From the back cover:
Some live in the deep darkness behind your eyelids. Some eat silence. Some thoughtlessly kill. Some simply drive men mad. Shortly after life emerged from the primordial ooze, these deadly creatures, mushi, came into terrifying being. And they still exist and wreak havoc in the world today. Ginko, a young man with a sardonic smile, has the knowledge and skill to save those plagued by mushi… perhaps.
Mushishi is the timeless (quite literally, as the protagonist’s clothes are the only element suggesting modernity) story of a young man named Ginko as he travels to various isolated spots, investigating cases where mushi—an ancient form of life—are interfering with humans. This first volume presents five such tales, and the fact that they are titled instead of numbered creates the impression of self-contained short stories rather than sequential chapters in a narrative. In the fifth story, however, Ginko does think back on an earlier case, so a sense of continuity is not completely absent.
There are some common threads amongst the tales. In several, mushi have become parasytes, affecting the hearing, sight, or dreams of their unfortunate host. In these cases, Ginko is usually able to encourage the mushi to abandon their nests—this is definitely not a series where the hero vanquishes his foes with displays of fighting technique and bravado—and remarks that they are not to blame for what has happened; they’re simply trying to live their lives. Ginko is also shown to occasionally do what he thinks best for a person, despite what their wishes might be. At one point he withholds information from someone, with devastating consequences, but in another instance, his decision to intervene results in a positive outcome. It’s clear that there are no real rules here; Ginko—who is shown not to be infallible—is largely on his own in terms of how to treat each situation, and sometimes doubts whether he has done the right thing.
While the stories themselves are unique and intriguing—my favorite is the fifth, which succeeds in making a swamp of mushi into a benevolent character—Ginko himself is quite the mystery, too. We meet him already on the job, with no knowledge of his past or how he came into this line of work. It’s not until the fourth chapter (written first, Urushibara reveals in the Afterward) that we receive a scrap of a clue about what he may have been through, and not ’til the fifth that we understand how he makes a living from what he’s doing. He’s not an emotive character by any stretch of the imagination, and seems quite detached most of the time, but it’s clear he sympathizes with humans and mushi both, and truly does want to help if he can.
Reading Mushishi puts one in a mellow mood, largely because of Urushibara’s atmospheric artwork. The remoteness of Ginko’s destinations comes through strongly, and with every character but Ginko wearing kimono, it feels like this might be happening in “a simpler time.” In fact, some of the villagers remind me of the townsfolk frequently encountered in Rumiko Takahashi’s period piece, InuYasha, who also typically appear in the context of some kind of bizarre supernatural manifestation.
The nature of this series doesn’t lend itself to multi-volume binges, but I look forward to consuming each one calmly and carefully, which seems to be the approach best dictated by the story. Seven out of a total of ten volumes are currently available (published by Del Rey), with the final three coming in an omnibus in July.
I reviewed Mushishi as part of the Manga Moveable Feast; more reviews and commentary can be found here.