A Manga Review
by McCamy Taylor
If you see a rainbow that appears to violate the rules of nature -- its outermost ring is blue and it encircles the sun -- maybe you are witnessing a different kind of natural phenomenon, one that has more to do with biology than with refracted light. And if you see your mother, whose death you witnessed, walking again, she may not be a zombie or a ghost. In the manga series Mushishi, such seemingly unnatural phenomenon are actually easy to understand -- if you accept that there is a third life form, one which most of us cannot see directly.
Urushibara Yuki’s Mushishi is a series for those who like fantasy with a definite Japanese character. Think Miyazaki Hayao’s anime film Princess Mononoke or the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Except for the main character, who was designed wearing modern clothing, everyone in the stories seems to have stepped out of The Seven Samurai with kimonos, wooden houses and lots and lots of exquisite Japanese scenery. The characters exist in a simpler, slower world, one in which people are intimately tied to nature through their roles as farmers, fishermen and hunters. They live alone or in small villages, where everyone knows everyone else. When something out of the ordinary appears -- say a marsh that seems to be migrating towards the sea, bringing floods in its wake -- they may turn to supernatural explanations and solutions. Like human sacrifice. Or, they may consult a mushishi...
In this collection of graphic stories, set in an unspecified historical era in rural Japan, the author creates a new twist on a standard speculative fiction genre -- wandering shaman/magician/exorcist goes from town to town solving problems of supernatural origin. Except that in the world of Mushishi "supernatural" phenomenon have a completely natural explanation. Primitive, filament-like life forms called mushi live in parallel with plants and animals. The catch is that they are invisible to most people, so very few understand their nature or the role they play in creating "miracles".
Mushi are not malevolent. They are not here to take over the world. Just like any other life form, their primary goal is to survive and reproduce, and they have many different ways of accomplishing this. One species of mushi takes the place of an unborn child cuckoo style so that humans will nurture its offspring. Others re-animate the dead. Some people deliberately take the organisms into themselves, in order to acquire "magical" powers. Others are infected by accident. The results are often unpleasant -- sickness or even death -- as the parasite feeds on its host’s body heat, memories or some other essential part of life.
That is where mushishi come in. The word means "master of mushi". The hero of the series, Ginko can see this third life form and manipulate it. He acquired his ability (and lost his left eye and memories) through an encounter with mushi when he was a child. As a result of the changes in his body, the creatures are now attracted to him and tend to gather around him -- which can lead to disaster for any community where he remains too long. Mushi exist in a balance with plants and animals, and if too many congregate together, their symbiosis with other life forms can turn deadly. Therefore, Ginko wanders from village to village, never staying long in one place. He sells wares, tells stories and dispenses advice whenever he stumbles across a situation in which mushi have gotten out of hand. While some mushishi treat the mushi like an enemy that must be eradicated, Ginko has a much more tolerant attitude. His goal is to help humans and mushi coexist, whenever possible.
This manga is full of wonderfully inventive ideas, such as the way that mushishi send letters to each other over long distances in an era before email and Ginko’s habit of using cigarette smoke to keep mushi away. The author has a tremendous imagination, and she is adept at creating new explanations for seemingly ordinary phenomena. In addition, her character development is excellent.
The mangas have been published in the U.S. by Del Rey. In addition, there is a widely acclaimed 26 part anime version of the stories as well as a live action film. If you are looking for fantasy that is not another tale of knights, wizards and elves -- say something along the lines of Tim Power’s Last Call -- check it out.
© 2009 McCamy Taylor
Bio: McCamy Taylor is Aphelion's current Serials and Novellas Editor (if you have a story longer than 7,500 words, or long enough that it would be suitable for publication in two or more installments, she's your girl... er, woman), author of many short stories and longer fiction, here and in other publications, and is now Aphelion torchbearer for the cause of Japanese graphic novels and animation.
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