Mushishi is widely regarded as one of the best TV anime ever made, and with good reason. The strong audio presentation, with its haunting piano pieces and chillingly fitting ambient sounds, melds with the exceptionally detailed and atmospheric environments and often excellent animation to create a world that feels both authentic and spiritual. However, one of the most under-discussed victories of Mushishi is its potent execution of presenting Shintoist influences and themes in an organic and well articulated manner.
For western viewers, the concept of the “mushi” (spiritual beings who operate outside of rules and confines of the physical world) may feel foreign should they choose to view them as ghosts or demons in the way European mythologies depict them. Much like the supernatural manifestations in western literature, mushi have no interest in worldly valuables like money or food, nor are they directly intertwined with physical concepts, like energy or mass, though are capable of influencing them in unintuitive ways. However, beyond that, the mushi are not omniscient or even necessarily malevolent (or benevolent), but rather pure spiritual representations of nature that act entirely on instinct. This is a bit of a departure from traditional “Shinto” kami (the most accurate interpretation of them that I know of may be seen in the great action shounen Noragami), who are very much flawed on the same level as humans, though that may be why the term “mushi (insect 虫)” was employed. Much like how Shintoism depicts “kami”, the mushi are assumed to be almost innumerable, and differ in behaviour and appearance to each other to such a degree that most have little resemblance to each other. That being said, they don’t overlap or challenge each other, but rather exist in harmony and with the other and the environment, defining what Shintoism deems as spiritually purity.
However, the Shinto influences run even deeper than the capacity in which the mushi occupy the world; the consequences and causes of grievous occurrences are consistent with Shinto values. These values are, in summation, peace, harmony and conformism with nature and that which should be. In this regard, the mushi are morally perfect creatures that simply act like they should, and the problems that arise are a product of dissonant human activity, intentional or not. In fan favourite episode 4, the horrific events which transpire are a direct result of a man affected by the mushi refusing to do what Ginko (a character almost more mushi than man) asked him. In episode 6, a man tries to exploit his daughter’s mushi-inflicted condition to profit from her transformations, and his subsequent attempts at stopping the mushi escaping led to the death of himself and several others. On a more understated note, in episode 7, attempts at building a bridge were met with nothing but ruin, as no amount of architectural ingenuity could withstand the might of the flood (or, in Shinto terms, the will of nature). It was only when they decided to have a bridge capable of fragmenting and floating that they could work around nature, accommodating it instead of resisting it, that their bridge could survive. The presence of the philosophy of Shintoism in society is also visible in episode 18, when a girl who is developing at half the expected rate is almost “sent away”, though this was not enforced once a man decided to take her in.
Interestingly, conforming with the will of the mushi does not necessarily lead to happiness, at least not by the criteria that most of Mushishi‘s occupants use. The very first episode poignantly outlines this, as a woman’s soul is literally split so that she may watch over her grandson, no matter how painful it is for her. The mushi and humanity do not think along the same lines, and the former could possibly be defined as utilitarian, though the differences lie even deeper than that. Mushi have values which are fundamentally different from the humans, values that dictate that the needs of the many will always outweigh the needs of the few, no matter how much the few must suffer. Physical pain and death are of little consequence to the mushi, as they would probably not be able to understand it, but it might just be that the mushi are beyond human comprehension.
Therein lies what makes Shintoism such an unusual religion. It doesn’t have its own unanimously reciprocated religious scriptures with meticulously described rules on how to (and how not to) live one’s life. There are no extremes or well defined “evils”- the devil literally lies in the details. This is clearly illustrated in episode 5, when a young woman is spared not because her life has any intrinsic value, but rather because “it was not her time to die”. The dark implication here is that in the grand scheme of things, life only matters in cases when it fits the natural order of things. It is grounded in the everlasting values of Japanese society, much of which are unspoken; it is assumed that one who spends any time in Japanese education or work will simply notice that the needs of the community are prioritised above the ambitions of one (often much to their detriment). This mentality is carried over into Mushishi‘s treatment of victories, which is to say, Ginko is never put on a pedestal, no matter how hard he tries, nor does he try to claim credit for anything. There are no forced happy endings where unwise deeds go unpunished, but rather those that go unpunished for longer only snowball into bigger problems.
The unwritten rules of the world of Mushishi may be (and have been) broken by man, but they are never free of personal consequence for the rule breakers, and the ramifications tend to stretch even beyond the perpetrator. The way things are is always consistent in Mushishi, even if the way with which the world is interacted with is not, and with the wide range of character motivations and settings that Ginko explores, the anime always finds unique ways of displaying these ambiguous, yet consistent, rules to the viewer.
Overall, many of Mushishi‘s atmospheric and melancholic qualities stem from its themes and the values it presents. Those of the flow of the environment being more important in the long run than the individual desires of its denizens. Those of a world not full of moral extremes, but rather one that emphasises time and place. Much like how Shintoism paints a world all about “kami” and harmony, Mushishi presents a world all about mushi and peace. In that regard, Mushishi offers in-depth, stunningly articulated insight into the philosophical and spiritual core of Shintoism in a manner that seemingly no other medium (and few even in the medium of animation) would be able to do as effectively.
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