「香る闇」 (Kaoru Yami)
Last week I mentioned ephemerality as an abiding quality of Mushishi, and this week we see it played to its full with an episode filled with the motif of cherry blossoms. Cherry trees, ubiquitous as they may seem in anime, hold special meaning for the Japanese. Cherry blossoms are symbolic of the transience of life, beautiful but short-lived. This appreciation of mortality is part of the classical Japanese spirit, so much so that they have a special name for it: mono no aware. This episode of Mushishi captures that bittersweet wistfulness with artistry that few anime try to replicate. It’s not that we’re dealing with purely Eastern concepts—Classical literature lauded death as its most revered subject, and memento mori, the Romans would say—but Mushishi‘s treatment of both life and death has a beauty quite unique to animation as a medium. If ever one needed an example what makes anime ‘Japanese’, Mushishi is it.
The passing of time is a familiar subject for Mushishi, and never quite like this week where we simply have Kaoru (Furukawa Toshio) and his childhood sweetheart Iku (Kakinuma Shino) grow old together in peace. Fun fact: the seiyuu for our happy couple are actually married in real life; maybe that added to the authenticity for you. In our supernatural Mushishi world, though, it was a strange feeling watching these normal people live through their uneventful lives, only having to deal with their own, mundane troubles. Strange, but oddly satisfying. Unfortunately, to liberally paraphrase Tolstoy, happy people don’t make much of a story, and the peace, as one may expect, doesn’t last. Or does it?
Time travel, or rather a time loop, is nothing new to fiction, and we’ve seen mushi that grant do-overs or warped forms of immortality like this week’s kairou before. Harken back, for example, to episode 22 of the first season, which discussed reincarnation. This time, though, it’s not about fresh starts; it’s about regrets and attachment to the past. The urge to go back in time to ‘fix‘ things is an old chestnut, but that’s not exactly the real temptation as presented in Mushishi. After all, Kaoru manages to turn his back on the Looping Tunnel the first time around. Humans are fickle creatures. He’s actually content with his life, so he resists the urge to revisit his past. The stronger temptation is not regrets for the past, but fear of the future. When Iku was alive, he wishes to see his life continue. When she was dying, he feared to go on without her.
Mushishi notes a subtle distinction: regrets are less about ‘that shouldn’t have happened’ and more ‘what if that didn’t happen?’, less about righting a wrong and more about not having to live with that wrong. It’s the same reason why ‘death before dishonour’—a Japanese warrior tradition tied closely with mono no aware—is the coward’s way out. But Mushishi isn’t too quick to pass judgments. With Iku also drawn into the kairou‘s time loop, the final verdict is left to the viewer. Is her fate a sort of nightmare, or a sort of bliss? Kaoru didn’t deliberately take the tunnel to fix the past, but to delay the future. Is it wrong? Will it last? I suppose that will remain, pardon the pun, in the dark. Fragrant Darkness is not just a literal description. It’s also a metaphor for the future, both alluring and unknown, desirable but terrifying. And it’s not always pleasant flowers down the end of that tunnel.