April 30, 2010

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Mushishi Volume 3

Written by Yuki Urushibara
Illustrated by Yuki Urushibara
Del Rey

The mushi get a bit deadlier and we learn more of Ginko's past in this volume of Mushishi. Our smoking hero wanders the hills and valleys of Japan, trying to bring some comfort to those whose lives have been impacted by this almost invisible form of life. But can he ever bring peace to his own?

As this series goes on, it seems that the mushi are less gentle than they were before, as here we see them crippling people, taking folks out to sea, forcing ritual sacrifice, and other actions that don't seem nearly as coincidental as they did in the first two volumes. I don't know if that's a sign of Urushibara's wandering idea of what a mushi should be or an intentional progression, but the result definitely changes the reader's perspective on the creatures.

I do like that the mushi are still solidly grounded in natural forces or ideas that can be explained away by superstition rather than fact. A girl must be cursing her town or a fish is just very abnormal in adapting to its environment for instance. It takes Ginko's investigations to bring the truth to light, even if people don't want to see it. As you will see by the end of this volume, that's particularly ironic, given Ginko's condition.

The first story, while not the best, is much more polished than the openers in the first two volumes, which made me happy. A girl who draws corrosive mushi to her village is condemned to silence, unless Ginko can help her. He feels particularly like John Constantine here and in the missing wife story, because the only way to help those affected by the mushi is to take pretty big risks himself. He also manipulates others in both cases to get the desired results, another trick of the old Hellblazer.

I think my favorite is the husband who waits for his wife at sea. Mixed with the legend of dragons, the mushi are more a force of nature than genuinely evil in this one. It's also probably the most accessible story so far, in that the idea of a person lost at sea becoming one with the waves is a familiar tale told across almost any culture.

Because of the pacing and setting of these stories, there is a strong feeling of folklore attached to each one. I wish I knew more about Japanese culture to help me understand them better, and that's something I need to work on for the future. For now, it's fun to see Urushibara play with what for her I'm sure are familiar legends and tales, giving them her own spin based on the concepts of the mushi. From what I can see, she's been able to merge them quite well.

We have a new wrinkle in one of the stories, as we get a morality play based on the notion of sacrifice for the greater good. Ginko and the story's protagonist wrestle with the idea for the bulk of the chapter, but the resolution may not be what you think. In another Constantine-like move, Ginko plays with the rules here more than we've seen so far. How that will impact on him in the future is hard to say, but given these stories only have a loose connection at best, I'm not counting on any follow-up.

Urushibara also gets a few licks in on those who meddle in affairs that don't belong to them in the story of a mushi-infested ink stone. It's yet another instance of a tie between writing and mushi, which is about the only linking thing we've seen about them so far. (Did I miss anything else? Let me know!) I'd mention who this reminds me of, but I think you get the picture.

Ironically, the only story I wasn't wild about here was the one involving Ginko himself. I like the way he's so mysterious, feeling out of time with his surroundings, and grounding him within the narrative like this actually disappointed me a bit. I don't think we really needed to know why he became a mushishi, but if origins are more your thing, it's here for you. I would have preferred he stay shrouded in time, but I could be in the minority with that feeling.

Overall, I think these stories are stronger, showing the growth of their creator as she becomes more comfortable. They're still a bit on the slow side, so if that's an issue for you, I don't think you're going to like this volume any more than the first two. I like the "classic horror" feel of the narrative and the fact that Urushibara wraps you into the story slowly, like tucking a reader in with a creepy blanket. Not everything has to be written at a breakneck pace; there's room for all sorts of pacing in manga, or any other genre for that matter.

Though the stories are stronger, I do think this one takes a step back in the art department. The character don't vary a lot in their basic shapes or movements, and they spend a lot of time just talking to each other. You can find a way to make that visually interesting, but I don't think Urushibara manages that here. I read more for story than art, so it's not a problem for me, but if you link the two more closely together, you may trip on this series (and this volume in particular) a bit as a result.

Mushishi is not for everyone, but I like it a lot. If you are into the quieter side of horror, love folklore, or are looking to see what manga can do when you get past the cool stuff at the surface, then definitely give this a try. If you are a fan of the Viz Signature materials, then I'd definitely give this a shot. Odds are if you are liking the more challenging manga that line is putting out, then I think you'd like Mushishi. The nice thing is that if you don't, because the stories aren't linked, you don't have to keep reading. But if, like me, you're a fan, then I think you'll want to read the rest of the stories right away.