Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mushishi (aka: Bugmaster)

(2006) Directed by Katsuhiro Ohtomo; Written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Ohtomo; Based on the manga by Yuki Urushibara; Starring: Jô Odagiri, Nao Ohmori and Yû Aoi; Available on DVD

Rating:  ***

Mushishi was based on the fantasy manga by Yuki Urushibara, which spawned the brilliant 2005 anime series by Hiroshi Nagahama.  The live action feature film was directed by Katsuhiro Ohtomo, known primarily for his anime films, including Akira and Steamboy.  As a fan of the anime version and an admirer of Ohtomo’s work, my expectations were unusually high.  Similar to the other incarnations, the film emphasized a reflective, ethereal tone rather than showcasing fast-paced action sequences.  The date is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s set in an earlier, simpler time when big cities didn’t exist and people were closer to the land.

The concept of mushi, which is central to the story, is one of the aspects that would likely be confusing to those not familiar with the manga or anime series.  Mushi are vaguely defined in the movie as organisms living parallel to us, but not readily perceived by all but a few individuals.  It’s not explained in the film, but mushi spring from the same elemental energy as plants and animals, and exist as a different form of life altogether.  Most of the time, they do not present a problem to the human population, but in instances when humans and mushi intersect the result is frequently discomfort, illness, or even death.  The film’s alternate (irritating) title, Bugmaster, is something of a misnomer, considering the fact that mushi are not really bugs.  It also implies that the main character Ginko is an overglorified exterminator, rather than the more nuanced role that he inhabits.  

Ginko (Jô Odagiri) is a mushi-shi (or mushi master), and serves as something between a doctor and a shaman.  He leads an itinerant lifestyle, roaming the countryside and aiding those who have experienced run-ins with the mushi.  He and other mushi-shi have accumulated folk remedies over the years for the mushi-induced maladies.  His endeavors are not entirely altruistic, however.  His interactions with the villagers he encounters are reciprocal in nature, helping him to learn more about the mushi and himself.  Ginko is an enigma.  His childhood remains a mystery, and he’s actually much younger than his gray hair would suggest.  Flashbacks in the film gradually reveal his sad story.  One area where the live action film improves on the animated version is with the characterization of Ginko.  Odagiri personifies Ginko as sage and distant, but also approaches the role with warmth, subtle humor, and a general joy of life.  Compared to his live-action counterpart, the anime version of Ginko seems a little two-dimensional (pardon the pun).

The most tragic figure in Mushishi is Tanyu, skillfully played by Yû Aoi.  Tanyu is confined to her home, bound by a family curse that involves a debilitating mushi infection.  She listens to the stories of the various mushi-shi that stop by, chronicling their experiences with mushi on scrolls, which are in turn archived for other mushi-shi to read.  Her scenes with Ginko and her long-suffering caretaker are the strongest in the film.  Her affliction prevents her from fully engaging with the outside world, as symbolized by her unrequited relationship with Ginko.

One of Mushishi’s deepest flaws is that the original stories are episodic, rather than linear.  Deciding which tales to fit into a two-hour-plus feature must have been an arbitrary process.  The opening scenes when Ginko confronts two different types of mushi are not directly related to the plot in the rest of the film, which evolves into a variation of the road story.  Considering Ohtomo’s animation roots, the visuals are disappointing.  Compared to the beautifully rendered imagery in the anime series, the effects in the live action version are fairly humdrum.  We only get to see a few different types of mushi, and their depiction is mostly underwhelming.  Only one scene rivals the anime version, when we see words leaping off of Tanyu’s scrolls.

Ultimately, Mushishi left me feeling conflicted.  On the one hand, I appreciated the film’s gentle sensibilities, deliberately told at a slower pace to maintain a quietly reflective tone.  We’ve been afforded the opportunity to get to know Ginko and his unique circumstances, and feel invested in his character.  Unfortunately, the story lacks the depth or coherence that the source material demanded, appearing somewhat unfinished and unsatisfying.  I was also left with the distinct impression that casual viewers who are not acquainted with the manga or anime series might frequently wonder what’s going on.  The film definitely would have benefited from the inclusion of additional details about mushi, more compelling visuals and a tighter story line.  Unfortunately, I can only lament about what could have been, rather than what was displayed in the finished product.  This is not to say that Mushishi is without its moments – it’s just too bad that those are only moments.

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