a gun.  He turns out to be pretty funny, and oddly, the plot only moves forward when he’s around. Plus, I enjoyed his voice and his nose. There were also two female characters from whose perspective most of the story is told, so that’s kind of nice, even if Milly isn’t that interesting (I do kind of like Meryl).
Cons: I was generally disappointed in this series. It was hard to get into; in fact, I can basically do without the first six episodes or so, which were just about Vash acting wacky (and, in one case, uncomfortably stalkery).  Vash was kind of annoying to me; I enjoy goofy characters but it is nice if they have a personality beyond that. When you get beyond Vash’s goofy surface, all you get is angst, and not too much of an individual personality.  I also didn’t care for the art; this is partly because the series is quite old and the technology wasn’t as good then, but, well..  Vash’s philosophy isn’t well-explained, and I didn’t find the ending satisfying at all (I’m pretty sure it didn’t solve anything).
Verdict: Okay.

BONUS: Avatar: The Last Airbender:
Yes, this is an American show, so it isn’t really anime. But it was one of the first shows I watched on Netflix, and I liked it very much, and I wanted to write about it a little.
Scenario: There are four kingdoms corresponding to the traditional elements, except that the Air Kingdom has been destroyed, and the Fire Kingdom has been attacking everyone. Each group has its own style of magic/martial arts.  The Avatar is supposed to balance things out, but the most recent incarnation is a child and has been trapped in an iceberg for the last century or so.  He and his friends have adventures and eventually fix everything.
Pros: This is a really fun show. I like the characters a lot, and in particular, I enjoyed the diversity among them.  For instance, Toph is blind and Aang is a vegetarian and neither of these things is treated as strange.  But even that aside, there were lots and lots of interesting characters—to be honest, I think Iroh was really my favorite, but there are lots of good choices.  The world is also a fun one to hang out in, and the way animals work was amusing to me.
Cons: Well, there are moments when the show kind of reminds you that it is a kids’ show, and Asuka isn’t a very believable character. But seriously, this show does not have many flaws and is highly recommended by me.
Verdict: Great.

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Filed under Anime, Television

Samurai Champloo: Creative, Cynical History


Title: Samurai Champloo
Director: Shinchiro Watanabe
Publication Date:2004

This is a pretty entertaining anime series, but I probably wouldn’t have written about it here if I didn’t remind me so strongly of Mushi-shi. I use the word “remind” not to imply that the series are at all akin but rather that they contradict each other and have exactly the similarities that opposites require. (i.e, if the opposite of up is down, it is only because they are both measuring the same qualities. The opposite of up is not birds.)

I wrote about Mushi-shi soon after I watched it. I had taken great pleasure in the series, enjoying its empathetic protagonist, familiar but slightly..well, odd… format, and the beauty of its traditional Japanese setting. It is not at all clear in what time period Mushi-shi is set, but it clearly belongs in some sort of idealized pastoral history in which, perhaps, the slow pace of life matched the pace of the series, mystical beings seemed to exist, and people lived in tight-knit communities with breathtaking views. Obviously, this is, ahem, a slightly romanticized way of looking at history. It resonates with viewers in our current culture because we feel like the present is stressful, ugly, fast-paced and alienated, and we justify this by figuring it against an imaginary idyllic (calm, close-knit) past which it is comforting to visit in shows like Mushi-shi. This view is ahistorical at best, but undeniably persistent. Like Mushi-shi, Samurai Champloo is set in the past and isn’t interested in improving our understanding of Japanese history. In fact, the word “Champloo,” which refers to a dish that combines many disparate elements, appears in the title precisely because the series throws in anachronisms with wild abandon, gleefully combining what’s been described elsewhere as a hip-hop sensibility (I’m too ignorant to make this assertion myself) with Edo period Japan. It’s full of modern language and contemporary music, throws in references to baseball and Van Gogh and graffiti and, uh, zombies and generally refuses to admit to a discourse of accuracy in a pretty belligerent way. At the same time, it also evades the romanticized “past” of a show like Mushi-shi, opting instead to portray a cynical and mostly corrupt society in which violence is ever-present, hierarchy is a significant factor in how life works, and everything is a bit seedy. (Note that, because of the show’s self-conscious use of anachronism, the show is not making the claim that this is how this period of history “really” was, either.)

In Mushi-shi, there is a singular protagonist, Ginko, who wanders around Japan helping people, listening to them and understanding their problems. He’s kind of a hippie, eschewing material possessions and seeking, maybe not enlightenment, but certainly a series of small insights. He is deeply, even supernaturally, aware of the world around him and interacts with others from a position of great empathy. The poignancy in his life comes from his inability to form deep connections with individuals or communities because he can’t stay in one place for too long, because the mushi are attracted to him. This is also an excellent description of exactly what doesn’t happen in Samurai Champloo. The three protagonists in the latter show are also wanderers; each episode, in a Mushi-shi-like fashion, features them arriving in a new place and finding that there are problems there. The difference is that Ginko is wise and compassionate and tries to get to the bottom of the problem, whereas the three companions of Samurai Champloo are self-centered and often violent, and they often end up getting caught up in the problem–making it worse and/or putting themselves in danger. One of the three travelers is Fuu, a naive teenage girl who wants to find a particular person and manages, through the sheer force of her personality and the general shiftlessness of the others, to convince them to travel with her. Her primary concerns are her quest, keeping the group together, and finding food, not necessarily in that order. The second is Jin, a ronin. The show really does put some consideration into what it means to be a ronin; Jin is a highly trained warrior who is allowed to carry the appropriate swords but otherwise has no social standing. He’s traveling because he’s been ostracized from his dojo, and because he doesn’t wish to submit himself to a lord. His personality is best characterized as “phlegmatic;” he’s reticent and unexpressive. The third is Mugen, a street tough whose primary method of interacting with other humans is to begin riots. He picks fights with powerful people for no particular reason other than that he resents the exercise and even the appearance of power, and the audience is left with the impression that he has survived this long mostly because he also happens to be really, really good at fighting. Although there isn’t much effort to make these characters “realistic” per se–they are certainly all exaggerations of a type–they make mistakes and have personality flaws that a viewer can identify as “human.” We are less likely to think that we are or would like to be like these characters, but they are still closer to our experience. Then, too, there is conflict among the members of the group; Mugen and Jin are each impressed by the sword-fighting skills of the other and would therefore like to kill each other, while Fuu desperately wants to group to stay together and does her best to maintain progress toward a goal that, in reality, only she really cares about. She believes that the three of them are or can be a group of close-knit friends working toward a common goal, but Mugen and Jin do not cooperate with her dream. For most of the series, it is the aggression between the two men that holds the group together rather than Fuu’s efforts.

Fuu, Mugen and Jin arrive in town, then, with their own agenda(s), generally to seek money, food, and shelter (or sometimes just passage). There is often something wrong, but these are generally problems caused by corrupt humans; unlike Mushi-shi, this show does not attempt to construct a harmonious society in which all the problems are caused by psuedo-supernatural beings. Instead, they run into mobsters, human traffickers, men who sell off their wives to pay their debts, religious feuds, passport scalpers, etc. Interestingly, many of these episodes are concentrated toward the beginning of the series, which is of course the point at which the series needs to situate the audience in the world it constructs. Later on, the show reminds the audience of its intentions not to be taken as historical reality by throwing in the episode about graffiti artists, and of course the bizarre episode late in the series in which our heroes arrive in town, and by “town” I mean “an old mine which is being worked by zombies,” just in time to participate in a treasure hunt, and by “participate,” I mean “question the head zombie’s claims of aristocratic birth.” This episode is atypical, but its self parodic nature helps to maintain the show’s don’t-take-this-too-seriously ethos at a moment when we may be at risk of becoming invested in the characters. It warns us against that. In any case, the problems that the travelers encounter in towns are not only of human origin but usually caused by people acting in destructive or shady ways. Fuu, Jin and Mugen (especially Mugen, although Fuu has her moments too) get involved not as heroes who can potentially solve the problem but as suckers who fall into it by accident and need to extricate themselves (i.e., oh, look, Mugen got poisoned by a prostitute again?!?). They often work as bodyguards, that is, the side on which they are fighting is determined not by morality but by economics. By the end of the episode, things usually degenerate into violence; there are a lot of drunken bar fights, street riots, and the occasional actual duel. Life in Samurai Champloo proceeds not through careful counseling but as a constant search for the necessaries of life, punctuated by violence. The attention of the series is focused on the seedier portions of the population, focusing on disreputable characters such as artists (not at all well-thought of in the Edo period), vagrants, secret illegal foreigners. Occasionally we get up into the merchant class. Representatives of the state do show up from time to time, usually as a threat to more central characters.

The scenery is also very reminiscent of Mushi-shi; I swear that mountain they are always walking by is the same one. But the relationship of the characters to the landscape is very different. Although the towns through which the travelers pass are often quite small, there’s an urban feel to the action. These landscapes are always inhabited, and usually by the sort of people I described in the paragraph above. There’s no sense of luminous wonder associated with the landscape, but rather a recognition that it is a huge pain to walk all the way from Edo (currently Tokyo) to Nagasaki. A viewer may lift her eyes to admire the landscape, which is quite beautifully drawn, but the characters never do.

I n any case, despite everything that I’ve been saying here, and its lack of respect for the time stream, Samurai Champloo actually is concerned with some historical realities that were part of life in Edo-era Japan. It deals with the closed borders of the era by bringing in a secret foreigner in a poor disguise and by considering the flow of culture between Japan and Europe. Toward the end of the series, there are several episodes that deal with the banned status of Christianity, and the secrecy therefore practiced by Christians. Some of the problems with the refusal to accept diversity are explored here. The rigid social structures of the time are certainly in evidence here, and I’ve written above about the show’s portrayal of the ronin life. So without adopting the concept of accuracy, the show is, in fact, in dialogue with history.

Samurai Champloo was produced at about the same time as Mushi-shi and probably isn’t intended to be a direct commentary on it, but when you watch the latter and then the former, it feels as if it were. The relationship between them reminds me slightly of the relationship between Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, except that Samurai Champloo has a sense of irreverence and an unwillingness to take itself seriously that A Song of Ice and Fire never had. This makes it a little more effective as a critique; it also is short enough not to bog down. In any case, it performs a similar function in that it reminds us that we are all guilty of romanticizing the past, and although THIS is not what it was like, it certainly wasn’t what you keep thinking of it, either.

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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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