It’s quite usual for me to have to step back and reflect after watching an episode of Mushishi. It’s that sort of series – it stays with you long after the fact. The effect is something like what happens when you drive the Pacific Coast Highway in California – when I close my eyes that night, I see panoramas of Big Sur and Monterey and S-curves playing out on the inside of my eyelids as I fall asleep. But “Azure Waters” is the sort of story that’s especially impactful even by Mushishi standards, like a blow to the gut.
It’s rare that the worlds of Mushishi and any of my other anime favorites collide, but so it is here with the casting of Han Megumi as Yuuta, the boy at the center of this week’s chapter. I always feel there’s a bit of a loss of realism whenever Mushishi casts an adult as a child, and I don’t wholly exempt “Azure Waters” from that. Still, I was quite surprised to hear that it was Han-san that was playing the role – she continues to display truly impressive range as an actor. I was aware I was listening to a woman (which removed me from the moment just that little bit) but had no idea it was Han. Think of this as the Yang to the Yin of her performance as Gon in Episode 116 of Hunter X Hunter – the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. This was all gentle sadness and innocence – that was about indescribable rage and the loss of innocence.
I think the themes of this episode exemplify my oft-repeated “simple yet profound” mantra, as the best chapters of Mushishi so often do, and require little in terms of interpretation. The symbolism of Yuuta’s life – and by extension life itself – as drops of rain in an endless cycle of rebirth is almost unbearably beautiful and sad. Yet what touches us most deeply is the way that symbolism is made material here, in the love between a mother and a son. And unlike in the last few episodes, “Azure Waters” ultimately settles on the painful moment of letting go rather than the joyous moment of reunion.
Mushishi is somehow especially in its element when using the medium of water. Rivers, canals, oceans, swamps – and most especially water as it falls from the sky as snow or rain, and as it impacts the land it falls upon. Artland depicts the falling and flowing of water perhaps more beautifully than any studio in television anime, and water of course represents life. The flow of water is mirrored in the life cycle of most of the mushi we meet, most certainly the Uko, the mushi which reside inside Yuuta’s body. They allow him to swim like a fish, give him webbing between his fingers, but make his skin cold to the touch and impair his ability to speak and interact with other humans. Yet his mother Taki (the legendary seiyuu Orikasa Fumiko) – whose name ironically means “waterfall” – loves the little boy unreservedly, and he her.
When Mushishi deals with humans possessed by mushi, the question of where the identity of one ends and the other begins is always central, but never more so than here. It’s clear that Yuuta is a vey real little boy in most respects, no matter how strange he is. But Ginko offers Taki medicine which can (and does) considerably reduce the effects of the Uko’s possession. The crucial moment, however, comes when Ginko makes a mistake in using the occasion of a flash flood to offer Taki a chance to rid her son of the Uko for good. He’s missed a vital clue – Yuuta’s denial (he’s by now speaking quite normally) that he ever nearly drowned, the condition of a rare human possession by Uko. It was in fact Taki that nearly drowned – her husband did – and the mushi actually possessed the fetus in her womb, which was far more akin to the frogs and salamanders a group of Uko stranded far from the sea normally choose to inhabit. And as such, it bonded with its host far more deeply than it ever would with a human.
What a heartbreaking denouement this chapter has, with Yuuta-kun literally dissolving into mist in his mother’s arms. It’s remarkable that she doesn’t seem to resent Ginko for what’s happened, for she was clearly quite content to spend her days with her son even before Ginko’s medicine made him so much more “normal”. This amounts to quite a grave error on Ginko’s part – certainly not the first we’ve seen, but it’s a harsh reminder that he’s for from omnipotent. Taki is heartbroken, naturally, but seems able to at least take comfort in the notion that Yuuta isn’t truly gone – that he is in fact everywhere now, in the rain and the river and eventually, in the ocean neither of them (or the Uko that possessed him) had ever seen. With this transformation, at least, Yuuta can finally go home.