It’s not every week a series can add Kazuhiko Inoue and Fujiwara Keiji to the cast, but it’s a damn good week when it does. Seiyuu are just that – they rarely make or break a show – but it’s consistent with the realization that Mushibugou is a series that’s sneakily turned into a virtual blockbuster. The series has a huge cast that just keeps getting more and more interesting, played by an astonishing list of great voice actors (Inoue-san, especially, is one of the very finest pure actors in the seiyuu business IMO) and a plot that reflects a truly impressive display of imagination on the part of the mangaka Fukuda Hiroshi. Which shounen become blockbusters and which also-rans is an inexact science that doesn’t always make sense to me, but this show deserves much more recognition from the English-speaking audience than it seems to get.
Inoue-san was actually introduced briefly last week, playing the role of the Southern Magistrate Oooka Tadasuke. Kuroageha refers to him as “the smartest man in Edo” and that is indeed how he was known in his lifetime, and he makes a superb addition to the dynamic of Jinbei and Kuroageha’s road trip. Oooka is the adult in the group to Jinbei’s overeager pup – consistently correcting Jinbei for his endless string of protocol and strategic mistakes. It’s not a matter of malice – he simply doesn’t understand why the Magistrate has chosen Jinbei to protect her – and Jinbei doesn’t resent Oooka for it. The two represent different extremes, but they’re both fighting for the same goal – and this being a shounen, Oooka will undoubtedly end up learning as much from Jinbei as Jinbei does from him.
The dynamic between Jinbei and Kuroageha continues to be one of the best parts of the series. This is terrific work by Kenn and Megumi Han (who’s making a very good impression very quickly), and I find Kuroageha’s feelings for Jinbei especially charming. We see the icy princess have her heart melted by the commoner many times but rarely so convincingly – she’s alien enough to make the gap between them inescapable, but her feelings have grown slowly and organically into something very much like love, driven by all the right reasons. She wants to pursue something because her heart wants it for once in her life, and his simple honesty and courage are quite unlike anything she’s seen in the bizarre world she normally lives in. As the plot grows bigger and bigger, the relationship between Jinbei and Kuroageha is the element that makes the series work on a human level.
The story itself is building to a crescendo in Kishuu Province, where events are barrelling towards a cataclysmic collision. The magistrate there is Munenao Tokugawa – played by Fujiwara-san – and he’s received word that the Princess is coming to access the well that might restore her powers. But Sanada Yukimura has beaten her there, and given Munenao an ultimatum – build him the indestructible warship he wants (originally proposed by Oda Nobunaga and redesigned by Sanada himself) or he’ll kill all the citizens of Kishuu. Munenao has no choice but to accept under the circumstances – and he takes it upon himself to bar the Princess’ party (and everyone else) from the province. His reasoning is sound – with Sanada there, it’s not safe for Kuroageha to enter – but none of this is known to Oooka, who naturally knows a secret way into the province.
There’s a much bigger obstacle than a few city guards – Jinpachi Nezu (Shundou Nitsutoshi) another of Sanada’s Ten Braves turned into his ten Mushibito. It’s a fascinating notion, the Ten Braves as insect men a hundred years after their deaths – and Jinbei and Oooka have a disagreement about taking Jinpachi on that reflects the difference in their philosophy, and reveals the depth of Kuroageha’s admiration for Jinbei. Jinpachi is defeated (of course) after a tough struggle, but it’s a tense and explosive situation in Kishuu. Munenao is trying to placate Sanada and save his people while hiding the existence of the well, as well as keep the Princess safely outside – and when news breaks that outsiders who know of the mushibito have entered Kishuu, he has to deliver their heads to Sanada or see his citizens killed as retribution. Meanwhile she and her protectors are headed towards the very castle Munenao is trying to keep them away from for her own safety.
There are still elements of this plot that haven’t been connected together, but considering this is a partial adaptation of an ongoing manga, it’s impressive how coherently and seamlessly the plot is being constructed. That gives me a lot of hope that Hamana-sensei (a very good veteran director) will be able to give Mushibugyou a satisfying conclusion in 26 episodes. I’m pleased that I spotted the potential in this series even after the first episode, but I confess my expectations for it were relatively modest at that time – and it’s safe to say that in terms of scope, subtlety and character development it’s already exceeded them. Mushibuyou is a damn fine shounen and a damn fine anime, period.