12 Days of Anime: Mushishi

Embarrassingly, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of Mushishi somewhat ancillary to the actual content of the show. More than anything else, what sticks in my mind is the incredibly strong opening.

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It’s just such a startling musical choice, quite entirely different from other OPs – softly sung in english with simple acoustic guitar the sole instrumentation. It starts gentle, and features this dramatic tempo slowdown towards the end, the lyrics being emphasized just that much more – a bit of musical complexity that you rarely hear in more conventional pop-style OPs, and both noticeable and appreciated in it’s own right.

I say that the OP is in one sense ancillary because there are many things that seem much more critical to the Mushishi experience than the opening number. Ginko is a phenomenal protagonist, a character who is simultaneously compelling to watch in action while also being intricate enough that we come to a continually better understanding of him after each episode. The setting itself is praiseworthy, a semi-mystic take on isolation-era Japan, rife with mysteries and strange creatures, each with a story to tell. And the stories themselves are haunting and strange, balancing tales of optimism and grief, horror and rapture, and frequently juggling many all at once.

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Despite that, my mind goes to this OP before any of those things. I think part of the reason for this is because of the uncanny tonal resonance between the OP and the show itself. The visuals of the OP are abstract but evocative of forest – heavily filtered composite images of leaves, trees and brush. The music is relaxed and pensive, with that slowdown at the end even further emphasizing this contemplative tone. All of this serves to invite the viewed into a mood and mental space that compliments the show – by the time the first scenes of an episode play out, we’re already set to ponder the natural world, and then the show seeks to give us a direction to ponder in. This is one of the few series that sees me watching the OP fully with each episode. It doesn’t feel like a semi-connected music-video; it feels like an integral part of the experience.

The music itself wasn’t written for specifically for Mushishi. The song – titled The Sore Feet Song – is by a Scottish musician named Ally Kerr, written originally for his first album; it wasn’t written with Mushishi in mind, and seems to have only wound up at the start of the show because a staffer thought it was a good fit. To be honest, I was surprised to find this out because of how well the music resonates. The Sore Feet Song – especially the first stanza, which the OP features – speak of arduous travel, weariness and pain, and of loneliness. Though it speaks of these hardships, it doesn’t have any resentment in its tone. Rather, Kerr sings these lyrics with a sense of acceptance – fondness even – and a longing for warmth and connection at journey’s end.

Though the stories that Mushishi tells are not normally tragedies (with notable exceptions – “The Pillow Pathway” stands out as a particularly grim chapter) they are almost all stories of hardship. The spirit-like creatures – the mushi – around which these stories center are no more malicious, but also no kinder, than a disease or a natural disaster. These creatures exist, carrying on their ancient and natural agendas, with little regard – ill or benign – for the humans sharing the world with them. Peoplenare inevitably caught up in their wake – through ignorance, carelessness, or simple whim of circumstance – and their lives are changed, for either better or worse, as a result.

Even the protagonist, Ginko, shown to be as adept in the managing and co-existing with these creatures as anyone can be, has been marked by the mushi, a brand which fates him to one day be consumed just as his master was before him.

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Despite this, he travels and helps others who are themselves caught up in the influence of the mushi. He makes friends, listens to people’s stories, and enjoys the beauty of the world and the warmth of human connections. The humans he helps themselves rarely react to their circumstances – dire though they may be – solely with anger and fear. Just as often they are awed, moved, humbled by the circumstances of their lives.

The world of Mushishi is neither sadistic nor cruel. Mushishi tells the story of a natural domain that is far larger and more incomprehensible than any of us can know; it is a world that we are not in control of, and which is not always fair, nor is it always charitable. But it is also a world full of beauty, and full of people to be with. The opening song that sticks so thoroughly in my mind only serves to highlight this. Just as Kerr’s music suggests, Mushishi wants us to cherish this world, hardships and all.

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