Tomas Vergara | December 5, 2017
Netflix’s Mushi-Shi (2005) is a Japanese anime series with a vast repertoire of philosophical and spiritual themes. The general plot of the series focuses on the travels of Ginko, an expert in creatures known as “Mushi”, from one place to another in the rural country. In each episode, Ginko encounters people who have been unconsciously hosted or influenced by these enigmatic creatures. What the series reveals about Mushi is that they differ in kind from other life forms, and that their existence is unknown to most people. Only a few people are aware of them: Ginko is one of these, a “Mushi-shi” aiming to discover more about Mushi in order to elucidate some of the enigmas concerning their existence and effects on other life forms.
Despite the supernatural premise of the show, and the obvious correlations that the series establishes with Zen (or Shinto) Buddhism, most of the episodes develops deal with mental issues in a very interesting way. Most of the episodes of Mushi-Shi repeat a similar narrative structure: Ginko, while traveling through the country, finds a person who has conflictive relationships with the rest of the community, family or loved ones, and who is unaware of being hosted or being influenced by a Mushi. Several of the Mushi are implicitly associated with repressed or unconscious feelings, such as guilt, jealousy, or depression. These Mushi give each of the people that they are influencing different types of powers or curses: a fearful girl who can telepathically communicate with her exhausted older sister; a workaholic who can work twenty-four hours a day, fuelled by feelings of guilt about his mother’s death; a mute girl who is isolated by her resentful father from the rest of the community; and so on. There is an enigmatic connection between the abilities or curses Mushi grant their hosts and their emotional struggles. The abundant supernatural elements in Mushi-shi’s narrative, when looked at from this perspective, acquire an interesting novel meaning: Mushi could be seen as embodiments of anxieties, symptoms, and different types of mental issues.
Mushi are only manifested in a physical way to Ginko. However, for most people, their presence goes unnoticed, especially to the individuals hosting them. Mushi do not simply select a random stranger as their host, they often do so after a traumatic event, a painful loss, or the triggering of an obsession. This is the case of Masumi in the ‘Mirror Lake’ episode, who after being rejected and humiliated by her boyfriend, falls into a severe depression further aggravated by a Mushi. This Mushi is called Muzakagami and, as Ginko explains, is recognized by stealing the reflection of someone and mimicking their appearance. The Muzakagami constantly follows Masumi and gradually weakens her while it grows stronger and more similar to her in appearance, aiming to eventually swap positions with her.
In this episode, we can observe an acute similarity between Masumi’s condition and Sigmund Freud’s analysis of melancholia. As Freud remarks, both mourning and melancholia are reactions to the loss of a loved object. One of their differences, Freud claims, is that while ‘[i]n mourning, the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so’ (205-6). In melancholia, the bereaved person refuses to let go of the memory of her loved one; a situation that demonstrates that ‘the shadow of the object has fallen upon the ego’ and ‘prov[ed] to be more powerful that the ego itself’ (216, 219).
This description of the Mushi might not seem to be related in any way to Masumi’s profound melancholia; however, the narrative of the episode constantly establishes analogies between the Muzakagami’s dynamics and Masumi’s melancholia. For instance, Masumi refuses to leave her bed, constantly looking at the forest where her partner signalled her that he was around. All that Masumi must do to repel the Mushi, as Ginko explains to her, is to show it its reflection with a mirror when it is about to switch places with her. Masumi, nevertheless, refuses to polish her mirror, an object that her boyfriend used to polish for her, and thus deeply connected to her loss. In this scene, Masumi’s melancholy self-torment is manifested: ‘There’s no point of being myself, if he [the Mushi] wants me so much, he can have me’. When Ginko explains to her, that if she does not do this she will become a Mushi, namely ‘a thing incapable of having any effect on this world through your free will’; she replies: ‘A thing… that won’t matter whether it exists or not. Then that’s the same thing as right now… I was that meaningless to him.’
Masumi’s moment of realization comes when she must confront the Muzakagami without the mirror to reflect and repel it. It is in this scene when she realizes her situation: ‘Am I going to get switched? Will I become something that just follows people around? No… That’s too sad’. It is only at this moment that she can repel the Mushi, which vanishes after she screams at it to stop pretending to be her. The parallel between her situation and that of the Mushi is established in this scene: both are living their lives following others. Masumi had been following the boyfriend that treated her badly and rejected her, and was still hoping for his return despite his departure from the village.
Mushi-Shi’s treatment of mental health and philosophical issues is always implicit, slowly bringing them about in a metaphorical manner through the fantastic imagery of the series. Likewise, when dealing with mental illness issues, Mushi-Shi’s message is that traumas or losses, while most of the time remaining unconscious to those suffering from them, shape and influence our everyday actions and behaviours.
I am currently doing a PhD on the representation of melancholia as socially conditioned mental illness in contemporary works of speculative fiction. My interests revolve around the points of intersection between psychoanalysis and Marxist criticism. I am also interested in film studies, contemporary music and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze.
Article edited by Kiefer Holland and Maria Elena Torres-Quevero.
Freud, Sigmund. ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.