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Time To Get Mushi: Goodbye to Ginko as "Mushi-Shi" Ends

by on May 10, 2008

As with everything great in life, it’s all about timing. In television, it’s about finding the balance between “too little” and “too much,” between bowing out too soon and going on too long. It seems like a lost art these days, but on rare occasions a show will get it right. And after 26 episodes, Mushi-Shi comes to a close—and it feels like it comes not a moment too late or a moment too soon.

This Japanese adaptation of the manga classic has been high on my recommended list since I started watching it last year. It has done so much right and so little wrong, but it’s not really a show that could go on forever.

Mushi-Shi is an anthology show of stand-alone tales set in a non-specific era in rural Japan. The mushi are natural entities close to the purest form of life—existing on a plane so deep in the essence of being they can only be seen by a few. They can be a help or a hindrance; a symbiote to a living host or a parasite eating away at its victim; or an element existing in harmony with its environment. The Mushi-Shi are the Mushi Masters, travelers who help solve problems involving them. Mushi-Shi is about one specific Master, Ginko, and his fantastic adventures as he searches for mushi.

As I’ve said in previous reviews, the show’s beauty stems from its ability to mix storytelling elements in perfect proportion: the stories that are neither underexplained nor hindered by too much exposition; that bring to life the habitats and environments they establish; that capture the tone and pace of the life they describe. The final three volumes in this set are more of the same—great stories executed with great skill.

Volume 4 is probably the most enigmatic of the final three volumes, with episodes that certainly require a couple of watches. But “Sunrise Serpent”, a tale of a mother’s fading memory, is both the simplest and the purest exemplar of the elements that make Mushi-Shi such a wonderful watch, featuring heart-wrenching drama, creative storytelling and beautiful visuals. Volume 5 is possibly my favorite, though, mixing the traditional Mushi-Shi elements with a deeper and more disturbing undercurrent. “Cotton Changing,” for instance, is a deeply malevolent episode about a far more manipulative breed of mushi than I recall seeing, wrapped around the struggle of two parents trying to cope with their rather unusual offspring. Volume 6 seems to bring Mushi-Shi to a far more personal level for Ginko, and has some great episodes to round of the series. For me, “The Sound Of Rust” is the purest form of fairy tale they’ve done, with an ending that simply wouldn’t fit in our Hollywood-ensnared sensibilities. A nod must also go to “The Sound of Footsteps on the Grass”, possibly one of the most subtle episodes about the mushi, and a fine ending to this series.

I recently went back and watched the opening story and was surprised to notice how the show, which was good even at the start, has nevertheless actually improved. Quite often, the closing moments of the later episodes aren’t as clear-cut or so easily resolved as those from earlier in the series. As it has progressed, the creators have upped the ante—a great way to keep its vitality from eroding and to keep the audience thinking. While the last volumes don’t advance the story in any particular way, the show seems to have tightened its ability to tell these complex stories.

That said, audiences can grow tired of even shows of great quality. The magical sense of discovery fades. And while Mushi-Shi is creative, its format is to some degree restricting. The mushi are so alien that the viewer is always one step behind, having to wait for Ginko to explain their whys and wherefores and pull a cure out of the hat. It is probably wise to end the show before this aspect of the show became frustrating.

The final disk comes with the show’s first commentary track with Travis Willingham, the English voice of Ginko. I must doff my hat to him, for he’s one of the rare English-language VAs who is actually superior to the original—though possibly he was aided by the dub writer-producers’ decision to keep many of the original Japanese names and nouns. Volume 6 also has a selection of pages from the original manga, a feature I wish they had offered earlier. I’ve long been wondering how the show compares to its printed sibling.

Beyond these, the special features on these last volumes resemble those on previous volumes, with continuing featurettes, interviews and textless songs spread throughout.

Mushi-Shi is a show that will spellbind you, and it is certainly the best FUNimation series I’ve been offered to date. The DVDs are beautifully designed with a smattering of decent features and a great set of stories on each disk. For the casual viewer, you can find your pleasure in any of the six volumes, though I think volume 5 gets my highest recommendation. For the collector, this is one of the few series that finds enough time to bloom without lasting too long to wither. It’s a worthy acquisition for anyone who enjoys animation with a touch of innocence and a wealth of beauty.

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