When I let myself think about how every week takes us one step closer to the end of Mushishi, the pain is almost a physical one. I’m fiercely glad this profound and beautiful manga is getting a comprehensive adaptation, even one bisected by an eight-year hiatus – and a faithful one that improves on the source material at that. Every great manga deserves that and very few get it, so it’s something to be celebrated. But the only real good side of incomplete adaptations is that when a manga is ongoing, there’s always the hope – however faint – hat you might one day see the anime finished. When Mushishi ends in December it will truly be the end – and we’re not likely to see another series like it again.
Most episodes of Mushishi are a pretty meditative experience, but “Sea of Otherwordly Stars” especially so. It’s quiet, contemplative, unsettling without being truly scary. When you boil this series down to its essence in plot terms, Mushishi is really about one basic idea – that there’s more to the world than what most of us can see. Is that really so hard to believe? What seems a fantasy is actually something closer to a psychological and anthropological free-association, one poetic explanation for all the things in our lives that we can’t explain.
Japanese belief, with it’s numberless Shinto Gods and Zashiki-warashi and night parades of youkai, seems a perfect medium for this sort of thought. When we meet the girl named Izumi (Matsuura Ayumi) who lives all alone in a strange house in perpetual twilight, she blames the strange occurrences (her doll being hidden, onigiri appearing from nowhere) on a “Kami-sama mitai” – a God or something like it – and seems not at all frightened by the prospect. Izumi doesn’t remember how she got to that place or why she can only see a tiny round patch of stars in the sky, and it isn’t until a strange apparition appears one day that she displays any real sense of fear.
As has often been the case this season (and thus, in the final run of manga chapters) the mushi is rather indirectly connected to the crisis at the heart of the episode – while it’s crucial to the events playing out its impact is indirect. It’s really the decisions of the people involved that are the primary driver of events. In this case the mushi is the Isei (Well Star) that Izumi seems at the bottom of the well in the woods behind the house she shared with her family, which her older sister and playmate Mizuho (Mayu Lino) cannot see. One day Mizuho sees her sister fall down that well, but when their father (Iwainofu Ken) searches for her, he finds only the doll the two sisters fought over. He’s skeptical of Mizuho’s story, but their mother (Sayaka Kobayashi) believes her daughter, and believes her when Mizuho says that Izumi is somehow still present in the house – and summons Ginko (apparently not the first Mushishi she has) to try and help.
The exact mechanics of what happens here aren’t exactly clear, but it seems that Izumi – who could see the “sparks” given off when the Koumyaku ran up against the underground spring feeding the well – enters the world that runs alongside this one, where the river of light runs its course. There are echoes of Western ghost stories in this scenario, no doubt, though little of their menace – there’s a quiet beauty to the strange world Izumi sees at the bottom of the well. Though Ginko is able to help Izumi come home, it seems we’re in for a bittersweet ending when the father caps the well to break its hold on his daughter. The final scene of the episode, though, is one of the most beautiful and uplifting of the season – strangely moving for all its mystical remoteness. It’s moments of strange, quiet beauty like this that Mushishi is able to produce like no other anime of recent years, and like the image of the otherwordly sky in Izumi’s mind, they stay with you long after our eyes can no longer perceive them.