We have our answer about Artland’s plans for the final two-chapter story in the Mushishi saga, “Drops of Bells”. As did the first cour of “Zoku Shou”, this one will be finished with a special, but this time it will come as a theatrical release next summer (there will also be a stage play in 2015). I certainly don’t begrudge the parties involved the chance to try and make some money off their admirable labors, and I look forward to seeing Mushishi on the big screen with a big screen budget (hopefully). Of course that means it’s going to be quite some time before we see “Drops of Bells” with subtitles, but the usual Mushishi message of taking the bitter with the sweet seems appropriate here.
With that said, today certainly marks the end of an era – an anime journey that began more than nine years ago and ends with “Tree of Eternity”, one of the most powerful stories in the Mushishi canon. The wait was certainly too long, but this series is timeless in every sense of the word. It, like its protagonist, seems somehow distinct from the surroundings – an anomaly. Trends and tropes have no impact on Mushishi, and its message seems every bit as fresh and powerful as it did when Urushibara Yuki began the manga in 1999. It is, in a word, unique – and it will surely go down as one of the greatest anime of all-time.
As a concluding story, “Tree of Eternity” marks a fine choice. Despite its episodic nature there is a continuity to Mushishi, and the narrative does flow in its own singular fashion. Nagahama-sensei has played with the timeline some while generally following the manga’s course – “Tree of Eternity” was actually followed by “The Scented Darkness” as penultimate chapters in the original. “Darkness” too would have made a wonderful finale, I think – it’s certainly one of the absolute standout stories – but Nagahama seems to prefer to start and end seasons with stories that touch on Ginko’s own history, as this one does. I for one have no issues with his choices.
As I noted last week, Mushishi‘s final run of episodes – as did the manga chapters – chart a course through the dark side of the series’ tonal spectrum. There’s been a strong focus on death and the capacity of humans to hurt each other, but “The Tree of Eternity” seems to strike a middle path. It’s a dark story, full of loss and hardship, but one that’s ultimately hopeful in its outlook. The focus here is on the bonds that connect us to the land around us. We are small, ephemeral creatures – here and gone in the blink of a leviathan cedar’s eye, never mind that of a Kami. Yet our lives are intrinsically bound to that which outlives is, the land and the trees and the beliefs we create with our cultural development. It’s when we lose sight of those connections that we become lost, and when we learn to listen to them that we find ourselves again.
The mushi in question is, once again, a catalyst rather than the focus of the story. It’s called Satorigi (“Enlightened Tree”), a being which takes up residence inside a tree and when it senses the host is in danger, flowers and then turns into a red, plum-like fruit. When an animal eats that fruit the Satorigi takes up residence inside that animal until seizing the opportunity to fuse it with a new tree where it can take up residence. In this instance, the Satorigi lived inside a gargantuan cedar tree, one which had lived for something over a thousand years. Over that time it survived earthquakes and lightning, fires and floods, keeping watch over the village which grew up at its feet. Over time the villagers first eyed it greedily for what it represented, feared it for its resistance to their axes, came to worship it as a God, and finally cut it down in a moment of desperation. And the Satorigi was eaten by Kanta (Tsujimoto Kouji) a boy who grew up in that village, and now has a wife and young daughter of his own.
Memory is a central theme of this chapter. Because of having ingested the Satorigi, Kanta now shares the memories of the tree – and because of this he remembers things he’s never seen (including having met a young Ginko when he traveled through along with Isaza and their Master, following the Koumyaku). That master told the boys a story of the great tree in whose shadow they rested – a story overheard by the tree, and thus now a part of Kanta’s memories. Kanta is himself a restless soul, the very opposite of the eternal tree – he travels widely plying his skills as a builder, enjoying this life of freedom but neglecting the family that loves him. When Kanta goes searching for the tree he sees in his dreams, having realized it overlooked the village in which he grew up, he too rests next to that great cedar – but now only its stump remains. Kanta becomes fused to that stump because of the Satorigi, and Ginko arrives too late to prevent it from happening.
The conceit Mushishi asks us to accept here is that trees might have feelings and sentiments all their own. That in fact, this tree – altered by the Satorigi (and perhaps the Koumyakuy flowing below it) so that it could not be cut down – altered itself to allow the villagers to do so and save their village after a fire destroyed the trees on which they made their livelihood (Mushishi often reminds of the fragility of existence in these rural villages). The most powerful part of the resolution for me, though, is that in fact through experiencing the hardship he has (Ginko knows of no cure for Kanta’s legs) Kanta comes to realize what he’s been neglecting – that he loves his family and his village, and that being forced to remain with them might just be a blessing. Kanta himself has become the oracle of the tree’s wisdom, and it’s through him that it manages to save the villagers once more – its benevolent love of the people who revered it outliving the tree itself.
This is a beautiful notion – that our knowledge and feelings might serve to help those we love, even after we’re no longer around to see it. Kanta has found a new purpose in his life to replace the wanderlust which drove him – he has a thousand-year story to tell, and only the lightning flash of his own lifetime in which to tell it. Mushishi is surely, if anything, a lesson in the impermanence of existence – a chronicle both of the eternal flow of life and of the ephemeral lives which flicker briefly and disappear.
It’s hard to find much that’s new to say about Mushishi now, given that it’s a show that doesn’t lend itself to simple analysis to begin with. When a series this good comes to an end, what I feel more than anything is gratitude towards the parties involved. From Urushibara to Nagahama to Artland, Mushishi has been a marvel of consistency and greatness – even if its production history has been anything but seamless. The manga is undeniably brilliant, historically so – but Nagahama and Artland showed us that as its very best, anime is a medium that has the power to make even the greatest of manga even better. Via its note-perfect music choices and casting (most obviously the unorthodox selection of Nakano Yuto as Ginko, but also by almost universally casting children in child roles and generally avoiding overexposed industry stalwarts) Mushishi the anime perfectly captured the essence of the manga yet also transcended it in every way.
This is an important part of the story of this series no doubt – Mushishi has now (or at least as of the movie’s release) received a complete adaptation that does justice to the material. How rare that is, in this or any age – and what a reason to celebrate. No anime year has more desperately needed a series like this than 2014 needed Mushishi. Its intelligence, its fearlessness, its subtlety and beauty have been a tonic against the increasing homogeneity and dumbing-down of TV anime. I’ve said before that Mushishi is for me a bit like meditation, and I believe that more than ever. It’s a truly broadening experience, a story that makes you both think and feel in equal measure. It opens your mind to new possibilities and inspires to reflect on your own experience, and does so in utterly compelling fashion week after week. What more could anyone possibly ask from a work of fiction in any medium than that?
So, let the countdown to “Drops of Bells” begin – and in the meantime, I can only offer my heartfelt appreciation to everyone involved in the production of Mushishi. There’s never been another anime like it and I sincerely doubt there ever will be – it transcends genre or demographic labels, and exists simply as itself. To say that it’s one of the best series of 2014 is beyond obvious – in fact, it’s one of the best anime of any year. On a personal level, it connects me to a very different place both in my life and my journey as an anime fan, and its timelessness gives me cause to reflect on how much I’ve changed (and the world, too) over the last nine years. Appreciate this masterpiece for just how miraculous it is, because we’ll never see its like again.