by Yuki Urushibara; adapted by William Flanagan
published by Del Rey Manga; $12.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Ginko is a wandering mushishi, or mushi master. Mushi are the bugs/insects of the spiritual realm. As it says in the translation notes, “Ginko is a man who made a study of mushi and seems to have learned to control some through his own senses and others through medicines, remedies, or just a knowledge of their nature.” This series chronicles what happens when humans and mushi interact.
The universe of Mushishi is a spellbinding and eerie place. It has two co-existing domains sharing one planet. Each realm is just as real and complete as the other. They literally live side by side with each other, sharing the same planetary resources, but one reality is generally imperceptible to the other. The spiritual beings can see and sense the natural beings, but very few of the natural beings can see and sense their spiritual counterparts.
These are quiet stories about people living on the edge of the wilderness trying to survive the best way they can. The stories revolve around small chance encounters with the mushi. There are no grand battles with the gods or heroic feats that become the source of legends. These are simple rural people who discover there is a whole dimension of existence that they knew nothing about, a realm where the lowest forms of life can inflict terrible havoc into their lives. They’ve heard folk tales about these creatures, but the reality is much crueler and horrific than they are prepared for.
Part of the fascination of Mushishi is that the spiritual reality has a zoology parallel to the natural world, with lower and higher life forms. The mushi really are just like the bugs and insects of our natural world. They move and have independent wills, but they don’t appear to have much intelligence, instead living by instinct. A mushi feeding off a human’s life force is no different than a mosquito drinking a human’s blood. There is no maliciousness in the act. There isn’t really any thought to the act at all. The mushi is hungry, and we are the available food source. It could just as easily been a bear, a rabbit, or a cat. This gives the stories a very stark nature, since small actions by mushi can have devastating consequences for humans, like when a person is bitten by a mosquito with malaria or a tick with Lyme disease.
I can’t really think of a counterpart to this idea in Western mythology or folklore. In the West, we think of the spiritual as tied to only the highest life forms. Dryads, pixies, satyrs, angels, etc. are all sentient beings. They may act brutish at times, but they all can be reasoned with. (One exception might be the Minotaur, which seemed to act purely like a bull that could walk upright.) I like the reality Urushibara has developed for Mushishi a lot. It has so many possibilities, as you think of more ways to mirror the zoology in the natural world. It also has the consequences of stripping away the metaphysical from the spiritual realm as you read the book and realize these are just beings of a different biological reality with its own advantages and problems.
When I first started reading the book, I was little confused, since you’re simply placed into the story without narration or explanation. It took a few pages for me to get comfortable with Urushibara’s storytelling style. Then I realized that Urushibara is writing for a mature, experienced reader. He expects the reader to have patience and to be able to piece the information together. Once I realized this wasn’t your typical comic where the author spoon feeds you the story, I was able to sit back and enjoy more. Because Urushibara is writing for an older reader, he can adjust the structure to best fit the story. It creates a very satisfying reading experience. The stories also reward a second and third reading.
Ginko finds himself trying to aid humans in understanding the world in which they live. He has to educate them to the spiritual realities that have always surrounded them. In part, he has to serve as counselor for their grief when they’ve lost a loved one. He leads a solitary life, forced to wander the land, because for some unexplained reason mushi are drawn to him. If he stays in one place too long, then the mushi population can overwhelm the area. He meets so many people and has seen so many places that he can no longer remember them all. Urushibara is careful not to make Ginko’s life come across as depressing or lonely. We feel sadness for such an existence, but for Ginko this is the way he’s always lived, so he accepts it and finds satisfaction in it.
The art work is spare. This works well given the lives of the characters. It seems wrong to render people of such simple means with lush detail. The restrained art style also fits nicely with the quiet, subdued storytelling style. It seems like there is a gray pallor over the art that adds to the mood and gives the work a more somber tone. The line work is clear and sharp. The mushi designs are excellent. They look otherworldly enough to give a supernatural feel, but they still retain an organic quality to make them believable as just another life form.
There’s been a lot of discussion about manga aimed at a more mature audience and getting the current generation of manga-reading youth to grow into manga-reading adults. Mushishi works as a good bridge volume for attracting readers to more mature material. The plots are straightforward enough for a young teen to understand what’s happening and to be able to follow the story line, but there is a lot of emotional depth to the story. Adults will find deeper layers of resonance because of their life experiences. In this volume, we are confronted with themes of hope vs. false dreams, the nature of love, childhood curiosity vs. the dangers of the world, and environmental stewardship. I found each story stuck with me long after I finished reading.
I highly recommend Mushishi to all comic readers. Here you find well-written stories aimed at mature readers, but accessible to a younger audience. These are stark tales that vividly demonstrates the brutish realities of living on the edge of the wild. I look forward to further volumes.
(A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher for this review.)