Miranda: O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
Prospero: ’Tis new to thee.
— Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1
One of the creepier epiphanies I had in science class was when I learned about the bacteria that live in our digestive tracts. The idea that there was something else alive inside me was eerie enough, but then I read about the organisms that flourish in the volcanic vents on the ocean floor. Compared to that, the inside of my gut was relatively easy territory. Life flourishes wherever it finds a toe-hold, and it’s easy to forget that human beings are only one leaf of a much larger biological tree.
Mushi-shi is one of the few manga I have read that that does justice to that sense of wonder. It is not about a plot or a problem or even really a character, although its individual episodes may contain all of those things. What it is most about is an ecology, a cycle of life and death and rebirth, and how the world of men is only a tiny dot on the face of things. The only other comic I can think of that comes even close to the same territory is Larry Marder’s amazing (and criminally underappreciated) Beanworld, but while Beanworld was about whimsy and wit, Mushi-shi is about overwhelming awe.
Mushi means “insect” in Japanese, but in Mushi-shi the word refers to a class of strange organisms that have the primordiality of bacteria and the behavior of parasites. Mankind is aware of their existence, but for the most part only dimly and sporadically. The mushi-shi, or “mushi masters”, are people with a heightened sensitivity to mushi who have made it their life’s work not just to study them but to insure that human life and mushi life can safely go their separate ways whenever they collide. They tend to collide a lot, as you can guess.
Ginko, the closest thing we have to a hero in Mushi-shi, is one such mushi master. With his weird blue-green eye, shock of white hair, cigarette perennially jutting from a corner of his mouth and his anachronistic clothing (he’s in relatively modern garb while everyone else in his world is in rural/traditional Japanese outfits), he’s an outsider in more ways than one. The affinity mushi have for him means he can’t stay in one place for too long, lest he inadvertently create more problems than he solves. And so he wanders, going where help is needed, and bearing witness to the ways men often blindly assume all of nature, mushi included, is simply there so that man may bend it to his will.
Ginko is against this sort of thing — not just because it’s wrong in the abstract, but because he’s seen it happen (and fail) too many times already. He’s resigned himself to being an outsider, but not an indifferent one: he changes what he can, persuades others to leave alone what cannot be changed … and, whenever possible, sees what he can get out of it without upsetting anything else. Like the creatures he follows, he’s essentially neutral, but tilts just enough towards the side of the angels to be a good guy.
The first volume follows Ginko through several relatively self-contained encounters with different people and the mushi that have entered their lives. Actually, it makes just as much sense to turn it around: it’s about the mushi and the people who have enteredtheir lives. This is clear right in the opening chapter, where a boy discovers that anything he draws with one hand can come spontaneously to life. Fascinating as this is by itself, it’s simply the introduction to a much larger mystery about the boy’s grandmother. There’s a pattern here that repeats itself throughout Mushi-shi: so rich is the imagination that goes into this comic that the premise in any one of these chapters could easily be a comic all by itself. Instead, they’re handled as elements in a far larger and more comprehensive vision.
The same goes for each of the other adventures, which follow the same pattern but without becoming redundant or boring. A mushi which infests the inner ear and eats sound; a mushi that allows one to see the future in dreams — or maybe cause the dreams to come true; another that infects the eyes and allows one to see things that only someone of Ginko’s ilk can see (and which someone of his ilk is that much better equipped to deal with seeing); a marsh that becomes a living thing and begins to migrate as part of its own cycle of life. Those who have already seen the TV series will immediately recognize these episodes, as the show was more or less a direct adaptation of this material. But that doesn’t make them any less wonderful to re-encounter in print; they have a flavor all their own here.
Art: I used the term “a world of silk and straw” (the title of a study of rural Japan, actually) to describe the world of Mushi-shi when I first encountered it in its anime incarnation. Yuki Urushibara’s art is a little rough around the edges — occasionally a touch stilted-looking — but that only gives it all the more of a feeling of taking place in such a world. Like any artist with an idiosyncratic way of looking at things, it takes some getting used to, but the payoff is more than worth it.
Translation: Del Rey are a class act when it comes to their translations, and Mushi-shiis like a textbook example of how to do it right. The original layout’s been preserved; effects have been annotated on the page rather than reworked; the author’s own interstitial notes and afterword have been translated (and are a joy to read); and there’s a glossary of terms in the back that don’t lend themselves to being marginalia. There is one major change that I do object to, right up front: in the first chapter, the letter the boy is writing has been retouched in most of the panels so that his calligraphy is rendered in English. Granted, you do get to see it after the first couple of frames, but why this was done and the text was not simply annotated in the margin is inexplicable.
The Bottom Line: Again, I’m falling back on language I used when I first talked about the anime version of this story. I called it “wonderful”, as in literally full of wonder. The same adjective applies here. This is about as creative and adventurous as manga can get.