Japanese folklore abounds with encounters with the unusual – numerous tales of humans meeting yōkai, specters and other beings can be found throughout literature from Japan, from the earliest records to the modern day. Such non-human creature depicted in these tales can be mischievous, malevolent or benign towards their human colleagues, depending on the tale; in any event, they are treated as aspects of the natural world, as humans can encounter them in any setting (from their own homes to remote forests). Mushi-shi adopts the vignette format shown in these tales, and adapts the yōkai encounter narrative to a more unique prospect – the series’ protagonist, Ginko, travels across the country as a mushishi, someone capable of seeing (and interacting with) mysterious life forms known as mushi and treating people afflicted by their presence. The Japan of the anime exists more as its Tokugawa-Meiji analogue in real life, with semi-remote villages not connected to one another physically through roads (unlike today, where modern technological conveniences such as mass transit and the internet allow for much easier contact with the outside world); as such, the people Ginko meets in his travel do not really move outside of their home villages, at least not often, and Ginko must meet them there instead of inviting them to another location. This contrasts with similar shows such as GeGeGe no Kitaro, which heavily feature yōkai traveling across Japan as a means of answering various summons for assistance; shows like Kitaro depict a more modern Japan, where massive cosmopolitan cities such as Tokyo and Osaka exist, while Mushi-shi exhibits far more isolated centers that can’t easily connect with one another yet.
The first episode of the series, titled “Midori no Za,” features Ginko traveling to meet a boy whose drawings come to life; the boy describes to Ginko his relationship with his grandmother, who disapproved of his ability. What the boy doesn’t realize, however (as the show will explain later), is that his grandmother had he own encounter with the mushi through a mysterious sake-drinking ceremony that would have made her a mushi herself; a crow interrupted the ritual, however, causing it to be incomplete (and making the grandmother partially mushi in the process). That incident echoes folkloric traditions of the mysterious encounter, where humans discover unusual beings that may either be frightening, intimidating or merely curious; such beings include ghosts, demons and other supernatural entities, each with their own unique personalities and temperament (ranging from mischievous to evil). The mushi, by contrast, do not really exhibit the same characteristics; they’re more cryptic in tone, and Ginko describe them as life in its purest form. As “pure life,” the mushi exist primarily as seemingly less complex than bacteria; the way Ginko explained them, they’re likely some sort of primordial life that existed since the Earth began, residing in the legendary river of life known as Kouki that gives sustenance to all other life on the planet. Few people seem to have the ability to see or interact with them – this emphasizes the connection to folklore, as although mushi are treated as omnipresent primordial organisms, encounters with them are rare (and seemingly requires either an affinity towards them or acting as a host for them).
Ginko’s encounter with the grandmother reveals that she had never left the house where she and her grandson reside; however, as Ginko explains, this is only half of her, as she split into two parts (human and mushi halves) because of the sake-drinking ceremony she participated in. Such a ceremony reflects real-life sake-drinking rituals designed to cement relationships between participants; sake consumption can be found in various functions, from weddings to dedications, and it marks both a time of celebration and recognition of kinship. One example of its inclusion in an anime can be found in One Piece – Sabo, Luffy and Ace all participated in sake drinking to officially recognize their status as “brothers” who would protect each other through thick and thin. Here in the first episode of Mushi-shi, it resembles a connection to nature and a transition to another form of existence – the grandmother notes that her memories disappear as she drinks the sake, becoming more mushi-like and dispensing more of her human side. The ceremony was meant to make her completely mushi, after all, had it not been so abruptly interrupted by the crow; as mentioned, it echoes the liminal nature of encounters with the strange in Japanese folklore, where non-human characters interact with their human colleagues in secluded (or semi-private) environments such as bedrooms, temples and forests.
The grandson ultimately cooperates with Ginko in order to complete his grandmother’s transition to mushi, through his artistic talents; a drawing he produces of a vibrant green sake cup comes to life, and immediately separates into two parts. His grandmother carries half of the cup she used in the ceremony, and completing it with the other half will allow her to finish performing the ritual, granting her full mushi status and allowing her to be seen by her grandson at last. With his work now done, Ginko departs, in order to locate more mushi incidents that he could similarly resolve with his mushi-shi skills; the series adopts this episodic format, where Ginko travels to semi-remote locations mainly in order to assist in ridding parasitic mushi from their hosts. With this inaugural episode, the audience gets to see the central formula: Ginko arrives somewhere (in this case, a secluded temple residence), recognizes the core conflict (here, a grandmother’s participation in a sake-drinking ceremony was interrupted), and helps the relevant person or people resolve it. Mushi-shi adopts the format shown in classic folklore, where encounters with the unusual occur in unfrequented areas, and translates it into stories of primeval life – the mushi themselves represent the series’ version of the yōkai one might find in centuries-old folk tales, existing in a massive river of life that runs through the planet, providing nourishment for everyone else.