OP: “Shiver” by Lucy Rose
Mushishi is back – and it’s still the same masterpiece it ever was. How can you put something like that into words? It’s rare enough in anime to get a sequel almost a decade after a series has left the airwaves, rarer still when it’s one of the very best anime of all-time. There was really no reason to think that things wouldn’t be the same – this series is continuing where the first left off in adapting the magnificent manga by Urushibara Yuki (it will do so in two split cours), and almost all of the original staff are returning – but still, until that first episode aired there was always going to be the tiniest sliver of doubt. Would the Fates really allow something so wonderful to happen?
Truth is, I saw the premiere a few weeks ago at Anime Japan (with a live appearance by Nakano Yuuto) so I already had a pretty good idea that we were all right. But those were tough conditions – a screaming loud hall at Big Sight, no subtitles – and all I could really tell is that it looked the same. Still, that’s important, because if there was any aspect of the revival that was in doubt it was the production values. Artland hasn’t exactly had a string of successes since Mushishi, and the Hihamukage TV special showed a few signs of corner-cutting (CGI in Mushishi, for example). But this episode looked better than the special, no question – in fact, I’d say it was basically indistinguishable from the original. That’s a compliment to how great this show looked in 2005 as much as anything.
I mentioned in my post on the Hoozuki no Reitetsu finale that it was a great example of a studio and director using the advantages of their medium to make a great manga even better, and Mushshi is another case in point. Start with the OP – once again, it’s a gorgeous English (the country, not just the language) acoustic folk ballad. There’s the casting of Nakano-san as Ginko – he’s utterly unique and irreplaceable – and the added realism of using mostly unknown actors and casting the many child parts mostly with real children. There’s Doi Mika’s affecting narration and the superb soundtrack by Masuda Toshio. All of this in concert affirms the impression that Mushishi just isn’t like any other series. It bears a certain spiritual kinship with Natsume Yuujinshou – I think of it as a more austere, reflective cousin – but in truth, Mushishi can’t really be compared to anything else.
This episode begins Zoku Shou as a sort of symbolic handoff from the first series – combining elements from the premiere and the finale. The experience of watching Mushishi can be akin to meditation – you find your conscious thought process stopping and you immerse yourself in the moment, only becoming aware of the emotional power after the fact – and this was one of the more reflective chapters director Nagahama Hiroshi (let’s just pretend Aku no Hana never happened and call him a genius) could have chosen as an opener. Very often Mushishi ventures into the realm of the tragic, usually with children involved – though always with great restraint – but this is more of a gentle passage back into the world of mushi and the humans who live their lives in concert with them.
Sake has always been an important element in Mushishi (as it is in Shinto), and kouki – the glowing, golden nectar that is but isn’t sake – was a crucial element in the first series’ premiere. Here we meet a young sake brewer named Rokusuke (Uemura Yuuto) who introduces himself to us by introducing us to his father. When he was the brewmaster (he’s since fallen ill, we later discover) he became lost in the woods and stumbled upon what we know (but he doesn’t) is a gathering of Mushishi. The ever-refilling cup of the series premiere makes a re-appearance (as does Isaza, the young Mushishi who follows the River of Light, whom we met in the finale), and Rokusuke’s father snuck into the party last night in order the try that magical elixir.
In the present, the young Rokusuke, desperate to recapture the magic of his father’s brewing mastery, resorts to trying wild yeasts when changing the rice and water fails to make a difference (any fan of Belgian beer can tell you the amazing powers of wild yeasts). One of those yeasts produces a mysterious golden sake, which Rokusuke samples on his way to bring some to his ill father, hoping for a miracle recovery. After doing so he can see strange things – strange lights dancing in the air, tendrils clinging to him and grabbing at his sake jar. And he too stumbles on a strange gathering of strange people in the woods late at night before being approached by the blonde-haired Ginko (Nakano Yuuto).
What Ginko eventually figures out is that what he’s mistaken for Kouki is in fact Rokusuke’s sake – but made with a mushi called Sumitsutou rather than yeast. It’s so good it’s fooled the choosy Mushi Shoujounohige (Beautiful Girl’s Beard) who normally only drink Kouki itself. There’s some trouble with the Mushishi after Rokusuke unwittingly trades some of his sake under the guise of Kouki, but Ginko (who’s one hell of a problem solver) handles it easily enough. He tells Rokusuke that he’ll let him off if he promises never to sell the sake to the general public, but that he’ll tell his fellow Mushishi about it. While a sake that allows muggles to see Mushi could cause all sorts of problems, for a Mushishi it could be invaluable.
In the end, what matters most here (as is so often the case with this series) isn’t the specifics of the plot but the strong emotions of the people Ginko meets and the intensity of the experiencing of falling into this world. When Rokusuke’s father tells his son that sake is a “living thing”, and when that son tells his father that he doesn’t care about Kouki, he just wants to re-create what his father did, we completely understand on an elemental level. Mushishi is all about the mysteries of the universe and of the human heart, and the places where they intersect. There’s just no other series that can gently draw you into its sensory and emotional world the way Mushishi can – I’ve missed it, and it truly feels like a miracle to have it back.