Japanese Title: 蟲師
Release Date: March 24th, 2007 (Japan)
Running Time: 131 mins.
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Writer: Yuki Urushibara (Original Manga/Screenplay), Sadayuki Murai (Screenplay),
Starring: Joe Odagiri, Yu Aoi, Makiko Esumi, Nao Omori, Reia Moriyama, Reisen Ri, Lily, Hideyuki Inada,
Mushishi is based on Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning manga. It is a title which has captured imaginations because it was quickly adapted into a highly regarded award-winning anime in 2005-06. To cap it all off we get a live-action version.
This story of an itinerant spiritualist wandering through a Japan just entering the meiji era is beautiful and poignant with bits of human drama and nostalgia. This combined with the visuals formed a wonderful film which is a visual and aural feast that submerges the viewer in a narrative that evokes wonder.
Mushishi begins with long-held wide-angle shots of rain-soaked tree-covered mountains wreathed with mist. It feels like a scene from a primordial time before man has trod on the earth and a time where spirits could be lingering in this natural world.
The film then cuts to a shot of two people trudging along a muddy road that clings to the side of the mountain. The smallest figure, Yoki, is a boy moving from town to town with his mother who carries a heavy pack with all of their belongings. All talk about spirits lingering proves right as Yoki can see wisps of spirits emanating from the landscape. These are mushi (bugs), the phantom soul of nature which breathes through the living and the dead. Think of them like magical presences which can affect people in various, mostly negative, ways such as causing the growth of horns and sucking souls. Few people can see them but it seems that Yoki (Inada) is one of them. They fascinate Yoki who lags behind his mother on the road. Perhaps this is what saves him as a landslip causes trees and earth to careen down the side of the mountain and engulf the road he and his mother are on. His mother yells at him to run before she is swept away. When the smoke clears all we see is Yoki clawing through rocks trying to find his mother while an enigmatic figure with white hair steps into high angle shot and watches his futile effort. Her name is Nui (Esumi) and she will play a pivotal role in his future.
Cut to a snowy landscape and Yoki has grown up into Ginko (Odagiri), a humble mushi-shi (bug master) who travels around Japan with his huge chest of medicines and tools helping people beset with mushi problems by trying to solve, or at the very least, lessen the problems mushi cause. The film tracks a selection of his adventures such as his first where he wanders into a snow-bound village and discovers that the inhabitants have been infected by mushi who make the villagers deaf in one ear. By following Ginko we see that mushi are everywhere and affect people in various ways but he is not alone in tracking the mushi of the world as he reunites with a woman named Tanyu (Aoi) who chornicles the different mushi in Japan to tackle a fierce mushi which may be linked to his past.
The film is directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of the landmark sci-fi anime title Akira, a film which, alongside Blade Runner, influenced the aesthetics of science-fiction films. The contrast between Akira and Mushishi could not be more different as the former is an apocalyptic adrenalized dystopian film laced with criticism of authorities and body horror while this is much more laid-back and contemplative, finding its inspiration in Japanese history and nature.
The film’s script follows Ginko who is a wanderer. His very journey sets up a series of vignettes that take place over a number of seasons with flashbacks to scenes of his past interspersed throughout. The story unfolds at a contemplative pace which is reinforced by the low-key nature of the action and the unadorned visuals.
The mise-en-scene is deliberately and perfectly orchestrated to evoke the atmosphere of a pre-modern Japan and I felt myself absorbed into this foreign world thanks to it. There are many beautiful landscape shots of forests, hills and plains where humanity is absent or near non-existent.
Where humanity is present people and houses are overwhelmed by nature, tucked away amidst groves and smothered in snow. Towards the end of the film technology encroaches with electric cables glimpsed in the distance but their presence is minimal, forgettable. The way scenes are lit with natural light from lanterns and fires creates fascinating portraits because of the multitude of shadow cast and the way the light falls on sets.
It created a distinctive look much like in the Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai and the low lighting actually adds to the beautiful scenery and the sense of being back in time. The use of the lighting gives deeper feeling to the blacks and whites on screen and colours on costumes stand out all the more.
The snow looked absolutely cold and the clothes the characters wore stood out.
Glint of an eye.
The mysterious mushi lurk in the darkness and are waiting to be discovered by Ginko with his lantern.
The people who exist in this landscape also put me in mind of Japanese from the past… well, what I conceive them to be like. The levels of formality people use to address each other and the way their clothes appear soiled and frayed in some way or other (apart from Tanyu who is portrayed by Yu Aoi who always looks gorgeous).
They have the perfect poise and behaviour for a story of supernatural beings infecting people. Humble and timid but earthy and curious about the mysteries of the world as well as the mushi.
The camera will opt for close-ups of the actors allowing the audience to carefully study faces and bodies. As the actors convey what their problems are to Ginko we notice details emerging from the way they carry themselves which indicates the extent of the mushi’s influence. When you watch the film, take a look at the fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, stubble and horns on the various actors.
The stories could be horrific but they are more subtle and intriguing.
The mushi themselves are where we see the use of CGI on screen. They come in a variety of types ranging from colours to white squirming things hidden in nooks and crannies to snail shells and even parts of Tanyu’s writing (how she controls mushi). Their variety gives rise to some beautiful impressionistic scenes where they are swirls of colour that surround characters – alluring but dangerous. The bugs are less monsters and more like leeches. The side-effects of a mushi can be something as minor (but still traumatic) as a person growing horns to stealing sound from an ear and causing a person to lose their balance thanks to being partially deaf.
Dealing with all of these Joe Odagiri who takes the lead role as the titular mushi-shi Ginko. He has a mop of white hair with its little parting that exposes his one eye and quietly confident look. He cuts a distinctive figure.
Odagiri’s cool and calm actions speak of his knowledge and intelligence and his friendly eyes and warm smile leave one open to hearing what he has to say. You can see why people invite this travelling stranger into their homes and discuss what ails them. That he is also knowledgeable and lugs around a huge cabinet of curiosities also helps give the impression he is an expert.
As magnetic an actor as Joe Odagiri may be, it is the other characters in the film add extra dimensions to Ginko’s character. His dealings with the girl in the first story assure us that he is a professional and a decent chap but we get real depth when we see his relationship with Tanyu, the two resigned to leaving placing feelings for each other behind their duty tracking the mushi reveals their dedication to their chosen professions but the two still indulge in their ability to be sentimental.
Yu Aoi as Tanyu is a serene beauty who I can watch all day so I’ll settle for this picture where she looks cute. If you get tired carrying her, Joe, I’ll take over!
Ginko’s travels with the comic and emotional Nijirou tracking a mushi is another highlight which reveals a degree of humour in the acting and script and revitalises Ginko’s faith and hopes which prove to be inspirational in helping him deal with one of the dark aspects with his past, Nui.
Ginko’s time with Nui from childhood to manhood is the heart of the film. It deals with the themes of youth and legacy and culminates in a final meeting which is creepy and tragic and cathartic but highlights both Ginko’s pragmatism and humanity and sense of duty.
The film is very Japanese both in its subject matter and themes with its high regard for nature and tradition (even if its fictional). We get an insight into Japanese mythology and mores by watching the way characters interact with each other and the spiritual world, always existing in the moment knowing that all paths must diverge and all things end and be consigned to memory. How a person lives their life and if they can cling onto hope and carry on with life defines whether they have a good ending or not.
Speaking of endings I felt that this film’s ending where Ginko walks away and fades off screen into legend just cemented everything I felt about the way the film described the time and place. It was a fitting end which capped off a film that had me enraptured. It is magical and mystical and very relaxing and I enjoyed it.
I am certain in my enjoyment of the film but conversations with others has lead me to believe it might not be as enjoyable for everyone. It’s very beautiful but slow so if you are in the market for something contemplative then try this out.