Mushishi can be quite an uplifting show at times. The thing is, pretty much the entire emotional spectrum is covered within the boundaries of this series – nothing is off-limits because it has limitless range. We see stories about the redemptive power of love – often that of a parent for a child – but also stories about the darker side of the emotional spectrum. Humans are capable of brutalizing each other in ways that can be far more damaging than physical violence.
For the third time in four weeks, we see a chapter centered around the relationship between a mother and a son. This is a very different sort of tale, though – every bit as heartbreaking as “Azure Waters” (though for entirely different reasons) and probably even more painful to watch. In “Azure Waters” and “Thread of Light” we see the power of a mother’s love for a son deemed strange or difficult by others, the power of that love unaffected by the way outsiders (or even other family members) view the child. Here, we see the damage that the absence of a mother’s love (and worse) can do to a son.
Reki (well-known child actor Yamada Akira, who’s asked to carry a heavy load here and does so beautifully) is a boy with an obsession with lightning. He lives near a tree which has a reputation as one that “calls” lightning, which has caught the attention of Ginko. The boy’s mother Shino (Megumi Kobashi) has a cold and alien presence to her. And the father (Taisei Shuji) seems entirely disconnected from the others in his family. When the others leave the room, it’s telling that the first question Ginko asks the father is “Are the two of them related by blood?”
It couldn’t be more obvious that something is very wrong here – there’s an unsettling and bleak quality to the episode from the very beginning. But through flashbacks we soon learn the truth – Shino was forced into an arranged marriage she didn’t want. She tried to miscarry her baby rather than birth it. And once the boy was born, she was cold and distant towards him from the beginning. This culminates in her trying to murder him by tying him to the aforementioned giant tree during a thunderstorm, which results in Reki not just being struck by lightning, but possessed by the Shouraishi (“Lightning Summoner”), a lightning-eating mushi whose larva will enter a human body through the navel when unable to return to the sky after a lightning strike.
It’s no secret that Mushishi is really much more a study of human relationships than it is of mushi, and that Ginko to varying degrees often becomes a counselor as much as a Mushishi. Still, this is a fairly terrible situation he’s walked into here. I don’t think there’s any question that Shino is a pretty horrible person – arranged marriage or not, she’s emotionally abandoned a child who’s blameless in all that. And not just abandoned, but attempted to kill. This makes Ginko’s job much harder, because not only is Shino unable to find the umbilical cord Ginko needs to make a medicine to extract the Shouraishi ( we’ll later find out why) but Reki is completely indifferent to his own survival. In order for Ginko to save Reki, he was to want to be saved – and he believes it’s only Shino that can make that happen.
There is a redemptive side to “Lightning’s End” and it’s the fact that in spite of his loveless upbringing, Reki has become a noble person. He’s content to let his mother think that he calls lightning to strike him in the tree as punishment for her (richly deserved) but in fact, he does so to make sure the house is safe and the villagers (wary of the tree) uninjured. And when he flees to an open meadow to call lightning so Ginko won’t interfere, he pushes his mother away after a hollow embrace when she declares that the two of them should die together. The terrible truth is that she’s just admitted that, despite Ginko’s urging, she can’t bring herself to tell Reki she wants him to live.
Even for a mother who’s just told him she wouldn’t be sad if he dies, Reki has consideration – would Shino have done the same, if their situations had been reversed? It’s not exactly what you’d call a happy ending – but Reki does survive, the Shouraishi using this last meal of lightning to complete its growth and emerge as an adult, returning to the heavens. And he leaves his home (severed cord in hand) to live with relatives – hopefully ones who can give him the affection and care he deserves, while his mother gets another chance at the life she frankly doesn’t. Mushishi isn’t about manufacturing happy endings for every situation, and sometimes the solace we take isn’t from the redemptive power of love, but the strength to go on even when life in painful and unfair. In Reki’s strength there is a certain comfort to be taken, because the sense is that after having faced what he has, he’s going to be all right.