Tuesday, January 15, 2008

REVIEW: Mad For "Mushi-Shi

[Article written for Toon Zone News 1.15.08]

It sometimes seems that Japanese animation ranges over a smaller field than you might hope. Fighting. Big breasts. Confused young protagonists. Big breasts. Naive females with big breasts. More fighting. Comical sweat drops, big breasts and some more fighting for the sake of naive women with big breasts.

So if you've had enough of the ka-hooie ka-zookas that litter manga cartoons, come take a gander at FUNimation's Mushi-Shi (or in English, Mushi-Master). I spent the first chapter waiting for the young male protagonist, the silly battles, and the overlarge body bopples to appear. By and large, they didn't, which was a refreshing surprise.

So if it's not about the usual stuff, what is it about? That, it proves, is one of the beauties of Mushi-Shi—you really don't know what you're in for. Even after it starts, the show's enigmatic tone will keep you puzzled but expectant.

Basically, Mushi-Shi is a collection of individual tales centering on the mysterious Mushi-Master, Ginko. The Mushi themselves are a fairly vague entity, but they are, at their simplest, the closest thing there is to life in its purist form: a level of existence that transcends the mortal world and lives somewhere figuratively deep beneath it. Sometimes they are visible, sometimes they are not. How they affect the inhabitants of our world differs from story to story, as they are not one simple strain of life, but a pure form of life that has many facets and faces. They are neither good nor evil, but their existence can be a curse or blessing to those they infect or co-exist with. As a result, each tale in this collection centers on a different dilemma presented by the fusion of man and Mushi, one that often requires the Mushi-Master's intervention to strike a balance between the two. The result is something like a fairy tale, though without the vile enemies or earnest heroes.

Each story has its own special charm. "The Green Seat" (the opening story on volume 1) is a simple yet beautiful tale about a grandmother and grandson. "The Pillow Pathway" is a dark fairy tale with an Aesopian tone. "Tender Horns" and "The Light of the Eyelid" both feature children afflicted by Mushi with sensory damage, but the relationships within the two tales are very different. "The Traveling Swamp," though also the most Ginko-orientated fantasy on the first disc, is about a fantastical lady trapped in the moving Mushi-Swamp.

The third volume is just as consistent as the first at fusing fairy tale, tragedy and beauty in a unique and magical way, with "Inside the Cage," a beautiful yet bizarre tale that binds man, woman, and bamboo into one close knit mystery, possibly being my favourite episode on the two discs. The stories on volume three, meanwhile, begin to unravel some of the mysteries about Ginko, with "One Eyed Fish" pretty much laying bare the foundations of his character. If in retrospect it becomes less enchanting (you'd be Mushi in the head if you can't work out where it is going within the first ten minutes), it remains a poignant drama, and its substitution of tragedy for enigma in Ginko's character is a worthwhile exchange.

The stories don't come with much exposition. I find that adds to the show's magic, but others might be frustrated. Sometimes you just can't keep up: I defy anyone to watch "The Sleeping Mountain" and guess where it is going. And sometimes the questions remain even when the story is over; not everything will be clear the first time round.

The animation is magnificent throughout, with the direction and pace retaining a maturity that is rare in commercial animation. While the art and design is beautiful, you never feel it trying to overshadow the story. Only in "The Light of the Eyelid," when the animation, though still hand-drawn, begins to resemble computer imaging, do the visuals fall out of equilibrium. The music retains a dramatic subtlety, except for the Mushi-shi theme track which, while fairly gentle, lacks the subtlety found in the rest of the show. The Western vocal tracks are also good, with Ginko's VA in particular associating believably with the Japanese character.

Mushi-Shi Volume 1 comes lavishly packaged in a delightfully designed box that can hold the entire season; included also is a postcard and a wonderful booklet that explains in depth some the background and design in the show. Further volumes contain a free postcard and inlay booklet of the same style. The packaging retains the quality of initial starter pack. The interactive DVD mechanics are simple yet effective (as I like it), with two casual interviews (one with the voice actor for Ginko and one with the director), a peek around the production offices, the chance to listen to the opening and closing theme songs without text, and the obligatory trailers. In fact, the only liability is the mandatory single trailer at the beginning of each disk—you'll find no way to circumnavigate it.

I wish I knew more about Yuki Urushibara’s original. Quite how accurate this adaptation is, I don't know. But if the manga have anything near the series' quality (and being the original medium, I'm sure they do), they'd be well worth purchasing.

If you are looking for a gentle exploration of Japanese fantasy, Mushi-Shi is for you: mature in its storytelling yet with a childlike innocence to its content. With a consistent, earthy vision, Mushi-Shi is one of the more unique and enchanting animated series I've seen come out of Japan in a long time.