Thinking back on this episode, the only word that seems to fit is “sublime”. It was every bit as perfect as last week’s masterpiece, though completely different. One of the great pleasures of Mushishi, of course, is that it has so many contrasting facets at which it excels, and can present all of them while still feeling completely consistent. As I’ve said before the experience of Mushishi really is an experience rather than simply an act of viewing – it transports you mind and soul in a way few other anime (or other artistic endeavors) can do.
As we’ve come to expect from Artland, production-wise things are a confusing mess with Mushishi. The last two episodes (a two-parter that manga readers have been seriously jonesing for) of this cour have been cancelled for TV broadcast, and won’t be released until the November Blu-ray volume (at least in theory). The end card for “The Depths of Winter” confirms another cour is indeed “planned” (their word, not mine) for Fall 2014, but given this studio’s history you’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical. Artland has perpetual production delays and seems always on the edge of insolvency, yet they still produce heartbreakingly gorgeous episodes. What’s one to think, really? For me, it’s best to view the prospect of more Mushishi as a hope rather than an expectation.
Given that context, we can at least take solace in the fact that “Depths of Winter” works astonishingly well as a finale, in addition to being a brilliant episode on its own merits. It’s all Ginko, start to finish, and brings the season to a close with a story that showcases the ethereal beauty and mystery of the world of Mushishi as well as any could, in addition to leaving us with a good deal of mirth. And again, it’s gorgeous – Artland again displaying matchless aptitude for snowscapes and the art of depicting falling snow, then topping itself with equally beautiful panoramas of the rebirth of spring in the mountains. As a whole it’s a cleansing, meditative experience of the sort that only Mushishi can really provide and it leaves the series in a wonderful place, whatever happens next.
“Depths of Winter” is a study in economy – an elegantly simple story with minimal dialogue that relies equally on sound and vision to appeal to every aspect of the viewer’s consciousness. Ginko is passing through a mountain on his way to respond to a summons when he sees the signs that the Mountain Gods are about to have the “awakening” – the rebirth of spring after the long winter’s sleep. As this means the return of hungry spring Mushi from their hibernation, Ginko decides to hole up in a homemade lean-to, protected by Mushi-repelling incense, for a few days until the process is complete. But when he wakes, he discovers that he’s in the midst of a blizzard – even as the surrounding mountains have begun their spring.
We’ve seen Ginko caught in these sorts of “closed” worlds before, but this telling is especially beguiling. Unable to escape Ginko goes in search of the lord of the mountain, who he finds at the edge of a small pond – a withered old turtle covered in snow. The only sounds are the haunting BGM and the even more haunting screams of the Oroshibue (“whistle of the mountain wind in winter”) – the winter Mushi who should have migrated north, but remain trapped in the closed mountain. I can’t say enough about the way these Mushi are drawn and, especially, “voiced” – it’s unforgettable – and the Mushi-dono calls them down to drive Ginko backwards into the pond. This turns out to be a mud of some kind, inside which the creatures of the mountain are sleeping, nourished by Kouki welling up from the Koumyaku deep below, protected against the damage of the typhoons that had ravaged the mountain earlier. And Ginko, too, is pulled into slumber for a time, unable to resist the elemental power at work around him.
When Ginko is released from the spell, he breaks the surface of the pond – now water again – and sees that spring seems to have sprung all around it. His own bottle of Kouki has spilled and the Oroshibue are hungrily consuming it, nourishing themselves for the trip north. And Ginko realizes what’s happened – the wily old turtle has lured him into a trap, needing his Kouki so that the winter Mushi could replenish themselves the way the animals in his induced hibernation have. He slumps to the ground in a meadow covered in flowers, hands behind his head, flashing a rare, wry yet truly mirthful smile – a bit vexed at having been taken in, but respectful of the guile of the Mushi-dono at doing what had to be done for its mountain. It’s a wonderful moment, a celebrating both of Ginko’s character and of the fascinating world that Mushishi has created.
And so it ends, for now. It does seem likely that we’re going to see more Mushishi one way or the other, so I won’t treat this is a farewell post but as a reflective one. Apart from the production issues this season of Zoku Shou has met expectations in every way – any fears that the series would have lost its magic were quickly dispelled. It truly was as if no time had passed, so seamless was the transition between the Mushishi of 2006 and 2014. The gorgeous art and music, the quiet brilliance of the writing, the vocal performances so unlike traditional anime – it all worked every bit as well as it did then in casting a unique spell. Mushishi is a great manga but the anime is even better, utilizing every tool available to the medium to make the experience even more magical and engrossing. Apart from the production delays which plagued both the old and new seasons, Mushishi now as then stands as a model for how a great manga should be adapted – faithful in every way to the source material, yet not limited by being so. It’s one of the all-time anime classics irrespective of genre and a true gift to those that treasure anime as art.