Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mushishi Review

I've been promising this for a little while now, and now I've finally delivered. Of course, I could have delivered sooner, had my browser not decided to crash in the middle of writing this, but I guess that's the way things are. Anyways. Mushishi is a 26 episode anime adaption of the manga by Yuki Urushibara. The series is made by Artland, and was broadcast from late 2005 to mid 2006.

Premise: They are neither plants nor animals. They differ from other forms of life such as the micro-organisms and the fungi. Instead they resemble the primeval body of life and are generally known as "Mushi". Their existence and appearance are unknown to many and only a limited number of humans are aware of them. Ginko is a "Mushi-shi" who travels around to investigate and find out more about the "Mushi." In the process, he also lends a helping hand to people who face problems with supernatural occurrences which may be related to the Mushi.
 -- ANN

Mushishi is a special series. Among the rest of the medium, it stands at the pinnacle of its craft, in every way. The stories are interesting and draw you in almost immediately, the animation and art are flawless, the sound is peerless, and the atmosphere is perfect.

     First let's discuss the series structure and stories. The most interesting thing about Mushishi is that there is no overarching plot. Each episode has its own self-contained story, and there aren't even any two-parters. No story has any real effect on the others, and there are no connections between the episodes, other than Ginko and the mushi themselves. Mushishi is much like a collection of short stories, in that each episode is its own set-up, characters, plot devices, and resolutions. However, because the story is resolved at the end of each episode, you don't really feel any burning desire to find out what happens next. Of course, this is not to say that Mushishi is boring; quite the opposite, every episode is quite engaging. It's just that you'll have to give yourself a little push to start watching the episode, because everything already feels "finished." None of this is really negative, because it pretty much forces you to pace yourself, which prevents a "burn-out". As for the stories themselves, they are quite well done. The episodes (with a few notable exceptions, such as the last one) generally follow a standard formula, which I will lay out.
 - Ginko is introduced to the person having problems with Mushi, because he bumped in to them and offered to help, or because he was requested to come.
 - Ginko identifies the Mushi and how to deal with it.
 - Ginko attempts to "treat" the Mushi problem.
 - The problems caused by the Mushi are treated, one way or another, and Ginko moves on.
Like I mentioned, there are a few notable exceptions to this formula, but for the most part they adhere to it. You might ask, "So doesn't it get boring? Don't you start to feel like you're watching the same thing over and over again?" The answer is, no, not really. And that is where the beauty of Mushishi's storytelling lies. There are so many differences in the episodes, subtle or otherwise, that they all feel unique. At the same time, however, because most follow the same formula, there is a sense of familiarity. This is actually a good thing, at least in my opinion. You see, most people like things that are the same. It's that part of our brain that orders the same food when we go to a restaurant; we like knowing what we get, and we like getting what we know. That said, if you get the exact same food every time, you'll get tired of it sooner or later. You need something to change it up, so it doesn't become boring to eat. Continuing with my analogy, there are basically two ways to do this, when it comes to media. The first is to change the food you eat, but to keep the spices you use the same. You get salmon with lemon pepper the first time you eat there, then the next time, you order trout, but you still use lemon pepper. This is the equivalent of watching a show that tells a story differently each time (different dishes), but has familiar elements (seasonings) that you like (e.g. characters, plot devices, etc.). The other way is to order the same dish, but change the seasonings. You order salmon and have it lemon pepper, then the next time you still order salmon, but you have it with teriyaki sauce instead. This is the equivalent of watching a a show that keeps the core aspects the same (it's still salmon), but changes certain elements (the spices/sauces) to make it taste a little different every time.

Hey, anyone want some fish?

So, which method does Mushishi use? Well, as you might have guessed, it sticks firmly to the second method. The episode are very similar at their core, generally following the formula I outlined. However, the little differences make every episode its own, unique "dish." The characters, with the exception of Ginko, change each time, as do the mushi, the setting (geographically, at least), the investigating process Ginko uses, the treatment he attempts, and the overall outcome of the episode (as in, whether or not Ginko succeeds). Probably the most striking of these changes is the mushi. Every episode, they surprise you with their traits and the way they work. When one considers that the mushi are probably the most important aspect of the show, it should make sense the creators tried to make each one different. But it is still surprising just how different they are. Every one is totally unique, and you'll experience the same feeling of mystery and discovery each time one is revealed. In fact, the constant change of the mushi brings up the next important aspect of this series: the characters.
     The characters in Mushishi are rather unique, especially in the way they are constructed. I'll start with Ginko, the main character.

Ginko is a bit of an enigma. His motives are not always clear, lying somewhere between those of a researcher, those of a doctor, and those of a mediator. Ginko is also a bit of an enigma in the way his character is constructed. He feels like he is a character (as opposed to a "human"), but at the same time, he feels "real." His actions and reactions both fit his character very well, as do his goals. Overall, however, Ginko is most interesting because of one thing; his uniqueness within the story. Ginko, much like the mushi, has this "otherworldly" feel to him. His clothes, hair and eye color, and even his lifestyle are all different from others. This is very fitting, considering that his entire profession deals with the supernatural, but what makes it so great is that, at the same time, Ginko also feels fairly natural to the setting. He's very pragmatic, and he feels like he belongs in the world he's in. In many ways, he's a paradoxical character. His emotions and motives are a mystery, yet you never feel like he's hiding anything from you. He feels like he comes from another world, yet at the same time seems to belong in this one. The surprising thing is how well this is done. Everything is blended perfectly, so that every aspect coexists with the others. I wouldn't say that Ginko is the best character ever seen in an anime, but he's certainly one of the best (and most interestingly) constructed ones.
     As for the rest of the characters, they are similar in that the characters themselves are not that striking, but the way they are designed is top notch. When you consider that they only appear for one episode each, developing them properly would certainly be quite a feat. In the case of Mushishi, however, this feat is accomplished with flying colors. The characters are developed properly proportional to the story. If the story focuses mostly on the mushi and how to deal with them, the characters will take back seat, though they certainly don't feel "faceless." If the story focuses mainly on the characters and how the mushi affects them, then the characters development is often focal. Granted, characters can only be so deeply developed in the space of 25 minutes, especially when most of that time is devoted to other things. Despite this, the characters are are fairly well developed, and while I would not say they are all unique, they certainly are not carbon copies of each other. The last character to discuss may come as a surprise to you: the mushi.

It's a little weird to call the mushi a "character," but I don't feel that "plot device" is an appropriate name for them either. The mushi are different, both from each other and from any other characters. Every mushi has its own characteristics which you become familiar with over the course of the episode. Some seem almost sentient, while others are almost like primitive beasts. It's difficult to explain, but one thing is for sure; the mushi are all unique. You never really know what to expect from them. That's why I kind of feel it's appropriate to call them "characters."
     I guess the next thing I should talk about is the art & animation. The art in Mushishi is really quite astonishing. The colors are all fantastic, but what really stands out is the level of detail. The light has shadows, the trees have leaves, the ground has grass. There's nothing in this anime (other than the mushi) that looks like a "blob" or is a single solid color. Honestly, there's such a high level of detail that if you were to take almost any frame from series (without a character's face in it), you would have trouble distinguishing it from a painting.

Yes, this is a screencap

The animation is a similar story, only more so. Everything from how Ginko walks differently when he's pushing down the snow, to how the mushi move and appear, is perfectly executed. Reactions are well-timed and look realistic, character movement is totally believable, and the motion, especially that of the mushi, is flawless. This isn't the kind of animation that looks like a special effect; it's the kind of animation that looks real. Now how exactly can animation look real, you ask? Well, it's not that the animation looks so realistic that you mistake it for reality. That's an issue with the art style. Instead, the animation looks real in the motion of the objects in the show. The way people walk, move, sit down, and so on, all look totally natural. The motion looks like it would if everyone in real life looked like a Mushishi character. To summarize, both the art and the animation are exceptional.

     Finally, let's talk about the sound and music. Starting with the sound effects, they, like pretty much everything else about Mushishi, are top-notch. Just like the animation of Ginko compressing the snow is excellent, so is the sound effect of him doing so. The snow crunching sounds exactly like it should, as does Ginko's heavy breathing that accompanies it, as does the slight muffle of sounds created by the snow. The best thing about the sound effects, however, is how thorough they are. Almost everything, from footsteps to opening a door, has a sound effect. Much like the art, the sound effects also have a great level of detail. You can actually tell, just by listening, whether or not someone is walking on a wooden floor, in a cave, or on a road. Heck, you can even tell if someone is walking in a house with all closed doors and windows (everything has a slight echo), or in a house with all open windows and doors. Also great about the sound is the voice acting. Yuto Nakano, while a fairly obscure voice actor, did a superb job with Ginko, and I really can't imagine the character working as well with any other voice. The narrator is also excellent, as are all of the minor characters. What really shines more than anything else about the sound, however, is the music. Composed by Toshio Masuda, the tracks are superb, mixing classical instruments, Japanese and otherwise (piano, drums, lutes), with a sound I can only describe as "nature." The music is really some of the best you'll ever hear in an anime. It's atmospheric, it sets the mood, it has an almost "supernatural" feel to it (very fitting for this series), and it's well composed. The music totally controls you however it wants to. If the music wants you to feel tense, you'll feel tense. If it's peaceful, you'll feel peaceful. If it's mysterious, you'll feel a sense of mystery. Really, the soundtracks for this are simply outstanding. There's not a lot more to say. Overall, Mushishi has some of the best sound of any series I've ever watched.

     To finish my review, I want to touch on one of the more interesting points of Mushishi, which is that you're engaged while you watch it, but there are no immediately apparent reasons why. The most obvious way to get the audience engaged, having characters they can relate to, isn't used. There really aren't any characters in this that you relate to. You certainly don't relate to Ginko. He's mysterious, enigmatic, and he's lived his entire life seeing a world none of us can. He's too different from us to be easy to relate to. And you can't rely any of the other characters. After all, even if you can kind of relate to them, because they're normal and dealing with a situation beyond their complete understanding (just like us), they still only appear for a single episode. Switching which character you latch onto every episode is no way to go through a series. Furthermore, Mushishi is really a very "passive" series to watch. You don't really get personally invested in the events on screen, but instead just sort of watch them happen. How, then, can it be engaging, even though there aren't characters you can connect to and you don't really get personally invested in the events that are happening? Well, I'm going to go back to the short story analogy to explain. Often, when you read books, it's not really about identifying with the characters, but instead about watching the story unfold. Mushishi is the same way. Because every episode has a really interesting story, you're engaged in it. It's not because you want to become a part of the story, but because you want to see how the story progresses and how it resolves. And that's what's so admirable about Mushishi. Unlike some certain other series, it has a rhetorical goal, a purpose. It wants to tell an interesting story. And it does just that. This, even more than great sound, nice looking visuals, and interestingly constructed characters, is what I love the most about Mushishi.

     Mushishi is quite possibly the best animated series out there, even speaking objectively. Really, there's nothing out there that exceeds this show (and only a couple of series that equal it).
     Story: Although there is no overarching story in Mushishi, all of the individual stories are excellent. Their "passive" approach makes them fairly relaxing to watch, but the stories themselves are interesting enough that you'll be engaged almost instantly. Excellent storytelling.
     Characters: The characters in this show are a little different from those in others. Whereas most shows let you know and understand the characters over time, the episodic nature of Mushishi makes that impossible. Instead, we are shown the characters over the course of a single episode, and yet we can still understand them. This is not easy to do, but it's still pulled off. What's great is that the characters are developed just enough to suit the episodes needs, while still making them feel like actual "characters." This rating does not so much reflect the uniqueness or "greatness" of the characters (though some do carry these traits), but rather reflects the high level of detail and care that was clearly put into their construction.
     Sounds: The sound in Mushishi is superb. The sound effects are flawless, the voice acting is wonderful, and the music is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Much like the art, a great level of detail and work was put into this. One example that showcases this is the voice acting for one of the characters in episode 23. She hasn't spoken in years, and she has been actively trying to destroy her voice by yelling her throat hoarse. The cool thing is that you can tell, just from her voice and the way she speaks. She forms her words slowly, and her voice goes beyond "cracked." I can't believe that the voice actor actually tried to damage her voice for the part, but it sounds like she did, and that's the point. Now, this isn't the only case of great sound, but it just exemplifies the kind of quality you can expect from this show. Some of the best sound you'll ever witness in an anime.
     Visuals: The visuals in Mushishi are top notch, just like everything else. The art is beautifully detailed, and the art style is neither overdone nor underdone. As for the animation, it's some of the best I've seen outside of a Production I.G. or Sunrise work, and that's saying something. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's better than many shows by the above studios. The animation is fluid, natural, and used in the perfect amounts. The animation, when combined with the exceptional art, creates some of the best visuals you'll ever see.
     Rewatchability: It was a little hard to rate this category, considering that you can't watch this show more than a few episodes at a time. However, this is rewatchability, and in this regard, Mushishi is among the best. Honestly, few other shows have such a perfect recipe for multiple viewings. The series is episodic, so you can jump in anywhere you want. Additionally, there are 26 episodes, which is really a near perfect amount to choose from, as fewer episodes means the stories are too easy to remember, and more episodes means there are too many stories to easily choose from. Thus, you've got a show with a large amount of episodes, which you can watch in any order. These are pretty much the ideal conditions for rewatching. As for the stories themselves, they are interesting enough that you'll be just as enthralled the second, third, and fourth time you watch them as you were the first.

Overall: I highly recommend Mushishi to anyone with attention span who likes interesting stories, superb sound, beautiful visuals, and an interesting premise. Mushishi is one of only three shows (at least, out of what I've seen - and that's a lot) I'd call "perfect" (the other two are Cowboy Bebop and Kino's Journey). If you want to see a show that gets every single step of the creation process completely right, then look no further than Mushishi. Watch this series. 

Any suggestions/requests for my next reviews? Post a comment!


  1. Omg that's one huge dedication post to Mushishi!As I see your reviews tend to be long. If I'm allowed advice, I'd say you should use more images at least and space between paragraphs. This way more people will read and leave comments. Huge bulges of text with small letters and without spaces is a bit tiring to the eye.

    "The most obvious way to get the audience engaged, having characters they can relate to, isn't used. There really aren't any characters in this that you relate to.[...]Because every episode has a really interesting story, you're engaged in it." - Nice point, but I think it's not just the interesting story. For me at least, it was the emotional situations or depth that I related to or enjoyed. And then ofc the fact that this series is a serious food for thoughts.

    1. Hehe, you think this is long, you may want to avoid my Hidan no Aria and El Cazador De La Bruja reviews...

      Of course you're allowed to give advice! I even ask for it at the end, so...Yeah, I agree, I do often greet my readers with large walls of text. I've been trying to work out ways to get around that, but I don't want to interrupt my train of thought with an image if I don't have to...I do try to end/begin every section with an image, but it may not be enough. I have made some improvements, though. Before, this blog used to have a green background bamboo image, posts had a pure black background, and letters were white. It looked great, but after a while I would start getting headaches and the words would start floating...I haven't done extensive reading of my posts since I changed it, but at least it's a little less pain-inducung. I knew it wasn't only me though...

      Thanks, and I agree. Mushishi does manage to get the viewers pretty involved with things like tense situations, and also with the plight/coolness of the mushi "victims." And I always knew that Mushishi was deep, but it wasn't until I saw some articles that Ephemeral Dreamer and SnippetTee posted that there was so much more.

      Thanks for the kind words and good suggestions, and thanks for commenting! I appreciate all the feedback I can get, and would love it if you could give me some specific advice on how to use images better (though that may be an unreasonable request, but thanks anyways). I hope you enjoy what you find here!

    2. I myself do make long posts, if you've noticed, so it's not like I don't understand you. You have thoughts and you want them to get out- all of them.

      Using an image, eg. artwork or official art, per 2-3 small to medium size paragraphs let's say is a good pace of eye relief. But your issue isn't so much images. I've seen your El Cazador de la Bruja review, just haven't read it yet. That's why I said 'long', but Mushishi is shorter indeed. And perhaps more balanced. In the El Cazador there are places where you have a very good analogy of images-text (especially where you show screenshots to illustrate your points). But there are also some parts that look scary reading.

      Writing on internet isn't the same as writing for an essay on paper. That means 3 things:
      1. the use of space between the paragraphs I've already mentioned (sometimes you put and then you forget it alltogether); it might make the post appear longer in the end, but it's way easier to read,
      2. avoid huge paragraphs, split them into smaller where you can (don't go over 10 lines, if possible) and
      3. be more laconic - your readers want details ofc, but don't say the same things with other words many times. It gives emphasis, but you can find other ways (like bold, italics, capitals) to do so. As you are busy, so are others. That translates into very little time of reading a blog post. So bloggers have to offer good services and as fast as possible. After finishing your post, read it one more time and think what can be left out from parts you don't care much or you don't mind making 'thinner'.

      Now, ofc I don't say I'm an expert or that I always stick to my rules, but you can take a pick on how Snippet tee's, Yi's and lastly my blog posts are structured. I learnt intuitively, too.

      :) My pleasure commenting. When my boyfriend is out of the army, then I think he'd be interested in coming here to check game reviews.

    3. Thanks, that narrows things down a bit. I'll have to try those, though my success may vary (especially with number 2 :D). I may not be able to make an instant change, but I figure, step by step.

      Thanks for the advice, I appreciate it.

  2. I stumbled upon this review by digging through google, and for once I found a blog which didn't leave me disappointed! Great review! I'm downloading the series as we speak! I'm not experienced in the anime realm, so expect me to come back and rely on your reviews in finding more quality works! :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed the review! Mushishi is one of my favorites, so I hope you like it! I look forward to seeing you around, and I hope I don't disappoint. :)

      Thanks for dropping by!

  3. This anime is probably the best show i've ever watched. I still remember the chapter where one of the sisters got caught by the cocoon mushi, i felt speechless and horrified at the same time.
    I am waiting to the rain time to come, so i can pour a tea cup, sit and watch this awesome anime again. Completely recommended to anyone who wants to enjoy excelence.
    Anyway, i hope to read your review of Shingeki no Kyojin in the future, it is AWESOME on it's own way.

    1. Mushishi is, if nothing else, unique in its ability to awaken multiple emotions in you at once.

      As for Shingeki, I've actually been meaning to catch up with that! I'm a fan of the manga and the anime (from what I've seen) is doing an excellent job of adapting it, so it's definitely on my "must-watch" list.

      Haha, thanks for confidence in me! I had been trying to figure out what to review next, so I'll consider this a vote for Shingeki once it's finished!