Lee Cope explores the challenges and delights of understanding culturally-connected meaning through the Tokyo Anime Award-winning Mushi-shi.
There are times when I’m pretty sure that the anime that we get over in Australia is the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster. Not because they use the same plots (although fairly often they do coincide) but because they’re the easiest things to export. There are, of course, differences in the tropes used in each culture – while Goku and Ben Tennyson both seem pretty archetypical, and they’re aimed at similar audiences, they’re definitely not the same character.
Once you start watching anime a lot, especially if you look further into it online, you can start to pick up patterns in the typical protagonists and their attitudes, and start to look at the cultural between them. Still, even if you’re not looking at the anime in terms of tropes, it’s really not difficult for an Australian viewer to understand pretty much everything that’s going on in Pokémon, or Dragon Ball Z, or even a more adult-oriented anime like Durarara!. A Western viewer might even start to think they’ve got most of this ‘anime tropes’ thing down pat. To anyone who thinks that, I would highly recommend Mushi-shi.
Even as someone to whom friends come for explanations of the background behind certain tropes, because I am not Japanese and have never lived there for an extended period of time, I watched Mushi-shi with the distinct feeling that I was missing something. Was there a reference to mythology in that dialogue? Is this an actual position in Japanese society, or have they made that up for the show? And does that therefore inform the characters’ reactions with a way I’ve not grasped? It’s definitely possible to gain meaning from the show having not been immersed in the culture, but a lot of the time it feels like being the last person in the room to get the joke. In truth, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The slight disorientation actually contributes to the atmosphere in a lot of ways, being a story in which reality usually turns out to be slightly stranger than expected.
On a slightly more practical note, the story follows Ginko, a Mushi-shi, whose job is to travel around Japan helping people with the problems caused by Mushi – tiny supernatural creatures not unlike insects. Each episode presents Ginko with a different species of Mushi with its own behaviour and complication. This does lead to the only complaint I have about the series: it is episodic; there’s no particular overarching plot, though character development does happen. This is partly because the series doesn’t follow the same order as the manga it was based on, but it means that the story can feel a little choppy and disconnected. Despite that, however, if you’re interested in watching a show that’s possibly the most Japanese anime I’ve ever watched, go for it. If you’re interested in watching an ethereal, thoughtful story with some truly stunning artwork, then this anime also comes highly recommended. However, be aware that, for someone who’s not completely immersed in Japanese culture, being slightly confused may just be the price of entry.