O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc't
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
Not Spirits, yet to heav'nly Spirits bright
Little inferior …
— Milton, Paradise Lost
Thus spoke Satan on beholding Adam and Eve in the Garden of
Eden. The same sort of envy, or lust, seems to radiate from many of the
characters in Mushi-shi whenever they encounter the mushi,
the strange organisms that have been the focus of the show. They see
them not as forms of life unto themselves, not as things to co-exist
with, but as something to be controlled and tamed, put to use,
engineered into a solution for a problem that might not even really
exist except in your head. And then comes Ginko, the mushi master who’s
the closest thing the show has to a hero — if only because he knows
better than to assume that life is something you can just shape at will
to fix your problems, like putty filling a crack in a wall.
In the first episode of the volume, “String from the Sky,” a young
woman falls victim to a mushi that dangles like a fishing line from the
sky, reeling in whatever prey it can snag from below. Her husband-to-be
is stupefied to discover that she hasn’t actually disappeared
completely — she’s just changed form, and is still lurking in the house.
If he doesn’t accept her as she is (as Ginko tells him), neither of
them will be at peace.
“Sea of Brushes,” my favorite episode on the disc, deals
with one of the aforementioned libraries of mushi lore, curated by a
young girl born with a mushi curse that has left one of her legs
useless. The only way for her to undo the curse and not pass it on to
future generations is for her to transcribe ream after ream of
information about how mushi are to be subdued, and place it in the
library. Ginko pays her a visit and discovers, to his surprise, that
the girl herself is as much of a library as any of the books she’s
created. The way this is visualized is literally wonderful — as in, full of wonder — and ranks as one of the best scenes in the whole series. The scribe and her grandmotherly tutor use chopsticks to pick up sentences that have fled from their scrolls and restore them to their proper locations.
“Cotton Changeling” delves further into an idea that has been explored in previous volumes (and in the first episode of this disc, too): what happens when human and mushi merge, and take each others’ places. Here, a woman is infected by a mushi that devours and takes the place of her unborn, and she births not a baby but a cottony mass of green that flees and hides under the house. Then, every six months like clockwork, creatures that resemble her son appear and mature with dismaying speed — one after another until five of them show up in succession. Then they fall ill, and it is Ginko’s dismal duty to inform the mother that these “children” are not really hers. What he doesn’t know is that they are not five but still one, and capable of acting in defense of their existence just as any man can act against a mushi.
“Underwater Shrine” gives us an island where the mushi life cycle has further disrupted — or is that enhanced? — human life as well. There, those who die can be resurrected in a particularly strange fashion: their own female children can ingest a pill-like mushi that will allow them to give birth to their own parent. Ginko’s stunned by the way this works and is tempted to stay there himself, but understands all too well how these things work: when life is eternal, it is also forever cheap.
A while ago I wrote about the series Haibane Renmei for my personal site, and I observed that while many anime tend to revolve around fairly basic questions like whether or not the guy will get the girl, that one dealt with questions of existence itself. Why are we here at all? Why come into this world if only to leave it, and without even knowing when or how you’ll do that? Mushi-shi is the only other show I’ve seen since that has attempted to do anything remotely that ambitious (and in much the same fashion), and the fact that it has done that all the way through without faltering is nothing short of a miracle. I’m dismayed that there’s only one volume left; a show this good doesn’t deserve to come to an end.