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  • Powers of (Dis)Ability: Toward a Bodily Origin in Mushishi
  • Steven R. Anderson (bio)

The anime series Mushishi (2005–6),1 adapted from the manga by Urushibara Yuki, continues anime’s tradition of reconfiguring the physical form to expose more than just vital organs. Paul Wells describes metamorphosis as “the constituent core” of animation, and the climactic scene in Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s Akira (1988), when Tetsuo’s psychic abilities finally overwhelm him, stands as one of the most memorable examples.2 Akira proposes a transition from adolescence to adulthood that is directionally inside out, the body its significant origin point. Tetsuo’s metamorphosis in the film can be viewed literally, a change of physical form, as well as symbolically, an expression of Japan’s own ambivalence toward its economically powerful identity in the late 1980s.3

While readings of transformation that link to broader sociocultural themes may appear more promising for analysis, Mushishi calls for an analytic gaze that is exceedingly close to the body itself, largely resisting interpretations of Japanese society or identity. The series’ quiet tone, minimal aesthetic, historically vague setting, and natural beauty are contrasted with at times shocking depictions of illness, disability, and bodily invasion. Following a type of healer known as a mushishi (literally, “insect master”) named Ginko, the series depicts consecutive medical mysteries set around the interaction [End Page 77] between humans and the creatures known as mushi. “Neither beings like us, nor illusions,” the mushi are described as “a different form of what we consider ‘life.’” Pervasive yet visible only to certain individuals, the mushi are notable for their uncertain ontological status as well as their role in reconfiguring the boundaries of the human body. One of the central paradoxes of Mushishi is that human interaction with the mushi—creatures described as deriving from “life itself”—often results in suffering and loss. Characters lose their ability to see, walk, hear, and think because of mushi. Yet the suffering and loss of the human characters is often accompanied by curious new powers. In this essay I will argue that for the characters in Mushishi, loss and gain, ability and disability, coalesce within the body to form a uniquely (dis)abled state.

Inspired by the recent “transdisciplinary” field of body studies, which synthesizes works in psychology, philosophy, disability studies, and medical sociology, I aim to begin from this state of (dis)ability and work backward, tracing paths of digression to reconfigure previously held boundaries.4 Although I hope to challenge the normative body through an inversion of human ability and disability, my larger goal is to utilize theory on the digressive body to situationally locate it in an original space, a “bodily origin” that reveals something about what it even means to be a body. Approaching a bodily origin requires us to fearlessly catalog potential states—a broken rib, a dancer’s mastery, a cancer that has metastasized to the lungs—to understand both where we came from and where we might be going. Animation has the ability to imagine the human body as a “magical tabula rasa” that can project “both dreams and nightmares of what it is to be human”; through Mushishi I will delineate what exactly those dreams and nightmares can be.5 Then, I will go one step further, approaching the space between the normal and abnormal, the desired and feared, where an ambiguous, (dis)abled other resides— able although disabled, disturbed although magically enhanced. In these interconnected bodily extremes, repulsion and fascination meet in a challenge to human potentiality. There, at what the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva describes as the “border” of our existence, lies the bodily origin.6


Although described as deriving from life itself, the identity or even symbolic possibilities of the mushi remain enigmatic. Insectoid in their ubiquity, diversity, and ephemerality, yet visible only to certain individuals and able to interact with mammals and humans alike, the mushi seem to reside in a gray [End Page 78] zone that resists most symbolic readings. In the first episode of the series, the mushishi Ginko attempts to explain the creatures by presenting his arm as a metaphorical tree of life. Tracing the length of his...


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