It’s not really fair to compare Mushishi with other anime, because they aren’t trying to do the same things. But it just reinforces the notion that Mushishi is a timeless series, because it seems so out of place on an anime schedule in 2014 that it might as well be a different medium altogether. I suppose the fact that this series can still find an audience, even if it’s quite a bit smaller than the one it had in 2006 if you go by disc sales, is a small miracle.
“The Fragrant Darkness” is another stand-alone masterpiece in the Mushishi canon, a story that’s alternately creepy, heartwarming and unsettling. It features Ginko only in a supporting role, as so many chapters do, yet there’s no sense that his presence is unduly missed because the experience is so immersive. Mushishi nearly always has an ability to transport the viewer inside the story it’s telling, but that’s even more crucial here because “Darkness” is the tale of one man’s vision of his world, and of how that vision may not be the entire truth of his reality.
On a rainy night, Ginko arrives at the doorstep of a simple farmer named Kaoru (Furukawa Toshio) who lives with his wife Iko (Kakinuma Shino) and their young daughter. Ginko, as he usually does, offers his services by way of payment for the hospitality, but Kaoru says everything is fine and routine – “the best sort of life” as Ginko calls it – and is content with listening to Ginko’s fantastic tales of life as a mushishi. It soon becomes clear, though, that there are strange elements in Kaoru’s existence – a memory triggered by the smell of flowers, especially at night, always hovering on the edge of his vision but never quite becoming clear.
It’s only when an older Kaoru, years later, stumbles on a strange cave on the way home from harvesting sansai that we see the truth – he’s living the same life, over and over. When he passes through the cave he emerges as a young boy (played by Takizawa Hijirinami), the son of a wealthy family in the sake business. There are unpleasant events regarding the son of the sake brewer Kaoru’s father has humiliated which lead to a drastic change of fortunes for Kaoru’s family, who eventually turn to farming – and there he meets the young Iko (Ota Miku) – significantly, in the act of smelling cherry blossoms. Eventually Ginko once again comes calling on a rainy night, and this time Kaoru shares his unsettling confusion with the visitor and learns the truth of what may be happening to him.
This is a very simple story, one without much mystery or overt drama to it – it’s not difficult to figure out what’s happening to Kaoru and that a Mushi (the Kairou) may be behind it. But there’s a great sense of realism to it – we’re sucked into the pleasant daily routine of Kaoru, and feel the vague sense of panic always hovering over him because he realizes the truth. The obvious question presenting itself from the beginning is whether Kaoru will choose to end this cycle, even after Ginko has clarified the situation – is it Heaven or Hell, reliving the same years with the woman you love over and over? Ultimately he seems to make the hard but correct choice – not to linger over regrets of the past but to face the uncertain future – but the Kairou’s long reach finds him even here, and seems to manipulate him into an even more difficult decision.
The ending of this episode is a tangle of conflicting emotions, and it’s not clear whether it’s a tragic or uplifting one – or something of both. It leaves you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, which Mushishi so often does. And it’s worth pointing out that the authenticity of the episode is greatly helped once again by the casting – not only using children as the young Kaoru and Iko, but casting Furukawa and Kakinuma – a real-life married couple who’ve been together for decades – as the adult versions. It’s just another example of how this adaptation makes Mushishi an even more engrossing and immersing experience than the brilliant source material.