"It was after them that the life we see began to branch out."

Mushishi Vol. 1

I don’t think this is due in the Direct Market for another week or so, but it’s in bookstores now, a new manga series from Del Rey.

You’ve probably heard something about Mushishi recently; much like Death Note, the extended franchise is arriving in the US just as it’s flowered into a multimedia bonanza, although this particular bonanza is not so loud as the mighty saga of Light and those people who get killed. Mushishi is smaller-scale, though no less impressive, especially considering that writer/artist Yuki Urushibara was a complete novice to professional manga publishing when the series began in 2000. She broke into the industry in a manner unique to manga, winning one of several contests held by prominent anthologies to discover new talents, and soon found herself with a slot in Big Three manga publisher Kodansha’s alternative-flavored Afternoon anthology. Soon after, the series won Kodansha’s Manga of the Year award. In 2005, the Mushishi anime series began airing, its 26 episodes comprised of close adaptations of the first 26 stores from the manga, albeit aired in a different order; the show won the Grand Prize for both television anime and art direction at the Tokyo International Anime Fair in 2006.

And it wasn’t just trophies these projects picked up - in a poll of fans from the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival, both the anime and manga versions of Mushishi placed within their respective Top Ten of All Time categories. All time. Admirers overreacting to the glimmer of the new? Almost certainly, but it’s strong evidence of the works’ appeal among enthusiasts, particularly with the manga being ranked among such pop powerhouses as Dragon Ball and Doraemon, not to mention fellow contemporary golden boy Death Note. Meanwhile, none other than Katsuhiro Otomo (yes, of Akira fame), adapted the manga into a live-action theatrical film, his second directorial outing on that front (following 1991’s World Apartment Horror), which debuted at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. The manga remains ongoing in Japan today.

In English-speaking environs, Mushishi was an active project in scanlation/fansubbing circles, with the anime attracting some special attention among viewers, but we now seem to be at the crucial moment of official aboveground breakthrough. Literally yesterday, the Mushishi anime was announced as officially licensed for R1 dvd release by FUNimation (though cease-and-desist letters sent to fansubbers months ago sort of spoiled the surprise), and the live-action film appears to be courting international buyers at Sundance, albeit under the dismaying title of Bugmaster (who are looking to court, Charles Band?).

And now - the arrival of the Mushishi manga, the font from which all else has sprung. Del Rey clearly thinks this series is special, as it been given a relatively fancy packaging job (ooooh, flaps!), along with the relatively fancy price of $12.95. I won’t hold you in suspense - yes, Mushishi is worth $12.95, yes, it is a very good manga, no, I don’t think it’s quite the greatest thing since opposable thumbs, and yes, I already can’t wait for Vol. 2, due in (ugh) May.

The special appeal of Mushishi is that it’s in equal parts artful and addictive, leaving the reader with a pleasantly fulfilled sensation upon the reading of even one chapter, yet intent on still reading more. ‘Chapter’ is not the best word to use, actually; while there is a light element of continuity in Mushishi, every story is self-contained (the five in this volume range from about 35-60 pages each), with lead character Ginko playing the only recurring role of much significance. Ginko, you see, is the Mushishi of the title, a master of Mushi, the ‘bugs’ of the theatrical film’s awful (if linguistically accurate) title. Mushi are not really bugs, though - they’re a primal form of life, often tiny or invisible or simple vague, and so close to the heart of nature and sensation that their activities can affect things in a manner not unlike magic. And those who master the Mushi are not unlike magicians, though they’re also doctors and scientists in the oldest sense, the wild-attuned potion-making visionary sense. Those people who can grasp and shape the darkness and the irrational, and keep the beasts outside the village walls.

Thus, every story in Mushishi follows Ginko around on a new adventure, where he’s essentially a cross between John Constantine and Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. The series seems to be set in a curious amalgam of time periods, so that some characters will be dressed in modern style, while stumbling into decidedly pre-modernization fishing villages and the like. All that is certain is that it's a time of national isolation. Ginko stops in to visit characters, and inevitably encounters a Mushi-related problem that he solves, often in exchange for an odd payment. He’s sardonic, a bit cocky, and always the smartest person in the room (even when he’s not, if you know what I mean), but also very empathetic to the fates that befall people who encounter Mushi. He's totally in control of his skills, and always comes prepared. The very cigarettes he smokes are actually Mushi, each puff a living entity with the power to bind and repel potential dangers.

Mushi can be anything, you see, diverse enough that one presumes Urushibara can extend the series as long as she pleases, so long as her imagination holds out. There’s plenty to spare in this volume, as Ginko encounters a boy whose left hand can cause anything he draws to spring to life, a horned child that’s come down with the curse of being able to hear everything, a man whose dreams come true with both wonderful and disastrous results, a little girl who’s cripplingly sensitive to light but can see such perfect darkness that she can grasp the ineffable truths of being (woah!), and a living, traveling, sentient swamp, a sort of fantasy Japan equivalent of Danny the Street, that may be on a journey to die. At the core of it all is a continuing concern with man's relationship to nature, yet never in a modern environmentalist sense; this isn't about give-and-take or preservation, but basic coexistence of people and other things, and the means thorough which that coexistence is possible. The eyes, ears, mind.

These are excellent little stories. On the back cover flap, Urushibara cites “the old stories” as her frame of reference, and there is indeed something fable-like and earthy to these comics, like it’s an elaborate series of half-scientific, half-mystic explanations for everything weird that might happen to a people, charged with wonder, but never entirely out of human control. As Urushibara notes between chapters:

I absolutely do not believe (nowadays) in ghosts or fairytale creatures, but I wish they did exist. (For that reason, I’m very happy to have people close to me who I can trust to confirm some dubious rumors.) ‘Mushi’ were born as part of that dilemma, and so they take on the form of monsters at times. But only a little while back, monsters lived very close to people. I’m kind of envious of that.”

And her tales are firmly grounded with those people, in relatable situations. Many of these stories deal with sensory perceptions, sight and hearing, or pure imagination, drawing and dreaming. These aspects of basic human existence are enhanced (or perverted) by the Mushi, creating an instantly relatable human drama. Who can’t imagine their dreams or their sight suddenly jolted onto the next level of perception?

Horror and wonder mixes freely in these tales, with the ‘cured’ parties often experiencing remorse that they’ve been brought back down by Ginko to the world of human perception. Our Hero himself is a poignant character, always concerned under his confident façade about whether he’s doing the right thing. We’re given a few hints as to his origins, indicating that his true mission might be to prevent other people from becoming someone like him - mastering the Mushi requires one to become very close to them, and that surely exacts a cost. And even then, Ginko is not infallible; not all of these stories end well for the people he tries to help, with some pretty bad judgment calls made. Despite the self-contained nature of these stories, Ginko’s failures haunt him from journey to journey, driving him even further.

But there’s also some good humor mixed in with the fantasy, and some lovely moments of pure queasy spooking. Gelatinous liquid pours from blackened eyes, snail-like Mushi swarm across a man’s face, searching for any orifice to crawl in, and bizarre visions are beheld, equal parts lovely natural vista and abstract scatterings of lines and shapes. The art does occasionally get in the way, it must be said; while Urushibara is obviously adept at tugging the indistinct forms of the Mushi into eyesight, and her many natural vistas are impressive, she sometimes stumbles with her human characters. Feet and hands are occasionally drawn far too large (and not even consistently so), and arms are twisted in perspective-defying ways that make them seem enormously long. True, these stories do represent the artist’s first-ever professionally published works, so one maybe shouldn’t realistically expect a gaffe-free outing, but the flubs are distractions nonetheless.

Better to try and focus on the artist’s evident talents with page-by-page storytelling, her sure hand with quiet menace, and the insightful nature of her plots, both humanely telling and fantastically intriguing. I’m not surprised this world of Urushibara’s has inspired the loyalty it has, as its so immediately relatable. If it’s really the author’s wish that fabulous creatures do exist, her greatest success is in prompting the same feeling in her readers, despite the horror that understandably courses through the thoughtful author’s world. She manipulates the senses, like a Mushi herself. She’s got me hooked, and I’m not going to be the last.