There’s an even more elemental quality than usual to Mushishi lately.
If you’ve been an anime fan long enough to remember the first go-around for Mushishi, no one could blame you for feeling a little bit uneasy about the current state of affairs with the series. The final six episodes of the first series were originally cancelled, then shifted to DVD only (Blu-ray was just launching as a consumer product), and finally broadcast several months after the first 20. It sold quite well, but Artland has done very little since and their finances were uncertain when Zoku Shou was announced. No new episode for two weeks our of three does nothing to relieve that uncertainty – production delays were certainly the cause of last week’s “encore” of the special, though whether it was an issue of finances or the production process itself is anyone’s guess. With 18 chapters still planned all we can do is hope for the best.
Watching an episode of Mushishi, then or now, would give you few clues that anything might be amiss – the series is still utterly beautiful, though Artland and Nagahama-sensei have always achieved this mostly through gorgeous backgrounds and a minimalist style (which the manga shares) rather than truckloads of sasuga animation. And it’s a peculiarity of Urushibara Yuki’s manga that Mushishi seems particularly Japanese in both form and content, yet is also undeniably universal – for all that Mushi are in a sense the ultimate Shinto expression, the emotional themes are not at all culture-specific. And as distinctly Japanese as the landscapes are, you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to see an episode like this playing out in Portugal or Chile, or even Polynesia.
Mushi are themselves practically elements – one might almost argue they represent the “element” life, as if it were akin to air or Earth or fire – so it isn’t surprising that there’s an elemental feel to many Mushishi chapters. There’s a Jungian quality to this series, in the archetypes of the collective unconscious sense. But this season seems more literal about it than most – cold, rain, and now wind have been the centerpiece of recent episodes. The young man at the center of “Wind Raiser” is Ibuki (Yosuke Saito, yet another seemingly brand-new seiyuu). He’s a sailor who has a very special ability – with his whistle he can call and even control the Torikaze (“wind birds”), bird-like Mushi (the second ones we’ve seen this year) who bring with them a breeze all their own, obviously useful for a sailing ship at sea.
This is one of those Mushishi stories that wanders off in a direction that’s quite different than how it originally appears. Ginko has bought passage on the vessel on which Ibuki is a greenhorn sailor trying to get hired on full-time, and he’s very impressed with Ibuki’s ability since Mushishi – himself included – can only control Torikaze with a special whistle. Ginko warns Ibuki not to call the Torikaze at night with a very vague “something bad will happen”, but naturally on the first night after Ginko is deposited ashore that’s just what Ibuki does, with disastrous results for the ship. Mysterious holes appear all over the hold, and it sinks – though the crew manages to make it ashore on a lifeboat.
Here’s where things take a dark and unexpected turn, but it doesn’t take us into the realms of the sinister as Mushishi sometimes does. Rather, it turns out that the essence of “Wind Raiser” is really about the dysfunction in Ibuki’s family. The first clue is his mother’s diffident reaction when he shows up at home, almost disappointed that he hasn’t drowned. Something is clearly very wrong here, and it turns out (though it’s never expressly stated, it’s obvious enough) that Ibuki is adopted, and it seems as if his stepmother has always been cold towards him. He initially brings disaster – the Yobiko who bore the holes than sunk his ship and who make his stepmother ill – by accident. Fortunately this village is also the home of Adashino-sensei, who Ginko is visiting to try and sell a few of his trinkets, and the two of them are summoned to treat the stepmother. But when he learns the truth Ibuki calls the Yobiko again, knowing full well what will happen if he does. As is so often the case, the real danger here is not the Mushi but the humans who misuse them.
This isn’t the sort of series that judges its characters, as a general rule – it’s more about showing us their nature and letting us make a decision for ourselves. What Mushi represent as often as anything is temptation – the means for certain people to achieve what they desire through the paranormal. The results can be positive or negative, and always reflect the nature of the person in question – and Ibuki is no different than anyone else in this sense. As is often the case Ginko is in the supporting role here, a kind of spirit guide – he too refrains from casting judgment but makes certain that Ibuki understands the full consequences of his actions. A child treated with coldness and contempt can often become cold and contemptuous himself, and it’s understandable – but it’s as Ginko says, this is a moment where Ibuki needs to choose what sort of man he wants to be. Like Teru in the previous episode, Ibuki makes what’s ultimately an enlightened choice, though it isn’t without consequences. And that fits with the larger tenor of Mushishi, which for all that it glories in revealing the darkness that’s inside of us seems to take a broadly optimistic view on human nature.