Ed Sizemore is hosting the current installment of the Manga Moveable Feast over at Manga Worth Reading. This time around, the focus is Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey). Here’s a Flipped column on the series that I wrote for The Comics Reporter. I’ll be posting more Mushishi-related content later in the week.
In a chapter of Yuki Urushibara’s elegant, episodic drama Mushishi (Del Rey), master of ceremonies Ginko informs a boy that mushi, the mystical bugs Ginko wrangles, “aren’t your friends. They’re just some strange neighbors of yours.” That’s as nice a tonal summary as anything I can concoct.
Mushi are an ancient part of the environment, and their influences can be extremely malignant to their human neighbors. Mushishi (or “mushi masters”) like Ginko help manage the interactions between humans and mushi, mitigating human suffering when possible. Sometimes no such mitigation is possible, and that’s one of the many intriguing aspects of the series.
Ginko isn’t an exterminator. He’s a scholar and a physician of sorts. He’s also a wanderer in the tradition of Kung Fu‘s Caine, traveling from village to village to learn about little-known mushi and aid and educate their human neighbors. Aiding and educating feel secondary to Ginko’s own quest for knowledge; he’s not precisely mercenary, but he isn’t sentimental or especially altruistic. He isn’t a particularly nice person, and I like that.
I also like that he isn’t entirely predictable. In many of these wanderers’ tales that are more about glimpsing the places and people they visit, the wanderer can be the least interesting element of the narrative, carrying the camera and reacting to what he finds. Ginko certainly fills those functions, but he’s also an agent of change, assessing the situations he finds, divining their sources, and determining appropriate action, if any is actually warranted. In addition to being kind of a grouch, Ginko is also a realist, and not every situation can be fixed in any meaningful way.
Ginko, with his trench coat and ever-dangling cigarette, isn’t on a quest. There’s no fixed end point to his work, as there will always be new things to learn about mushi and people who run afoul of them. It’s a job, and it’s one he’s particularly suited to doing, but he doesn’t demonstrate any pilgrim’s fervor or scholar’s mania. He’s got a matter-of-fact nature mixed with an arch inscrutability that spares him blandness. He also attracts mushi, which keeps him from lingering anywhere for too long.
Urushibara demonstrates great creativity and variety in the manifestations of the mushi. Some scenarios can be quite gruesome and perilous; others are benign and almost pastoral. Her approach is a patchwork of bits of folklore, spikes of horror, an appreciation for setting, an undeniable environmentalist bent, and a keen eye for human nature. Like bacteria, the mushi have no particular motive beyond survival, but their side effects can be terrifying.
Intriguing as the effects can be, Urushibara doesn’t settle for a blend of fantasy and horror; she seems much more interested in viewing the mushi and their effects through the prism of human relationships and society.
In one particularly gruesome story, a strain of mushi devours and impersonates human children, and a mother cares for them with the same fervor she would lavish on her own children. In a gentler but still disturbing outing, a girl is granted the gift of sight by a mushi that lives in her eyes, but things progress to the point that she can never stop seeing, and the gift becomes exhausting. Some mushi have an ironic knack for uniting lovers at an awkward or untenable price. But only some of the tales traffic in monkey’s paw irony; Urushibara is just as taken with quaint, unsettling oddities as she is with life-and-death drama.
Urushibara is not quite the artist she is a writer, but her writing is so deft and subtle that saying she’s not as good at drawing is almost a compliment. The strongest visual elements of Mushishi involve its varied settings. Ginko travels through snow-covered mountains, misty valleys, craggy seashores, swamps, and serene farms, offering a rural visual feast. Her renderings aren’t strictly realistic; Urushibara isn’t composing picture postcards. But the settings are unerringly evocative. They have moods all their own.
There isn’t as much variety in her character design. The people who populate her stories generally look average, even a little fragile in the context of the rural vistas they inhabit. But they are average people living generally simple lives, so the choice is appropriate if not especially eye-catching. And Urushibara does grant them a full palette of expression and emotion.
That isn’t to say that she isn’t capable of some breathtaking flourishes. My favorite comes in the second volume, when Ginko visits the mushishi library. Its frail, fetching copyist is infested with mushi that enable her to do her work. When Ginko’s stimulating presence leads the mushi to act up, the results are stunning. Words fly through the air and leap across the walls. Since the sequence is grounded so well in the copyist’s sad history and her ambivalence, the effect is even stronger.
With intelligent writing and often lovely art, Mushishi is an excellent episodic series. Aside from occasional glimpses of Ginko’s past, there’s little in the way of subplot or undercurrent. The drama is contained in the individual chapters rather than in wondering what happens next or how it will all end. That makes Mushishi a vivid and satisfying read, and also a relatively undemanding one. You can pick up a volume at random and not worry about being lost. So many multi-volume series feel like they demand a level of commitment and investment, but Mushishi lends itself to casual reading. That said, I can’t imagine picking up one volume and not wanting to read the others, at least at one’s leisure.
If you like Mushishi…April 29, 2010
I’m a big fan of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey), and I’m a big fan of episodic manga in general. I particularly like Urushibara’s thoughtful, expansive take on her subject matter. For this installment of the Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d do something a little different and play a round of the “If you like…” game, finding titles that share qualities with Mushishi and that fans of the series might also enjoy.
If you like the meditative, gentle quality of Mushishi, then I strongly recommend you pick up a volume of Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz), written and illustrated by Yuki Midorikawa. This shôjo series has a number of qualities in common with Mushishi – an isolated but basically good-natured protagonist, a stand-alone approach to chapter storytelling, and a wide variety of supernatural forces on display. Like Urushibara, Midorikawa is concerned with the coexistence of the mortal and the mysterious, positioning her hero as a sort of diplomat between humans and yôkai, the often mischievous minor demons of Japanese folklore. I find Urushibara and Midorikawa’s visual styles to be similar as well, though whether that’s a selling point for you or not is a matter of taste.
If you just can’t get enough of an optically challenged guy in a trench coat, then Mail (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, might be the book for you. Like Mushishi’s Ginko, Mail’s Reiji is a man with a mission, though his approach is far less benevolent. He can see ghosts, and he can exorcise them with his trusty firearm. While Urushibara is focused on rural folklore, Yamazaki leads his hero through ghostly urban legends. As with Mushishi, there’s no real underlying narrative, though Reiji gets a nifty origin story, just as Ginko does. Yamazaki’s art is crisp and imaginative, and Mail is excellent companion reading for The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), also illustrated by Yamazaki and written by Eiji Otsuka.
If you want your well-informed protagonist to be a whole lot meaner, then look no further than Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack (Vertical). I’m not saying that Ginko is the nicest guy on the block, but he’s positively cuddly next to Tezuka’s mercenary, antisocial surgeon. Black Jack, you see, is so contrary that he won’t even bother to become a licensed physician, no matter how legendary his surgical skills are. Perhaps that’s because he puts “First, do no harm” after “Run a credit check” when it comes to patient care. Black Jack may not have a diploma hanging on his wall, but his nigh-supernatural abilities as a physician put him in tremendous demand with the desperately ill and their loved ones. He has no cuddly bedside manner to offer, but he will travel the world to cure you, if you can afford it. (Black Jack also has the creepiest sidekick imaginable, a sentient tumor named Pinoko trapped in a child’s artificial body, even though she’s been around for 18 years.)
If you just can’t get enough of pesky microbes that influence day-to-day human existence, there’s always Moyasimon (Del Rey), written and illustrated by Masayuki Ishikawa. Unlike the magical microbes in Mushishi, the bacterial supporting cast of Moyasimon can be found in any respectable taxonomy of the tiny. Sometimes they’re beneficial, sometimes they’re malignant, and sometimes they can be both. And where better to ponder their myriad qualities than in an agricultural college? And who better than a student who can actually see and speak to them? That’s what his nutty, fermentation-obsessed professor thinks, and if Tadayasu wanted a normal life, he shouldn’t have signed up for manga stardom. Only one volume is available so far, and the comedic results can be a little scattered, but the series shows a lot of promise.
If you like a little more wrathful judgment in your episodic manga, then unwrap a volume of Presents (CMX), written and illustrated by Kanako Inuki, to see terrible things happen to awful people. This is the title that inspired John Jakala to coin the immortal term “comeuppance theatre,” which has subsequently served countless manga bloggers, me included. In these three volumes, the selfish, greedy, stupid, and neglectful get what’s coming to them just as they grab for what they think they deserve, and Inuki stages these moments of karma with real glee. Mushishi is all about the balance of things, of sometimes opposing forces being restored to equanimity and learning to accept that neither acts with malice. There’s malice aplenty in Presents, which offers a refreshingly nasty change of pace as that malice boomerangs back onto the people who send it out into the karmic ecosystem.
13 Comments | CMX, Dark Horse, Del Rey, Manga Moveable Feast, Quick Comic Comments, Vertical, Viz | Permalink
Posted by davidpwelsh