Partly on a whim and partly because I wanted to finally watch it on DVD, I'm working my way through the fabulous 2005 series Mushishi. To keep things interesting, I've decided to try to delve into the episodes a little deeper and extract something meaningful from them. Let's see how long I last.
I'd previously thought the first episode of Mushishi was kind of slow, but I now recant. Within minutes it introduces all the series' signatures: beautiful visuals, intense music, sort-of-but-not-really supernatural horror, and subtle philosophy. Also cigarettes.
The story of this episode revolves around a sake cup that's been split in half, and unsurprisingly the thematic core has to do with halves. The two halves in this case are Shinra, a boy who can bring pictures to life with his left hand, and his grandma Renzu. Shinra has always had the ability to see Mushi whereas Renzu didn't, something that lead to "The only thing I [Shinra] and grandma never saw eye to eye on." Shinra saw the mushi and found some comfort in their existence, whereas Renzu refused to believe in them and thought seeing them was frightful for him. Taken at face value this may seem almost trivial, but symbolically
represents quite a bit. Shinra and Renzu are two halves, but they
couldn't come to an understanding; that is, they couldn't become a
Another set of halves appears soon after in the form of Renzu (and her ghost). Ginko discovers that Renzu is still living with Shinra in a half-mushi, ghost like state. Renzu took part in a "mushi banquet," a ritual where a human drinks from the special sake cup and inhabits the world of the mushi. The banquet was interrupted and Renzu was split into halves: the half that remained in the physical world, and the half that became stuck in the limbo between mushi and human. The former was the grandma that couldn't understand Shinra, and the latter has been invisible to him all this time.
The aforementioned sake cup also split in half, serving as the most obvious imagery for the theme. It also serves as the solution to the conflict. Shinra uses his power to create a second half for the cup. Ginko puts it back together so Renzu can complete the banquet ritual and become a physical, visible entity. Finally, Shinra drinks from the sake cup and sees her memories from the banquet, experiencing her emotions from the time.
These all serve pretty clear purposes. The two halves work together (Shinra creates the half of the sake cup), a solution is found (Renzu is restored - another example of a half being completed), and the halves are ultimately reunited. Perhaps that was why I was impatient with this episode before; I was paying attention only to the plot with the sake cup, which is first introduced halfway in. Had I payed better attention, I might have noticed the other, more dominant story - one about becoming whole.
Or, perhaps this was all just manufactured so we could watch a ghost girl be confounded by smoke.
P.S. If you're interested in watching it (and I encourage you to!), the series is free to watch on Funimation's website or Youtube channel.