Mushi-Shi is quiet, beautiful, and a little melancholy. The series requires only one suspension of disbelief: the existence of “green matter,” the most primitive form of life, which straddles the line between natural and supernatural. Creatures called “mushi”—the literal translation of which is “bug”—can manifest as unusual beings or phenomena sensed by all humans, such as gigantic whale-like beasts, strange fog, or flowers. Otherwise, they may be recognized only by the effects they have when they interact with humans: sudden loss of hearing, ghost sightings, or apparent madness in hitherto sane individuals.
These creatures remain unseen by most people except their victims and those who possess a special affinity for mushi. Our protagonist, Ginko, is one such person, and he travels through pre-modern Japan with a peddler’s box on his shoulder, helping humans to handle their mushi-related afflictions. Hence, the “-shi” in Mushi-Shi refers to Ginko’s role as a professional who knows and deals with mushi; the suffix is similar to the “-er” at the end of English titles like lawyer or teacher.
Ginko’s backstory is explained a little as the series progresses, but for the most part, he remains a mysterious, laid-back figure. In his dealings with mushi, Ginko takes the attitude of a doctor rather than an exorcist. If the mushi do not harm humans, he tries to figure out a way for the two species to coexist, and the victims’ ability to live satisfying lives takes priority over the absolute removal of mushi from the human environment.
However, Ginko is not the main focus of the series. Rather, it is the mushi themselves, the landscape they inhabit and manifest within, and the emotions of the humans with whom they interact. Ginko serves to draw all of these together into a coherent experience; although he is an interesting character in his own right, his role is usually to observe, evaluate, and conclude. The series is episodic in nature, so there are no story arcs to speak of, but there are a few brief references to previous episodes. There are also several other recurring characters, such as Adashino, a doctor who is an avid collector of mushi-related items despite the fact that he is unable to sense the presence of mushi himself. Nevertheless, the meat of the story is in the beauty of the world and the subtle exploration of human emotions.
Watching Mushi-Shi is relaxing and almost therapeutic in its quietly breathtaking depictions of nature: falling snow, a single drop of rain hanging from a leaf, rice fields at harvest time, a secret mountain valley, seaside cliffs beaten by waves. Mushi represent a tangible manifestation of life itself, and interacting with them requires a great deal of caution and respect on the part of human characters. On the other hand, the subject matter features situations or emotions with which the viewer can can empathize, even amidst fantastic elements: the loss of a parent, the responsibilities of a community leader, homesickness, insomnia and memory loss, ostracization, regret, and reconciliation. Characters are presented in a way that is matter-of-fact and accentuates their emotions without being overly dramatic or explaining everything. Together with an excellent soundtrack that never gets in the way of the visuals and understated voice acting, both Japanese and English, the resulting atmosphere is thoughtful and emotionally satisfying. A similar title might be Natsume’s Book of Friends, though it is more lighthearted and a little younger in terms of its audience.
This series would be enjoyed by an older audience, as indicated by the 14+ rating. There are some “oh no” moments, such as empty eye sockets, arson, suicide, or people simply falling apart, but these generally are not very graphic and are necessary for the plot. Mushi-Shi is not for those who wish for great action or a complicated plot, but it is a good introductory anime for adults. It would be a refreshing title for those who have preconceptions about anime that involve saving the world through the power of friendship and love (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The Funimation S.A.V.E. (Super Amazing Value Edition) set offers subtitles, audio in Japanese and English, an interview with the director, actor and director commentary, a production studio tour, some pages from the manga, the textless opening song, trailers, and original TV spots. Considering the low price, the fact that the entire series fits in one DVD case, and the inclusion of some bonus material, I might consider this edition for a library purchase. However, the advertisements before you can access the DVD menu are annoying, and I think the video quality could have been better, since the show focuses so strongly on the beauty of its world.