Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mushishi Episode 8: A Slave to Himself

     I'm rewatching Mushishi on DVD and blogging it. Previous post here. First post here. You can watch this episode and the rest of the series legally (and free) on Youtube. List of brief episode descriptions here.

     And we're on to disk two!

     As I mentioned in my last post, the previous episode was one of my least favorite in the entire show, largely because I could never understand what it was trying to say. When I rewatched it last month, however, I was delightedly surprised by how much I enjoyed both the episode and the message I extracted from it. Believe me when I say that when I watched episode eight (one of my previous favorite entries) and found it a miserable and depressing affair, the irony was not lost on me.

     I think it might be helpful to explain why I loved this episode before, and suggest a reason why so many others seem to as well. On the surface, this is one of the most thematically straightforward entries in the series. Shiro lost himself to anger and took it out verbally on his newlywed wife Michihi, something he regretted soon after. Before he could apologize, though, she gets swept out into the sea in the midst of a freak haze, and he spends three years waiting for some evidence of her fate to turn up. Due to the mushi phenomena that caused her disappearance, Michihi shows up again, he gets a chance to apologize to her, she dies, and he goes back to the village he waited in to the new life ahead of him.

     Though some of the effect is lost when summarized so hastily, the story seems to be a happy one. Shiro resolves his issues and moves on to new love and happiness, with Michihi lain to rest. That's why I loved it. It's a beautiful - if bittersweet - story about faith, the virtue of letting go, and dealing with loss.

     Except it's not. Shiro's story is one of a tragically weak-willed man, incapable of fully letting go, who is so enslaved by his past that he nearly ruins everything in his present.

     He spends two and a half years unable to come to terms with the loss of his wife, and would have continued miring there if nobody intervened. As Ginko points out later on, Shiro just seems to be waiting for confirmation of his wife's death so that he can end his own rather purposeless life. Everything about him, even his continued existence, hinges on his past.

     But someone did intervene. By chance, he and one of the villagers (who I thought was unnamed, but the internet tells me is known as Nami) meet and eventually fall in love. He finds something to live for in the present. He should have been saved, freed and able to let go of the unresolved problems of the past. But he wasn't.

     The haze Michihi disappeared in shows up again, and Shiro goes out to find her and resolve things despite everything he's done to unshackle himself. He can't let go, and so goes out with Ginko into the mists. Inside, one can see the shore with odd clarity, but only if they want to return to land. Even with the most cursory critical glance, it's apparent that the land represents time - the past and the present. But we'll get to that in a moment.

     When Shiro sets out, he has something to live for, and states in no unclear terms that he's there to put an end to his past, not to reclaim it. When they find Michihi's boat - for it was, indeed, unharmed inside the mists - she's alive and claims that only three days have passed. And what does Shiro do, in the face of what he came to put behind him? He apologizes to her for the way he acted three years ago. His resolve crumbles. He discards all his progress, everything that helped him find life in the present, and immerses himself once again in the past. It might as well have actually been three days, with how ready he was to accept her back. Shiro has been defeated, a willing slave to himself.

     When Ginko asks him where land is, Shiro just solidifies his failure, pointing out to some unseen shore in the direction of the sea. Just like he was six months ago, he's lost, turning to a destination he should have already left - the past. Then Ginko intervenes, and he does so coldly, ruthlessly, and with absolute authority. He commands Shiro to leave "that" (Michihi) behind and come back to the shore he's supposed to return to, the present. Shiro is forced to wake up and realize where he is living, and the past crumbles (literally - in a particularly horrific turn of events, Michihi dissolves along with the mushi she was consumed by, while standing in Shiro's arms). It's a harsher pill this time. Ginko doesn't help him realize the value of the present; he forcibly tears the alternative down, and makes Shiro realize that he'd failed.

The way he said this line actually made my blood run cold for a moment.

     Shiro's problem was that he didn't simply move on; he was too caught up in trying to resolve the past. He had things to live for in the present, but he couldn't let go. And what did he get for it? A harrowing resolution where he allowed himself to deny everything he'd done to move on, everyone who'd helped him recover, when it mattered the most. In the one moment where he truly needed his resolve, Shiro faltered. He lost to himself, because he was too caught up in the past.

     That's perfectly normal. Failures like his are a part of every life. Our past shapes us - abandoning it isn't easy. That's exactly why this episode was jarring for me. It's only now, after having spent years celebrating Shiro's victory, that I see how utterly he lost. And why? Because he didn't have the strength to forget. Everything about him was so mundane that I have to pity him. I suppose the episode does end on a positive note - Shiro survives, presumably to continue his life with Nami, and his time with Michihi is now firmly behind him. But it takes on a much grimmer tone, now that I've realized what he went through getting there.

     Additional Notes:

          Nami gains a bit more depth every time I watch this episode. There are so many little hints that she knows Shiro is caught in the past that I didn't notice the first, second, or even third times watching the episode. I'd really love to see her character given a more comprehensive analysis sometime.

           One thing that stood out to me in this episode was the comparatively low quality of the character art. There were several moments where they were drawn so sharp, so simply, so. . .outright ugly. What was great for me was how little it mattered. Shiro, Michihi, Nami, and Ginko were all such "real" characters, even with their limited screen times, that I only noticed the visual gaffes when I was paying attention to them. That's something I've always liked about Mushishi, but have never been able to put into words - it draws its characters more beautifully and more vividly with its stories than it does with its art.

     Further Reading:

          Back in her Altair & Vega days, AJtheFourth (who now writes at Atelier Emily) wrote a brief post about this episode, focusing on the particulars of Shiro and Michihi's separation. She raised some worthwhile points in the post and the comments, so I'd encourage you to check it out.


  1. Hey John,

    Excellent review--I don't think I have anything to add. I entirely agree with your statements of the ep's themes and the nature of Shiro's character arc (which I likewise found as depressing as it was realistic). I'll rewatch the ep myself sometime soon and post post* that.

    As a note to come back to when I do, this ep contributes nicely to our ongoing examination of Ginko's character and motivations, since he takes such a direct hand in things. Ginko sets Shiro on the path to letting go, asks him why he wants to enter the mist, and compels him to hold to that stated reason when Shiro would have willingly lost himself in the past.

    I'll have to check when I rewatch it, but I seem to remember an interesting line spoken by Ginko. After Shiro speaks with "Michihi," Ginko asks him where the shore is. Shiro points in the wrong direction. Ginko replies, and I think, but am not certain, that his reply includes something like: "The land you should be returning to... is over there." If I have it right, that phrasing has some interesting implications--but I'll refrain from rambling further until I've actually confirmed whether or not my memory is correct.

    -Chris T

    P.S. Thanks for posting! Always interesting and a little gladdening.

    * That is, after.

    1. Thanks so much!

      Totally agree about Ginko. He once again knows what (where?) these people's places in life are, and the climax of the episode (confronting Shiro on the boat) involves him conveying that knowledge.

      To confirm, yes, that's correct (it might be verbatim, in fact). I look forward to seeing where you go with that; my curiosity is piqued.

      P.S. Indeed! Life has been busy - I wish I had more time (and, sometimes, motivation) to make these posts, since they're always extremely satisfying to write and discuss.

  2. Question: why are you both feeling for the man? I mean all I ever felt for him was that I loathed his half-assed behavior. I pity more the women he got in relationships with him. I never felt that he truly loved any of them. For his first wife, I felt it was more the guilt that troubled him than deep love. And the fact that he let his wife have her past lover's clothes doesn't exactly seem liberating to me; it appears to have a more 'whatever' attitude than honest moving forward. Moving forward doesn't mean that what you had with another person gets deleted or zero value and allowing Nami to wear Michihi's clothes is like either allowing the first to substitute the latter or means imho that he doesn't really care for none of them.

    1. Ah, thanks for pointing that out, actually.

      To answer your question, the reason I focused on Shiro so much has simply to do with the fact that he's the primary character of this story - he's the one driving all the themes of the episode forward, and the one who goes through the most obvious arc. The arc itself explains why I have to kind of pity him; as much as I hated or disagreed with what he did, his lack of strength was so. . .normal, that I couldn't help but sympathize.

      That does not, however, mean that he was the most sympathetic character of the story, by any stretch of the imagination. That role, in my opinion, is firmly occupied by Nami. Even forgetting the fact that she has to struggle for food and money, she still has to fight someone who effectively died 3 years ago just to keep her lover. Her inner conflict while doing so (which is only hinted at in the most subtle of fashions) is of particular interest to me, but I don't know if the episode really gave us enough to make any sort of observations about it.

      All that to say, Shiro was the primary focus in the post only because he was the primary focus in the episode - Michihi and Nami were perhaps more tragic figures, but certainly weren't more important as characters (hence my not talking about them). I'm glad someone else noticed their part in things so they weren't forgotten, though.

      I will argue, however, about whether or not Shiro loved either of them. Concerning Michihi, I personally like AJ's interpretation in the linked post: that Shiro was exhibiting a deeply flawed - but well-intending - selflessness, of sorts, which even he realized wasn't entirely appropriate. This also works well with the story; I mean, if he didn't really love Michihi, would he be so hung up about her death to wait for two and a half years? Or be so easily swayed at her appearance after all that time? Again, it's up to interpretation, but this one makes the most sense to me.

      The same ambiguity holds true for not doing anything about Nami wearing Michihi's clothes. There's your interpretation, which is certainly valid, but then there's also the idea that he's finally let Nami replace Michihi in his heart fully, and this just signifies that. He resolved his relationship, troubled as it was, with Michihi, and is giving Nami his full attention. I'm partial to this interpretation for a few reasons (one being that it means one of Nami's battles is over, another being that I probably just want an ending that's even a little bit positive).

      Like I said, there are many interpretations of Shiro's "love" (or lack thereof), and I think at least a few of them are equally justifiable. This is just my take.

      Thanks as always for adding to the discussion!