Mushishi

When I started watching anime again in 2014 after a long hiatus, I saw fans of a series called Mushishi praising how it was “beautiful” and a “masterpiece.” In these same discussion threads, there were also critics arguing that Mushishi was actually “pretentious” and “boring.” Seeing such strong and opposing opinions, I opted to see for myself how good—or bad—Mushishi truly was.

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About a quarter way through the first episode I was already siding with the critics. The central character, Ginko, who appeared to be a kind of paranormal investigator, is seen traveling deep into an unusually vibrant forest. He’s headed to the home of a child living there to investigate a strange ability that he’s said to have. When they meet, perplexing conversations ensue, which, at the time, I found difficult to follow, and not particularly interesting.

The second episode frustrated me even more. For most of the first half, I grudgingly stared at these two kids sitting in a dark room discussing something pertaining to eyelids; keeping my own eyelids open was a struggle. Before I could get to the second half, I stopped the episode, and concluded that this series just wasn’t for me.

As I befriended more people in the anime community, I noticed that many of those who shared my interests also thought highly of Mushishi. I wondered, “Why do these people with such excellent taste (lol) love such a dull series? Maybe I missed something?” So, I attempted to give the second episode another try, this time approaching it as I would a meditation—or a tedious assignment. I turned down the lights, cleared my mind, relaxed my face and shoulders, took a deep breath, and gave it my undivided attention.

In such a relaxed state, I usually feel a peaceful indifference. Watching the second episode again, I wasn’t as impatient during the first half, but I wasn’t quite enjoying it either. However, I was more receptive. I initially took notice of how ubiquitous the environment was. A scene would often open with or cut to an intricately detailed—and admittedly beautiful—slice of nature. It was around this time that it dawned on me—nature itself is actually a character in this story. There’s Ginko, the various people he meets, and nature. Nature is sometimes the protagonist, other times it’s the antagonist, but it’s not an entity that acts with bias. Nature, and the “Mushi”, which are a supranormal extension of nature, just are. In this context, everything started to make more sense.

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When I finally saw the unexpectedly creepy second half of the second episode, my attention was firmly hooked. As I progressed to the next episodes, another thing that became apparent was how the problems and concerns of the characters mirrored our own, providing an opening for the audience to relate and emotionally connect. Each story guides us through the mental, physical, or sometimes moral process of trying to solve a particular issue. But people’s plights aren’t sensationalized. Mushishi doesn’t seek to make you feel angry or depressed. While there are moments that could make you feel that way, it doesn’t indulge in negativity or drama.

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I was later impressed by how much ground Mushishi could cover in just 23-minute episodic intervals. The directors, under Hiroshi Nagahama’s supervision, did well in balancing the elements of Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning manga. The studio, Artland, didn’t cut corners on the production either. The art and animation quality exceeded that of a typical television series, sometimes reaching the levels you’d expect from a feature film. These visuals are underpinned by a traditional and occasionally haunting soundtrack.

Mushishi is infused with subtle, and easily overlooked, commentary on the ways in which we’re connected with each other and the world around us. Thinking back, it’s amazing the difference eased expectations and a little patience can make. With that said, such an approach can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to like anything. Sometimes you’re just not compatible with something, and that’s perfectly fine, too. In my personal case, I was more compatible with Mushishi than I’d thought as it has since become my favorite anime.

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Aoi Hana

There’s no shortage of anime with apparently gay characters and pairings, or “yuri/yaoi bait” as it’s sometimes called. In many—perhaps most—cases, these characters exist as comic relief (‘Yuru Yuri’), fanservice (‘Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid’), or their romance is “implied” (‘Hibike! Euphonium’), meaning they’ll occasionally act super gay, but actually aren’t.

Aoi Hana does something that’s quite rare for an anime to do. It attempts to portray non-straight characters openly and legitimately without invalidating their sexual orientation as a perversion or passing phase. It tells a story that touches on the pertinent issues of social expectations and the struggle of coming-out.

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In the opening episode, we meet the principal characters: Fumi Manjome, a tall yet timid girl who recently moved back to Kamakura after being away for 10-years; Akira (Achan) Okudaira, a spunky longtime resident of Kamakura; and their respective families. Both girls are due to start their freshman year at closely neighboring schools—Fumi at the prestigious Matsuoka Secondary School for Girls, and Akira at the historic Fujigaya Girls Academy. The two were classmates and best friends in elementary school until Fumi moved away. After a tearful goodbye, they promised to write each other, but neither ever did.

Fumi is visibly downcast when we first see her. She developed strong feelings for an older cousin, Chizu Hanashiro, who didn’t take things as seriously as she did. Already marred by regret over some of the choices she made, Fumi’s depression is exacerbated further when she learns that Chizu is getting married soon. To cope, she takes refuge in books, and distances herself from social contact. Conversely, Akira doesn’t appear to have much interest in love or romance yet, but can envy people who do.

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Yasuko Sugimoto, a popular senior at the Matsuoka Secondary School, takes an interest in Fumi. Her personality is similar to that of the character Saint-Just from the classic 1991 anime ‘Onii-sama e…’, of which ‘Aoi Hana’—among many other shoujo-ai—could be considered an offspring. Like Saint-Just, Yasuko has a more traditionally masculine demeanor, and is deeply admired by her fellow classmates. Initially, it’s unclear what Yasuko sees in Fumi, or what her intentions are. Maybe she’s attracted to Fumi’s coy disposition; maybe she’s just appeasing her own ego; or maybe it’s something else entirely.

If you expect to see any romance between Akira and Fumi, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This adaptation only covers the first 18 chapters of the manga, which centers primarily on Akira and Fumi attempting to rekindle their friendship, the relationship between Fumi and Yasuko, and the love interests of some of the supporting characters. Two complaints I sometimes hear about this series is that it has a somewhat abrupt, read-the-manga, ending, and the pacing is very relaxed. My own criticism would be of the sexual assault in the first episode that’s used as a catalyst to reunite Fumi and Akira. I wish they could’ve been brought back together under better circumstances.

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Aoi Hana was animated with a tranquil pastel pallet by JC Staff (‘Shoujo Kakumei Utena’), and masterfully directed by Kenichi Kasai (‘Nodame Cantabile’), who brilliantly captures the non-verbal cues and body language of Takako Shimura’s bold manga. If you’re looking for a mature, unusually nuanced, LGBT anime, I highly recommend Aoi Hana. If you enjoy it as much as I do, you may want to consider buying the recently released Blu-ray from Nozomi/Lucky Penny Entertainment; the English title is ‘Sweet Blue Flowers.’ Apparently, Aoi Hana didn’t sell well in Japan when it was originally released in 2009. To have more series like this, it helps to support them.

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Akanesasu Shoujo

In the hopes of escaping to a new, possibly better, place, the girls of the “Radio Research Society” meet under the sacred tree to perform the “4:44 Ceremony.” According to an urban legend, performing this ritual at 4:44pm, while listening to radio static tuned to just the right frequency, will open a gateway to another world. It’s a premise we’ve seen in similar forms before.

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Of the five members in the club, most of them don’t expect the 4:44 Ceremony to actually do anything, and only participate as a fun social activity. Asuka, a cheerful girl who dons a big red hair ribbon, has the most faith that the ritual will eventually succeed. Yuu, the reason-oriented president of the club, and Asuka’s closest friend, is the most skeptical. All of the girls like each other to some extent, establishing a welcoming vibe to the group.

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Chloe, the modest one who—for some reason—peppers her speech with French phrases, finds a crystal near the sacred tree. When she places it in a specialized radio, she finds an odd sound at the 0633.1 AM frequency. The group elects to perform the ceremony at this frequency, and unexpected things start to happen—including the emergence of some suspicious snow bunnies, and, most surprisingly, another Asuka. The cheerful Asuka playfully nicknames this other Asuka “Seriouska”—a portmanteau of “serious” and “Asuka”—due to her more serious demeanor.

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When the 4:44 Ceremony succeeds, all five girls are transported together to another world, and the one wearing the headphones merges with a version of themselves in that world. This provided some of the most interesting and often humorous moments, particularly when Asuka and Seriouska were involved. We see each of the principle characters live through another version of themselves, and confront the choices and regrets of that other self. This aspect of the story gave an otherwise familiar premise some psychological weight.

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Hostile forces from a “Twilight” realm trail them, antagonize them, and create turmoil for everyone in its wake. It’s believed that a king in this Twilight is the root cause. Initially, the group tries to avoid this king, but they soon realize they have no choice but to confront him (her or it) to protect themselves and the inhabitants of these other worlds. Honestly, I would’ve preferred less emphasis on these parts, and more emphasis on the main characters confronting their other selves. But I understand that taking such a route may not have been as entertaining for a lot of people.

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Two little-known studios, DandeLion Animation Studio and Juumonji, did a really nice job on the production. Aside from one or two wonky frames here and there, the 2D art and animation was mostly polished, and the 3D computer animation for the action scenes wasn’t too jarring when it appeared. There’s still that moment when you go, “Oh, it’s in 3D now.”, but it doesn’t take too long to adjust to the transition.

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My interest in this series was initially piqued when I saw clips of the gloriously over-the-top action scenes going around on Twitter. My expectations started at, “Maybe I could watch this as a filler show between JoJo episodes…”, and ended at “That was actually fun!” If you don’t mind seeing some things you may have seen before, and aren’t bothered by the occasional fanservice, you could have a good time with Akanesasu Shoujo.

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