Ginko is a mushi-shi, a traveling healer who resolves problems caused by beings known as mushi. The mushi are things that occupy the gap between living beings and inanimate objects, very close to being manifestations of the life-force itself. Invisible to most, their effects are very, very real. In his travels Ginko helps a boy whose drawings come to life resolve his issues with his departed grandmother. He attempts to cure a girl whose over-sensitivity to light is caused by a mushi that lives in her eyes. He frees a snowy village from a plague of mushi that are consuming the village’s sounds. He attends to a man who has prophetic dreams, and tries to free a young girl from her potentially lethal bond with a living swamp that is migrating to the sea.
Mushi-Shi is a rare animal indeed: a fascinating, unique viewing experience in a market flooded with strait-jacketed genre clones. To be sure, the wandering healer narrative has been used before, and the episodic structure and mystical touches recall works like Hell Girl and Requiem from the Darkness. However, those are but shallow comparisons for something that combines the naturalist’s eye and hypnotic pacing of obtuse Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky with the lush art and ecological concerns of Hayao Miyazaki, and complements them with a quietly intense personal focus and engrossing mythology all its own.
The tales it tells are simple; tales of loneliness, illness, despair, and sacrifice, ever so human and yet eerily supernatural. Each episode gently insinuates us into the lives and minds of its protagonists, evoking surprisingly strong responses to the tragedy, hope, and quiet triumph they experience. What makes Mushi-Shi unique, though, is the intertwining of these human tales with the world around them, with the boundless universe of nature, with the green growing things, animals, and strange, ethereal mushi. It’s a relationship evoked by the way human structures—ancient, complex and organic in their own right—melt effortlessly into their surroundings—be they misty emerald forests, rocky seaside pine, or silent snow-swathed mountains—and by the incorporation of traditionally garbed humans, plants, and swirling mushi into a single, beautiful organic whole. The world of the mushi is a carefully realized one, based—despite their fantastical traits—in existing ecology and environments. They may eat sound and silence, be living swamps, or live in the gaping abyss behind a girl’s ruined eyes, but the mushi’s most prominent trait is the magic they impart to seemingly mundane objects—to mossy rocks, unfurling leaves, aged vault doors and wooden rooms. The haunting minimalist score, the natural yet evocative dialogue, the heartbreaking beauty of the art, the sparing use of flashy effects for the mushi, the simple yet beautiful characters, it all weaves a world that is as much a trance-like spell as it is a physical place.
Funimation’s dub preserves the feel and overall effect of the show. The actors, despite the majority of them playing one-shot single episode roles, do well with the emotions and complexities of their roles. Travis Wilmington does a fine job as Ginko, the only recurring character (besides the narrator). Unfortunately Funimation’s freewheeling approach to re-writes is a strategy that works well in mediocre, poor, or similarly freewheeling shows, but has definite adverse effects when applied to something as carefully calibrated and sophisticated as this show is. The rewrite nails the emotional side, but falters occasionally with more intellectual passages when the paraphrasing loses the original meaning (i.e. Ginko’s musings on the true meaning of the absolute silence experienced by a boy’s mother just before death).
Between the tour of the animation studio, a discussion between director Hiroshi Nagahama and lead actor Yuto Nakano, and an interview with Nagahama alone, there’re nearly forty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage on this disc. It isn’t the most entertaining set of extras—Nagahama makes for a rather boring interview—but it’s quite informative, full of tidbits such as demonstrations of the extent of Nagahama’s loyalty to the original manga, and a mention of chameleonic composer Toshio Masuda’s decision to tailor-make different compositions for each episode’s ending sequence (only one of the five versions on this disc is presented clean in the extras though). Also included is a clean version of the superb Simon & Garfunkel-esque opener.
At once deeply human and utterly alien, mystical and earthily secular, Mushi-Shi beckons us—like the closing of second eyelids—to look at the world with new eyes, to go out and revel in the wonder of an eroded stone or the fractal veins of a leaf. It’s enough to bring out the hippie in even the most hardened anime veteran. Images—a tidal wave of mushi pouring from girl’s empty eye-sockets, a golden summer sky aswarm with flocks of feathery mushi—will haunt the mind’s eye; emotions—the tender joy of another’s company, the aching pain of loss—will linger in the heart. But the greatest achievement of all is to change, however briefly, our perception of the world around us. It’s an end many strive for but few achieve, and Mushi-Shi does so without once allowing the effort to strain its calm, measured rhythm.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ A nearly flawless evocation of a world of mystery, exquisite natural beauty, and honest humanity.
− Not for those in search of cheap thrills, melodrama or belly-laughs.
In five more tales of Ginko’s eternal study of the otherworldly creatures known as mushi, the wandering mushi-shi provides his services to yet another group of mushi-affected humans. A boy hires him to cure his sweetheart, who was transformed against her will into a “living god” by her ruthlessly opportunistic father. A search for food brings him to a village that has weathered famine using a forbidden manipulation of the life-force from which the mushi spring, one that sacrifices the life of a villager to ensure a bumper harvest. He assists a young man trying to come to terms with the death of his wife after she disappeared during a domestic dispute, and helps another young man trying to capture a rainbow and bring it to his ailing father. Later his old friend Dr. Adashino requests his assistance in curing three village children after an inkstone in the doctor’s care afflicts them with a potentially fatal disease.
Unique works that defy classification are extremely rare in any medium. While not without precedent, Mushi-Shi is quite unique, and definitely difficult to pin into a category. The quality of Mushi-Shi goes beyond simply squirming away from categorization though; it’s a work so beautiful on so many levels that it gives chills, a treasure so precious that only a fool would pass it by.
It’s a near-perfect confluence of imagery and the story-telling art. It weaves tales of wonder with exquisite images, with mountains, fields, plains, plateaus, rivers and oceans. Settings possessed of a hypnotic natural charm, full of trees and rocks and life; settings enhanced by the ethereal beauty of the mushi while simultaneously being the only imaginable places where such creatures could dwell. Humans and their constructs, instead of standing in contrast to the wild, blend seamlessly in—part of the natural order rather than outside of or in opposition to it. Every episode includes at least one sequence of transcendental power, of almost religious awe—a woman dissolving into a foaming mass of mushi, children on a mountaintop pouring clouds into the sky from their mouths and ears, a rainbow river of light bursting from the ground and flowing into the heavens. The animation of these moments—and the remainder of each episode—is superb without grandstanding or calling attention to the skill with which it is deployed. The indescribable thrill that accompanies those moments would be unthinkable without it, as unthinkable as it would be without the support of Toshio Masuda’s haunting, achingly beautiful score.
The stories described by this imagery demonstrate a beauty that goes beyond the merely aesthetic. The structure is purely episodic, which might be a liability in a lesser series, but in Mushi-Shi simply highlights its preternatural ability to weave dramas of often wrenching power in the bare twenty-three minutes allowed per episode. There’s a deeply felt sympathy, a core of kindness and understanding that the writers bring to bear on these occasionally tragic tales. The result is warm and unutterably human, insinuating viewers into the mystical via emotions and dilemmas that are often painfully real and familiar. The living rainbows, tidal waves of snakelike mushi and glowing pools of liquid life-force might be little more than fanciful images were not the path to each paved with life circumstances—the desire to make a parent proud, the need for closure after the death of a loved one, the fear and glory of self-sacrifice—that transform them into subtle emotional forces with a power that belies their lack of traditional theatrics.
The series matches the quietly affecting drama with recurrent intellectual concerns explored with equally unobtrusive flair. The mushi have their own ecology—webs of interaction and feeding, their own rules of behavior and logic. Tragedy in their contact with man comes not from malice but from ignorance of their ecology, just as the solutions come from Ginko’s understanding and knowledge. The series regularly revisits ideas about subjectivity, in the “living god” episode exploring the differences in the perception of time between normal people and those possessed by mushi. Even the implications of Ginko’s lifestyle are briefly explored in the rainbow episode. It’s impossible to root under the surface of this series without practically tripping over an interesting idea, but they are free of the ponderous philosophizing and endless sophistry that might otherwise interfere with the series’ ability to simply entertain.
Funimation has dubbed this title with unusual fidelity and accuracy given their rather notoriously liberal ways. The tenor of the acting, the careful casting of its lead (as well as Adashino, the only other recurring character), the attentive translation and scripting—it’s all pitched perfectly to preserve the unique charm of the series. The issue with retaining some of the more difficult nuances of complex ideas is gone, and every emotional twinge of the original makes the transition intact.
In two separate on-disc interviews, director Hiroshi Nagahama talks with character designer Yoshihiko Umakoshi and art director Takeshi Waki. The two interviews confirm the central role that artwork plays in making Mushi-Shi what it is and demonstrate the unforced affection its crew has for it. A clean version of Ally Kerr’s excellent opener is also provided along with, unfortunately, only one of the many unique, delicate closers that Toshio Masuda composed for the series.
Don’t let all the digging scare you off; it isn’t necessary to deconstruct the series to enjoy it. Doing so allows one to better quantify exactly what the elusive magic of this series is, but the magic is present and irrefutable regardless of how deep one wishes to dig. Unlike the works of more overtly intellectual directors like Mamoru Oshii, this series doesn’t try to blast you from your anime doldrums with the proverbial shotgun. Instead it lures you gently away with a siren song of genuine wonder and enchantment, an irresistible tune as compelling as anything the Pied Piper ever composed.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ Watch and you’ll be touched; dig and you’ll smack your head on some fascinating concept; without doubt the best anime currently in release.
− Simple, personal focus not for those expecting epic scope or plotting.
Eight more stories of the mushi master (aka mushi-shi) Ginko’s journeys across the land and his encounters with assorted mushi play out, including “The One-Eyed Fish,” which involves the circumstances that led to Ginko adopting his name and becoming a mushi master himself. Others in volume 3 include “The Sleeping Mountain,” concerning a fellow mushi master who serves the guardian of a mountain; “The One-Night Bridge,” concerning a young man whose beloved fell through a bridge into a ravine and survived, but has behaved abnormally ever since; and “Inside the Cage,” about a man who seems unable to leave the bamboo forest he has come to call home. Those in volume 4 include “Pretense of Spring,” about a boy thrown into a hibernating state by his winter encounter with mushi that mimic spring; “Sunrise Serpent,” about a woman whose mushi infection causes her to gradually lose her memories; “Picker of Empty Cocoons,” about a twin sister lost in a mushi-related accident; and “Clothes That Embrace the Mountain,” about a man who left his home mountain behind to become a famous painter, only to be drawn back years later.
That Mushi-Shi is a unique series of extraordinary merit is beyond reproach. To deny this is to refuse to acknowledge that the series has done something truly different. By melding its music, visuals, voice work, and storytelling into a unified whole, it spins stand-alone stories of sublime beauty which speak to the essence of life and death in a style which harkens back to ancient fables told around a fire at night. The serene mood it establishes, even when dealing with the fantastic and/or dangerous mushi, can wrap a viewer up in its wonder. It can also, unfortunately, bore viewers unable or unwilling to slide into the comfortable place the series constructs, and can get tedious if too much of it is watched at once.
While the quality of the series may be inarguable, its entertainment value is very much subject to debate. So much of its ability to involve its viewers depends on acceptance of the low-key, spiritual tone that some are going to find the series intolerable, and volumes 3 and 4 do nothing to change that. Those who prefer an ongoing storyline of some sort, or like to become attached to characters over the long term and watch them grow, may also find it hard to connect with the series, since nearly every episode is completely independent of the others and the only recurring character – Ginko – never develops much beyond his base persona.
Those who can get into the spirit of the series will find several captivating stories about ordinary people’s interaction with phenomenon beyond their comprehension, ones which Ginko can try to help them understand and live with. The mushi, as portrayed here, are neither good nor evil, neither outwardly benevolent nor inherently malicious, although they can be dangerous and certainly have both positive and adverse effects on those who get too closely involved with them. Dealing with them is like dealing with nature; there are no foes to be defeated here, just creatures to be understood and compensated for. That storytelling approach incontrovertibly set the series apart from all of the brighter and flashier anime series out there.
While no episode in this span ever completely fails at being compelling, their effectiveness varies. Some feel rushed in working all of their elements into a single 24-minute episode, or end too quickly; this is a particular problem with “Clothes That Embrace The Mountain.” The episode “Picker of Empty Cocoons” is the most gimmicky but still has its moments, while “The Sleeping Mountain” and “One-Eyed Fish” arguably make the strongest impressions. The average story quality is slightly lower in volume 4, but those episodes are still better than most stand-alone fare.
As mentioned before, the artistry and music function more to craft a unified whole than impress individually, creating a beautiful overall package which absorbs its minor flaws without being weighted down by them. The character designs never impress but nonetheless suit the style of a series more about plain, ordinary people trying to live their lives than flashy individuals trying to do great things. The background art and mushi designs do impress, but the true visual appeal lies in how the series frames its shots, uses its special visual effects, and combines everything to promote a certain effect; one of the Extras on volume 3 reports that about 80% of the series was re-shot in pursuit of just the right look, and that attention to quality control shows. The gentle musical score flows smoothly out of the English language opener and into the closers without a hiccup or change in style, along the way gently punctuating key moments and evenly promoting the spiritual tone and subdued mood.
That mood also carries through the voice acting in both dubs, as the number of times in these eight episodes that characters actually raise their voices can probably be counted on one hand. That doesn’t allow much room for expressive acting, and on top of that the English dub is even more dedicated to maintaining the atmosphere than the Japanese dub. The one-shot performances encompass a myriad of normal Funimation and ADV dub actors, from old-timers like Tiffany Grant to prominent newcomers like Brittney Karbowski, and will neither excite nor disappoint in most cases. In this case, though, it is probably more important that a given performance doesn’t stand out.
For Extras, both volumes include the standard textless opener and closer, accompanying booklet with character profiles and sketches, and pair of Mushi-Shi postcards. Both also have two more parts of the “Mushi Talks” Director interviews. In volume 3, Part 4 focuses on the sound direction, while Part 5 focuses on the filming. In volume 4, Part 6 deals with music direction and Part 7 concerns opener direction. These can be quite enlightening and should be considered must-views by dedicated fans of the series. Both volumes also come inside cardboard slipcovers.
If the first two volumes worked for you then so will these, but if neither of them worked for you then these will not, either. If you have held off on watching this series, whether because you just have not gotten around to it or because you don’t think its style would suit you, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. Whether you like it or not, this is one of the year’s best.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Beautiful look, incredible job of establishing and maintaining a unified mood and tone.
− May bore some people.
Four final tales of mushi and mushi-shi Ginko present themselves for consideration. In “The Sound of Rust,” a 14-year-old girl has remained silent for years after it became apparent to her that some quality in her voice was attracting a crippling rust-like mushi to her village. In “The Journey to the Field of Fire,” Ginko comes into conflict with another mushi-shi over her efforts to eradicate a harmful weed-like mushi by burning it out, efforts which ultimately have an unexpected side effect. In “Eye of Fortune, Eye of Misfortune,” a girl gains clairvoyant vision when a mythical mushi infects her eyeballs, which over time gradually proves to be more a curse than a benefit. The last story, “The Sound of Footsteps on the Grass,” flashes back to Ginko’s youth, where a boy whose father protects a misty mountain strikes up a friendship with a boy from a group of travelers who visit the mountain every year during the rainy season. (And no, neither is Ginko.)
The disadvantage to having the kind of purely episodic structure that Mushi-Shi does is that when the last episode comes, the series just ends. There is no sense of closure or finality, no “they lived happily ever after” or “their story continues;” there just aren’t any more episodes coming. In fact, Episode 26 does nothing to distinguish itself from any other episode in the whole series, as its lack of the normal opener is not even unique within this volume. (Episode 24 also lacks it.) Mushi-Shi has never made any intimations that it has any grander story than the individual tales of Ginko’s encounters with assorted mushi, though, so the way the series ends should not come as any surprise to someone who has been watching it from the beginning.
The advantage to the format is, of course, that a viewer need not know anything about the series beyond the premises described in its Encyclopedia blurb to fully appreciate the wonderful individual stories told in this volume. Of course, most people watching this volume are going to be fans who fell in love with the series early on, but with just a little bit of up-front explanation you could show these episodes to someone who has never seen the series before and they might still fully appreciate it. And while these four episodes may vary a little in storytelling quality, any of them offer up a fine stylistic and thematic representation of the series as a whole.
Of these four episodes, “The Sound of footsteps on the Grass” (i.e. episode 26) is arguably the weakest and most mundane despite offering a couple of the prettiest pieces of background artistry in the entire series; imagine a mountainside shrouded in mist tinged with reddish-purple or gold hues. It actually does nothing wrong and does have its own merits, but it lacks the mushi-focused emphasis of the other three and its more human story proves not as compelling as most others. “Eye of Fortune, Eye of Misfortune” (episode 25) suffers slightly because it lacks the pure originality of many others in the series, but the beauty of an early scene where Amane sees for the first time and a discomfiting late scene where the ultimate effect of the Ganpuku on her eyes is realized more than balance out its minor storytelling inequities. “The Sound of Rust” (episode 23) and “The Journey to the Field of Fire” (episode 24) rank among the series’ best episodes, however, as both spin strong, involving, and compelling yarns about misfortune caused by encounters with mushi and the ways Ginko helps discover to work around them. They are the kind of episodes that can leave a viewer with a sense of awe as the music fades into the mellow closer, a sense that the viewer has watched something truly special.
And that is what keeps people coming back to this series, and what has made Mushi-Shi one of the highest-rated shows by fans here at ANN. Sure, its stories may be too low-key and mellow (some might say boring) to sufficiently entertain some viewers, as the series works best when a viewer just sits back and allows themselves to be wrapped up in the mood each episode establishes, but the quality of its production in all aspects except Ginko’s character design, and how all of its elements work together to craft the whole, is self-evident. Its human character designs may be unglamorous and offer little major variation in appearance beyond Ginko, but that helps emphasize the plain rural settings and keeps attention on the story and the mushi rather than the characters’ appearances, which is much more important here than in the vast majority of anime series out there. Its background art sets the story in gorgeous mountain vistas without overplaying them, while its depictions of the mushi themselves are endlessly inventive and certain individual scenes (such as Amane’s first sight) delight with their stunningly effective beauty. The strains of the invariably low-key music and the equally subdued vocal performances keep the tone just right, assuring that the production never descends into needless over-dramatization. Putting an excellent animation job on top of all of that seems like a bonus.
As it has done over the course the series, the English script continues to use “mushi master” where the subtitles use “Mushi-Shi” but leaves untranslated some other names and titles that are translated in the subtitles. The script varies some through these episodes, but not at much as in most other Funimation productions. Casting decisions and performances should offer little cause for dispute, as the English performances, if anything, are actually a bit subtler on portrayal of emotion in some key scenes. The most noteworthy difference comes with Shige, the young heroine of “The Sound of Rust,” who sounds convincingly hoarse in English but much more forced in Japanese. Also of note is Aaron Dismuke’s casting as young Ginko in episode 26; let’s just say that he will not ever be reprising his role as Fullmetal Alchemist’s Al.
Funimation’s production has never shorted the series on Extras and does not start doing so here. In addition to the standard textless songs, on-disc Extras include a 37-minute exploration of the Japanese production site for the series, a sampling of the English translation of the manga version, and an English audio commentary for episode 26 by ADR director Mike McFarland and Travis Willingham, the voice of Ginko; its most interesting comment is that series director Hiroshi Nagahama apparently enthusiastically approved of the English dub when he heard it during its premiere at Anime Expo last year. The case uses the standard slipcover and includes a reversible normal cover, a series postcard, and an 8-page liner book with character sketches and profiles.
One thing that this volume does offer that was rarely seen previously in the series is a faint sense of humor, as one scene each in episodes 23 and 24 has a light-hearted feel. Overall, though, these four episodes are just more of the same, and in the case of Mushi-Shi, that is definitely a Good Thing.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Excellent storytelling, beautiful individual scenes.
− Minor issues with some scene transitions, Ginko’s character design.