- The Space between Worlds:Mushishi and Japanese Folklore
Adapted from Urushibara Yuki's manga, Mushishi presents a world of wondrous strangeness and allure. Here, life in its purest form courses beneath the Earth's surface, seeping into the soil and hanging in the air. Spirits of the dead rub shoulders with the living as mysterious creatures hibernate in mountain hollows and dwell beneath the surfaces of stagnant swamps. Like most stories of the fantastic, however, this world isn't as distant as it first appears. Reimagining the forms and themes of traditional folktales, Mushishi weaves Shinto mythology and rich evocative artistry into a tapestry as quintessentially Japanese as the medium it inhabits. Exploring these influences doesn't diminish Mushishi's charm but brings it tantalizingly closer, begging us to get lost within.
Guiding us through this landscape is Ginko, a traveling Mushishi specializing in the strange life forms known as mushi, literally meaning "bug" or "insect" but here referring to much more elusive creatures: "They are kept at a distance, coarse and mysterious, they seem to be completely different from the flora and fauna that are familiar to us." Set in an unspecified period of Japan's past, each stand-alone episode explores the effects these mushi have on humans. In episode 1, for example, Ginko travels deep into a thriving mountain forest. Inside, Shinra, a young boy, lives in isolation; unbeknownst to him, the spirit of his deceased grandmother maintains a protective vigil. Ginko discovers that when Shinra's grandmother was a young girl she took part in a mushi banquet, a gathering of mushi in human form who invite their guests to drink from a sake cup. Upon doing so the recipient ceases to be human and becomes an inhabitant of the other world, a plane of existence beyond our own.
Episode 1 also introduces the central tenets of Shinto, Japan's native religion. In her landmark study of shamanistic practices in Japan, Carmen Blacker explains that "our human world is no more than a narrow segment of the cosmos … beyond it lies a further realm, altogether 'other,' peopled by beings non-human, endowed with powers non-human, whose whole order of existence is ambivalent, mysterious, and strange."1 In Mushishi, this other realm is visualized as an expansive, ever-moving river of green light—animated using digitalprocessing techniques—known as the Kouki, or "light wine." Flowing beneath the earth's surface, the Kouki nourishes the land and inspires fear and fascination in the human world above. Each episode of the series features a different mushi born from this river.
Significantly, unlike its Western counterparts, the other realm of Shinto myth isn't entirely separate from our own. The boundaries are blurred and its intersections varied and veiled; the exact location of the other world and its entrance portals is subject to great debate. Many traditional folktales point below the ocean to the watery kingdom of Ryūgū, whose serpentine guardians block passage to halls of unparalleled wealth and beauty. Other myths and legends identify Japan's many mountains [End Page 341] as the home of kami and a point of intersection with the other world. Given that the Kouki is ever moving, Mushishi can conceivably explore both. Tellingly, the vast majority of episodes take place on Japan's shores or deep within inland mountains. Indicative of the importance of these locales, director Nagahama Hiroshi requested that Waki Takeshi, Mushishi's art director, produce background images for each episode before production began. The results dramatically amplify the series' stories, linking them to traditional folklore and contributing to the palpable atmosphere of earthly wonder that runs throughout the full twenty-six episodes.
In Shinto myth, the mysterious beings Blacker refers to are known as kami. Like mushi, they can be hard to define. Some people, quite specifically, believe kami to be beings from the other realm, while others, more generally, use the term to refer to anything beyond the ordinary. Both schools of thought agree that kami can have a profound...