Mushishi is a broad and ambiguous collection of vignettes, and it offers few easy answers. In light of this, it seems silly to try and impart any “one truth” of Mushishi’s narrative – everyone will take something different from its stories. In light of that, I hope my audience will forgive me for my own somewhat selfish experience of this series. Mushishi can mean many things to many people, but it means one very important thing to me.
“When it’s all gone, something carries on.
And it’s not morbid at all – just when nature’s had enough of you.
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not.
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn.
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to the earth.”
–Head Rolls Off, Frightened Rabbit
The Boy Who Conjured Life
The “Hand of God” is what they call it. A strange and perhaps unnatural gift, that grants its bearer the power to conjure life from art. Whatever the bearer draws with his gifted/cursed hand takes form, drifting off the page and adopting a life beyond its creator’s intent. In truth, it’s not anything all that unusual.
All art creates life. As a very young man, I was surprised and elated to discover this – that the things I could create, could conjure from experience and craft and will, would actually take form, adopt a life of their own. I wasn’t a particularly social child – in fact, I’m not a particularly social person. What I see in the world often seems different from what those around me see. Where others see connections, I see the tiny embers of stories, floating wisps that might be the tails and limbs and unruly organs of writing waiting to be. These visions can seem more “real” than any other reality – be it through a pair of eyes that see far into the distance, or a vision that explains the phantom pain which seems so mysterious to others, these perspectives define their bearers’ realities. Mushishi is full of such people, whose strange visions of reality set them apart from even those close to them. Who, like Tanyuu, take of the mundane and human experience of the world and bleed out something new. Who, like the man chasing his father’s rainbow, turn a passion into an obsession, into a life pursuit.
The Stone of Great Misfortune
The Hand of God is perhaps an unhappy gift. Though it allows its owner to bring their personal visions to life, it also creates distance. The boy who bears it is separated from society, left alone in the mountains, and perhaps that is for the best.
The gifts of those touched by Mushi are a strange and ambiguous lot. Just like any act of artistic creation, they can often offer great fortune for others even as they impart a heavy toll on their wielder. Like the woman with the far-seeing eyes, who tells futures she cannot prevent until her prescience overwhelms her ability to live. Or the girl who chooses to live purely as a conduit for this insight, the Ikigami, abandoning the hectic dangers of the human world for one of slow, pure connectedness. Even when the gifts of the Mushi are purely positive, they are always different, and invite suspicion. And far more often than that, they aren’t positive – or at least not purely so.
The most pure expression of this ambiguity might be found in the story of the inkwell-crafter. Though she trains hard to create objects of beauty, ultimately her breakthrough comes when she is briefly touched by a Mushi’s influence – and the stone she crafts is a masterpiece. But though she intended it only to express her own ability, the stone moves beyond her grasp, causing suffering far afield even as she tries to stop it. We cannot control what our artistic creations will mean to others, how they may help or hurt. And the sharpness of this vision, both in how it makes us strange and how it reflects on those around us, can very easily breed distrust. Meaning isolation is often the natural lot of a life dedicated to the arts.
The River of All Life
The source of the Hand of God’s power is left vague, but the insight Mushi tap into are strongly represented through the presence of its bearer’s grandmother, Renzu. She once drank from a cup offered by the Mushi themselves, and so drifted apart from mundane humanity. Though this gift offered her both a glimpse of communal wisdom and a kind of immortality, it separated her too far from human nature, and now she can only observe, no longer able to be an active participant in the lives of those she cares for.
The true nature of the Mushi is an open question in this show, opening the door to such self-aggrandizing reads as this very essay. It is described as “a kind of living organism more fundamental than humans” – something closer to a communal nature, to a common insight or consciousness. The events of each story confirm this, and offer their own elaborations and cautions regarding this base nature. The universality of the Mushi is a kind of collective awareness reminiscent of Zen philosophy, where the nature of life around you and the passing of days is all the insight there could be, all that there is. Though this broader perspective (and perhaps even the outsider status it entails) is actually what grants those touched by Mushi their insights on the nature of the world, it also presents a constant danger. Step too far into the Mushi’s world, and you will lose any sense of an individual self. The girl chosen as the Ikigami embodies this, and the girl who almost joins the swamp comes close – having lost or devalued their connections with the human world, they embrace a communal existence that denies their mundane, human nature. Get lost in your own visions, embrace the insights of the Mushi too deeply, and there will be no self left to come back to.
The Island of Rebirth
Fortunately for Renzu, the boy possessing the Hand of God is visited by a Mushishi – a chronicler of Mushi, who catalogs this strange world and deals with those on the borderline between Mushi and humanity. The Mushishi Ginko is able to recognize the humanity in her, and gives her a choice few could offer – a chance to either complete her passage into the egoless immortality of the Mushi, or to return to life as her grandson’s human caretaker.
The question of immortality, and of the purpose of life more generally, is a consistent refrain in Mushishi, and the island of rebirth (where those nearing death can be reborn as children) exemplifies this question. As a girl’s mother is boated away to be reborn, she begs for her daughter’s forgiveness, saying “Forgive me, Mio. I am afraid of vanishing.” Mushi can grant immortality of a kind, but it is a fractured gift, often expressed as the half-life of the girl who falls from the bridge, or the girl who becomes the Ikigami. Mushishi does not seem to cherish such ghosts, which is in keeping with all of its thoughts on artistic creation. We cannot make copies of ourselves to outlast us – we can only live as we are, create what we can, and let those beyond us interpret what we leave behind. Like the master Mushishi, who dies in order to protect his mountain, but has a single disciple to carry on his legacy. Ultimately, it is this form of legacy-interpretation that even the island of rebirth must be content with – though Mio’s mother is “reincarnated” through her granddaughter, that girl is her own person, just as our art has a life of its own. Mio’s worries that she is simply raising a copy of her mother are assuaged by the ways her daughter proves her own influence, itself a far more natural form of immortality. Whether our heirs are as precious as new daughters or treacherous as the cursed inkstone, we cannot fully control the legacy we leave behind.
The Girl Who Fell into the Sky
In the end, Renzu agrees to return to the human world. In fact, it is her grandson’s very gift that draws her back, his power of creation recreating the tool that distanced her in the first place. These two worlds reflect on each other in this way, and each gives substance to the other. Those touched by the Mushi need human contact – both to maintain a tether to this world, and to give their insights meaning and purpose.
This need for human contact is perhaps best represented by the girl who fell into the sky. Accidentally ensnared by a Mushi, and rescued only by the Mushi-awareness of Ginko, when she returns to human society, her existence as a distinct individual is still fraught. Trapped on the border between realities, it is only through the faith of her lover, who believes in her in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that she is able to maintain contact with the mundane world. When she feels she is not valued by her lover, her existence wavers – it is only by continuously reaffirming the value of human contact that she is able to live as an individual.
So it is for all those distanced by their visions – though solitude comes naturally, it is only through human connection that happiness can be found. The story of the man who painted his mountain goes even further than this – though he strays far from his home and connections as his art career unfolds, he is eventually undone when the village that was his home is buried in a landslide. Without that touch of human connection, his art has no spark, no humanity in it. Whatever insight we may draw from the Mushi, it must be tempered by our connection to other human beings, or it has no universality and soul. What purpose does art have if it is a solely private gesture? Though Mushishi’s characters live on the edge of society, it is always the edge, and not wholly removed from it – though the Mushi-sight is an isolating gift, this isolation must be fought for the gift to bear meaningful fruit. Just as it is the act of being observed that turns an aesthetic object into an art experience, so too is it the act of being valued by others that gives us value, vitality, and life.
The Sound That Wasn’t There
The boy with the Hand of God does not begrudge his gift – he is simply unhappy he could not share his sight with his grandmother. Though she loves and protects him, she cannot understand his powers, and thus there is always distance. But this is not painted as a good or a bad thing – it just is.
Often it seems like the characters of Mushishi would be better off without their gifts. They cause pain, they create distance – but as much as the characters rail against them, the show does not condemn Mushi-sight as a true burden. Like the Mushi themselves, the strangeness of these individuals just is – if it were gone, they would not be who they are. Painful or not, these gifts are precious – and the characters of Mushishi occupy the space between because it is so very rewarding to bring from the realm of Mushi to the realm of people. To live with distance is terrible, but to surrender entirely to the Mushi, or to give up their strange realms after once seeing them… such fates are worse still. The woman with the far-seeing eyes comes closest to expressing this, saying “I’m afraid of losing the light, but I’m more afraid of a world that’s entirely white. If you could see everything, and change none of it…” It would likely be easier to surrender to the Mushi entirely, and live as the Ikigami… but the human instinct drags us back. Perhaps their definition comes less from their base nature, and more from this very insistence on their execution – perhaps what makes an artist is not talent, but the inability to live as anything else. These gifts are meant for creating meaning, for sharing beauty with others. Their pain is a part of their responsibility, and only makes the importance of building bridges back to humankind that much greater.
The Man Who Walked Between
After helping to restore the necessary human connection between the boy with the Hand of God and his grandmother, Ginko once again sets off into the wilderness. A natural attractor of Mushi, he cannot stay in any one place himself – instead of living within society, he must travel through it, wandering its edges and connecting with those who lack connection. Though he offers precious human contact, he himself lives like the Mushi – when asked what the purpose of his traveling is, he has no answer. He simply travels – that is who he is.
There is a reason this show is called “Mushishi.” This is not a show about the Mushi – about the pure land of artistic insight, human isolation, and communal existence. And this is not a show about people – about their daily lives and mundane concerns, and the human warmth they often take for granted. This is a show about the place in between. It is about the eternal compromise between the connections we crave and the strangeness that makes us unique, makes us ourselves. As the show itself says, “between dream and reality is the vault of the soul” – it is only by merging our strange individual visions with our solid human connections that true beauty can be found. Mushishi is a show about what makes us different and what makes us the same. It is a show about the ambiguous gift of creation, and the enduring strength of connection. It is a show about people meeting and people parting, hoping they will one day meet again.