Mushishi, Volumes 8, 9, and 10

Mushishi, Volumes 8-10Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345505606
Released: July 2010
Original release: 2007-2008
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

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.

Mushishi, Volume 10, page 155The 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.

Mushishi, Volume 7

Mushishi, Volume 7Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345505590
Released: May 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

Mushishi, Volume 7 by Yuki Urushibara was originally published in Japan in 2006. It was the first volume of the award-winning manga series to be released after the first of several anime adaptations began airing. 2006 was also the year that Mushishi earned Urushibara a Kodansha Manga Award, having previously won a Japan Media Arts Award in 2003. In English, the seventh volume of Mushishi was initially published in print in 2009 by Del Rey Manga and then was later re-released in a digital edition by Kodansha Comics in 2014 along with the rest of the series. Mushishi is one of my favorite manga and one of the first series that I made a point to follow and collect as it was being released in translation. I love the manga’s atmosphere, subtle horror, and the obvious influence that traditional Japanese folklore and legends have had on Urushibara’s storytelling in the series.

The seventh volume of Mushishi collects four stories. Interestingly, the mushi in these particular chapters tend to be somewhat tangential to the real issues that the characters are struggling with. While the mushi have an impact on the way events unfold and develop, it is the interaction between people that forms the core of the individual stories. “Lost in the Blossoms” is about several generations in a family of skilled landscapers who obsessively care for the embodiment of a peculiarly beautiful and ancient cherry tree. In “The Mirror in the Muck,” a young woman falls ill after the man she loves leaves her behind, her love sickness putting her life in real danger. A young boy has become a host to a mushi that attracts lightning in “At the Foot of Lightning,” but the even greater problem is the nearly nonexistent relationship between him and his mother. The volume concludes with the series’ first multi-part story, “The Ragged Road,” about the head of the Minai, a clan of mushishi responsible for investigating forbidden mushi no matter what the personal cost.

Mushishi, Volume 7, page 3While Mushishi generally tends to be episodic, “The Ragged Road” directly ties in with an early story, “The Sea of Brushstrokes,” collected in Mushishi, Volume 2. The Minai family serves under the Karibusa family which is responsible for recording and protecting information about mushi; the fate of both families is intertwined with that of the forbidden mushi. I especially like “The Ragged Road” because it further develops the world of Mushishi. The other three stories in Mushishi, Volume 7 technically do as well, but because they’re only loosely connected to previous chapters their contributions to the series’ lore generally add more breadth rather than depth. Still, bits of the characterization of Ginko, the manga’s protagonist, continue to be revealed with the telling of each story, showing just how much of an outsider he is even within the community of mushishi.

Although the plots of the individual stories collected in Mushishi, Volume 7 aren’t directly connect to one another, they do all share some similar themes. In some ways, the manga feels more horror-like than some of the previous installments of the series. Mushi in the case of this volume are creatures that can steal away a person’s senses, identity, life, or even soul. But as terrifying as that can be, the most chilling thing that Ginko encounters aren’t mushi but failed human relationships. I find these four stories to be some of the most heartbreaking in the series for that reason. Ginko is faced with situations where, while he can deal with the mushi, he is powerless to completely ease the distress of the people involved and their troubled families. However, as sad and tragic as some of the stories in Mushishi can be, there’s still an underlying sense of hope that in time people will be able to heal and move forward through their pain.

Mushishi, Volume 6

Mushishi, Volume 6Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345501660
Released: November 2008
Original release: 2005
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

I discovered Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning manga series Mushishi more by chance than anything else, but it quickly became a favorite and I made a point to collect the manga as it was being released in English. I’m very glad that I did–replacing my copies would cost a fair amount since Mushishi is currently out-of-print and increasingly difficult to find. Fortunately, Kodansha Comics released the entire series digitally in 2014. Mushishi, Volume 6 was first released in print in English in 2008 by the now defunct Del Rey Manga. In Japan the volume was initially published in 2005, the same year that the series’ first anime adaptation began airing. (The Mushishi anime is also a personal favorite and I re-watch it frequently.) In addition to being popular enough to warrant multiple adaptations in a variety of different media over the course of its publication, Mushishi was also a recipient of a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award.

Mushi are creatures which are invisible to most and which few people truly understand. But even so, they are an integral part of the natural world, said to be very similar to the original form of life. Mushi’s influences on humans, though not necessarily intentional or malicious, can be both good or bad depending on the circumstances. Some people, like Ginko, have made a profession out of studying mushi. These mushishi gather and share invaluable knowledge about mushi and about the world. By closely observing mushi and their environment, mushishi are able to recognize signs of impending disaster, explain what would seem to be the unexplainable, and identify when and where balance to the natural order must be restored to avoid dire consequences. The work of mushishi is inherently dangerous as they are frequently dealing with the unknown, but their perseverance can also be extremely rewarding, allowing them to some extent to leverage and even control the abilities of mushi for their own purposes.

Mushishi, Volume 6, page 133Mushishi, Volume 6 collects five chapters of the series. Except for the presence of Ginko and mushi, none of them are directly related to one another, however three of the stories deal in some fashion with the powerful phenomenon known as kōki. Whereas mushi could be considered primordial, kōki is an even purer and more basic form of life from which the varied multitude of mushi originate. Kōki is portrayed as a river of light, the glowing liquid proving to have both harmful and healing effects depending on how it is used. Mushi are intensely attracted to these rivers and will seek them out. In “Heaven’s Thread” this becomes a problem for humans living near the light flow–mushi that prey on other mushi sometimes catch a person instead. Humans can also be infected by decaying kōki, as is seen in “The Hand That Pets the Night,” negatively impacting families for multiple generations while also benefiting them. The third story in Mushishi, Volume 6 delving into kōki is “Banquet in the Farthest Field” in which a sake brewer unknowingly attempts to replicate the taste of the liquor of life with unintended consequences.

The other two stories collected in Mushishi, Volume 6, while still unrelated, both explore the loss of a loved one. Mushi’s involvement in “The Chirping Shell” is actually fairly minimal as the chapter focuses on a man coming to terms with the tragic death of his wife and learning to forgive in the face of an even greater imminent tragedy of which the mushi are an omen. “Under the Snow” is likewise about a young man in denial who is grieving the loss of the life of his little sister. In this story snow-like mushi literally suck the heat from his body, but they also serve as a metaphor–because of his sister’s death Toki has become numb to the people and the world around him. Many of the stories in Mushishi can be read on multiple levels like this, which is one of the reasons that I love the manga so much and find it so enjoyable to read and reread. The series frequently feels like a collection of folktales and stories of the supernatural, but at its heart Mushishi is very often about an individual’s personal struggle when confronted by something in their life beyond their control or understanding.

Mushishi, Volume 5

Mushishi, Volume 5Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345501387
Released: August 2008
Original release: 2004
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

The manga series Mushishi was Yuki Urushibara’s professional debut as a mangaka. The manga began serialization in Japan in 1999, lasted for ten volumes, and was the basis for multiple anime adaptations and a live-action film in addition to other media. Over the course of its publication, Mushishi would earn Urushibara several awards and honors, including a Japan Media Arts Award in 2003 and a Kodansha Manga Award in 2006. Mushishi, Volume 5 was originally published in Japan in 2004. The English-language edition of the volume was initially released in print by Del Rey Manga in 2008 and then in an electronic format by Kodansha Comics in 2014. Mushishi is one of my favorite manga series and one of the first that I made a point to collect in its entirety. Fortunately, I discovered the series as it was first being published in English, so I was able to complete my set before the manga went out-of-print and became expensive to find. However, I am glad that the digital version is now available for readers who missed the series’ original run in English, though.

Mushishi, Volume 5 collects five stories which, as is usual for the series, largely stand on their own. Ginko’s doctor friend makes a brief reappearance and there are a few nods to some of the series’ previous chapters, such as those exploring Ginko’s past, but it’s not necessary to be familiar with those references to enjoy the stories in the fifth volume. In “The Sea Palace,” Ginko visits a remote island where it is rumored that people are reborn after they die, suspecting that mushi may involved. His search for unusual mushi continues in “Eye’s Fortune, Eye’s Misfortune” when he happens upon a clairvoyant traveling musician with quite a story to tell—blind as a child, she credits a mushi for giving her sight. “The Coat That Holds a Mountain” follows an aspiring artist who leaves his rural village to study in the city, his success coming with unanticipated consequences and costs. In “Flames of the Fields,” a village’s mushishi makes a drastic decision when an unknown, invasive grass threatens lives and livelihoods. Finally, in “The Snake of Dawn,” Ginko is asked to do what he can to help a young mother who is slowly losing all of her memories.

Mushishi, Volume 5, page 202As a mushishi, Ginko travels across Japan striving to learn as much as he can about mushi. Some mushishi see the creatures as little more than dangerous pests that need to be eradicated. Ginko, however, approaches mushi more liberally, recognizing the need to treat them with caution but also advocating for the sanctity of all life and for the coexistence between humans and mushi whenever possible. Mushishi, Volume 5 presents several scenarios in which this harmony has actually been achieved: mushi that facilitate life, mushi that provide healing, mushi that grant health and strength. In some cases, though the results may still be tragic, what would normally be seen as an unwanted side-effect of interacting with a particular mushi can be used to a person’s advantage. But the fifth volume also shows that people must still continue to be vigilant and take great care when dealing with mushi and their powerful influences. This is a concept that of course extends beyond the mushi themselves; mushi are both representative of and a metaphor for those things which humans don’t fully understand or know.

I particularly enjoy the strong influence that Japanese folklore and legends have had on Mushishi. Some of the chapters take direct inspiration from existing stories while others easily fit in with those traditional tales. But there’s another aspect of Mushishi that I find especially interesting because in some way it runs counter to its seemingly supernatural elements—the actual study of mushi. In part, to be a mushishi is to be a scientist and a researcher, someone who pursues and gathers knowledge. Much of Mushishi, Volume 5 deals with rarer and unknown mushi. By investigating them, Ginko and other mushishi are in a better position to make more informed decisions in situations in which mushi are involved. Acting without complete understanding can be extremely dangerous, therefore knowledge is an incredibly powerful and valuable tool granting some amount of control over the world. Mushishi realize how important and vital the accumulation of knowledge truly is and they take their chose profession very seriously.

Mushishi, Volume 4

Mushishi, Volume 4Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345499233
Released: May 2008
Original release: 2003
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

Although the ten-volumes series Mushishi was Yuki Urushibara’s professional debut as a mangaka, it has been very well-received by both critics and fans. The manga began its serialization in 1999 and would go on to win a Japan Media Arts Award in 2003 and a Kodansha Manga Award in 2006 among other honors and recognitions. Mushishi, Volume 4 was originally published in Japan in 2003. In 2008, Del Rey Manga released the first English-language edition which is now sadly out-of-print. However, as of 2014, the volume has been made available digitally by Kodansha Comics. Mushishi was a series that I stumbled upon when it was initially being released in English. The manga quickly became and continues to be one of my favorite series; Mushishi was one of the first manga that I made a point to collect in its entirety. I love the series’ quiet, creepy atmosphere, its emphasis on life and nature, and the influence of traditional Japanese culture and folklore on the stories being told.

Mushishi, Volume 4 collects five stories. The volume opens with “Picking the Empty Cocoon,” telling the tale of a family with close connections to both mushi and mushishi. They are the caretakers of uro, a particularly useful but dangerous type of mushi. In “One-Night Bridge,” Ginko is invited to a remote village in a deep valley to investigate the case of a young woman who fell to the bottom of the gorge but somehow survived. Except that she’s never been the same since her accident. Plants growing out of season allow a brother and sister to weather harsh winters in “Spring and Falsehoods,” but the mushi that cause the phenomenon aren’t as benign as they first appear. In the fourth story, while traveling through the mountains, Ginko stumbles upon a small family living in a vast bamboo grove. They seem to be trapped there, unable to leave no matter how hard they try; they always end up circling back to their home. The volume concludes with “The Sound of Trodden Grass,” which provides a little more insight into Ginko’s past.

Mushishi, Volume 4, page 112For the most part, Mushishi tends to be fairly episodic. Except for the presence of Ginko, out of all of the stories included in the fourth volume only “The Sound of Trodden Grass” has an explicit connection to any of the other chapters in the series, and it’s only a tangential one. Although none of the stories in Mushishi, Volume 4 are directly related to one another plot-wise, there was one similarity shared between them all that particularly struck me: the prominent role played by families. Looking back, this actually isn’t at all an uncommon theme in Mushishi—families, as well as other tightly knit communities and groups, are frequently featured in the manga. However, through the illness and other problems that follow them, mushi are shown to cause great strife in those relationships. Circumstances caused by mushi’s existence can drive people apart, but in some cases they may actually draw them together. Familial ties are strong and not easily broken, but mushi’s close connection to nature and life and death (including those of humans) is sometimes in conflict with them and they are just as enduring.

The stories in Mushishi are often reminiscent of folktales and legends originating from Japan; Urushibara clearly draws some inspiration directly from that lore. For example, “In the Cage” with its children born of bamboo recalls the story of Kaguya-hime. The fourth volume of Mushishi is influenced by Japanese history, as well. “The Sound of Trodden Grass” features a group of wanderers displaced by mushi known as the Watari who are based on the Sanka people of Japan. (This is even more meaningful to me now after having read Kazuki Sakuraba’s novel Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas in which the Sanka also play a part.) Some of Mushishi‘s stories can be rather spectacular, with mushi causing phenomena verging on the paranormal, while others are more subdued. Mushi are said to be very close to the original form of life and are therefore inseparable from nature, but they remain mysterious. Mushishi is a collection of tales that delve into that terrifying unknown. Urushibara combines elements of folklore and history along with her own imagination to successfully create a series that feels familiar while still being new.