I’d forgotten what a dark ride the last stretch of chapters of Mushishi is, but lest anyone think Nagahama-sensei is spiking the punch, he’s not – he’s adapting the manga more or less in order. One could speculate as to whether this is a reflection of Urushibara Yuki letting her true view of human nature finally emerge at the end of all things, but what can’t be denied is that the tonal development of this final season of Mushishi has been pretty unidirectional. Things have been getting darker and darker, and one could make a case (though hardly an open-and-shut case) that “Mud Grass” is the darkest chapter in the entire series.
This is a story as fascinating as it is bleak, for a number of reasons. Superficially it seems a fairly straightforward Mushishi episode: strange goings-on in a small mountain village, a child intricately involved, Ginko arriving to investigate and try to make things right. But while Mushishi is most obviously a series focused on the fantastical invisible world of the mushi which underlies our own, it’s every bit as concerned with the hidden world of entanglements which underlie human relationships. Both worlds can yield wonders both wondrous and horrifying, but the focus of late has been very much on the latter.
The mysterious phenomenon in this case is a plague of warts (they look like asparagus tips) growing on the legs of a group of villagers. This village has a tradition of their dead “returning to the mountain” – bodies are left in the swamps after death, and no one is permitted to enter the mountains for seven days. When they return, the body is gone – even the bones. Ginko immediately recognizes the culprit as the Mukurosou (“Corpse Grass”), a mushi which feeds on the dead and attaches itself to the feet of those who walk on what’s left of the body (thus the prohibition against entering the mountain). He treats the “warts” in the prescribed method, with success, and all seems well.
The true drama here, as usual, lies not with the mushi but with the human cast, and the secrets they keep. The first sign something is amiss comes when a boy named Sousuke (Koga Rumi) – who has warts on his own legs – asks Ginko to come help his Uncle, Shigeru (Yabe Masahito). Shigeru has actual stalks of grass growing on his entire body – of the kind that should only be able to thrive on a corpse. He tells Ginko that he’s Sousuke’s uncle, and that he and the boy entered the mountains in violation of the taboo in order to pay respects to the body of his younger brother Shinobu (Tsukmoto Junya). Shinobu, Shigeru says, had died after having fallen from a cliff, and he took his nephew in because the boy had no immediate family left.
There are a lot of really interesting elements to this story, right from the start. It’s the most deeply involved with the plot we’ve seen Ginko in quite some time, as he slides into his detective personality (that imagery is inescapable even before the truth comes out) to try and understand what’s happening to Shigeru. What Ginko eventually concludes is that the “smell of death” is clinging to Shigeru – for reasons which we see confirmed via flashbacks – but what’s really fascinating and very much in-character is the way Ginko chooses to deal with what he’s deduced. He makes it very plain to Shigeru that he knows exactly what really happened, but flat out says “I’m not going to pursue this line of questioning”. Ginko is not a cop, and more to the point, he doesn’t cast himself as the arbiter of moral judgements. He’s a servant of knowledge and the truth, and he chooses to let Shinobu decide what to make of that truth – knowing now that it’s a truth he cannot run away from.
As with last week’s “Lightning’s End” the ending here is incredibly bleak, though for somewhat different reasons. This is simply tragedy piled on top of tragedy – an accident which causes the death of a child, an admission of agonized guilt which causes one brother to murder the other and leave his child an orphan. We’re left to decide for ourselves what would have happened if the final moments of Shigeru’s life had turned out differently. Would he have killed his nephew to ensure his silence? If not would Sousuke, as his uncle claimed, have eventually enacted his own revenge? What seems clear is that Sousuke had no intention of causing Shigeru’s death (and indeed he didn’t), bur what’s less clear is whether there’s anything he could have done to prevent it. He’s the blameless one in all this, but he’s the one who remains behind to bear the full weight of the tragedies we’ve witnessed. It’s a pretty heartbreaking way to end a story.
We’ve now reached the endgame for the Mushishi anime, which is a heartbreaking thing in and of itself. If there’s been any official word on how Artland intends to handle the remainder of the material I haven’t seen it, but by my reckoning there should be three chapters left – next week’s “The Eternal Tree” and the two-part manga finale, “Drops of Bells”. It seems very likely that next week will be the “final” episode, with the true finale to come in the form of another two-episode TV special – but with Artland, I’ve learned never to assume anything. Even the possibility that Mushishi could come so close to a complete adaptation only to see “Drops of Bells” left out is almost too much to bear, but as unlikely as that seems I’m going to worry until we see the confirmation that the adaptation will be completed.