For an episodic series like Mushishi, with its emphasis on harmony and humanity, to be engaging, it needs a protagonist who is in tune with nature and of impartial view while also being empathetic towards its denizens. One who stands between the flowing, natural world of the mushi and the fickle, uneven world of flawed villagers, capable of understanding and valuing both. Ginko is such a character, believably both wise and flawed and always endeavouring to reach the best outcome.
To consider what makes Ginko such a peculiar protagonist, his design is a good place to start. Much like how the mushi exist between life and death, Ginko exists between the humans and mushi. Anatomically, he is certainly a human, though his pupil(s) are noticeably green, a colour associated with nature and its spiritual manifestations, the mushi. His pale skin tone and hair colour also contrast with the other people, their earthier tan skin and brown hair leaving him looking like a ghost in comparison. Before his backstory is eventually revealed in episode 12, there is some foreshadowing that the mushi may have changed his appearance, as the first character that resembles his colour scheme is a swamp-bound young woman in episode 5. His attire also juxtaposes the time and setting, his mix of a white shirt and jeans a stark contrast to the traditional full body robes worn by the men, women and children of the time. While manga author Yuki Urushibara stated that this dissonant design was a result of the initial plan to set Mushishi in a later era, retaining this design further separates him from the setting. All of this culminates in a character with a strong superficial otherworldliness to him, much like Griffith of Berserk fame, though the comparisons stop there, as Ginko could not be less of a megalomaniac.
Much of his characterisation is relayed to the audience through the way in which he reacts to the tragedies which unfold before him. He is a man with a rich history of experience and knowledge of what the mushi are capable of, and subsequently isn’t phased by stories of death and people unwittingly putting themselves in harmful situations. However, despite displaying that he has a similar mindset to the mushi (believing that everything happens for a reason and harmony is what everyone should strive for) he is by no means indifferent to his surrounding. As episode 5 revealed, he is an introspective individual whose thoughts tend to drift to the past as he wonders if he did the right thing.
To label Ginko as a relaxed character would arguably not be untrue, but I believe that he would be better described as a “calculating” character. Not in the sense that such a description would normally imply, as he does not attempt to coax money out of people or prioritise logistics to a degree that he is left apathetic to the very people is set out to help, but rather that he is calm and decisive because he needs to be. Like an experienced doctor, he gives his patients his full attention and his diagnoses are nearly always correct, and he doesn’t expend energy worrying about things he has no control over. This clinical manner does run the risk of having him come across as wooden instead of wise, but with his coy sense of humour and friendship with the recurring doctor Adashino, he manages to carve out a streak of individuality despite his largely cool exterior.
Much of Ginko’s nature can be explained by his past, or perhaps rather his lack of one. When he was young (going by the name of Yoki), he and his mother were walking through the forest when a landslide killed her and injured his leg. For a while he was raised by Nui, a female mushi master with a strong resemblance in both design and philosophy to what Yoki would eventually grow to be. However, upon being swallowed up by a mushi referred to as Ginko, Yoki lost both an eye and his memories, and took the name of the only detailed he could remember; the word “Ginko”. Now pale, with only one green-pupil eye and attracting Mushi like moths to a flame, he travelled around with no place to call his home and no major goals. In the episode Cushion of Grass (in Mushishi Zoku Shou Second Season) he spends some time under the tutelage of mushishi Suguro where, through a near death experience, he finally came to realise his importance and role in the world, though his violation of the order of nature results in him no longer being welcome on the mountain. Yet despite being expelled from the mountain, constantly attracting mushi, not having a home and in cases even being blamed for some of the stickier mushi incidents, Ginko is not a man ruled by bitterness or regret. Rather, he knows his place in the world and is content with it because he knows where he belongs and that his actions have value, his past experiences and excellent resilience giving him the wisdom that few men triple his age display.
For the spiritual and atmospheric stories that Mushishi tells, Ginko is the ideal protagonist. He is a man willing to listen and experienced enough to help, but his actions don’t always fit in with what the villagers or viewers may see as practical. Much like the mushi themselves, he knows the importance of balance and harmony with nature, but he also cares deeply about his duties to the villagers and even puts himself in dangerous situations for their sake. With his patience, drive for professional self-betterment and the body, spirit, soul and mind in between mushi and human, Ginko is the protagonist that Mushishi deserves and a role model in his own right.
Mushishi is available on Funimation’s YouTube page (in relatively low quality) and the second season is available on Crunchyroll, AnimeLab and DVD from Madman.