Ambient Anime: The atmospheric wonders of ‘Mushishi’

There are strands of Japanese anime that have many of same qualities as great ambient and atmospheric music. Mushishi is one of them: a kind of pastoral psychedelia, but grounded in a unique Japanese stillness and devoted to the craft of storytelling.

Back in 2006 I experienced the extraordinary anime TV series Mushishi for the first time. I have re-watched it many times since. Faithfully based on a manga (comic) of the same name by one Yuki Urushibara, it was a DVD set lent to me by a friend who knew my tastes well: anime with stillness and atmosphere, a particular Japanese quality which I have since learned is known as ‘Ma’. 

Recently I discovered that another season of the show was made in 2014 called Mushishi: Zoku-Sho (‘Next Chapter’). It simply continues straight from the first and is every bit as magical. While writing this I’ve been floating my way through its 20-plus episodes.

What is Ma?

First, let’s explore this Ma thing a bit.

Roughly translated, Ma means “negative space”. In Japanese storytelling, it’s about devoting space to quietness and reflection. The effect is more depth and gravity. It either shifts your focus to the environment that a character inhabits, or it helps us ponder a character’s emotions or state of mind. Sometimes it does both. This quality can be found not only in certain anime and manga but across the entirety of Japanese culture, from art to architecture, from tea ceremonies to garden and landscape design.

Hong Kong-based animator Sophia Akenson-Klein describes Ma thus:

“[It’s] something western action based narratives rarely utilise, but eastern narratives…regularly employ. This style of editing discards time to reflect on space and allows for the environment of the character to be divulged and explored. As western narratives almost exclusively focus on where the characters are going and what actions they are taking, many eastern narratives comparatively focus on where their characters are and how that space affects them. Where western cinema gives us single establishing shots, eastern cinema often lingers and explores the crevices of existence within the environment the characters are entering.”

On first viewing Mushishi, I knew it was special. About three episodes in, I was hooked for life. The show expressed Ma at a deeper level than I had ever experienced before. Even deeper than Hayao Miyazaki films like Spirited Away and Mononoke, or Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk classics Ghost In The Shell and its sequel Innocence. There are sublime moments in all these films that are steeped in Ma. And as far as I can tell, Miyazaki was the first Japanese animator to attach the term to his work, replying to a question from film critic Roger Ebert in 2002 about a wordless visual sequence in Spirited Away.

But unlike those moments in the work of Miyazaki and Oshii, Mushishi feels like it was built on the concept of Ma from its very foundations. 

Getting to know Mushishi

On both narrative and conceptual levels, the show is not difficult to understand. But its central premise about paranormal lifeforms and how they can affect people’s everyday lives takes a bit of explaining.

These mushishi can be plant-like and animal-like but are actually neither. Existing in great variety and numbers, they are fundamental to nature but exist on a wavelength makes them rarely visible to humans. They can affect humans and the visible natural environment in strange, sometimes dangerous ways, but the humans frequently defer to superstitions and folklore to explain their effects.

Set in pre-modern rural Japan, the series is episodic, which means it’s without any substantial story arcs that span multiple episodes. So you can drop in on any episode and pick up the premise. The only constant character – and often not the central character – is a laid-back, blond haired, green-eyed wanderer called Ginko. He’s a Mushi Master, part of a loose collective of gifted individuals who study and who can actually see the mushishi phenomena, and he roams the countryside to study them and help humans who are inadvertently affected.

Storytelling & music

The stories are strange but relatively straightforward. I suppose they’re folk tales in a way. 

‘In The Cradle’ sees Ginko encounter a man in a bamboo forest who somehow can’t leave, no matter how he tries. ‘Tender Horns’ is about a boy who somehow has horns growing on his head and is fated to die like his mother who suffered the same problem. That one had me in tears, despite my determined resistance. Another called ‘The Alley Through the Pillow’ is about a farmer whose dreams become reality and who seeks Ginko’s help. Take a look at the original manga and you’ll see just how in tune director Hiroshi Nagahama and his co-creators are with Yuki Urushibara’s source material.

In a show largely defined by its visuals, music and the use of space, words feel inadequate to describe the kind of spell the it casts, but I’ll try. 

Each episode is like meditation. The animation is simple, like a watercolour painting, quite often just slowly panning across a still drawing, but the use of colour can be incredibly effective. The dialogue is clean and economical. The camera lingers on landscapes, on the faces of characters, and on the strange and colourful manifestations of mushishi. Like the best music from the quietest end of ambient, Mushishi has silence and atmosphere, and – crucially – emotion. It is ethereal and beautiful, light and dark, compassionate and human. There are moments of profound awe and mystery, of desperate sadness and luminous joy.

Which brings me to the musical score by composer Toshio Masuda

It too is blessed with Ma, manifested here in his light touch and the silence between the notes. He deftly and sparingly uses synths and pianos alongside traditional acoustic instruments like gongs, bells, drums, shamisen, shakuhachi and koto. Masuda is probably better known for this soundtrack to long-running and much more action-packed anime Naruto, but that music is a good deal more conventional. His scores for two Mushishi series are far more distinctive, perfectly in sync with the show’s remarkable world-building.

Where to find it

The two Mushishi series from 2005-6 and 2014 – which include a number of double-length specials – have been distributed widely in the Western markets. You’ll find them on DVD, Blu-ray and on numerous streaming services including occasionally on Netflix.

There is also an overly-dense Japanese live action movie from 2006. In short: forget it.

I highly recommend you choose the original Japanese audio with English subtitles. Mushishi’s English dubs, when available, suck badly, but then I find that’s true of most English dubs of anime series and movies. I’m also reliably told that the English subs lose little in the translation, and there’s no attempt to dumb down concepts for Western audiences like Disney did in its sometimes appalling English text and audio translations for Hayao Miyazaki’s films.

A final word

If Mushishi moves you even half as much as it moved me, I know you’ll enjoy it.

In a future post I’ll introduce you to another TV anime with a similar level of Ma, but which is otherwise utterly different from Mushishi: the dark cyberpunk noir of Texhnolyze.

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