Every once in a while I come across a work that stays with me long after I first finish reading it and that I find myself revisiting time and again. Yuki Urushibara’s ten-volume debut manga series Mushishi is one such work. Heavily influenced by traditional Japanese folklore but retaining modern sensibilities, Mushishi is a nuanced and layered manga which can either be simply enjoyed as a collection of atmospheric and subtly unsettling stories or more deeply appreciated for its complex underlying themes and philosophies. Mushishi quickly became and remains one of my favorite manga. The series has been received positively by fans and critics alike, earning Urushibara several awards and recognitions including a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award. Mushishi has also been the basis for multiple anime among other media adaptations. In English, the series was first published in print by Del Rey Manga and was later released digitally by Kodansha Comics.
The final volume of the English-langauge edition of Mushishi, first printed in 2010 and released digitally in 2014, is equivalent to the eighth, ninth, and tenth volumes of the series’ original Japanese release published between 2007 and 2008. Keeping with the episodic nature of Mushishi, the volume collects fourteen stories that for the most part aren’t directly tied to one another or to earlier chapters, but which share similar ideas and themes with the rest of the series. Family relationships are very important in Mushishi as a whole, but stories like “The Milk of the Valley,” “The Hidden Channel,” “Aquamarine,” and “The Thread of Life” in particular explore the deep bonds between mothers, including surrogate mothers, and their children. Other stories, like “The Final Bit of Crimson,” “Stars in the Jar of the Sky,” and “The Scented Darkness,” are about other realities and worlds, or at least about aspects of the natural world that aren’t fully understood by humankind. On the other hand, “Sunshowers,” “The Mud Weeds,” “The Whirlwind,” and “The Eternal Tree” are stories which show that when dealing with possession by or control of mushi, greater understanding can be both a curse and a blessing.
The remaining three stories collected in the volume, including the series’ two-part finale, specifically involve Ginko (the manga’s protagonist and linking character), his personal relationship to mushi (primordial creatures that are closest to the original form of life), and what are known as “masters” in the world of Mushishi. Each master is associated with a specific geographic area and are responsible for maintaining the connection and balance between the natural world and all of the beings found within it. They are described as the living embodiment of the promise and rule of life. Although each of the three stories are technically found in different volumes of the series, taken together they form a particularly interesting narrative and are very illuminating when it comes to Ginko’s character. “The Bed of Grass” returns to Ginko’s past, firmly establishing why he is who he is and revealing the origin of his deep connection to and somewhat unusual attitude towards mushi. That connection is extremely critical to and further developed in “The Bottom of Winter” and in the series’ conclusion “Drops of Bells.”
Ginko’s devotion to life, whether it be human, mushi, or some other form, is perhaps the most prominent narrative driving force behind the entirety of Mushishi. At the same time, Ginko is also very aware that sometimes life cannot and should not always be preserved and that coexistence isn’t always an option. The intent is to find an appropriate balance, but what that balance should be is often debatable and mistakes are made. Ginko frequently acts in a role akin to that of a master and on several occasions throughout the series even considers taking the responsibilities of master upon himself. The decisions that he makes as he considers all of this in the final volumes of Mushishi are especially poignant. Mushishi is a manga series about many things, but at its very heart it’s an exploration of relationships, not only between humans and the natural world of which they are only one, inextricable part, but between people as individuals and as members of larger social groups. Mushi provide a seemingly supernatural element to the series, but ultimately the focus of Mushishi is on the very real, varied, and changing struggles of individuals living in an evolving world that they cannot completely control or understand.