Seinen – Supernatural, drama, adventure, mystery
10 Volumes (completed) [7 volumes + 1 omnibus]
Del Rey / Kodansha Comics USA
Ephemeral creatures known as mushi inhabit the world. Some mushi try to lure unsuspecting humans to an early grave; others provide help to the living. Ginko is a wanderer who works as a mushishi, a person whose job is investigating and solving mysteries involving mushi.
Mushishi is the kind of manga beauty everyone can enjoy, but whether you should buy it is a more complex situation.
Mushishi is very episodic. Very few stories last more than a chapter, and only a limited number of characters ever make a second appearance. This is the kind of series where you can pick up any volume and enjoy it without ever feeling lost. It’s no surprise that this was made into an anime. Almost every chapter is a self-standing episode, and you can easily tune in or load up an episode at any time.
And therein lies the problem. The manga is out-of-print, but digital copies are available for $6.99 each ($12.99 for the final omnibus). However, the first season of the anime is free on FUNimation and YouTube, and the second season and OVA are free on Crunchyroll. From what I’ve researched, it looks like the anime pretty much covers the entire manga. Owning the manga was more tempting when this series was being printed; the second anime series hadn’t been made yet (or even announced). With the anime’s continuation and available in English, there’s now little incentive to own the manga.
But many people (like myself) tend to prefer stories in book format versus television/film. However, as enjoyable as the manga was, I can’t help but wonder if the anime might be the superior version. The world of Mushishi is so nature-based: the greenery of the trees, the sounds of birds flying in the sky… Mysterious creatures combined with the nature settings just beg for color and sound. Even if it is slightly inferior, the significant cost difference would make up for the anime’s downsides.
It may seem strange for me to recommend an anime I haven’t even seen yet, but that just shows how alive this series is. Mushishi is part fairy tale, part human case analysis, and a whole lot of supernatural mystery. Despite the title sounding like it stars a bug master (and, quite frankly, was what I originally thought the series would be about), the mushi are more like microbes: some are helpful to humans, some harmful, but all mushi just operate according to their instincts. They live deep underwater and in the skies. Mushi can look like normal plants or take the form of people. Some unsuspecting people get actively tricked by a mushi, but others just accidentally get infected. The author, Urushibara, really created quite a species.
As I mentioned, there is no overreaching plot. Ginko ends up in a new area and finds a new mushi-related issue. That’s it. There’s nothing here about a power struggle among the mushishi or how the ultimate mushi is on the verge of emerging and infecting the planet. Mushishi is pretty much about Ginko’s random encounters set in an alternate late Edo or early Meiji Japan, so you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting more. But unlike many other “go around and solve problems” manga, the “problems” aren’t necessarily an issue for people. In fact, many find comfort from the mushi. Is it wrong to want to be reunited in some form with a lost loved one? Yes? No? Ginko offers his assistance, but he never forces a mushi extermination. His clients are the ones who have to struggle and accept their decisions. Some stories have a happy ending, but others are bittersweet. It’s just like real life; the best choice for one person doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for everyone. A few of the stories feel a bit redundant, but, overall, Urushibara keeps the magic of this world alive. The addition of mountain guardians also add some more supernatural aspects outside of the strange mushi.
Unfortunately, without an overreaching plot, the manga just ends. There’s really nothing here to have prevented Mushishi from ending at volume five or continuing on to volume 50. It’s a big disappointment the manga just sort of fizzles out instead of going out with a bang. I know the tone of the series is pretty relaxing, but it lacks some of the desire to revisit the whole epic journey like most good manga of its type. I might want to reread some parts, but I don’t feel like I have to reread the whole series. Again, this plays into the whole “is-it-worth-buying” debate since the manga doesn’t really have any set-ups or slow builds spanning volumes.
Ginko is the titular character, but he isn’t always the most important character in a chapter. He never hogs the spotlight, and, in some cases, it’s quite a while before he does anything besides listening to a story. Ginko is not all-knowing, and I like how we find out what is happening along with Ginko. There are quite a few cases where Ginko has to operate as a mushi detective to figure out what is causing people’s problems or the unnatural scenery. It’s quite a different approach than, say, xxxHolic where Yuko pretty much is omniscient. Ginko is knowledgeable from all he’s learned, not all he’s divined. We get some background information on him, but who he is as a person is secondary to his job title. Only a few characters bring out a side of him outside of the wise mushishi, and I do wish we could have seen a few more instances of his “off-the-job” personality.
As mushi themselves have little designs outside of copying real-life creatures and objects, the scenery is the visual star of this manga. Trees, plants, even houses are shown in exceptional detail. It can’t be easy to design a tree in both its prime and at the end of its life. People sometimes develop mushi-related diseases that cause them to sprout abnormal features like grass legs and webbed fingers. While Mushishi seems like it would be set around the late 1800s, the Japanese influences are much stronger. Don’t expect a lot of Western clothing or carriages. It’s not quite a feudal manga, so Western readers won’t be lost or confused by the Japanese aspects. Regardless, at times, the manga looks like a black-and-white photograph. You can see the beauty of the sea and the horror of encountering strange shapes in the darkness. Even with concepts of death, the manga is never graphic. Character designs are pretty minimal, and you are bound to spot some almost-twins — even triplets — across the series. As a serious-toned manga, very few comedy bits are included. So there’s a limited amount of manga staples like the SD faces and sweatdrops, but I feel like those would take away from the story’s realism.
Honorifics are used. Terms like “ojou-sama” are replaced with “Lady”. We get some mixing of some terms like “Master-dono”. Most terms and names are kept in Japanese. Several pages of translator’s notes are included at the end of each volume. I did notice some awkward grammar and typos throughout the series. Some of these mistakes are a bit distracting. Nothing like a run-on sentence to make you do a double-take. The lettering uses Del Rey’s most popular font, one that doesn’t include all caps. I almost always prefer all-caps for both Eastern and Western comics for simplicity and ease-of-reading.
Mushishi has some wonderful stories, but I feel like manga isn’t the best format for them to be told. This is probably like reading one of those junior novelizations of movies. They have some differences, but is it really necessary to experience both? Despite the manga version being the source, I’m leaning toward no for Mushishi. Go for the anime instead.
Mushishi is available digitally. The physical volumes are out-of-print and have undergone quite a price hike. Mushishi 1 starts at almost $20 shipped for a used copy (MSRP $12.95). Volume six starts — STARTS — at $150, and most of those are just in fair or acceptable condition! Good used copies are easily $200, $300+! Absolutely ridiculous!! The complete series is pretty rare on eBay, but expect to pay more than the cover price.
As I mentioned, go to Crunchyroll and FUNimation for the anime.