Mushishi Vol. 1

By Yuki Urushibara
240 pages, black and white
Published by Del Rey

There’s nothing quite like the discovery of something that was both an unknown and something you were looking for. It’s rather apt that Mushishi is just that on two different levels. The lead character of Ginko is forever searching for the mysterious mushi, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s trying to find at times. And as a reader, Mushishi‘s strange mix of cryptozoology, horror novel, thriller, and crazy biology is in many ways just what the doctor ordered.

Ginko is a mushishi, a master of the strange group of creatures known only as mushi. Ancient links on the evolutionary chain, mushi can do strange and horrible things to the people with which they come into contact. From sound-absorbing mushi to mysterious moving swamps, each mushi is slightly different than the species that came before. Even a master of mushi, though, can’t always guarantee that he can save those afflicted.

Yuki Urushibara’s creation, upon close examination, is so carefully crafted to have all the right elements that it’s almost not a surprise that it’s so enjoyable. Ginko’s forever traveling across Japan to help those afflicted by mushi and discovering new forms and types of the creatures mixes a number of archetypes together; the traveling stranger, the helpful outsider, the mysterious man, the unknown monster, the lurking terror, and so on. There is, of course, more to an effective story than just good ideas added together. Urushibara has a strong sense of pacing and atmosphere on display in Mushishi; each chapter (which is a stand-alone story) unfolds at a speed that’s neither leisurely nor rushed, letting you get a sense of the characters and setting even as things forever move forward. The short story (and in many ways Mushishi is just a collection of them) is a difficult form to master, doubly-so when aside from Ginko everything changes from one to the next. Thanks to the double sense of wonder and fear that Urushibara brings to Mushishi, though, it works perfectly.

Mushishi’s art is fairly straightforward, focusing more on the people affected by the mushi than the look of the strange creatures themselves. Urushibara uses a lot of crosshatching in her backgrounds, using it over a strict shading to try and give depth to the art. Because a lot of the elements intended to scare the audience are more psychological than graphic, Urushibara’s quiet, low-key art style ends up aiding rather than hindering her stories; it emphasizes the unnerving, like a girl forever trapped in a dark room, or a swamp that continually moves through the countryside and dragging a solitary woman with it. These aren’t big, crazy illustrations but rooted in the real world, letting you as a reader put yourself in the place. When the rare, out-of-this-world exceptions do appear, even those work well because you’ve grown accustomed to illustrations of things that could happen in this world. It ends up being disconcerting and chilling, something that wouldn’t have happened if every other page featured this sort of event.

The fourth chapter of Mushishi, “The Light in the Eyelids,” won the Kodansha Manga of the Year Award, and it’s easy to see why. Representative of the entire volume, it’s scary and emotionally wrenching, full of ideas that are hard to let go of when you’re doing reading the book. Some books leave images in your mind of dismemberment or gigantic fanged monsters rampaging through the landscape. Mushishi will have you unable to easily dismiss a man whose horrific dreams keep coming true, or a young boy’s unnatural deafness that absorbs all sound around him. For those looking for a series of chills that will keep you glancing over your shoulder, Mushishi is waiting.

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