This review is part of the Movable Manga Feast – a monthly get together of manga bloggers and critics where everyone gives their thoughts on the same title. This month it is being hosted by the legendary Ed Sizemore over at Manga Worth Reading.
Ginko treats those infected by mushi for a living, strange ephemeral creatures that seem to be part insect, part yōkai style Japanese spirits. They come in a seemingly infinite myriad of forms, but an infection is rarely a pleasant thing; some will leave you blind, some will make you grow horns, while others will make you dream of futures you’d rather not see. All of them, it seems, have the potential to change and wreck lives.
Written and drawn by Yuki Urushibara at the beginning of the last decade, the first thing that strikes you about Mushishi is its incredibly gentle, almost trance-like atmosphere. Although punctuated by occasional acts of violence or – more likely – visually disturbing, ‘body-horror’ style exorcisms, the stand alone stories presented in these two volumes all share the same, near hypnotic pacing. From the often minimal dialogue to the frequently hallucinogenic artwork the aim seems to be to intoxicate the reader, leaving you wondering exactly what blend of herbs this laid back medicine man is smoking in his ever present, hand rolled cigarettes.
In fact it’s Ginko’s slightly disheveled but charismatic appearance that helps drive one of Mushishi’s most interesting thematic devices. Constantly smoking and wearing a scruffy overcoat, though seemingly young and athletic with a mess of unkempt hair, he comes across as a super-cool mix of Spike Spiegal and Peter Falk’s Columbo. Either way, he should cast an unusual figure in the rural Japan that he inhabits, where almost without exception every inhabitant wears a kimono or similar traditional garb, but unless you break from the intoxicating world to consider it he just seems to fit in. In the notes in the back of Volume 1 Urushibara says she originally planned for some of the stories to have a contemporary setting, but mainly they ended up not “set at any particular time. Japan still in time of isolation, maybe? Or it feels like an age set between the Edo and Meiji periods. That’s the image I get anyway.”
This unusual, but always natural feeling, atemporality gives Mushishi a unique approach to examining a recurring theme in post war Japanese storytelling; the nation’s conflict between the feudal/spiritual and the modern/technological. Wearing his modern clothing and skulking through this timeless – but always somehow ancient – Japan, Ginko almost fulfills the the same role as Kyōgokudō in the novels of Natsuhiko Kyogoku, a man of rational thinking solving problems caused by superstition. But here in Mushishi it’s not that straight forward; things are far more muddied. The world here runs on different rules, where the mushi can and do cause what appear to be the fantastical and supernatural to occur. Paradoxically they can also be explained by a kind of quasi-science – somewhere between folklore and biology, where they can be cataloged and shown to exist in logical ecosystems. It’s almost as though Urushibara’s approach to this very Japanese conflict between the traditional and the modern is tinged with regret, as if she feels that although a more scientific national identity was inevitable that perhaps Japan has lost something, and she yearns for a imaginary time where folklore spirituality and science could co-exist.
It’s a fascinating idea, and one that works largely works well. If Mushishi has faults it’s that perhaps there’s little else here – sometimes the short stories work, other times they fall flat. These first two volumes at least lack characterization of much depth, Ginko’s past and own personal attachment to the mushi is only hinted at at best, while the other cast members are largely fleeting vehicles for the story and the mushi they carry. With its short, episodic form and enigmatic ‘healer for hire’ lead I was instantly reminded of Black Jack, but the moral questions and dilemmas of Tezuka’s classic are mainly absent here, and the tales feel disappointingly lighter for it. Not that it always misses, at times the balance between the gentle pacing and more disturbing aspects of mushi possession is perfect and darkly compelling, but there are a few too many occasions where it fails to reel in enough attention and commitment from the reader.
Not that I’ll let this put me off from reading more – and I wouldn’t let it put you off from trying these volumes out either. They represent the debut work of a young artist, and while perhaps lacking focus in character exploration and narrative efficiency they still show an abundance of talent and imagination, which are never things to pass lightly by.