Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mushishi Episode 9: A Chip off the Old Block

     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. For those looking for a brief refresher, there's a list of brief episode descriptions here.

     The majority of Mushishi is dominated by philosophical discussion, but it has been largely obfuscated thus far. This episode, however, shifts it to the forefront, with two men discussing morality in a hut serving as the climax of the episode and the investigation and curing of mushi being left out entirely. The viewer is required to accept a lot at face value. Both traditional storytelling and the hallmarks of previous series entries are highly warped and even disregarded so we can have twenty minutes of people talking. If you can take that step, though, this episode has perhaps the most to say of any others up to now.

Breaking taboo, yet moving towards light.

     There are two central ideas in this episode. The first is the morality of murdering someone to save others (and as an extension lying to someone for their own benefit), an issue explicitly talked about in the episode. The head priest (henceforth called Saishu for convenience) of the village is using the Narazu seed - a mushi-derived device that causes a bountiful harvest at the cost of one of the villagers' lives - to give his people enough food to survive the next year.

     The issue at the heart of this is instantly apparent, and not just because Ginko states it outright. The use of the seed, regardless of whatever good intentions behind it, is essentially pre-meditated murder. Furthermore, no one else in the village knows about this, so they have no say in the matter. That said, these "parting harvests" have saved the village from many disasters and alleviated the poor crop yields of the surrounding fields.

     On a broader level, it's the dilemma of performing a lesser evil for a greater good. It's a complex and rather timeless dilemma, and the lines are blurred quickly (which ends up being the reason for Ginko's involvement - his interest is in "restoring the balance", serving as yet another brief insight into his personal philosophy). But while that's a fascinating topic in its own right, I want to concentrate on the second idea explored, if only to give the post a little more focus.

     The clash between older and newer generations is a less apparent theme, but it looms over everything else throughout the episode. The old ways are the village ancestors (represented by the Narazu seed). They're effective at keeping the village alive, but are archaic and often come at great cost (in this case human life). The newer generation is best seen in Sane (a boy who helps Ginko) and the research the villagers are doing to increase crop growth on their own. The old ways let them live, but it's a life of fear. They want to find their own way of living, totally separate from the old.

They've had enough.

     What becomes quickly obvious is that neither side can work independent of the other. Sacrificing someone for food is unacceptable but produces results, while the villagers' frugal investigations into new farming methods have yet to come close to sustaining the village on their own in times of need. That's where Saishu comes in.

     There needs to be someone or something to bridge any two generations. The world and the people in it are constantly changing. If there is no one to help the old adapt to the new, they will become alienated and useless, unable to contribute towards the success of the future. In the same way, if no one teaches the young what has already been learned, they will have undone a generation of progress. If there is someone to do this, though, the new and old ways can be synthesized into something better than either. Saishu, as both a member of the village and its religious leader, has ties to both groups but complete loyalty to neither. He's the perfect bridge to realize that synthesis. Or at least, he should have been.

     Instead, Saishu does just the opposite. His plan is to use the Narazu seed one last time with himself as its sacrifice, then leave the village to its own devices in the future. Doing so, however, is no better than simply taking advantage of the old ways before abandoning them entirely. Saishu was desperate to maintain tradition, to keep the village's history preserved and the struggle of its past inhabitants honored. But for all that, he was unwilling to accept the ideas behind that tradition, and in doing so betrayed his purpose. He wanted to take the easy route, the one with no need for compromise or mutual understanding.

Saishu's burden is beyond his strength to carry it.

     With Ginko's help, though, a true solution - one that accepts the new while acknowledging the old - shows itself. Saishu eats the seed and becomes immortal, forever finding better techniques on how to farm the land and bringing them back to the village. In doing so, he becomes a facilitator, what every older generation should be to its descendents. He is there to help them find their own solutions, not just force them to use his.

     In a way, then, this episode continues an ongoing theme of the past few episodes: letting go and moving on. There are so many ideas present - Saishu's redemption, the more general breaking of taboos, our misplaced confidence in our own beliefs and personal truths, and the virtue of perseverance, just to name a few - but at the center is still this idea of how to make a transition from one part of life to another. In this case it just had to do with an entire village instead of just one person.

     Additional Notes:

          Ginko, too, had to break away from tradition to reach the better solution. In order to restore the balance, he ended up breaking a mushishi's greatest taboo, the use of mushi to manipulate (in this case extend) life.

          It's always interesting to see the role female characters play Mushishi's stories. Saishu's wife is one of two women to appear in the episode and is only on screen for a few minutes, but she has a greater effect on Saishu (and consequently the rest of the episode) than any other individual element.

          For as long as this post was, I barely scratched the surface. If you want to really take a piece of media apart and think about it, I implore you to make it this episode. It won't take long, and there's a lot to ponder.


  1. Hey John,

    Nice post! I never before really looked at the generational conflict in this ep. Your description of Saishu's broken philosophy is an apt one, and I'd like to offer a few of my own thoughts on it.

    The first time Saishu uses the seed is not, I propose, the most important. In most stories, the path of corruption for the sake of the greater good is regarded is a slippery slope, its conclusion inevitable once a single step is taken. While it's obvious enough* why this view is often taken, its presentation is often flawed; some stories practically set their characters on tracks, artificially barring the hero from acknowledging opportunities to change his path, rather than giving him the chance to turn his back on them. This story is no exception**, so I'll take a moment to explain the difference between the way I see it and the way it is told:

    The way I see it: the first time Saishu uses the seed is portrayed as an obvious lapse in judgment--a terrible mistake, yes, but understandable under the circumstances. He doesn't understand the true cost of the seed until after he uses it. (In theory, he may, but I don't believe he could appreciate the depth of the pain involved without actually experiencing it.) Therefore, my view is that the first use of the seed should not have been Saishu's fall. Instead, the -second- use of the seed, which denotes acceptance of the consequences with full awareness of their nature, indicates that his moral center has truly been destroyed***. If a man is willing to sacrifice one life to save a village, that sacrifice will change him, and it may even make him unwilling to do it again, but it does not damn him unless...

    * There's an incredibly poignant frustration to watching a hero fall in a way that is inevitable once it begins, but could have been avoided by a crucial decision at the start. You described it well in your review of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen.

    ** The only exception of which I am aware is Batman: The Dark Knight (spoilers to follow), a curious case wherein, as usual, the hero faces an evil so great, he creates an abomination to overcome it... but, unlike every other instance I've encountered of this scenario, the hero actually keeps his promise to use the abomination only against that one evil. Afterwards, he destroys the abomination without even attempting the usual justifications in its defense: that an even greater evil could appear, that he could use it against lesser evils to purify the world, et cetera... It was a great surprise to see this happen on-screen.

    *** I don't mean to imply that an action taken without regard to consequences does not deserve them, nor that Saishu's first use of the seed was less awful than any other (in fact, it was equally awful), but that it was not his fall. Instead, it gave him the choice that would lead to it: now, knowing the true nature of his choice, would he reject the path on which he had begun? That this conflict was omitted because Saishu felt trapped by his initial choice was not unrealistic, per se, but the ep sold him short on choice by failing to develop his story between those two decisions.

  2. The way it is told: ...he is forced to make that sacrifice again, every chance he gets. Everywhere in the show that the use of the seed is mentioned, if I recall correctly*, it is regarded as an irreversible taboo: if you succumb to temptation once, you will do so again. Consider Ginko's attitude toward mushi for a striking reason this is inconsistent with the rest of the show: Ginko makes exceptions and allowances all the time in either direction. Sometimes he helps people who seek something good; sometimes he does not. Sometimes he hinders people who seek something bad; sometimes he does not. Sometimes he helps them! Ginko is a walking example of someone who makes different decisions at different times. Someone who slays one child to save a village one day may, the next day, sacrifice that village to spare another child.

    I grant that Saishu is presented as a highly pragmatic character, but I don't really buy the way things are told: that, having made the choice once, he immediately figures that he must always make the same choice in the same situation. I think the first choice should have changed him.

    Excuse me, I'm rambling. To get back to my original point, Saishu's philosophy is interesting because of the radical dissonance between his values and his decisions. In fact, Saishu himself represents the story of the village, though it's a bit odd to lay out, since he plays the same part in both stories in a couple places. If I remember right*, he kills his wife in order to provide for her, just as the village sacrifices one to provide for all; he realizes that the price is too high, so he resolves to kill himself, just as the village will die without the seed's bounty; then, finally, he finds a way to preserve his influence while still eliminating the seed, which same influence (and, more importantly, agricultural techniques, as well as his legacy in the form of a young man) the village relies on to survive in the absence of parting harvests.

    And... um... I think that's all I wanted to say! He purchased his village's survival at a great price, which betrays the very reason he did it: because they earned their right to exist. Instead, he steals their right to exist, making his own choice rather than giving the people of the village the decision to make.

    Thanks for reading,

    -Chris T

    P.S. Hope you're doing well!

    P.P.S. I think my digressions were longer than my actual response here...

    * I'm going solely off memory at the moment, so I could be COMPLETELY wrong. Please let me know if I am!

    1. Chris,

      Sorry for the (sadly now characteristic) delay in my reply, time has been getting away from me and losing comments to Blogger's whims has exacerbated the problem.

      I have little to add, though I'm not sure I entirely understand what you're saying in the beginning of your second comment. Ignoring that, there's only one thing I feel I should point out. Saishu only uses the seed twice, the time it claims his wife and the time he intended for it to kill him. I didn't see the second use as a destruction of his moral core so much as an admittance of defeat. He decided the village couldn't make it on its own and they had to resort to the old ways of doing things (in doing so failing as an intermediary). Tying in with your description of a fallen hero, Saishu fails the greater good as soon as he tries to serve it, in a way.

      . . .Or is that what you were saying in the first place and I'm just regurgitating it? If so, my apologies.

      Also, I like your analogy of Saishu being representative of the village as a whole. I should keep that perspective in mind the next time I watch this episode.

      P.S. You as well! And Happy New Year, by the way.