In many ways I think “Lingering Twilight” is very much a companion piece to last week’s “The Fragrant Darkness”. Both chapters concern themselves with the comfortable, familiar lifelong bonds that we form and which sustain us in old age. And both turn on a phenomenon associated with the coming of darkness, and the sacrifices we make for those we love. And in the end, both challenge us to decide for ourselves whether the ending is a tragic or a redemptive one (or perhaps a little of both).
Once again “Twilight” finds Ginko in a peripheral role, a bringer of knowledge but not a savior. Once again he does little more than allow the characters at the center of the drama to know the truth – how they choose to act on that truth he leaves up to them. This is in fact his role in most of the stories in Mushishi that don’t directly involve him as the protagonist, largely because they rarely involve matters where the issue of right and wrong is a simple one.
The characters in question are Youkichi (Nishimura Tomomichi) and Mikage (Suzuki Reiko) – though in fact there’s a third vital player here, and that’s a young girl named Akane. We first see her playing with her friends, who leave her to wait for her father as twilight falls. But Akane never makes it home that night – instead, a strange girl who has no memory of her past appears in the fields at the place where Akane was last seen by the young Youkichi. The villagers are naturally suspicious – in European folklore the belief would have been that Akane had been “spirited away” and replaced with a faerie child, and indeed the belief isn’t all that different here. But Mikage is by all appearances a normal child, and eventually she’s adopted by Akane’s father and (it’s hinted) more or less encouraged to “become” Akane for him.
The next time we see Mikage it’s as an old woman lost in the woods, with no idea why she’s there – which is how Ginko finds her, and returns her to the now elderly Youkichi at their shared gasshou-zukuri home. The two bicker amicably like any pair of contended elders, but the fact is that Mikage has been wandering off at night, saying she’s “going home”, and Youkichi is worried. After she’s asleep Ginko tells Youkichi that this may be work of the Oomagadoki (“Great Witching Hour” – interestingly, Ginko never specifically says this is a mushi), a being of shadow that appears at twilight. When one steps on its shadow or it steps on theirs, they switch places – with the human presumably left adrift in the shadow world the Oomagadoki inhabits.
It’s pretty obvious what’s happened here, and Mikage has overheard the conversation and put the pieces together. Both these old souls have reason to be wracked with guilt – Mikage for having stepped on Akane’s shadow, and Youkichi (who it’s clear was sweet on the young Akane) for having grown to love and marry her. But Ginko doesn’t judge either of them for this, and I’m not sure we should either. Youkichi has certainly done nothing wrong, and could anyone say truthfully that in Mikage’s place – frightened and alone in a world of perpetual dusk – that they wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to do what she did?
Again, we’re faced with a sad ending as a postscript – Mikage passes away a few years after the events of the episode, and Akane reappears as a shadow when Youkichi is visiting her grave. But as with “The Fragrant Darkness” I don’t think Youkichi’s decision is so obviously a tragic one. He’s lived a full and happy life, and even now Akane has retained enough of herself to be too kind to accept his offer to switch places with her. So Youkichi forces the issue – driven by his own guilt, perhaps, but in doing so he gives Akane a second chance to have the kind of peaceful and happy life that he’s had.
As is so often the case with Mushishi, we’re left to ponder an ending that’s full of loss yet also somehow hopeful and redemptive, and one that will stay with us for a long time. Perhaps this is because with Mushishi there are no true endings, no chapters which resolve themselves neatly – simply stories which lead us into the next. In this sense the end cards which close the episodes could hardly be a more appropriate bridge between them.