Describing Mushishi to those who have not experienced it is almost completely impossible... and yet, here I am, furiously pounding away, struggling to say something even remotely coherent about this wonderful work.
What makes the show so difficult to write about? Well, for one thing, Mushishi is completely different from anything else that I've seen, anime or otherwise. Everything about the show, from its leisurely pace to its beautiful animation, seems to be on a separate wavelength from just about anything else out there.
The closest comparison I've heard is to Kino's Journey. Indeed, the two series' protagonists, at least, are very similar. Both are travelers. Both are detached, unbiased, and unprejudiced. Both seem content to observe their world rather than preach to it.
...and yet, the focus of the two shows is completely different. Kino's Journey focused almost exclusively on human nature. Mushishi, on the other hand, seems more intent on the very nature of life itself. Each episode is nothing more than a window into a particular aspect of existence - the miracle of birth, the melancholy of death, and every tiny detail in between.
How do humans fit into this? Well, they don't. In Kino's Journey, the people at least had control over their environment, if not themselves. In Mushishi, they are nothing more than driftwood in a raging river - nigh helpless amidst a torrent of something much larger than themselves. Despite this, they desperately cling to whatever notion of happiness they can find, to whatever life they can live. They struggle to rationalize and understand, to hurt others and be hurt, to love others and be loved. Mankind's beautiful struggle with the very forces that created it is really the heart of what Mushishi is all about.
These "forces" are embodied as mushi, and drive the show. There is not a lot of explanation as to what mushi are; all the anime says is that they exist apart from regular life. However, this is the correct approach to take; defining these almost spiritual beings in a way that the audience could readily understand would be at odds with what the show was trying to do.
A few months ago, I wrote a fairly negative review of Jigoku Shoujo where my main complaint was that the storyline was too repetitive. Ironically, Mushishi is arguably just as episodic; there are only a handful of recurring characters, and absolutely zero plot carries over from episode to episode. In each episode, Ginko, the main character, travels to a new place, comes upon something strange, and then finds a way to use mushi to explain the situation. However, rather than becoming tedious, the approach works due to the elegant simplicity and fantastic writing of each of the stories. The stories are less intellectual than Kino's Journey, but far more spiritually fulfilling.
Of course, the story isn't the only fantastic aspect of Mushishi. The animation, for one, is also a winner. For the most part, the visuals are fairly simple; aside from Ginko, the character designs are nice, but fairly forgettable. Moreover, the backgrounds are seldom spectacular - just trees, fog and the occasional village. This "regular" animation, however, serves to magnify the absolutely extraordinary look of the mushi. The anime would fail, I think, if the mushi did not look strange, mysterious and alien. Fortunately, by placing them next to a fairly normal environment, the anime pulls this off wonderfully.
The sound is perhaps even more impressive. I don't know if a lot of people are going to appreciate it, but Mushishi has the best soundtrack I've heard all year. The understated, Zen-like music works amazingly well with the anime's themes of life, death and rebirth. Additionally, the director implements the soundtrack wonderfully; rather than allow the music to interfere with the dialog (.hack//sign, anyone?), he chooses to use most of the music as a lead-in to the credits at the end of each episode. By doing this, the impression that the story has made is cemented into the viewer's mind. After an episode had concluded, I watched through the credits almost every time, doing nothing but contemplating the story and listening to the music.
The characters, with the exception of Ginko, are never developed too much. After all, there's only so much time to characterize in this kind of story structure. Still, I found myself caring for them anyway. The few details that we are given do a very good job of filling in the holes that the anime does not get around to telling us. Moreover, the characters actions in the show often speak louder than any amount of back-story could. On the other hand, the series does manage to fit in a compelling past for Ginko. As a whole, he's a likable protagonist and a strong anchor to the show.
Overall, I'll be both surprised and delighted if I see a show better than Mushishi this year. Not only is it the sleeper hit of the season, it's an instant classic that will be cherished for years to come.
It isn't unusual for a person to feel that the world around them is strange and has unexpected secrets lying just beyond their sight. However, for most people this is just an occasional sensation that greets them upon awakening or chases them into sleep. For the mushi researcher Ginko, it isn't a feeling at all; it is a knowledge which guides his travels and motivates his life. Found in the cracks between what is conceivable and what is not, are the varied life forms collectively known as mushi. They surround us and affect us, but their intensely different nature makes them unrecognizable to most. Ginko brings these life forms into perspective for the lives of those most affected and most in need of an explanation.