Learning about humanity through the inhuman.April 30, 2010
There is no doubt that Mushishi is a magical read, and I’m not just talking about the supernatural subject matter, but rather the skilled storytelling that bellies bits of wisdom and beauty in each chapter. The world created is so rich it becomes alive each time you open the book. Examination on a chapter by chapter basis can reveal human nature, the strength and weakness present in all people, and the thrill of discovery. Ginko is the perfect person to tell us these stories because he is as curious as the reader in what these beings called Mushi will reveal.
In magical theory there the concepts of sympathetic and antipathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is the idea that you use things that are similar to cast a spell because their correspondence enhances the spell. A voodoo doll works because it looks like a human and it has pieces of the subject to create a link between the two. The concept of antipathetic magic says that things of opposing nature can be used to create just as effective a result. Antipathetic magic would use the trappings of the dead to bring something back to life. In a similar fashion, Mushishi uses two life forms that are on opposite ends of the spectrum to show us more about the human condition.
Mushishi is a very poignant and quiet in its storytelling. There are stories of urgency but the frequent setting of rural and sometimes extremely low population enhance its other time, other worldly and hushed tone. Each story is about a Mushi but really the focus is on how said Mushi is affecting the life of a human or groups of people. This supernatural element is used as a chance for us to see who these people were, how they came to be, and most significantly highlights what is important to them. The Mushi are a fascination but I never see them as the true focus in Ginko’s journey.
Mushi are strange and mysterious creatures that come in all shapes and sizes but universally have ethereal forms and amazing abilities. I used the magical analogy in the beginning because Mushi act like simple kami and yokai given the form of living creatures. In the first book, Ginko says that Mushi are a primal life form who are closer to the source of life than most living things we normally think of. If all life on earth were represented by the human body then the complex life forms like humans would be on the tips of the fingers but Mushi would be closer to the heart at the center of all living things.
The diversity of lives seen over the course of Ginko’s wanderings is key, the story never seems to come off as having an agenda beyond showing a range of people. There are many stories of loss, but they are not always negative. One that really highlights what I enjoy about Mushishi’s storytelling is “The Traveling Bog” in which a woman is sacrificed to a river god and dies once only to be taken in by a moving swamp. As she longs to become one with the the swamp she actually finds her strength and resolve to live. When the swamp meets the ocean she feels its death as it casts her out and allows her to survive. She is accepted into the village, she is a miracle to them and has brought them prosperity, and she happily begins her life anew. This story also starts to show Ginko as much less of a bystander where Mushi are concerned, he isn’t as calm or as impartially as he sometimes comes off.
Mushishi seems to be an examination of the fantastical, there are Mushi that make written words come to life, give dreams of the future, or that eat silence and light. But in fact many of the stories through out the series examine how people deal with isolation and being unique. Each tale also deals with some other facet of the human condition as well. The chapter with the boy who can make what he writes comes to life is also an examination of the bonds of family and obligation. The man who dreams of the future deals with feelings of responsibility, loss, and guilt. Since Ginko lives with one foot in the world of the Mushi and one foot in the world of humanity with no real home in either he must constantly deal with isolation and being burdened and blessed with unique abilities as well.
There is a meditative and reflective quality in Mushishi, at the end of each chapter you can sit back and mull it over a little. And I get the feeling Ginko is doing the same thing. That isn’t to say each chapter is the same, far from it as Mushishi is often a surprise, but the manga-ka Urushibara has her unique and thoughtful story down to a T. The combination of mystery, a little horror, myth, and nature delivers insight into the human existence time and again.
Legends and myths dealing with the supernatural have performed many functions for humanity including entertainment, explanation of the unknown, and forming a connection to something spiritually greater than ourselves. But the reason that these tales endure and connect to audiences is that at the core there is a human story that we can relate to. No matter how fantastical the myth the ones that resonate with us most are the myths we can connect to our own lives. The best stories in Mushishi use this antipathetic magic to teach us about ourselves and the world around us.