Of Mushi and Cthulhu

Review by Ed Sizemore

There is an old Japanese folktale about a stonecutter who, feeling the sun’s heat, gets jealous of its power and desires to be the sun. His wish is granted, only for him to discover that clouds can block the sun. Clouds can also send down torrential rains that wash away everything. So he becomes a cloud. However, mountains are able to withstand the floods. So he becomes a mountain. Finally, mountains can be brought down by humble stonecutters. So he returns to his original form.

In Mushishi, Urushibara has created a circular natural order similar to the stonecutter’s tale. Humans may see themselves as being on the top of the pecking order, but the simple mushi thoroughly destroy that illusion with even the most basic and innocent interaction.

In volume one of the series, Ginko explains that mushi are the most primitive form of life. They are the first beings that rose up out of the life flow of Earth. They are such primitive creatures that their bodies are composed of the Earth’s life energy itself. They do not have the solid bodies of plants, animals, and humans. This lack of physical form means most people cannot see or sense mushi. There was a time when humans could perceive the mushi, but as we have separated ourselves from nature, we have lost this ability. Now only the rare individual is born with this ancient perception still intact.

The unique nature of the mushi’s bodies means they have some unnerving abilities. They can pass through solid matter like walls or human bodies, making some people mistake them for ghosts. One type of mushi can take possession of and animate the corpses of animals and humans. Another type can enter a woman’s womb and pretend to be a human child going through the entire gestation process to take on a human-like form. Needless to say, for the average person the powers of mushi can seem supernatural in origin.

Given the above description, you would expect Mushishi to be similar to horror manga like Hino Horror or Tomie. While Mushishi is eerie and unsettling in tone, it never cultivates an air of terror or dread typical to the horror genre. Instead, Urushibara keeps the series grounded in the everyday natural world around us. Mushi may be highly unusual in composition and ability, but they are still a part of life on Earth. There is some comfort in knowing that no matter how strange the mushi are, they are just another terrestrial life form like us.

Ginko is how Urushibara keeps Mushishi from being a traditional horror series. He approaches the mushi with curiosity and caution. Ginko is the voice of reason. He reminds us that the mushi are simply creatures trying to survive, like anyone else on the planet. Most don’t have the intelligence to understand how devastating and horrific their actions are to humans. Once we understand the mushi have no evil intentions toward us, we are can calmly and rationally study them and develop ways to protect ourselves from them. Ginko’s tranquil demeanor keeps the series from succumbing to the extreme emotions needed for horror.

I can’t help contrasting Mushishi with H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Both authors have created a unique race of beings that force humanity to throw away its illusions of superiority. Urushibara seems to draw inspiration from the world of microbes to create mushi, while Lovecraft seems inspired by aquatic life in his Elder Gods. Where the authors differ most profoundly is in the overall mood their work creates.

As we discussed above, Urushibara’s idea is to find a way to peacefully co-exist with the mushi. By contrast, Lovecraft’s cosmos is filled with terror and hopelessness. First, humans have to come to grips with the fact that the universe is more vast and complex than they ever imagined. In fact, human brains simply don’t have the ability to understand the true nature of the cosmos and the multitude of beings that populate it. Simply exploring the ruins of the Elder Gods’ temples on Earth drives most men to madness. Imagine what the actual sight of the Elder Gods would do.

Second, it’s not just that the universe is incomprehensible, but the Elder Gods are actively seeking the destruction of humanity. They were expelled from our dimension but await the first opportunity to return. They have minions all over the globe seeking a way to bridge the dimensional gap and let their masters through. Humans are perceived as a virus on the cosmos, and the quicker we are eradicated the better off for all other forms of life.

Finally, there is the realization that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ humanity is destroyed, but simply when. The Elder Gods are immortal beings of immeasurable power. It’s only a matter of time before they walk the Earth once again. When that happens, we have no hope of surviving their wrath. We have no weapons that can harm them, and no allies to call for help. We are simply killing time before our own demise. Ironically, Lovecraft was an atheist who created a pantheon more grim and dark than any real mythology in the history of civilization.

I enjoy both authors, but obviously for immensely different reasons. It’s interesting to see how two authors can create such opposite visions of reality. Lovecraft wallowed in doom and despair. His cosmos was a terrifying place. Since annihilation is our fate, there is nothing for us to do but pray for a swift end. Urushibara’s world is a more cordial place to live. It has its dangers, but they aren’t insurmountable. Mushishi makes you appreciate the fragility of life. It also reminds us that all life is connected. Only Urushibara offers the readers a lesson we can apply to our real lives. We need to be attentive to the world and people around us, if we wish to lead satisfying lives.

13 Comments

  1. So we are to Elder Gods as mushi are to us? Or is that simplifying your comparison too much?

  2. I was trying to say the mushi and Elder Gods are similar. Both have very destructive effects on humanity. Although, you could see us as the Elder Gods to mushi too since we are just as destructive to them. Plus, most humans want the mushi destroyed.

  3. Oh, I took your comments about the eventuality of the Elder Gods getting what they wanted (dominion over Earth) as similar to humanity’s determination to wipe out things they don’t understand (like the mushi). I guess I was reading too much into it, since I haven’t actually read Mushishi.

  4. Johanna,

    You point out a flaw in my own thinking. I was being to anthropocentric, which violates the spirit of the manga. I should have look at things from both the human and the mushi side. Thankfully, the Elder God anthology works both ways. Which points to some of the ambiguity of the manga. There are no good guys and bad guys, just creatures trying to survive as best they can, be they human or mushi.

  5. […] Blind, Justin Colussy-Estes, Dan Polley, John Thomas, Michelle Smith, Reverse Thieves, and host Ed Sizemore, who has some thoughts on Mushi and Cthulhu. Also, David Welsh picks another work by Mushishi […]

  6. I’ve never experienced Lovecraft’s Mythos so I can only comment on Mushishi. When I watched the anime I couldn’t quite say that I was entertained, but for some reason I just kept watching. It gave off a serene feeling that was unique. Since then I’ve read up to what was released in the US of the manga, and even though the anime does the manga every justice I prefer the manga. The black and white art style of the manga really suits the stories, and I think the pace of the story is a lot better when you can read it. But that’s just my personal opinion, I tend to prefer the manga over the anime in most situations.

    But pretty much I agree with a lot of what you’ve said about Mushishi and wished to describe my experience as well.

  7. Lovelyduckie,

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed Mushishi.

  8. First off, I want to say I love the way this review was written and the comparisons Ed brought up. I haven’t read either (though I’ve been told time and time again I’d probably like Lovecraft, since I enjoy sci/fi fantasy.) However, I’d been looking at the Mushishi anime, and now I’ve heard a review, I think I’ll give the manga a go! Or both, the manga and anime, if I get a chance :)

    Reply to Lovelyduckie:

    I like your point about how even though the anime was good, somehow the manga was better. I can totally relate to that. I see manga turned into anime all the time, and the film just doesn’t quite suit the original. Not that I don’t like anime–I totally love it, and even though the Full Metal Alchemist first anime series diverged from Hiromu’s story line, I still enjoyed it. But there’s just something about manga and that really draws one in. A lot of times, people are turned off by the lack of color: but the skill it takes to create something alluring with just gray scale screen tones and black ink, is simply amazing to me.

    Sorry to write so much! This subject just gets me excited!

  9. Ashleen,

    No problem. I love getting comments. Hope you get a chance to read both Lovecraft and Mushishi. I would start with Mushishi.

  10. […] Mark your calendars: the next Manga Moveable Feast will begin on Sunday, May 23rd, and will focus on Keiko Takemiya’s three-volume space opera To Terra (Vertical, Inc.). If you’re interested in participating but have not been a part of the MMF yet, please leave a comment so that you can be added to the MMF email list. Special thanks to last month’s host Ed Sizemore for doing such a terrific job with Mushishi; he set the bar mighty high with his splendid essay “Of Mushi and Cthulhu.” […]

  11. […] Robo editor Eric Searleman, a guided tour through Kaoru Mori’s “Emmaverse,” and an essay contrasting Urushibara’s Mushishi with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The second goal is to foster a sense of community among avid manga readers. Everyone is invited to […]

  12. That was an excellent essay, Ed! The MMF is bringing out some wonderful, thought-provoking writing. Thanks for being consistently brilliant.

  13. themooninautum,

    Thanks for the kind words.

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