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28th Feb 08
Ginko (Joe Odagiri) is a ‘bugmaster’ or ‘Mushi-shi’, who wanders through the more remote parts of Japan circa 1907 and heals those he comes across whose ailments have been caused by supernatural bugs known as ‘mushi’. Mushi are unseen by most humans and swarm as some insects do. Each type of mushi has a function whether it is producing sound or taking sound from you. All mushi are part of the fabric of life, and Ginko can remove their effects all with his handy bag of herbal tricks.
In flashbacks we learn about the young Ginko, then named Yoki, from his being orphaned at a young age to being looked after by a female bugmaster called Nui. Acquiring a sidekick on his travels, Ginko soon ends up assisting another bugmaster when the scrolls containing the history of the mushi suddenly lose the mushi trapped within them.
A bit of an odd one this. It’s probably the most relaxed a movie has ever made me. It wasn’t that it bored me, although it did have moments where it dragged. Instead it had an aura about it that kind of chilled me out. I couldn’t tell you what was going on much of the time but I soon caught up with it and felt compelled to see where things were going. Whilst it works as a stand alone viewing, I feel knowing the anime and manga would have helped more. The movie plays like it expects the viewer to know the subject already via the animated and comic books rather than make concessions for those new to it.
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, rightly acclaimed for his anime flicks Akira and Steamboy, Mushishi is his second live-action feature, the last being World Apartment Horror (1991) and like that movie is also adapted from manga. It is Otomo’s first movie for sixteen years.
Mushishi premiered in Japan and was greeted by generally positive reviews. Mushishi’s plot comes from episodes three, seven, twelve and twenty of the anime series based on Yuki Urushibara’s manga, a series that spanned twenty six episodes. Both the manga and anime versions are highly revered, winning many prestigious awards within their fields with the manga having sold over 2.9million copies to date.
A big fan of Otomo’s ground-breaking Akira, my expectations were not really geared for a gently-paced live action film that would confuse with its numerous flash-backs. It’s to Otomo’s credit that he has managed to make such a scenario feel credible, drawing you into a world that is entrancing and hypnotic and almost tangibly real. However after an attention-grabbing introduction to the world of the bugmaster, Otomo kind of lets go of the flow and much of what follows meanders rather than consistently draw you in.
To ground such a fantastical idea in a pre-modern setting, it helps if the cast are believable and well-rounded, rather than the clichés most genre pieces veer towards. Fortunately Mushishi sits favourably in the former. Joe Odagiri as Ginko exudes the right amount of likeability and makes you buy into his character who can charm the mushi and who can calml deals with each situation he is faced with.
The visual effects are of a variable quality, despite which the mushi remain powerfully drawn and enthral regardless of the occasional dodginess of the effects that bring them to the screen. The scene where the mushi escape from the scrolls and move along the floor and up the walls is gob-smacking stuff, as is the moment where Ginko removes the bugs from a young girl whose determination not to let go of her dearly departed mother’s words has caused her to acquire horn-like afflictions upon her face.
The film ends unexpectedly, never achieving the kind of giddy magical heights one not familiar with the source materials would have expected nor convey to the uninitiated why in other media the Bugmaster has proven so successful. Despite grabbing you with a mountain landslide that separates a child from his mother within its opening minutes, the constant flashbacks and muddied narrative strip away at the good work achieved elsewhere.
It’s probable that with a second viewing and with much of the initial expectation and consequent disappointment out of the way, that this viewer will see the movie for what it really is rather than what they would have expected. Until then it still gets a decent 3 stars...