Wandering through the countryside of Japan during an indeterminate period in the country’s past, the humble Ginko appears to help those experiencing troubles with mythical spirit creatures called mushi. Almost 20 years after it started, the first volume of this manga still retains its singular tone and provides a storytelling experience unlike any other, even if the chapters collected here show some growing pains. Read on for more on this mystifying manga.
Written and Illustrated by Yuki Urushibara
Lettered by North Market Street Graphics
Translated and Adapted by William Flanagan
THEY HAVE EXISTED SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME. Some live in the deep darkness behind your eyelids. Some eat silence. Some thoughtlessly kill. Some simply drive men mad. Shortly after life emerged from the primordial ooze, these deadly creatures, mushi, came into terrifying being. And they still exist and wreak havoc in the world today. Ginko, a young man with a sardonic smile, has the knowledge and skill to save those plagued by mushi . . . perhaps.
In an effort to broaden my understanding of manga beyond hugely popular shonen series like “Naruto” or “One Piece,” I’ve been digging into different genres aimed at different audiences. The first volume of Yuki Urushibara’s “Mushishi” was a great choice for this project, as it displays just how different a manga can be from a shonen series. At the same time, it’s a also shining example of why more comics readers should read manga, since this is the type of story that could only be told by a Japanese creator.
The core concept of the series has to do with a wandering traveler, Ginko, offering his help to people in the countryside of Japan who are dealing with creatures called mushi. The concept of mushi fits right in with other Japanese mythology and folklore: a living being which is a combination of spirits, insects, and animals. At the same time, the concept of a mushishi, or mushi master, fits right into Japanese customs and culture: here is a certain type of person who has mastery over this field through years of training and studying centuries of ancient passed down knowledge.
“Mushishi” falls somewhere between an anthology series and an episodic series. Previous characters and mushi are rarely brought back up, but Ginko is a prominent character in every chapter. So, there’s no deeper through-line between the five stories contained in this first volume. You simply get in, experience each little story, and get out. This works to the series’s benefit. Each new chapter can be approached completely fresh, requiring no great commitment to the series, and they all explore the concept of mushi in different ways. Some focus more on horror, some more on emotional drama. But despite that, its unique tone always remains.
“Mushishi”’s tone is its greatest asset. It has a calming effect on me like few other comics have, evoking the feelings of simply existing in an isolated, foliage-filled area. Urushibara does this mainly through visuals, combining intimate character moments with a full appreciation of the environment. She focuses on the small details of human interactions and adjusts her backgrounds accordingly. Sometimes the character is fully surrounded by their environment, a small part of this larger world, and during more personal moments they can appear alone in a panel with no or minimal background elements. She occasionally uses non-essential location panels to highlight small details in the environment: a panel of a forest, a panel of a tree, a panel of the weeds on the ground, a panel of a mountain range. The result is something that feels wholly unique and engaging, planted firmly in nature and humanity. There’s no grand excitement, just the all-encompassing feeling of sinking into each fairytale ghost story.
In this first volume, Urushibara does go through some growing pains. Not every chapter is equally successful. The least successful for me was chapter four, ‘The Light in the Eyelids,’ which was Urushibara’s first published work and was originally produced as a one-shot story. Her storytelling there, from story to visuals, isn’t as clear as it is in other chapters, relying too much on feeling at points and ultimately lacking coherency. Her visuals especially lack clarity in certain stories, leading to a few panels where I wasn’t sure what exactly was going on, whether that was a large conceptual moment like a mushi doing something mystical or just a small moment like a piece of a bowl falling out of someone’s robe. Luckily, though, the lack of clarity never gets as bad as in that eyelid story and otherwise decreases as the book goes on, which I see as a good thing. Urushibara has clearly improved over the course of creating these stories and shows promise to only get better in future volumes.Continued below
Another major downside to “Mushishi”‘s inaugural volume has to do with the translation and lettering choices. I feel that the translator and letterer tried to have it both ways in terms of preserving the original Japanese graphics and dialogue while allowing English speakers to understand, but this ended up doing more of a disservice to the story than it helped. So, while we get some nicely preserved Japanese moments, like a character adding “sensei” to the end of another character’s name to signify their relationship, there are also some clear negatives. For example, in the first chapter, about a child whose drawings comes to life, he uses a paintbrush writes out certain Japanese kanji which then come to life. When he starts writing, his words appears in English, clearly typed in a computer font instead of written with a paintbrush. Then, suddenly, the next panel shows that same piece of paper with the painted kanji inexplicably in the place of those English words as they start to come to life. It was an odd choice which confused me and affected my experience with the actual story.
It’s also clear that the translator kept everything almost exactly as-is, without adjusting the translation to better fit the existing word balloons. As a result, the letterer had to make some odd choices where one balloon can look almost empty, another can have its letters burst off the edges, and then the text in the next panel can have a font size that’s three points smaller than all the other text on the page. I understand the difficulty level in working with something like this, but the translation process has evolved enough in the decade since these stories were first translated that this looks messy now.
Still, though, the problems with the English version don’t negate the great work that Urushibara does here. Yes, there are some points in a few of the stories that aren’t as clear as they could be, but overall this is a solid, wholly original take on a recognizably Japanese concept. The book has a way of taking your hand and gradually leading you through each calm, personal, almost spiritual journey without demanding any long-running commitment from story to story. “Mushishi” shows a side of what manga is capable of, one wildly different from most popular manga in the US. For that reason, it comes highly recommended — especially if Urushibara’s craft improves in future volumes.