Most wanderer shows are stupid. Think about it...was The Hulk ever going to find a cure by walking from place to place aimlessly? I can't think of a single episode where the guy (who was a genius) actually worked on a formula to tone down his hulkiness. Was Ken (of Fist Of The North Star) ever going to find the love of his life by going from town to town and blowing up the skulls of bad guys along the way? No, but he also had the brain of an ant. (No offense to any of my ant readers out there.) Usually, the wanderer motif is in actuality a reset device, one that makes it so that every single episode stands on its own. You can tell a bunch of stories that way, but the main character is often not as important as the new ones we meet every week. There are some exceptions that worked -- Quantum Leap, even though you broke the mold, I'm looking at you -- but generally, no dice. I like ongoing stories. Resets do not interest me.
Enough blabber about that. Mushi-Shi is a wanderer show, so it has a strike against it. It also tells no continuing stories; you can watch any episode out of order and it won't make a difference, save for a brief reference here and there. Strike two. I'm surprised as anyone that I even gave it I try, which I did only on personal recommendations. But a powerhouse hitter can make a home run out of an 0-2 count, and Mushi-Shi runs the bases expertly. While it is a bit slow, especially at first, and the lack of an ongoing plotline can make it easy to put aside for a while -- which I did, admittedly -- this atmospheric and slightly creepy show's beauty and thoughtful storytelling make it a series that I believe will stand the test of time.
Ginko is a mushi master. Mushi are spirit-like creatures, neither plant nor animal, that only certain people can see. Driven by instinct, too primitive to be considered moral, they can cause great devastation, though their powers sometimes wind up helpful to humanity. Found throughout rural areas, the effects of the mushi (and sometimes solutions to the problems they cause) often become a part of village lore and superstition; some are mistaken as gods or demons. But often, there's need for a specialist to deal with the ramifications of mushi infestations, and that's where Ginko comes in.
Since he was young, Ginko has had the ability to see mushi...which is a gift and a curse. His white shock of hair covers one side of his face, hiding where he lost an eye long ago in a mushi-related incident. He travels from place to place to investigate the mushi and to help villagers live in balance with them whenever possible...which is not always the case. Either way, Ginko never stays anywhere for too long, as mushi are drawn to him. If he were to put down roots, the ensuing mushi invasion would be catastrophic. So Ginko lives his life one hamlet at a time, determined to cure the afflicted and help people understand these unseen organisms in 19th century Japan.
Mushi-Shi is usually gorgeous to look at, but one could argue that it's not all that animated. Artland Studio spent a lot of money on beautiful paints, but not on movement. This show isn't fast-moving anyway, so it's not a big deal. (I will say that the Funimation collection I purchased suffers from video issues I noticed on my player during active bits, but my Samsung doesn't like Funimation very much and the trouble may be player specific. Only one other purchaser on Amazon seemed to notice any quality problems, but Funimation is known for glitchy authoring.) But between the great artwork and the sublime soundtrack -- seriously, I was looking online to find the CDs after finishing the series -- those for whom this series was created will not be disappointed from an artistic perspective.
What makes Mushi-Shi special is the way it naturalizes the supernatural, making it uniquely believable, while not centering the show around the mushi. Most anime anthropomorphizes the spirit world, whether we're talking Devilman or Totoro. It puts a cute or horrific face on it. Mushi-Shi, on the other hand, makes you believe that there's a world bubbling just underneath our own, filled with life that's mostly unaware of us except when we make for good symbiosis. Without moralistic underpinnings, the mushi simply co-exist, sometimes peaceably, often not. The power of the stories then comes not from the good or evil within the mushi but the ways -- sometimes heroic but often tragic -- in which people react to them. For a show about spiritual creatures hanging around in the ether, it's really humanity that the program lays bare. A show like House (until the recent 6th season, at least) is all about figuring out the disease; when the patient is better (or dead), the show is over. But while Ginko may always figure out what mushi is wreaking havoc, it's never a mystery what mushi is responsible. The mystery lies in how different people react when faced with grief, loss, and the unknown.
That said, there may be a lot of human exploration, but Ginko's not a strong central lead. Some episodes he is front and center; during others, he barely exists. He isn't a character who changes over time. He isn't especially kind or generous. He functions primarily as a guide through this strange and fascinating world. However, he is an intriguing enigma, and by the time the finale rolls, you know you'll miss him.
Mushi-Shi reminds me of dramas like Aria and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou while stitching in elements of a Shinto-based Twilight Zone. Sounds like an odd combo, and it is, but it's enjoyable throughout. Mushi-Shi has more tension than your average slice-of-life show, and unlike most of those, unhappy endings come about as often as not. The feel is very much the same, though; the pace is intentionally slow, and atmosphere is often as important as the actual plot. The differences between the sub and dub go to prove this -- the dub (which is well worth watching) changes some finer points which, in another series, might really mess with the audience's understanding of what's going on. But here, it's not really important. The dub preserves the ambiance and the core themes, and in this case, that's what matters. In fact, I would argue that the dub preserves the storytelling by not getting lost in the minutia of the mushi.
Mushi-Shi's only major fault in my view, the one that keeps it from getting an A+, is that there's so little drive to the show. It took me a long time to get past the first few episodes. It wasn't because I didn't enjoy them; there was just no ongoing storyline to draw me back. Even later in the series, when "life" got in the way, the show took a backseat. Writing the review was truly what compelled me to finish the whole thing. That doesn't diminish how much I liked it in any way...for some of my readers, the episodic nature of it might make it the perfect show.
And when I give it some thought, I believe Mushi-Shi is going to be one of those anime that will stay with me long after a lot of popular shows have disappeared from thought. It isn't tied to gimmicks or cute characters or radical plot twists. It's simply a bunch of good stories told well in a timeless setting. In my mind, that makes it one not to miss.
Mushi-Shi -- mild language, mild violence -- A