The Five Things Mushishi Teaches Us About Life
If meditation were rendered in animated form and set to a timespan of 25 minutes, then Mushishi would be it.
The word mushishi is a title that describes the main character’s profession, taking part of its name from the very thing he’s tasked to deal with. These are the mushi, which aren't always easy to explain, and are instead described as things that simply are. As they're a completely separate kind of life form that live independently from man, the mushi are forces that cannot be manipulated. Instead, they're beings with incredible power that can be seen by some and go ignored by most.
It’s these creatures the mushishi must learn to master on a daily basis, so that they may be able to help the humans unfortunate enough to encounter one at close range.
Mushishi follows the travels of Ginko, who wanders the country to help others understand the mushi. Each episode tells a different tale and unfolds like an old fable, or a bedtime story passed down by generations. Unlike other anime series in the mainstream, there isn't any big battle with special power-ups or otherworldly weapons to be seen here. There are conflicts and displays of turmoil, but in this show, most of the struggle is internal. The mushi, shown not to be malicious in their existence; their human victims, shown to be unlucky people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With its gentle way of unfolding each intricate part of the stories, Mushishi helps us learn more about the mushi, this world – and quite possibly, even ourselves. Listed below are just some of the lessons one could take from the stories this series has to offer:
1. Not everything has to be in black and white.
An important thing to remember about the mushi is that they’re not out to explicitly harm people. Whatever trouble they bring to others is merely a byproduct of their simple existence. Once a mushi and a human collide, something magical and unexplainable happens, the same way natural, foreign elements might react when they're forced together.
The mushi's only goal is to survive and it's a point Ginko makes sure to emphasize. At some point in the series, we see someone pass on some valuable truth to Ginko, where he's told to not let himself be blinded by his fear or anger. Instead, he's advised to remember that: "Everything is only as it is." Perhaps it’s this detachment that allows him to maintain a level head when dealing with the mushi, which is also something we could strive to achieve.
It’s useless to hate something we don’t understand. To indulge in anger is to expend tons of energy in a very needless manner – nothing gets solved and neither side gets what it wants. It’s a stance I don’t agree with myself, since I still believe that anger is an essential part of the human experience. But after a while, unprovoked and directionless anger takes a lot out of me, leaving no one any better after my outburst.
Indeed, anger’s only supposed to be used as the spark that lights the fire in you. Every outburst is perhaps made to give you the drive to do something productive. Anything less than that is just noise.
Maybe the lesson to take away here is not simply to avoid getting angry, but to instead, seek to understand first before indulging in it. I still believe anger is one of the purest forms of human emotion and as such, a feeling we can’t truly get rid of. But if we allow ourselves some time to reflect and understand, then maybe we can let ourselves be blinded by it for a few moments before re-directing this energy to more productive means.
2. Take life one day at a time.
Your main character is Ginko, and besides his leisurely style of travel and laid-back personality, there's little else we know about him. He plods along with his handy pack of medicines and a specialized cigarette to ward off the mushi, often relying on his wits and other people to get to his destinations. He doesn't hurry when he walks and even when he’s confronted with the paranormal, he doesn't once show any sign of distress or panic.
With a main character as calm as this, it’s unsurprising to see the rest of the series follow suit. Each episode takes its time to tell the story of the week, preferring instead to let the audience unpack details piece by piece. By using as little dialogue as possible to tell its story, the episodes encourage the viewer to follow the story at their own pace. Exposition, if given, is always delivered by Ginko, who’s always so kind to parse it down in clear details that are easy to understand.
Ginko lives on a day-to-day basis, where he makes no visible plans for the future, nor does he ponder on memories from before. Through his episodic journey, he's a man shown to live solely for the present. Of the 26 episodes that make up the first season, only one is truly devoted to his backstory – and yet, the viewer is still able to remain invested.
That’s because the series happens through Ginko and not because of him. Despite his status as mushishi, Ginko ultimately takes a backseat to the beings he has to deal with. Not that his story was all that important anyway – because he already does so much good on his own, there really isn't any need to pursue his history. In the end, it’s his actions that dictate who he is as a person. With his day-to-day style of living, it becomes easier to follow his story, as well as the ones told by everyone else around him.
3. See the beauty in silence.
Much of the show relies on how much it chooses to show and how little it chooses to tell. In Mushishi, the magic happens in the breathtaking scenes that might have been made for something more than a simple anime series, or in the different ending tracks each episode closes with. The music remains calm, even in moments of near-certain peril, and even when the events become terrifying and beautiful all at once. Your only indications of danger are found in the smallest of hints: the panicking drums, a deafening silence, or complete and total darkness.
A lot of it is told through the senses we often take for granted: sight, to take in the world around us, and hearing, to listen for signs of change. With Mushishi, the viewer is reminded of the reason animation remains one of the most prevailing mediums of our time. Through drawings and breathtaking artworks, we’re shown a re-telling of a beauty that might be right outside our doors. Through calming sounds and peaceful music, we’re treated to a sense of peace we might have never thought was possible.
Couple these immersive methods of story-telling with the actual story, and you’ll realize why viewing Mushishi has become akin to actual meditation. Through the paranormal, we learn a little more about the mundane, everyday nature of life. Through the art medium, we see how beautiful life and the environment can be. Through the series, we come to learn a little more about ourselves and the human condition.
4. Make every interaction count.
Every episode is a different standalone story, where Ginko meets new characters and sustains relations with most of them for a set amount of time. Regardless, every character is a memorable one and sure to leave an impact. Even if you won’t remember their names or their faces, you’ll remember their stories – and in the end, isn't this the thing that matters most anyway?
We may not be as well-traveled as Ginko, but we also get the same sort of deal in real life. Even if we aren't going to meet the same amount of people he has, we've all met enough people in our lives, that we're eventually wont to forget some of them. Some of these faces might have been lost to the past, while others will remain with us for a longer time still. We might no longer be with them personally, but we will always remember the stories that attached them to us once upon a time. No matter the memory – good, bad, or just plain unremarkable – there’s always bound to be that one story that sticks.
In this light, we’re encouraged to make every social interaction count and matter. There’s the cliché of doing so in case we’ll never see the person again. But consider the alternative, where we’re inclined to treasure and value these minute interactions – not for just our sake, but for the other person’s.
Everyone deserves to be remembered. The more we remember, the longer the person lives on in our hearts. To do this, it's crucial to value the minute interactions we make with people, no matter the level of closeness we share with them. Like Ginko, we can’t always presume to know more than everyone else. We can’t always assume that our experiences are the only ones that matter. Instead, we should all allow ourselves to listen to others for once and learn new things through their experiences.
5. Move on if it’s holding you back.
Oddly enough, the episodes that had a definite impact on me were the ones that dealt with the issue of moving on from a painful loss. Encountering a mushi is often sudden and rarely pleasant – meaning, the victim is bound to lose something after an ill-fated run-in with them. Once a person gets into direct contact with a mushi, they'll feel an immediate or gradual loss of something, which ranges from the trivial to the valuable. With a mushi, a person is at risk of losing many things, from their sense of sight to even their dearest, most precious memories.
Even if Ginko does all he can, he is in no way a magical witch doctor who knows how to cure everything. Most of the time, his methods of dealing with the mushi rely on the victim’s own desire and efforts to get better. And in the event that nothing more can be recovered from the mushi’s influence, the victim is left with the painful task of moving on and learning to adjust to life afterwards.
Not every episode has a happy ending – and when it does, it’s often told in that bittersweet flavor. The truly depressing endings only come about when a person becomes too overwhelmed by the experience, choosing instead to give in to the mushi at the last moment. Characters whose stories end this way are not shown to be weak or pathetic. Instead, they’re shown as merely human, rendered incapable in the face of such foreign power.
On the other hand, characters who were able to overcome the mushi’s influence made it possible, also because they were human enough to do so. Life was not made for holding on to petty grudges, nor was it made to store hindering memories of the past. To live, after all, is to constantly move forward, in spite of everything.
I don't exaggerate when I say that this show has healing qualities. Like seasoned, comfortable therapy, Mushishi dives into the very stuff that makes us human without being preachy about it. The lessons are not forced or shoved towards the viewer; instead, the viewer is invited to reach these realizations themselves. In fact, my only regret is that I finished watching the first season so soon.
Has it inspired me to start living a better and more mindful life?
Only time will tell, I guess, but if I ever get to that point, I'll be sure to look back on this fondly.
Hopefully, it does the same for you.
The Five Things Mushishi Teaches Us About Life
Mushishi is a special kind of anime that lets the viewer indulge in their own kind of zen. Like meditation and other sacred forms of alone time,...
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