One of the dirty little secrets about Mushishi is that most of the time, it’s not really about Mushi but about people. Each story is like a self-contained parable about the vagaries of human nature – our hopes and dreams, our capacity for love and compassion, for possessiveness and greed. The Mushi are primarily there as catalysts to reveal the true nature of the human characters in the stories. In fact, over time I’ve come to view each of them as almost symbolic of some archetypal element of human nature.
Looked at that way, it’s hardly a surprise that Mushishi continues to be riveting chapter after chapter, because there’s really no end to the diversity of the human animal and the human condition. After a gentle start Zoku Shou has veered sharply to the dark side of late – stories of tragedy, suicidal depression and sheer psychopathy (that would be this one). The many faces of Mushishi are the faces of ourselves, and Ginko the constant who guides us on our strange journey through the collective unconscious like some kind of chain-smoking Carl Jung.
“Floral Delusion” is a dark journey indeed, though it starts out with scenes of tranquil beauty. The Sakura, so beloved and revered by the Japanese – indeed, there is something almost hypnotic about the way the entire nation falls under their sway every spring. Ginko meets a young woman while admiring the local cherry blossoms, and asks her about a famous local Sakura, and she tells him it’s next to the house of a local doctor she’s on her way to visit for medicine for her ill mother. But when they arrive, the tree – gnarled, huge and ancient (Ginko estimates 600-700 years old) is bare of so much as a single blossom or leaf.
I can say truthfully that from the beginning, I felt something off about the “doctor”, Masaki (Miyamoto Mitsuru). There have been a few episodes where Ginko has been assaulted without warning by his human acquaintances, and there was something in the air here that made me want to shout a warning at the screen almost from the first moment. But things start out relatively innocently – Masaki tells Ginko he’s no doctor, just the latest in a family of “humble gardeners”. And he’s quite tender and kind with the strange, chillingly beautiful girl who sits under the tree, Saho (Toshimi Muto). Saho is quite helpless – “almost entirely” blind and deaf, and seemingly quite unable to fend for herself. Ginko soon links her condition with the strange foam inside the tree, actually a Mushi called Kodama (the Japanese term for a tree spirit, as Hoozuki fans will know), which greatly extends the life of any tree it inhabits, but takes away one of the five senses from any animal that consumes it. Masaki has been selling it as a medicine, and Ginko asserts his authority as a Mushishi (which is surely only moral, not legal) in telling the man in no uncertain terms that this has to stop. He also tells Masaki that he would be able to drive the Kodama from Saho and restore her senses, but he can’t say whether there would be any life left in her if he did.
I think it’s fair to say that the broad nature of what’s happening here is pretty apparent from the beginning. Saho’s spirit and health are directly linked to that of the tree, and Masaki is keeping some of the truth from Ginko. Superficially the chapter seems to be building towards a sad and sentimental conclusion, but that nagging sense of deeper wrongness grows stronger and stronger – and indeed, the full breadth of the darkness in “Floral Delusion” is far greater than meets the eye (or Ginko’s eye). As Ginko slowly puts the pieces together based on the odd nature of the family records Masaki allows him to investigate, Masaki reveals his true stripes – he’s the latest in the line of psychopaths in his family that have been killing young women, stealing their bodies and grafting Saho’s head onto them whenever her own body starts to decay (as it is at this very moment), just as they graft branches of the tree onto other trees to make them bloom gloriously.
There are so many fascinating elements to the resolution of the episode, starting with the bold and dangerous choice Ginko makes to save the life of the girl who’s come for medicine and found herself on Masaki’s chopping block. He kicks over a lamp (put yourself in the place of someone living in a time and place where all buildings are wood, with thatched roofs, and all light comes from flame) and burns Masaki’s house down while he flees with the girl. We’re left to wonder about the nature of what we’ve witnessed – was it simple human possessiveness that prompted Masaki’s family to so zealously defend the life of the “tree spirit” they saw Saho as, or was the Kodama itself exerting a hypnotic hold over them? As Saho lies expiring she exhorts Mansaku (Masaki’s ancestor, who first discovered the crying infant in the hollow of the tree) “No… Don’t!”. It seems very likely to me that whatever part of the human girl that still exists was trying to keep her life from being extended in this gruesome fashion.
Finally, we’re left to ponder (Mushishi always leaves us to ponder) the ending itself. As the house burns the ancient tree blooms breathtakingly, and Saho “blooms” as well – than expires in a most chilling fashion in Masaki’s arms. What became of the man, who Ginko tells us was never seen again? And what part of Saho still exists in the tree which one day blooms again next to the burnt shell of the house, as two travellers unsuspectingly rest beneath its beautiful blossoms? As is life itself, Mushishi is more questions than answers – but I like it that way. This was a beautiful episode, suspenseful, sad and gripping from start to finish. It was also another display of just how crucial Masuda Toshio’s incomparable soundtrack is to the alchemy of the series.
Next week, by the way, brings us an anime-original story, the first of the season.