Mushishi Zoku Shou: Drops of Bells

8UVg2gdOur journey with Ginko, which started 9 years ago, draws to an end with an adaptation of Drops of Bells (Suzu no Shizuku), the last arc of the acclaimed Mushishi manga by Yuki Urushibara.

In the first half of the story, a girl leaves her family behind when she’s summoned to be the next lord of a mountain. Thriving lands, called “Rivers of Light”, require the presence of a lord to maintain the balance of life around that area. Choosing a human as a lord is an unusual move, however. Such a task is usually delegated to animals since they live with fewer emotional attachments.

Several of the introspective themes that were explored in previous arcs are summarized, most notably interconnectedness, the indifference of nature, and letting go. All life—plants, animals, and humans—are dependent on each other, and influenced by the ripples of cause and effect. Nature, which is personified in Drops of Bells as the mountain lord, acts as the unbiased mediator. The overarching lesson is that we should appreciate what we have, and not cling when the time comes for us to move on.

The second half concludes this story without quite concluding the series. The ending leaves some of the questions that were raised in the previous arcs unanswered, but it ties up enough to provide a mostly satisfying conclusion.

The art and animation have remained remarkably consistent over the years. The backgrounds in Drops of Bells are just as gorgeous as they’ve been since the first season aired in 2005. The character and special effects animation are fluid and precise. The soundtrack features the subdued and ambient melodies that have become hallmarks of the series.

When you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that Mushishi, which is essentially about life experiences and nature, was made with such a substantial budget. I’m grateful that ArtLand was willing to take a chance on such an esoteric and spiritual story, and that it’s been successful enough to adapt in its entirety. It’s been a truly remarkable experience.

Mushishi and Patience

687474703a2f2f7777772e6861707079736f64612e636f6d2f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323030372f30382f6d757368697368695f6d6174613530302e6a7067When I joined MyAnimeList in 2014, I saw admirers of a series called Mushishi raving about how it was the “best slice of life ever”, using words like “beautiful” and “masterpiece” to describe it. In response to this praise, there were those criticizing it as “pretentious”, and going as far as calling it the “most boring series ever.” With such strong opinions coming from both sides, I wanted to see for myself whether or not Mushishi was as good, or as bad, as people were saying.

At the first episode, I was already siding with the critics. Ginko, the main character, meets with a boy living alone in the woods to investigate a strange ability he has. A perplexing conversation ensues that made me feel like I was back in a college with a professor throwing information at me for an upcoming test. “Are they really expecting me to keep up with all of this?”, I thought.

Then I got to the second episode, which frustrated me even more. For most of the first half, I grudgingly stared at these two kids sitting in a dark room talking about something pertaining to eyelids.

I concluded that this series just wasn’t for me, and I dropped it halfway through the second episode.

As I met and befriended more people on forums, I noticed that many of those who liked the same anime as I did thought highly of Mushishi. I started to wonder, “Why do these people with such excellent taste (lol) love such a bad series? Maybe I’m missing something, and should try watching one more episode.”

I took a deep breath, stilled and cleared my mind, sat back, and attempted to watch the second episode again.

During the first half of the second episode, I felt indifference instead of anger this time because I was in a calmer mental state. I didn’t like what I was watching, but I didn’t hate it either. Then the second half—which I hadn’t seen yet—happened, and everything changed. I’ll explain.

In the first episode, you get a crash course on what Mushi are. It’s not a terribly exciting episode, but it’s a necessary one as it establishes the world you’re about to enter. In the second episode, you see how Mushi can incapacitate people. It starts slowly, as the first episode did, and then—without spoiling anything—all hell breaks loose. I was sucked in.

“Alright, you got me. I need to know more. What are these Mushi?”

Now that the series had my attention, I began to appreciate many things I had overlooked. On the surface, Mushishi seemed like a story about a paranormal investigator who goes around helping random people. As I followed the Ginko on his essential journey—you learn why he can’t stay in one place later in the series—I realized something. The people that he meets aren’t irrelevant characters. They’re us. They’re people modeled after you and me, and their problems are the kinds of problems we’ve all experienced.

Each episode presents a character with a problem we can relate with, and then it guides us through the mental, physical, or sometimes moral process in trying to solve that problem. The stories are blended with subtle commentary on the ways in which we’re interconnected with each other, and with nature. Nature plays a central role in Mushishi, and could be considered a character itself. Sometimes it’s the protagonists; sometimes it’s the antagonist; but it’s never portrayed as an entity that acts in a deliberate way. Nature, and the Mushi that are an extension of it, just are.

What Mushishi managed to accomplish in just 23-minute intervals most series struggle to do over the span of an entire season. I was surprised something so philosophical and unorthodox was adapted into an anime. Artland, the producers, didn’t cut any corners either. The art and animation quality exceeded that of a typical television series, and often reached the level of a feature film. The imagery is enhanced by intricately detailed backgrounds, and a bewitchingly solemn soundtrack that doesn’t call too much attention to itself.

By the end of the series, Mushishi had become my favorite anime. For nearly 13 years, since 2001, Spirited Away had been favorite. Its narrative and visuals were so imaginative, and Miyazaki‘s writing was so sharp, that I never thought another anime would equal it. I went into Mushishi not expecting much, and I didn’t like it when I first tried to watch it. After giving it fair consideration with a calm mind, I also saw how ”beautiful” it was.

It’s amazing the difference a little patience can make.