Tuesday, 29 March 2011

蟲師 / Mushishi

Mushishi, the story of an itinerant man in pre-Westernised Japan who meets people whose lives are affected by supernatural entities and offers help and advice, has been a critical and commercial success story, albeit no smash hit. Slow-paced, stately and serious, as well as occasionally really very beautiful, it made the transition from Afternoon manga to anime, and then to a live-action film. It is certainly a series with a great deal of unique character, but for all that it is pleasant to see an intelligent, mature series become a hit and win numerous awards in Japan, I could not bring myself to feel very strongly about Mushishi. I like it, but I am a long way from loving it.

Ginko is a mushishi, a master of the ‘mushi’, which are somewhat analogous to bacteria, with magical properties. Every episode, with a few exceptions dealing with his past, Ginko encounters someone whose life has been deeply affected by interaction with mushi, from people who can’t hear through to people who have seen family members resurrected as babies, or given birth to children who are growing at abnormal rates and clearly are not quite human. Even had it not become his vocation, Ginko himself would have a life very much affected by the presence of these strange godlike but with some exceptions unintelligent entities, for a childhood incident left him with white hair, one eye (the other is covered by his fringe) and an unnatural propensity for attracting mushi, which he has to keep at bay with smoke from special cigarettes.

Thus, the series is extremely episodic, only Ginko appearing every week, and even then, not always as an adult. Even towards the very last episodes, I expected a more continuous storyline to emerge, but it never happened. Thus, it joins the likes of Jigoku Shoujo and Shinigami no Ballad for being extremely episodic, which gives a slow, strange and distancing feel to the overall series - especially since unlike the former, there is no recurring cat-and-mouse side story, and unlike the latter, the show runs for a full 26 episodes. Ginko is likeable, a very laid-back and stoic character despite all the situations he finds himself in, but the problem is that ultimately it’s very hard to engage with the world of the story, or the one link we have to it.

And the problem with the concept overall is that there’s really very little inherent drama to the idea of mushi. This is essentially a medical drama, only because the diseases are supernatural, the symptoms can be anything. While occasionally this makes for some brilliant stories with the kind of moral dilemmas that can only be posed in hypothetical worlds – whether a man can kill something he has grown to love as a child, or sacrifice himself to give life to another, or give away his very memories – it also has the problem of always being easily solved by Ginko naming the mushi and claiming the problem can be undone with some special potion. At least real medical dramas require meticulous research, and even there, the need always arises to take the interpersonal dramas of recurring characters further in order to keep an audience engaged.

So while Mushishi was sometimes breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating to watch, at other times it was slow, utterly lacking in tension and as a result uninteresting. The animation varied from excellent to plain lazy and character design got rather repetitive. It was an anime to take out occasionally to admire, like a fine jewel, but looking too often only throws tiny flaws into focus, and eventually becomes boring.

However, if I thought that the solution was to bring many of the stories together, linking them in a coherent overall story, the live-action adaptation taught me that a whole lot more development would then be necessary, for that is precisely what the filmmakers decided to do. The result is a messy, uneven and overlong film that I’m sure would be very confusing for the uninitiated. Taking the time to develop each story at least builds a world. Rushing through them only highlights how necessary a central plot is to a feature-length film, and without one, there exists only a single actor, who for all his reputation for coolness simply did not have the charisma to make Ginko interesting for two hours.

(Originally written 28.02.10)

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