If there was ever a live-action manga adaptation that actually looked promising, Mushishi is it. Based on Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning fantasy manga and directed by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, the film pairs a story suited to live-action with a skilled director familiar with manga and the process of adapting it for the big screen. Alas, the film does not quite live up to its significant potential, but Mushishi nonetheless manages to summon some of the original story’s idiosyncratic spirit and charm, and weave a solid, if unspectacular, feature plot out of an entirely episodic manga series.
Unlike most manga, which follow one story over potentially hundreds of chapters, often with numerous plot threads and cliffhangers to urge readers into buying the next weekly or monthly instalment, Urushibara’s Mushishi series is more akin to a collection of short stories, which follow protagonist Ginko as he travels around Japan curing supernatural ailments caused by magical bug-like beings called Mushi. Each chapter (or in rare cases, two chapters) sees Ginko encounter a new set of characters, a new problem, and a new Mushi; the anime series follows the same structure, with each 20-minute episode covering a new story. Of course, in a two-hour feature film this structure would be jarring, so Otomo and co-writer Sadayuki Murai weave a plot out of four separate stories: Tender Horns, about a village affected by partial deafness; Raindrops and Rainbows, about a man who wishes to capture a rainbow in a jar; A Sea of Writings, about a young woman who must record tales of Mushishi in order to seal away the parasitic Mushi inside her body; and One-Eyed Fish, which tells the story of Ginko’s past.
For the most part, this interweaving of stories is rather adept, though at 30 minutes the Tender Horns section is rather long for what is effectively an introduction to the Mushi and the role of the Mushishi. It also feels like something more could have been made from the expansion of Ginko’s backstory, as the way echoes of his past come back to affect his present has none of the narrative or character impact they could have. In fact, despite the increased prominence of his personal past, Ginko himself seems to have lost the personality he had in earlier incarnations. While his manga self was not the most complex character, there was always a cool unflappability and enigma that doesn’t come across in either the script or Joe Odagiri’s plain performance. This is most clear when he becomes visibly scared at the appearance of tokoyami Mushi in Tanyu’s library – in the source material, Ginko always regards Mushi not with fear, but with a calm curiosity that displays his respect for the beings. While it is understandable that the filmmakers would want to signal to the audience the potential danger of the tokoyami in order to create some narrative tension, taking away such an integral part of Ginko’s personality without adding anything of substance to his character leaves him feeling hollow.
Other characters leave little impression, primarily serving as plot devices rather than three-dimensional characters in their own right. The exception to this is Koro (the aforementioned Rainbow Man, played by Nao Omori), who is funny and instantly likeable. Performances are similarly middle-of-the-road, though the young Reia Moriyama, who plays Maho, a young girl afflicted by a Mushi-related illness, stands out with a highly sympathetic, emotional performance.
Direction-wise, it is clear throughout that Otomo understands the primacy of atmosphere to this story. Shots of the natural settings are stunning, and capture the manga’s reverence for nature and the environment. Less consistent – both within the film and between it and the story’s manga and anime incarnations – is the fairy-tale quality that makes Mushishi so magical. While the etherealness of the CG Mushi adds to this magical quality, at times the tone shifts into something less special, more like a traditional Japanese period piece than the visually rich, del Toro-esque fairy-tale that would have allowed the mystical aspects of the story to truly shine. Similarly, the soundtrack is satisfactory, but lacks the haunting quality of the music Toshio Masuda produced for the anime series.
A decent adaptation that never manages to fulfil its potential, Mushishi is nonetheless a solid watch for fans of Urushibara’s charming and unusual fantasy.
Mushishi is available now on DVD.