Genre: Adventure, Mystery, Supernatural, Anime
Starring: Kôjun Itô, Yûto Nakano, Travis Willingham
Director: Hiroshi Nagahama
Duration: (25mins, 26 Episodes)
Describing what the mushi are – the entities that our protagonist is an expert in – is fairly difficult, just because of the other things that you'll end up associating it with. I call them ghosts, you'll think of horror films. I add a 'friendly' to that, Casper. I mention spirits and you start to think of the souls of the dead, or to the sudden realisation you want another drink, but that's only for the alcoholics amongst us. Colourful creatures that exist in tandem to our world but most don't believe exist? Pandora. Even if I go on to call them the very essence of life itself, naked to the average humans eye and misunderstood almost unanimously; perhaps the most detailed and accurate description I can muster, what does that bring to mind? Scientology. I really don't think it's a battle that can be won.
Needless to say it hardly seems like an ill explored phenomenon within TV and film, so for a new spin on an old concept, one which is distinctly “Japanese” in style but far removed from the very traditional form spirits took in their history, seems like something of an accomplishment in itself. Strange entities or life forces closer to 'pure life' and more attuned to the intricacies of the earth than the animals and the plants; they co-exist within our world without our knowledge, very rarely taking impact on our lives. They exist as animals, neither malicious or benevolent but dominated by their base instinct for survival; often so alien to what we know that our lack of understanding makes them seem like a dark entity or a plague. There may only be the one character who returns in each episode, and we may not really come to know much about him, but really he isn't the thing that's fascinating to watch, it's the mushi and his knowledge of them that will keep you intrigued.
Some of the plots can get a little repetitive in it's episodic format; someone encounters the mushi and develops an illness, Genki, our Mushi master, comes in and figures out what's wrong and saves the day. At times it's like a supernatural “House MD,” with the explanations often making even less sense, relying on haphazard or even non-existent explanations for many of the solutions. At least when dealing with real illnesses the explanations make sense, but when the supernatural element comes into play, you can't help but get the feeling that sometimes the only answer they actually had was “because its supernatural!” The reason they likely chose not to dwell on it, but for someone who absolutely has to understand the reasoning for certain pivotal plot points; who just can't accept the cheap answer, this becomes a frustrating issue that detracts from the rest of what they've managed to accomplish, particularly in the early episodes. Part of it is undoubtedly due to the fact even the 'masters' have a lot left to learn about the mushi, but that doesn't do much to alleviate the frustration in trying to understand many of the finer details.
Since I'd hate to leave this so vague as 'it's poorly explained,' I want to give an example of what I mean. This occurs in one of the episodes mid-way through the series, but naturally due to the nature of the show it will contain some pretty hefty spoilers, albeit only for the single episode (and some minor details about our main protagonist, though apart from giving a little bit of his back story are largely inconsequential). Obviously if you don't want to be spoiled then don't open the spoiler.
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The mushi involved in this episode consist of the Tokayami and the Genki, so lets begin with the Tokayami. The Tokayami appear as a black cloud and die in direct sunlight, so they hide in the shadows until nightfall. When night emerges, the Tokayami emerge in order to feed on the living things in their surroundings (or more specifically, the darkness within them). Those caught by the Tokayami are encapsulated in perpetual darkness; a complete and utter black that blinds them, disorientating it's victims and removing their memory. It is, however, possible to escape the Tokayami by offering it an eye as a 'sacrifice' and running away, resulting in the loss of all pigmentation in your hair and skin (turning it white) as well as the loss of one eye, which will be permanently infected. As a side effect of this infection, it will draw towards you other mushi; the method in which the Tokayami are able to find food.
The Genki form a symbiotic relationship with the Tokayami; only able to survive in the perpetual black, they reside within it's black shroud as an eminent silver light, feeding on the remains of the Tokayami's victims. Whilst strictly speaking the Tokayami won't kill it's victims, the Genki residing within it will, and with both eyes infected you would become blind; a sitting duck awaiting the Genki to finish the job. I should point out that whilst this perhaps one of the more complex episodes, it is also one of the better explained (at least once you give it a little thought), but nonetheless is still a rather large amount of detail to get across within a 25 minute episode.
Despite the highly limited cast, and even the one character we do regularly see not having much of a back story or even a personality to connect with, the fact that it can reach an emotional point at all seems fairly impressive. As we learn of our characters plight; how the mushi have caused them problems and the anguish occurring as a result, a sympathetic note often resonates throughout the piece, albeit it is merely a shallow sympathy; the way you'd sympathise when watching an advert for abandoned puppies or kittens, making you perhaps a little blurry eyed but moments later is all forgotten. It's also rather unpredictable; not every case has a happy ending, and not always is he able to save those he encounters. Instead the real gem here is – once again – coming to understand the nature of the actual mushi themselves.
I like this series for the exact same reason I liked Avatar; the plot might not always be up to much, the cast lacking depth and the stories formulaic, but the beauty lies entirely in the world in which he's created. The detail in the artwork that has gone into these creatures; squirming, wriggling, glowing, floating and flying about the world in which we can't see, and the way they're portrayed like some sort of alien documentary. It might not have the gloss of many of its contemporaries but instead holds a sense of care and consideration that has gone into the finer details of the landscapes and the manner the creatures are portrayed. Even when little of the actual mushi themselves are shown, it is the fantastical idea of these creatures and what they are capable of that provides a constant draw, each episode coming up with something new to feast both your eyes and your mind upon.