Most shows are about stuff like whether or not a given villain will be defeated, or whether or not the guy will get the girl. Mushi-shi takes place on a wholly different plane — it’s not about a hero or a violent competition, but about an entirely new world with its own nature and biology, its own laws of being, its own cycle of living and dying and being reborn. It has the same meditative beauty as Haibane Renmei or Kino’s Journey — shows that are not about fighting or blowing things up, but simply observing things as they are and knowing their true nature. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The “mushi” (derived from the Japanese word for insect) are like primordial homunculi — large single-celled organisms that only a few people can see, but which interact with the real world in bizarre ways. Sometimes they latch onto people and cause afflictions that have to be dealt with, but they’re not inherently evil: they just have a life cycle of their own, and sometimes we are part of that life cycle whether or not we realize it. The mushi-shi or “mushi master” of the title is Ginko, a young man with a mop of pale hair and a cigarette perpetually dangling from a corner of his mouth, and the ability to detect and work with (or rout out) mushi when they manifest.
Ginko ambles through a world that vaguely resembles medieval or rural Japan, with no cities and no recognizably modern technology. People live off the land, or perform duties that haven’t been seen since the samurai era (like sword-sharpening). Whenever Ginko’s services are needed, he stops for the night and exchanges his skills and expertise for a place to sleep and a meal. It’s not wise for him to stay long in any one place, as mushi-masters are often feared and misunderstood about as much as the creatures they tame and evict. With his quasi-Western clothing and his oddball physical appearance, Ginko’s doubly an outsider — even the outcasts of this world are hesitant to approach him.
Most mushi behave parasitically, like the ones who enter the ear and eat all the sounds that come in and eventually drive their hosts mad. Sometimes their effects are curiously positive — like in the first episode, where a boy’s curious talent for being able to bring drawings to life (as per the Japanese folktale “The Boy Who Drew Cats”) is employed to give peace to his grandmother, stuck in a kind of mushi limbo. Sometimes they are deadly, as when a man discovers his dreams are being brought to life by a mushi and fights back with devastating consequences. In each case Ginko brings his understanding of mushi lore to bear, but he isn’t all-knowing; sometimes he is just as baffled as the people he’s trying to help, and so gradually his wanderings become as much about his own growth as a mushi-master as they are simply a tour of his strange world. The last episode on the disc involves both a mushi of water and a girl who has become its host.
What’s hardest to convey in words is the magical, alien atmosphere of the show — something that manifests in almost every scene. Characters painted on a piece of paper mutate into their primitive hieroglyphic ancestors, peel themselves loose, and fly around the room. A girl walking in the forest finds herself unable to step out of a procession of spirits who pass ceremonial saké back and forth. A flood of silver light gushes from a girl’s unseeing eyes. Swamps drain by themselves and wander off to another part of the countryside. I watch anime to see something new and different, and Mushi-shi is as unlike other anime as anime are unlike other TV shows and movies in the best possible way.