This is a repost of an older article as we gear up for Watching Mushi-shi.
Note: this is going to be a highly detailed post; in the future, I hope to scale down on the detail, because otherwise this series is so not going to get completed. There’s some material I cover here that applies to the rest of the series, so in a sense this is both a secondary introductory article and an analysis all in one.
We begin with a simple prologue about the mushi, small lifeforms that are not of the natural every-day world, but are also not gods, demons, or ghosts:
They dwell unseen in the shadows… a host of creatures completely different from the flora and fauna familiar to us; an invisible world of life within our own.
Since the dawn of humanity, these phantoms have inspired fear in those who could not understand, and have come over the ages to be known as “mushi.”
A note about dubbed versus undubbed: the English dub is very well translated and I would suggest Westerners more familiar with English to watch the dub. The Japanese version has subtitles that are a little strangely translated, which is no surprise when bridging the gap between English and Japanese, and sticking as close to the Japanese as possible. Translation ultimately involves not just bridging words, but also bridging metaphor, simile, concepts, and other less tangible language choices from one world to another. Even the traditions of punctuation differ from one language to the next—particularly between latin-based languages and Japanese.
Here’s the direct English translation of the dubbed version:
They are kept at a distance… coarse and mysterious… They seem to be completely different from the flora and fauna that are familiar to us.
This group of strange-looking creatures have inflicted fear upon humans since long past, and have come to be called… “mushi.”
If you’ve ever learned some of the basics of sentence structure and flow in Japanese, and/or read and compared Japanese manga versus the same translated manga, you’ll notice that this passage communicates in the context of a Japanese audience what the English dub does—the cultural difference is quite noticeable. In particular, in the West the concept of good versus evil is less flexible than in traditional Japanese culture, so there’s a slight emphasis on this in the English dub.
This is why good translators are hard to find, and why dubs for anime can vary so widely between utter suckage and misunderstanding to smoothly and culture-sensitively polished.
The good quality of the dub is present throughout the series, even during the main parts of the story where words need to be matched to the characters’ mouth animation.
So for once, try the English dub.
We then segue into the opening, which unusually has English lyrics and Japanese subtitles. It’s quiet and yearning, without being cheesy. I wish I could own the soundtrack but so far I’ve only found it for $75 over here. ((Yes, I know this is probably torrented somewhere, but I don’t want to know about them. Sorry about that.))
The very first scene is typical of the watercolor beauty of the backgrounds of the rest of the series:
It’s peaceful, but a tense kind of peaceful. This could have turned into one of those horrible slow “cloud rolling in and much driving” openings in the worst of movies ((For example, Manos: The Hands of Fate.)), but here the scenery begins to be slightly disturbed; the subtle wave of a branch, the crunching of leaves underfoot, the sound of something swinging through the trees. Between these beats, someone hidden says:
We get our first cear glimpse of our odd main character, Gingko, just after the “strange” beat.
And now we fully engage with the story as Gingko looks up at the sound of something swishing through the trees behind him. A mystery. Was it a monkey? Or a mushi?
Gingko comments on the vibrancy of the forest around him: “It’s like a sea of green in all directions. I could lose myself in it.” This episode isn’t titled “The Green Seat” for nothing.
The story of this episode centers around a young boy who has a gift: his writings and drawings literally come to life. It’s a classic fairy tale, given a twist: his gift brings the creepy, misunderstood mushi from their parallel existence to our own. Additionally, the kanji used in Japanese and Chinese writing are themselves based on pictographs, so his words also literally come to life—flying off the page as small ink-based mushi.
What gives the boy this power? That’s the central mystery that Gingko must solve; he travels from place to place, client to client, on supernatural cases like these.
This time, the boy actually wrote a letter asking Gingko come study him, and we see Gingko again, catching the mysterious flying bird character in one hand, only to find ink smeared there. He catches sight of the boy, who finally introduces us to Gingko by name and occupation (“mushi-master”).
We find, however, that the boy, whose name is Shinra, is turning Gingko down, as a last wish from his recently passed-away grandmother, who didn’t want others to find out about her grandson’s powers. It’s one thing to bring beautiful birds and ships and soldiers into being; but it’s quite another to start bringing over monstrous-looking mushi and spirits. And umbrellas. And back scratchers.
Yes, we can see why his grandmother wanted to keep him away from other people, including telling him not to leave the grounds of their isolated house. Exploitation of the boy, similar to what happens in the original fairy tale, would be the least of it. Gingko acknowledges this in internal monologue as well, so he’s not an idiot, and he has sympathy for the boy and the grandmother’s wishes—yet on the outside he smiles and doesn’t mention the disturbing implications of what would happen if people found out about the gift.
I think that’s what I like best about Gingko; he’s smart and canny, very calm and collected in the face of weirdness, and yet remains kind and warm without overdoing it. Despite having seen some serious weird shit in the past.
Gingko gets to stay for dinner and the night, and he explains that drawings that caused the grandmother’s most distress are mushi, and further explains:
“I suppose there’s no simple way to explain what they are, but let me give you an analogy:
“Say these four fingers represent animal life, and your thumb represents plant life. Human beings would be here, the tip of your middle finger—the farthest point from your heart. Moving towards the palm of your hand, you find the lower forms of animal life.
“When you get to your wrist, though, that’s where your blood vessels combine into one, right?”
“Right.” [says Shinra.]
“This is where you would find fungi and microorganisms. From here it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between plant and animal life.
“Even so, there is still life beyond this point. And if you keep going, all the way up your arm, past your shoulder… When you get to this point, at the place that’s closest to your heart, right here… These creatures are the mushi. They are life in its purest form.
“Because of their nature, their physicals shapes are ambiguous. Some you can see, some you can’t.”
“Yeah, some are transparent, sort of like a ghost.” [says Shinra.]
“Many of the things that people call ghosts are actually mushi. Some can even take human form.”
Twiiiiilight Zooooone here. Guess what the boy’s gift ended up doing?
Life, in terms of the relationship between mushi and human beings, is a theme of this episode—and that of the series at large.
Later that night, Gingko looks for the bathroom, and runs across… a sort of like a ghost mushi.
And now we find out (partly) why Gingko smokes: the special tobacco he uses can actually trap mushi. The smoke itself is actually mushi—quite different from the floating lady.
“Get out of my house!” she says, after accidentally dropping half of a broken green wine cup.
And Gingko sits and calmly explains that he now knows about her—how she was once human, but has acquired mushi characteristics; how she got that way, due to the wine cup; and her name, Renzu. She’s the boy’s grandmother.
Actually, she’s more like a parallel being who existed during the same time as the original Renzu, having been created from through a mysterious ritual she ran into in the forest as a little girl. The ritual, involving a wine cup of life force, only partly completed turning the young girl into a mushi—and she was split into two, the human and the mushi, both of whom watched over their grandson. But the mushi half was too weak to make itself seen.
Creepy, no? Combined with the shrewd, kind, and always outsider Gingko, that’s Mushi-shi in a nutshell.
The Renzu’s “ghost” acted antagonistically towards Gingko because she thought he’d capture her—something that most mushi-masters and ghostbusters share. But Gingko is quite unusual, and instead looks to help her and her grandson work the quite unusual situation out: by allowing the “ghost” to become a full mushi by completing the ritual, with Shinra’s gift and both his and Renzu’s consent.
Shinra manages to bring the missing half of the green wine cup, and Gingko reunites them. “Life wine” flows magically into the restored cup, and Renzu finishes the ritual.
During resolution, the grandmother’s memory of the ritual and its aftermath is shown, in all their eeriness, later on . The mushi who involved her wanted her to watch over her grandson, who they knew would be born with the life-giving gift—and hence the ritual. And the Shinra experiences them through drinking the life wine that his grandmother had, and comes to an understanding of what happened to Renzu that day. When he’s reunited with Renzu, it’s a truly touching moment.
And then they both lived happily… unusually… ever after.
Gingko departs early the next morning, and runs into Renzu, now fully a mushi and no longer weak. She tells him he’s welcome to stop by the next time he comes there, because Shinra gets lonely.
“I don’t think he’ll have that problem anymore,” replies Gingko. “At least, not as long as he has you by his side.”
Shinra wakes up, and is saddened to find out that Gingko has gone, “Without us properly thanking him,” his mushi grandmother says.
And they find out the green wine cup is missing.
Guess Gingko collects more than they realize—but apparently not by trapping sentient beings.
The short and elegant epilogue to the story of Shinra and Renzu is quietly narrated by Gingko as the episode ends:
From that day on, the rumors of the boy with the god-like left hand were heard less, and less, until finally, they simply faded away.
Leaving Shinra and Renzu in peace.