Don’t let the American translation “Bug-master” of its title fool you, writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo’s (Akira) “Mushi-shi” has nothing to do with bugs. The translation of the title is actually “Mushi-Master” and is based on the award-winning manga series by Yuki Urushibana and the anime series of the same name. The series was such a big hit in Japan that a live-action adaptation was to be expected. The film is about a silver-haired one-eyed man who wanders a pre-technological 1800’s Japan where magical creatures such as the mushi exist and he does what he can to banish them from hassling people.
Mushi are creatures that have links to the essence of life, good or bad. Among those who can see and exercise any sort of mastery over them are people called Mushi-shi and Ginko (Jo Odagiri, Shinobi Heart Under Blade) is one such individual. He travels around the countryside aiding those who have been infected by malicious or unwelcome Mushi; using potions, herbs and knowledge that only a Mushi-shi can grasp. He encounters a variety of infections and situations that lead him into finally dealing with the problems of Tanyu (Yu Aoi) who must write down the stories of the mushi to keep it from overwhelming her. Ginko must deal with the secrets of the Tokoyami, the Kouki and his own past…
It is such a chore for someone to cram an anime series into a 130 minute film even for an award-winning director such as Otomo to pull off. I haven’t read the manga and have only seen parts of the anime series but I guess it is safe to say that the film has adapted some of its episodes. It would be safe to say that the film adapts most but not all of its source material, and it was rather obvious that the film has its own problems. The anime was quite episodic with its characterization, origins and plot details; while it may work with its source material, the film encounters a lot of problems in staying true to the style and delivery of its roots. A lot of details are left to the imagination and for fans of the manga to fill in, thereby making the film is a little too episodic and having some problems of coherency.
The film also has some issues in keeping the pace even, as much of the film is told with a heavy atmosphere and a sense of the presentiment. For one to understand the film (would become a chore itself) one has to have a deep understanding of existentialism, a belief in the duality of intelligent beings, and that each living thing carries a “spirit” that are linked to one another and is in turn given life via an umbilical cord by Mother Earth. We see the backgrounds behind Ginko and his origins, as well as the little girl he helped in the film’s opening act. There’s a powerful essence within Ginko and his one-eyed quality may actually serve as the dark and the light that resides within him. Tanyu represents something that controls the mushi by recording them, meaning that to understand something is to gain power over them. The little girl in the film’s beginning may represent something that was victimized and clinging to the past, and fearing the future. The film can get very cryptic and very slow-moving, that it may frustrate a lot of viewers and may even alienate some of its fan base.
The film does have plenty of atmosphere with the proper mood to set the viewer’s enjoyment. The film does have some good visual effects that didn’t overwhelm the film’s story, I loved the part when Tanyu used her magical sticks to capture the enchanted mushi records. Nui (played by Makiko Esumi) is a mysterious woman that took in a young boy named Yoki (Inada Hideyuki) that serves as a great plot device to get the film going. The film does have its redeeming moments as the means as to how Mushi is dispatched by Ginko and Tanyu proved very interesting and nicely executed. However, as interesting they were, the mushi itself lacked further development and the screenplay is hampered by the fact that it takes too long to get the audience really care about Ginko and even Tanyu. I guess while the concept is interesting, it gets very difficult to care since some details are set in such indistinct language that those who can’t read between the lines would be lost.
“Mushi-Shi” is a manga adaptation that tries to be more than a commercial serving of the anime series and for this I have to give it some credit. The film has an artistic quality that is beautiful and enthralling but these same qualities will undoubtedly form a disconnection with its viewer. The film requires a very patient viewer and one who is used to reading between the lines and filling in the answers for themselves. “Mushi-shi” would have proved more enjoyable if it focused more on clarity and energy to keep the viewer awake. Its lack of an overriding plot and focus makes it a little bit of a bore. The artistic qualities should’ve been balanced with a more mainstream energy so that it can enthrall rather than alienate. The film has great ambition and does have spots of creative flair, but it may have been a little too late as it fails to serve up intrigue and suspense, it sort of just dawdles from one event to the other and goes nowhere.
The film will appeal to fans of the manga but others would be better off renting it.