Ever been passively interested in something for a few years before you finally bite the bullet and actually experience it? Since 2006, I recall seeing images and art (on anonymous imageboards I've long since outgrown - praise be to the 神々) of a particularly intriguing anime, a few whispers here and there about a series I had barely heard of. Intrigued as I was, I suppose I had "better" things to do and watch, so I sort of ignored and buried the intrigue somewhere in the back of my mind. In my experience, this practice is rarely a good idea as it will eventually resurface with a vengeance like a bamboo forest reaching for the glowing ball of fire in the sky.
The same feeling overcame me recently with モノノ怪 / Mononoke, an anime series I thoroughly enjoyed that captured my imagination and took it places I never even knew existed. An enigmatic and unusual (yet entertaining) protagonist who wanders the land in Edo-period Nippon with his box of medicine and tools on back, ultimately acting as both detective and exorcist to the many characters in the series with some serious skeletons in their closet. It was a recipe for success for me, and one short series such as モノノ怪 just couldn't quite sate my insatiable thirst; I craved more.
Conveniently, the image of a mysterious, white haired man with a large box of tools on his back (not unlike the Medicine Seller of モノノ怪) that I had seen some years ago resurfaced in my mind. Even if this series was only marginally similar to what I had just seen, I just knew I'd be satisfied. Wouldn't I?
Unfortunately, I had completely forgotten the title of the series in which this character starred, so it would be a few more days until (by happenstance of a friend mentioning it, actually), once again, it would resurface and I'd finally begin watching it. Even when I forgot such simple things as its title, it just wouldn't go away - apparently I was destined to see this thing.
Well, thank you, destiny, because 蟲師 / Mushishi turned out to be one of the finest anime series I've ever seen, and I've seen a good plenty in my lifetime.
蟲師 is actually one of the most difficult anime to describe I've ever come across. In a way, it shares similarities with モノノ怪 in that it stars a wandering, enigmatic merchant (of sorts) in old Japan who exorcises spirits, but the similarities, for the most part, end there.
The story follows Ginko, a white haired wandering peddler with (surprise, surprise) a mysterious past and an expansive knowledge of the strange creatures of this world known as 蟲 (mushi). Mushi, as the word suggests, are insect-like spiritual beings that inhabit any place with life: people, plants or animals. Their nature is never really explained in great detail; they simply are what they are, whether anyone realizes their existence or not. Very few are even able to see them at all, and those who are able often become the centerpiece of the mushi's involvement, often to their plight.
I think it's important to note that the mushi aren't necessarily inherently good, nor evil. They're barely even sentient at all; they simply part of the neverending circle of nature, using humans as a means of survival, even if doing so means feeding off of humankind's weaknesses and temptations.
蟲師 is presented episodically, so that each episode stands on its own with very few recurring characters and themes, as Ginko wanders the land and encounters the simple, hard working, country dwelling people who have (usually unwittingly) become involved with mushi - often to their danger and detriment. It's Ginko the rescue!
Only, as knowledgeable and wise as he may be, he's far from the omnipotent demigod that the Medicine Seller is, and quite human at his core. While Ginko does his best to lessen the damage of the mushi, conclusions are rarely happy and cheerful - the damage is done, compromises have been made and life and nature have taken their toll, usually with bittersweet results. Perhaps the nature of life itself is what the entire series boils down to - but I won't discuss it further, as I think it best to experience the stories of 蟲師 on one's own. Lemme just say that it's incredibly rare for an anime to moisten my eyes, and only two come to mind - Grave of the Fireflies, and this one.
Speaking of emotional impact, the animation and music are quite impeccable - at the same time simple and profound, not unlike the series itself. Landscapes, villages and the people that inhabit them take on a life of their own as they're beautifully drawn and animated. Likewise, the music of 蟲師 lends much to the mood and atmosphere, ranging from the singer-songwriter opening theme, "The Sore Feet Song" by Ally Kerr to the many different somber credits themes by Toshio Masuda. Everything blends together to create one of the most enchanting pieces of animation in recent memory.
If I had but one complaint about the series, it would be the character design - not that there's anything wrong with Ginko, or the other one or two "major" recurring characters, but a good many of the towns folk look strikingly similar, causing me to blink and scratch my head a few times and ponder, "Didn't I just see them in the last episode? Is this is the same character?"
That the series is episodic renders this gripe a very minor one, however. Besides, when everyone wears a kimono and wears their hair in the same (small handful) of styles, there isn't that much room for fashion individuality, is there?
To say I simply "enjoyed" this series would be a disgusting understatement punishable by death, as it went above and beyond my expectations and has become one of the only 26 episode anime series I've begun watching again less than a week after finishing. That should tell you a little something about how much I love 蟲師.
However, I'd also completely understand if someone else was completely bored to tears by it, and couldn't force themselves to sit through it in its entirety. I honestly wouldn't consider 蟲師 a "slow" series, as plenty happens in the span of each 20~ minute story. Much of that is dialogue, and the series contains little to no action to speak of. To me, this isn't a big deal. To others, it may very well be.
Additionally, 蟲師 is wrought with the philosophy and tackles some particularly difficult (and potentially painful) subject matter which I seldom see in anime or manga. This may be a turnoff to some; it's challenging and fascinating to myself. I think it takes a certain type to appreciate this series to its fullest, and I don't mean that in an egotistical sort of way. Watch and judge for yourself.
Even having completed the series, I still feel as though there's a lot I haven't properly taken in yet, thus my second viewing and eventual reading of the manga.
All in all, however, I think it's safe to say that 蟲師 will go down as one of my favorite anime series of all time. For those looking for something thought-provoking, challenging and far out of the ordinary where anime is concerned, I couldn't recommend 蟲師 more.