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Mushishi Vol. 3

I'm always glad to see a new volume of this ongoing series -- you won't see it comics stores yet, though your bookstore ought to have it -- and tonight I'm extra glad to notice that Del Rey apparently has it back on a quarterly release schedule. That's great news; Mushishi isn't exactly moving at a blistering pace in Japan, having just released the ninth of its more-or-less yearly collections the other week, so now English readers will finally have a shot at catching up.

I really like Mushishi, even when it's problematic. And one problem with this volume isn't even the fault of writer/artist Yuki Urushibara - something seems to have gotten screwed up in the printing of my copy (and probably more than that), in that every word balloon placed off to the center-leaning side of a page is partially eaten by the binding. It's readable, but you've got to bend the spine nice and hard to see everything, which is a pain.

Yet now that we're up to the third extra-sized (256-page) book of this stuff, its inherent flaws are easier to spot as well, chief among them Urushibara's limits as an artist. Her moment-to-moment storytelling is perfunctory, and occasionally confusing when she's depicting action. Her character art has tightened since the awkwardness of the first volume, but she seems to cycle through her entire library of designs every five stories or so. Her storytelling leans heavily on dialogue-based exposition; if you look closely at her backgrounds during heavy chit-chat pages, you can see they're sometimes little more than scribbled in, yet rarely omitted or stylized in a manner that might enliven a story's reading.

Still, Urushibara does have a talent for building up absorbing environments when the talk dies down, and she's excellent at throwing her weight behind those big moments when her mushi -- countless, various, primordial beings close to the source of life -- intrude on the waking human world, and spark reactions ranging from awe to chill to full-bore body horror. An eye waters up with a black tear that spreads to cover the face, a creeping rust freezes the flesh of a village in place, and a woman dissolves into sea foam, like a mermaid in a folk tale - such is life for Ginko, the magician/shaman/doctor who knows the way of mushi, and connects each story with his presence. The artist truly sells the weirdness and awe of his life at the fringes of perception, or even being.

But the merits of Mushishi are primarily literary; I bring up folk tales because the best of Urushibara's stories strike a fine balance between visceral impact, fantastical mystery and compelling fable, all of it primed to address broad human (and humane) topics. For all its words, this is a quiet series, deliberately paced and subtle. Even as Ginko restates the premise of the series in seemingly every story, pulling out just the right trick at just the right moment, the undercurrents of the work carry it far.

I can't say the best of this volume's stories reach the heights of vol. 2 (which made my 2007 year's best, after all), but there's plenty of food for thought. A sea of seething mushi snakes carry a man's beloved away on their trip to become something else; their effect on maritme travel come to reveal the intent of voyagers, even while the man's subsequent path reflects his longing. In another tale, an inkstone artisan strives to prove herself a proper heir to her father by creating her best piece, but it's one that has deadly effects when enjoyed; it seems that only in the dank stash of a collector can her art be 'safe,' but as usual with Urushibara there's another solution to be found, through thought, education and compassion.

And sometimes, it reaches as far as it can. This volume also contains Ginko's 'origin' story, or at least his first steps toward learning the ways of the mushi -- he even smokes his first magic cigarette! -- but it's really more a parable of a young boy's realizations about death. Losing his mother, learning at the feet of an isolated, white-haired mushishi, Our Hero As a Boy experiences the fright of loss, but comes to understand its inevitability as well, a lesson that defines his life, and informs the humanity underneath each of these stories, his wanderings.

It's not that he's a sweetheart, but his very makeup rustles with understanding that life, as a continuing thing, isn't going to pause to nod at any being's passing, even if it takes forever to die. But people can still work to understand its contours, and work with its odd secrets, without the waste of ignorance. This is how the world is filled in, apart from Urushibara's art.

That leads us into the admittedly tricky thing about this series; it's one of the very few manga series about which I can say the television anime adaptation -- which just recently completed its release on R1 dvd -- is better. Its 26 episodes directly adapt the first 26 stories from the manga (albeit out of order), and by god it's an intense transition. All of Urushibara's limitations as an visualist are replaced by deep, sensitive evocations of mood. Comics, obviously, cannot provide sound or movement, and the animation uses these added elements to clothe the work in atmosphere and suggestion, every aesthetic crack filled in.

But I still appreciate the comic, for its quiet grace. And there's a lot more of it than the television show; we might actually get to read it now too.