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 us 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. A traditional and occasionally haunting soundtrack underpinned the visuals.

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 briefly touches on significant issues like the social expectations placed on them, and even 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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Koi wa Ameagari no You ni

Adapted from the seinen manga by Jun Mayuzuki, After the Rain (Koi wa Ameagari no You ni) is a tender-hearted romance about a bold high school sophomore, Akira Tachibana, who develops strong feelings for the charming middle-aged manager, Masami Kondou, at the restaurant where she works.

A story that should’ve induced endless cringe was somehow realized into an uplifting slice of life. It certainly helps that Kondou, colorfully performed by the resonant Hiroaki Hirata, isn’t the one doing the pursuing. When Tachibana’s feelings for him become evident, he reacts responsibly. He’s fully aware of the ramifications of dating a teenager at his age, and is understandably resistant to the idea.

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Tachibana, voiced with a quiet sharpness by Sayumi Watabe, is surprisingly insistent when it comes to what she wants, though guarded enough to not share everything about herself. Her apparent coldness frustrates Haruka Kyan, an old track partner who longs to rekindle the close camaraderie that they once had. Tachibana, who was—and still is—an exceptional runner, opts out of competition due to an injury, and seems quite content with spending the bulk of her social time pursuing Kondou. She distances herself from Kyan, perhaps because they’ve grown apart, or because Kyan brings back memories that she wants to forget.

Initially, I didn’t quite understand why Tachibana would be attracted to someone as old as Kondou. It wasn’t until around the fifth episode, when we get a glimpse of Kondou’s personal life, that it started to make sense to me. Outside of work, Kondou lives a modest life as a bibliophile and single father. He’s a caring parent to his young son, Yuuto, and maintains a comfortable home when the two of them are together. Tachibana likely sensed this kindness from her time with him, and thus sought him as a refuge after losing motivation for most everything else.

Director Ayumu Watanabe, who also helmed the anime classic Space Brothers, brings an understated sophistication to the performances and atmosphere. After the Rain doesn’t fear placidity. Scenes often break from the commotion to dwell with the surroundings, which are typically dressed with a relaxing ambience and rain covered petals.

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The biggest negative for me was Ryousuke Kase, a character who appears in the fourth episode. In total contrast with Kondou, Kase has a lustful and self-serving interest in teenage girls. With near supernatural ability, he finds a way to interject himself into Tachibana’s life, and even gain leverage over her. Thankfully, the adapters realized that this character was about to break everything with contrived drama, and they quickly pushed him to the side; we don’t see much of him thereafter.

There was a moderate amount of what some academics have snidely deemed as “male gaze”, where the imagery is seemingly framed from a straight-male perspective. In the case of this anime, the camera occasionally gives the viewer an alluring close-up of Tachibana’s modelesque demeanor. Seeing as this is a seinen targeted to teen and adult males—or anyone who appreciates a nice story—some light fanservice should be expected. Personally, I felt that these visuals aptly supplemented the sexual undertones of the material.

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Animated with dazzling finesse by Wit Studio, After the Rain is a portrait of two people, initially separated by a generation, who are drawn together by intersecting circumstances. The overall emphasis, for better or worse, is more on the everyday character situations than on the romance. Ultimately, the story is an exploration of the efforts that we take to reconcile the loss of the things that we cherish—whether it’s an old friend, or the dreams that we strive for. If you’re looking for something sweet and innocuous with a dash of poetry, you may find satisfaction with After the Rain.

My Favorite Anime

  1. Mushishi
  2. HaibaneRenmei
  3. Seirei no Moribito
  4. UchuuKyoudai
  5. JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (TV)
  6. Oniisama e…
  7. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei
  8. Eureka Seven
  9. Aoi Hana
  10. Kiss x Sis

In most previous renditions of this list, since around 2014, the top three have remained unchanged. One of the criteria for a favorite is how much of an immediate impact or lasting impression it has. Undoubtedly, the top three have had the strongest emotional impact of any anime I’d seen—or have seen since. Mushishi and Haibane Renmei in particular hit me on such a personal level that I tend to avoid casually talking about them.

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Seirei no Moribito is like a rare star alignment of story, character, animation, and sound. Every aspect was clearly and skillfully crafted, creating a wholly immersive world and mythology that I still reflect on. Eureka Seven is similar in this regard, though perhaps not as thematically complex. The animation in Seirei no Moribito, which really shines in the action sequences, was produced by Production IG (Jin-Rou), and the soundtrack was scored by the inimitable Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell).

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The characterization in Uchuu Kyoudai (Space Brothers) may actually be more impressive. Even the supporting characters have weight and motivation. My attention span is embarrassingly fragile, and most 12-episode titles end up becoming a struggle for me to complete. Regardless, I breezed through all 99 episodes of Space Brothers with minimal fuss. The times that I did fuss was usually when I had to sleep or work, and couldn’t watch Space Brothers.

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It was fucking hilarious how unapologetically manly and ambiguously gay JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (TV) was. If I remember right, I binged JoJo TV over the course of a few days so that I could watch Stardust Crusaders as it aired. JoJo TV, along with the two seasons of Stardust Crusaders, were the most fun I’ve ever had watching an anime. If a show can routinely make your stomach tighten from laughter, and make you say “oh shit!” out loud, it deserves to be ranked as a favorite.

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If you like shoujo-ai, you should thank Oniisama e as it’s the spiritual grandmother of the genre. Its direct influence is visible in the classics Maria-sama ga Miteru and Shoujo Kakumei Utena. Aesthetically, Oniisama e is more appropriately categorized as fine art. The hand drawn renderings, done with painstaking detail under the disciplined direction of Osamu Dezaki, are accentuated by a moving piano and orchestral score. It delves into heavy and taboo themes, and was consequently banned in some countries at the time of its 1991 release. There’s some humor, but the subject matter is taken completely seriously, never using its gay characters as props or fanservice. **Aoi Hana** could be considered a lighter version of Oniisama e.

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Lastly, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei and Kiss x Sis, two anime that couldn’t be more different from each other, and yet are similar in that they are both unafraid of pushing boundaries, and doing the unexpected. The former does so with design and narrative, and latter does so with ecchi and crass humor. My favorite kind of shows, movies, and so on are generally the kind that take risks, that aren’t afraid of being different, or dangerous. I’m a simple man. Keep surprising me, I’ll keep watching.

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