I would strongly advise aspiring anime directors to avoid watching this week’s Mushishi. I think the instinctive reaction would be, “What’s the point after someone has already done that?” In an ideal world, on your very best day, you might just be able to duplicate it – but you’re certainly never going to do better. For an anime episode that captures everything that’s good and powerful about its subject, I think “Valley of the Welling Tides” was as close to perfect as it’s realistically possible to get.
The laundry list of superlatives for this episode is daunting. It was a sad and beautiful story, bittersweet in the way the best Mushishi tales usually are. It featured Ginko in arguably his most important role this season, and spun a truly memorable and meaningful tale about a compelling supporting cast. And while I don’t know what the real situation at Artland is, I do know that any studio that can produce an episode that looks as unrelentingly gorgeous as this one did can’t be beyond saving. Even the animation was superlative here, never mind the usual eye-candy backgrounds.
I’ve said it before, but there’s something about Mushishi and snow, some kind of mono no aware resonance effect that tends to make these episodes that much more beautiful and powerful. Falling snow and mountain snowscapes seem to bring out the best in Artland. This time around the setting is an isolated valley high in the mountains, and for the first time in a while Ginko is intrinsic to the plot right from the beginning. As the episode opens we see him holed up in a snow cave as a blizzard rages, seemingly unconscious. He’s discovered by a local man, Houichi (Matsushita Akira, another screen actor delivering a stellar Mushishi performance) who carries him back to his home.
This is a classic Mushishi premise – a rough but beautiful simple farm in a harsh but breathtaking setting, the voices of children played by real children, a seemingly straightforward and futsu situation that’s hiding something strange. Ginko first notices it in a glimpse of a lush green rice paddy through an open door, then in the unusual sweet smell he detects from Houichi when he finally meets him after regaining consciousness the next day. Houichi and his family are relentlessly kind to Ginko, who’s injured his leg – they feed him lavishly, the children are adorable, and Houichi is strong and possessed of seemingly boundless energy and work ethic. It could hardly be a more idyllic and admirable scenario, an ideal family building on oasis of plenty and kindness in the midst of winter.
One of the virtually endless array of things I loved here is that this episode perfectly captures Ginko’s dilemma. More often than not he isn’t asked to intervene in the lives of the people he meets – it’s a choice he must make, to be the one to deliver harsh and cruel news, and with a family as happy as this one that task is all the more thankless. It can’t be easy for him, and the reaction is nearly always “shoot the messenger”, which – while frustrating for us as an audience – is certainly understandable. Yet Ginko cannot un-know what he knows, and his conscience as a Mushishi and as a man won’t allow him to simply walk away.
In this instance Ginko has deduced that Houichi is operating under the influence of a parasitic Mushi called Chishio (“milk tide”) – one that converts the bodily fluids of the newborn host’s mother into milk, and once the host matures exudes a chemical that promotes the growth of plants. It then drives the host to work tirelessly to feed itself, and when the body collapses it leaves, finding another infant to start the entire process all over again. But the reaction of Houichi’s father (Kazumasa Takemoto – another film actor) is predictable – he’s angry and Ginko for recalling the tragedy of his wife’s death, and for interfering in the happy life his family has achieved in their little valley.
Truly, there’s so much pathos and so much that’s profound in this scenario. Houichi’s mother (Yoshie Tsuji) was glad that she’d been able (thanks to the Chishio, though she didn’t know the cost then) to produce milk and allow her son to survive till weaning, even if it meant giving her own life. Houichi works tirelessly for the goal of providing for his own family so that they’ll never want for anything, and believes he’s achieved what he has through his own hard work alone. There’s true nobility in what these people believe, even if it’s influenced by a Mushi – so in that sense, does it even matter why they feel what they feel? The feelings are real either way. The Narrator speaks of a “living tide” which imbues the Earth – “Milk turns to blood. Milk begets blood and returns to Earth.” Is what we’re seeing here so different, really, from the endless cycle of procreation which every species on Earth practices? Is the human experience not, more than anything, a story of parents giving of themselves to create their children and give them a chance at life?
Mushishi is not about simple answers or heroes and villains. It’s about beauty, and sadness, and contemplation – a meditation on questions that defy easy answers. As usual in its ending it leaves much up to us to decide, just as Ginko often does in his departures. He’s left a medicine with Houichi’s father that will purge the Chishio, and Houichi has told him that he cannot give up the power that allows him to provide for his family. But Ginko tells us that several years later, harsh winters have come to the valley – yet the valley still echoes with laughter and joy. Has Houichi decided that the sacrifice – of himself, or even more tellingly of his wife – is too great? Has his father slipped him the medicine without his knowing, his love of his son or the need to honor his wife’s sacrifice impelling him to do so? Each of us, just as in life, must decide on our own answer – but Mushishi has once again beguiled us with a gripping and moving fable that leaves us with much to think about.