Mushishi struck me right off the bat as an unusual manga series from a formal point of view; looking back, though, I’m not sure why I got that feeling quite as strongly as I did. Comparing it to the rest of my bookshelf, it is the case that most of the manga that I read has a strong narrative arc; not all of it, though (e.g. Yotsuba&!), and expanding beyond manga to comics more broadly (or, for that matter, expanding beyond anime to TV more broadly), having chapters that aren’t strongly connected is arguably the norm rather than the exception. (It probably is the norm in manga, too, I have no reason to believe the selection on my bookshelf is representative.)
Though even compared to other series with relatively disconnected chapters, Mushishi is unusual, I think. For one thing, there’s only one significant recurring character: Gingko, the titular mushi master. So in most of the chapters, every single character that you meet other than Ginko will be new to you: he wanders into a new town, helps somebody there, and leaves. Also, most episodic works without a strong linear narrative still manage to work in some sort of development of characters and the world, albeit at a slower pace; but over the course of Mushishi‘s ten volumes, I can think of only two or three chapters that actively work to flesh out Ginko’s history, and the world is similarly lacking in developmental arc.
Hmm, maybe I should look further ahead for analogies: This American Life, perhaps? Like that show, Mushishi drops into into a different place (albeit a single story rather than multiple ones) from episode to episode; and those episodes explore both a given event and, I think, an aspect of human nature. Mushishi‘s stories have more consistency in topic, in character than the stories in This American Life, but there’s something about the approach that both of them take that feels similar.
Anyways, enough with the analogies, back to Mushishi. Ginko is the only major recurring character, but the series also takes place in a consistent world. Indeed, the lack of multiple recurring characters serves to heighten the focus on that world: in a series with frequent, repeated interactions between characters, you almost have to end up learning a lot about those characters by seeing their interactions. Mushishi, in contrast, leaves space for the story really to not be about Ginko: he’s not a blank slate, but you’re also almost never thinking directly about Ginko, you’re seeing him help the world along. (Hmm, coming back to analogies, Mushishi is in some ways similar to detective stories; but it’s not about the brilliance of the detective in question.)
And even though there aren’t recurring characters, there are recurring patterns. Almost every chapter has Gingko helping a single person who is sick or in trouble; and that person doesn’t live in a vacuum, they relate strongly to a small group (their family, usually), and typically have a slightly less strong but still very important relationship to a larger group (the other residents of whatever village Ginko is visiting in). That’s the human side of each chapter’s interactions; but there’s also always a species of mushi (supernatural, primordial bugs / bacteria, basically) that has infected that person.
So there are enough human interactions for each chapter to focus on some bit of human psychology. And the mushi aren’t a blank slate, either: each species of mushi has its own needs and effects. Those aspects, of course, all intertwine: the personality of the sick person, the nature (the strengths, the dysfunctions) of her relationships with those around her, and the resonances that appear from the tension placed on that personality and relationships by the mushi’s presence, effects, and needs. And, for that matter, Ginko isn’t a blank slate, either.
He is, though, relatively given to being in the background. Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement: he’s not shy about telling people what he thinks is the best thing to do, given the context that they’re in. But the series would have options of turning him into a brilliant investigator or of turning him into a wise man, and it steps away from that.
And this quietness pervades the series: in particular, it’s there in the series’s approach to the world as well. It could be all about learning a taxonomy of mushi, of how their ecosystem fits together. It could be the sort of series typical in fantasy and science fiction where you can feel the author’s copious worldbuilding notes informing every page. I love series like that; but that’s not the sort of series Mushi is. And I’m glad of that: it’s making an affirmative choice to be quietly experiential, and I need more moments like that in my life.
Mushishi is a ten-volume manga series; there are also anime episodes that cover the first half of the books. They’re wonderful for many of the same reasons as the books are; but I also particularly appreciate the anime’s use of color. Both the generally muted color palette that the series uses and the fact that each episode (at least in the first half, I think this may have waned as the series went on?) generally takes one color to focus on a bit more. So you’ll perhaps see more purple in a given episode, or a bit more green, mirroring somehow whatever aspects of experience are are coming to the fore in that episode.
A very satisfying series? Nourishing series? Relaxing series? I’m not sure what the best word is; I’ve never seen anything quite like it, but I’m very glad I’ve had the experience of encountering it.
This post has not been revised since publication.