9 years. It has been 9 long years since the first season of Mushishi way back in 2005. To me and perhaps many other viewers, Mushishi is seen as one of the greatest anime series in recent memory. For some, it’s a favorite pick for best anime series of the decade from 2001 to 2010, and frankly, I see it that way too. All the viewers would credit the series’ masterful storytelling and surreal portrayal of the world of Mushishi. Alas, when it was announced that the second season is premiering for Spring 2014, a majority of the anime community rejoiced and reminisced just how beautiful the first season was. Plus, after 3 episodes, it looks like the second season simply picks things up where it left off and continues to do what it does best: telling mesmerizing and unforgettable stories.
As I watch each and every episode of Mushishi Zoku Shou, I wonder what actually makes Mushishi such a masterpiece. Many claim that it’s the combination of narrative and unique visuals. While I believe this is true, it seems to be too superficial and I know there’s something more to it. Thus, in this article, I will make an attempt to explain Mushishi’s storytelling prowess through 3 ‘S’: Simplicity, Surrealism and Symbolism, and how other anime series can actually learn from this.
Mushishi’s stories are episodic, and storytelling is the series’ forte. As many people would agree, people love stories. But what makes a good story? There is no single answer to this, but for Mushishi, its answer is making its stories simplistic. The series keeps its stories short by using the right formula: minimal characters are introduced (with no filler characters in sight), the mushi of the week is slowly revealed, a conclusion is reached eventually and the episode explores how the characters are affected by the mushi, be it a good or bad ending.
A key to Mushishi’s powerful storytelling is cutting out any excess fat and focusing purely on the two main elements: the characters and the plot. The characters are not even complex and the plot is not even remotely intricate, but that is what makes the stories shine. As the old adage goes, too much of a good thing is not necessarily better, and Mushishi perfectly balances and blends the two together to form a story that is simple yet powerful.
Many anime series out there, and perhaps even programs in general, are perceived as something viewers watch passively. Mushishi is an exception, however. Viewers do not simply watch the series; they experience it. Watching every episode feels like you are immersed in new dream: familiar yet unusual, vivid yet vague, intimate yet distant. In short, it is simply surreal. It is surreal because the show pays careful attention to making the experience worthwhile: its music perfectly complements the mood of each episode, ranging from light tunes to express hopefulness and optimism, to deep somber ones to illustrate despair and hopelessness.
The visuals are also another noteworthy aspect: it has a very subdued feel because of the choice of palette and minimal animation. In a way, this also follows the concept of simplicity: minimal colors are used to maximum effect, and the animation is kept to a minimum in order to complement the slow and generally serene ambience of the show. By keeping the visuals simple, it adds to the overall surrealism and involve the viewers on a sensory level, rendering itself unforgettable.
To me, this is perhaps Mushishi’s strongest point. What makes its stories powerful is also because of the thematic symbolism behind every episode. Every episodic story deals with themes that are emotionally poignant, such as coping with loss of a loved one and forgiveness towards a community. Although the series title focuses on the mushi of the week and the mystery behind the mechanics of each of them, the true focus of the series is how each affects the characters of the week and impacts their lives.
The mushi is but a mere trigger, and their effects are symbolized in the plights experienced by the human victims. For instance, in the second episode of Zoku Shou, the mushi takes away the girl’s ability to speak and thus introduces the episode’s focal problem. However, in truth this is simply a symbolic reference to the real focal problem: her father who shuns his family away from the village community due to a past tragedy, which can be metaphorized as not speaking to them figuratively. This storytelling technique has been the hallmark of the entire first season, and it looks like it is going to be the same for the second running.
Mushishi is a remarkable series not because of the 3 ‘S’ above per se; it’s more about the result of the combination of all the above. If any of them is absent, the show would likely not be the same. Other series can learn a few things from Mushishi; although other series cannot essentially share the same qualities, I believe that some trip on themselves because of their concepts e.g. complicated stories, too many characters or stories that lack depth. Or perhaps, Mushishi is simply a rare outlier of an anime series that we are blessed to experience.