Random Musings: Wrapping Up the Horror Manga Monthly Review Project

MushishiLiveActionOver the last few years one of the features at Experiments in Manga has been a monthly manga review project. What makes these reviews any different from the rest found on the site? Not much, really, except that the readers of Experiments in Manga actually helped to choose the manga that would be featured. The subject of my third monthly manga review project was put up for a vote about a year and a half ago. I narrowed down the genre to horror–using a very broad definition of horror–and selected five options from which readers could pick: After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro, Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida, Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara, Nightmare Inspector by Shin Mashiba, and Tokyo Babylon/X by CLAMP.

Much to my surprise, there ended up being a tie between After School Nightmare and Mushishi. So, instead of trying to come up with some arbitrary way to choose one series over the other, I decided that I would simply review both of them. Between December 2014 and July 2016 I alternated between the two series until I had reviewed every volume of the manga. I also wrote a bonus Adaptation Adventures feature for Mushishi which provided a brief overview comparing and contrasting some of the series’ adaptations. One thing that I personally found interesting about this particular review project was that while I already knew that I loved Mushishi (I simply hadn’t previously written much about it at Experiments in Manga), After School Nightmare was a manga that I had started but never finished and so didn’t know what my overall impression of the series would be.

As was the case with my past two review projects (namely Blade of the Immortal and the Year of Yuri), I greatly enjoyed delving into After School Nightmare and Mushishi as part of the horror manga review project. Though both series share some similarities, such as strong psychological elements, a unsettling atmospheres, and an ominous sense of foreboding, they are still very different from each other. One particularly notable difference between the two is how each manga approaches and treats themes of life and death. Life in Mushishi is something that is held as sacred in which one person is part of a much greater whole; in After School Nightmare, life consists of trials and tribulations that must be personally overcome and is something that must be actively claimed as one’s own.

Found below are the links to the individual in-depth reviews and features associated with the horror manga monthly review project. Though not specific to the review project itself, tags for both After School Nightmare and Mushishi are also available for browsing.

After School Nightmare
After School Nightmare, Volume 1
After School Nightmare, Volume 2
After School Nightmare, Volume 3
After School Nightmare, Volume 4
After School Nightmare, Volume 5
After School Nightmare, Volume 6
After School Nightmare, Volume 7
After School Nightmare, Volume 8
After School Nightmare, Volume 9
After School Nightmare, Volume 10

Adaptation Adventures: Mushishi
Mushishi, Volume 1
Mushishi, Volume 2
Mushishi, Volume 3
Mushishi, Volume 4
Mushishi, Volume 5
Mushishi, Volume 6
Mushishi, Volume 7
Mushishi, Volumes 8, 9, and 10

Adaptation Adventures: Mushishi

Mushishi, Volume 1After revisiting and reviewing each volume of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi for my horror manga review project, by now it’s probably readily clear that I greatly enjoy the series. I love the influence of traditional Japanese folklore on the stories. I love the manga’s subtle creepinesss. I love the exploration of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. I love how the series delves into the connections that exist between people. I love the importance placed on the search for knowledge. The storytelling in Mushishi is atmospheric, beautiful, and frequently unsettling as individuals struggle with themselves and with the unknown. There is darkness and tragedy in Mushishi but there is also hope—one of the major themes in the manga is that for better or for worse, life will ultimately persevere.

Mushishi is a largely episodic series following Ginko, a mushishi, who travels the Japanese countryside studying mushi and trying to help people who have fallen under their influence. Mushi are described as creatures which are very close to the original form of life. Their presence is fundamental and necessary to the living world, but depending on the circumstances they may either be beneficial to or negatively impact humans. Mushi are frequently at the heart of unusual natural phenomenon or may cause otherwise unexplainable illnesses. Within the context of the series mushi can be taken literally, but they can also be read as metaphors for many conditions experienced in reality.

MushishiAnime1Urushibara’s ten-volume Mushishi, originally serialized in Japan between 1999 and 2008, was first released in print in English by Del Rey Manga between 2007 and 2010. Soon after, Del Rey’s manga imprint was closed and Mushishi subsequently went out of print. Unsurprisingly, the print edition of Mushishi has become increasingly difficult to find over time, but in 2014 Kodansha Comics released the entire series digitally. In addition to earning multiple awards and honors over the course of its publication, Mushishi was also the basis for multiple anime adaptations and a live-action film (most of which are available digitally if not physically in North America), as well as a variety of other media.

The first Mushishi anime series, directed by Hiroshi Nagahama, aired in Japan in 2005 and 2006. At twenty-six episodes, it only adapted a portion of the original manga. (Granted, the manga hadn’t yet been completed at that point.) Since I love the Mushishi manga, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that I love the anime as well. Although the first Mushishi anime adaptation isn’t necessarily my favorite series, or even the anime that means the most to me personally, it is the series that I’ve seen the most number of times; I return to it frequently. Eventually, nearly a decade after the first Mushishi anime series, an animated television special was released which was followed a few months later by a second anime series. This twenty-episode series, also directed Nagahama, aired in Japan between 2014 and 2015 and adapted most of the remaining stories found in the manga. (A second animated television special was released during this time as well.) Despite the number of years that passed between the first and the second anime series, they are both very similar in tone and style. Nagahama also directed the Mushishi animated film released in 2015 which adapted the manga’s final story arc. Since I loved both the original manga and the first anime series, I was very happy to see so much more Mushishi anime produced.

MushishiAnime2-17The various Mushishi anime are very faithful adaptations of the manga. Frequently the scenes in the anime follow the scenes in the manga frame by frame and panel by panel, though occasionally the order that events appear in the narrative is slightly altered. Where the anime distinguish themselves is in their color and sound, especially in the establishment of the backgrounds and settings. Urushibara’s color artwork is lovely, but except for the covers of the individual manga volumes, very few examples of it officially appeared in North America. (I imported Urushibara’s 2015 Mushishi artbook which is filled with color illustrations and I adore it.) The anime bring the world of Mushishi to life. While the actual animation can at times be fairly simple and limited, the environments are always absolutely gorgeous and beautiful in their detail. The sound design in the anime adaptations is great, too, adding spectacularly to the overall atmosphere. The music by Toshio Masuda (which I’m constantly listening to) makes extensive use of bells, chimes, and other percussion along with unobtrusive synthesized and acoustic instruments, creating a beautiful soundtrack that is in turns ethereal and dramatic. Much like the original, the Mushishi anime creates an experience that can be calming and soothing as well as unsettling and disturbing.

MushishiMovieUrushibara’s manga series was also the inspiration for Katsuhiro Otomo’s award-winning 2006 live-action film Mushishi. For the most part the film was received very well both inside and outside of Japan. Though overall it’s palette tends to be darker and more subdued than the anime adaptations, the visuals can be quite stunning; the special effects hold up surprisingly well even a decade after it was first released. I actually only very recently watched Otomo’s Mushishi for the first time. From the standpoint of someone who is very familiar with the original manga and its anime adaptations, the live-action movie is somewhat disorienting and perhaps even shocking. Though it begins much as one would expect, it ultimately deviates a fair amount from its source material even to the point of changing some of the underpinning mythologies and characterizations of the original. It’s clear that Urushibara’s manga provides the basis for the movie, but many details have been reimagined or remixed in some way. The narrative is still interesting, though. Otomo successfully weaves together several stories from the manga series and makes references to many others before taking the film in an entirely new and different direction. While the original Mushishi tends to be episodic, Otomo’s film is self-contained and provides a single cohesive story. In part this is accomplished placing a significant focus on Ginko’s past and what it means for his present and future, providing a framework for the film as a whole. Instead of simply wandering the countryside helping other people, Ginko has the additional motivation of trying to solve the mystery of who he really is and to reclaim his missing memories.

MushishiLiveActionWhile I would consider the Mushishi manga and anime to be horror, albeit fairly subtle and subdued horror, the film is much more obviously so. Many of the underlying elements are the same, but the film focuses more directly on the aspects of traditional, supernatural horror. However, this does mean some of the more nuanced themes found in the manga and anime are missing. Otomo’s film is a much darker incarnation of Mushishi. The movie, especially towards its end, is incredibly creepy and extraordinarily disconcerting in both imagery and story. It’s so different in tone and narrative that it might actually be better described as a portrayal of an alternate universe of Mushishi rather than being a strict adaptation. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially if viewers are expecting something more akin to the gentler (though still disquieting) anime adaptations, but I actually quite liked the movie. For me though, it’s really more of a horror film before it’s a Mushishi film. Still, I feel that the live-action film, the anime adaptations, and the original manga are all well worth checking out and are all fascinating in their own rights. And of course, although unlikely, I’d love to see more Mushishi media and merchandise released in North America.


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.