Katsuhiro Otomo has always been one of my favorite writers and artists. From his amazing Akira to the outstanding Domu, he was always able to weave the perfect story. His characters had so much life and depth that you always walked away feeling like you got the whole story. Otomo was definitely one of the masters of his trade. When he moved from writing and drawing to directing he still maintained the ability to tell so much with so little. His short films, featured in Neo Tokyo and Memories, where the best of the bunch, and his adaptation to the big screen of Akira was one of the most memorable. So when he announced that he’d be working on his first live action movie my interest became immediate. Mushi-Shi, a live action adaptation of Yuki Urushibara’s manga and subsequent anime series, is unique in that it’s a movie based on work that is not tied to anything Otomo has done in the past. Instead he’s taking another creators vision and has brought it to the big screen.
Mushi-Shi has a strange ethereal feel to it quality that makes a lasting impression while leaving you with a feeling of a lack of closure. Set in turn of the century Japan, Mushi-Shi tells the story of Ginko, played by Joe Odagiri, a Mushi Master who studies strange creatures called Mushi that can’t be seen by ordinary men. The young, yet grey haired, master wanders the Japanese countryside helping protect people from the various illnesses the Mushi inflict. We follow Ginko as he helps a small village overcome deafness caused by the Mushi and watch as he assists a friend and frequent customer as she’s overcome by the Tokoyami, the dark Mushi. The storyline is quite fragmented as it explains Ginko’s history, but the eerie plot and hauntingly lush backdrop of medieval Japan make this an exquisite piece of work.
About halfway through it becomes immediately apparent that Mushi-Shi would work better as an episodic tale. Whether it’s a live-action mini-series or a trilogy of movies, it needed more time to flesh out everything with direction. The movie felt a bit directionless at times. Then again, I’ve seen it argued that this is the entire point of the movie, that it’s simply a reflection of Ginko himself, always meandering through the countryside going from village to village with no real direction in life. Clocking in at just over two hours, you’ll find your mind wandering at times when it feels like the story is going nowhere.
Something else that stood out were the numerous flashbacks that occurred throughout, except you weren’t able to figure out they were flashbacks until the latter part of the movie. There was no real distinction to the fact that they were flashbacks, for all you know they were a corresponding story that was going to cross paths with Ginko’s. It’s been reported that the movie was an adaptation of a few volume’s of the manga, and this could be the central problem. Picking and choosing which stories may lead to the exclusion of stories that could have better fleshed out the characters and the direction they were attempting to make. If you haven’t read the manga, or watched the anime, then you could most definitely be starting at a disadvantage.
Still, the movie is very watchable and actually enjoyable. Otomo’s directing style works well here. The scenery is gorgeous, following Ginko as he crosses snowy mountains, through lush forests and beautiful lakes. A lot of emotion is captured from the scenery that helps set the tone. The period costumes also look great and really portray the characters as regular people eking out a hard life. The special effects are used sparingly, but when they are they give you a feel for a world beyond ours that a special few are privy to. They give the Mushi an ethereal feel, creating mystery and wonder about the plane the Mushi live in. It should also be noted that the acting was superb all the way around.
Overall, while it may be a breathtakingly beautiful movie, Mushi-Shi moves a bit too slow and it could bore many people unfamiliar with the works. The ending also leaves you wanting an explanation of what just happened, but like most of the movie you’ll have to make assumptions yourself. It’s not a movie for everyone, but it’s still something that should be enjoyed by many.