I fully expected the live-action version of Mushi-shi to be beautiful and spellbinding. I did not expect it to also be a deeply moving experience. Then again, the same held true for the original story, which surprised me to no end with both its loveliness and its reservoirs of human emotion.
Yuki Urushibara’s manga has already been adapted to the screen as an animated series, one which I’d recommend unhesitatingly to anyone not new to anime or manga at all. (My mother is awesomely uninterested in these sorts of things and she loved it, which is really saying something.) The live-action adaptation approaches the original material with much the same spirit as the show: there isn’t a great deal of plot, but instead a boundless curiosity about these strange creatures called mushi and the few people who can deal with them directly. It is about experiences and images, and about the sense of wonder that goes hand-in-hand with being a mushi master.
The premise is the same: a wanderer named Ginko (Jō Odagiri, excellent as always) is a mushi-master, a man with the power to interact with strange homunculi-like creatures named mushi. Like the vaguely similar yōkai of classical Japanese folklore, there are countless types of mushi, each with their own predilections and behavior. In the first few minutes of the film Ginko deals with a mushi that nests in the ears and eats sound, thereby rendering its hosts deaf. Some are parasitic, some benign, some downright malevolent — but none of them are genuinely good or evil. They’re simply a form of life all their own, and sometimes we are a part of their life cycle whether or not we want to be.
Eventually a plot of sorts does accrue, but one more driven by character and atmosphere than anything else. Word reaches Ginko that another mushi-shi, Tanyu (Yū Aoi), is ill and in need of his help. Where Ginko wanders, Tanyu stays put due to her bad legs, capturing mushi by recording them on scrolls of paper in stories. On the way to her house, Ginko picks up an associate, Koro (Nao Omori, in a role nothing like his former ignominious turn as the sniveling Ichi the Killer), who has had his own brushes with mushi and has in his own peculiar way been haunted by one of them for a long time. There are further complications in that Ginko is in love with Tanyu, but from a distance — he knows all too well that people like them cannot lead normal lives. And interwoven with all this are parallel developments that involve Ginko’s mentor (Makiko Esumi, of the outstanding Maborosi) told partly in flashback. Fans of the original series will recognize bits of many stories from the first season, dismantled and woven back together into a new story — but again, because the original was not very plot-heavy to begin with, it’s a fitting approach to the material.
Those who are even passingly familiar with anime should recognize the director’s credit for Mushi-shi right away: Katsuhiro Ōtomo. The director who created Akira and Steamboy and was himself for a time a manga-ka (Akira being his own comic creation) had only one other live-action credit to his name before this: World Apartment Horror, which was never released outside of Japan. That movie also delved into the supernatural, but more for laughs and not chills or atmosphere: a gangster enforcer is tasked with the job of clearing an apartment building of its tenants, and our thug hero finds them to be far weirder and more dangerous than he ever could be.
Mushi-shi is far more leisurely and atmospheric than Ōtomo’s previous work — in fact, when I first saw clips from it, I half-expected another name under the director’s credit that is normally associated with dreamtime filmmaking: Mamoru Oshii+site:genjipress.com">Mamoru Oshii. But Ōtomo’s direction is confident and sure-footed where Oshii’s might have been overly leaden. Best of all, the movie exudes the same sort of wistful, elegiac beauty as some of the other live-action (albeit non-anime themed) Japanese productions that FUNimation’s also picked up recently: Love and Honor, Hana, etc.
The ending is not what you might expect, and I suspect will disappoint or infuriate people expecting something more definitive. There is a reconciliation of sorts between estranged master and student — or surrogate son and surrogate mother, as the case may be. But there’s no joy in it, and no real finality either; both of them have already become such different beings that they must go their separate ways. But the final shot is both prophetic and thematically appropriate: Ginko, walking along the bank of a river, always and forever of two worlds and never of any one of them.
Most of the time in a story that sports an exotic setting or quirky theme, you start with the familiar (e.g., human emotions) and use that as a leaping-off point to the unfamiliar. Mushi-shi works exactly the other way around: it immerses us in the alien and the outlandish, and then tunnels into it to find unexpected human depths.