The majority of Mushishi is dominated by philosophical discussion, but it has been largely obfuscated thus far. This episode, however, shifts it to the forefront, with two men discussing morality in a hut serving as the climax of the episode and the investigation and curing of mushi being left out entirely. The viewer is required to accept a lot at face value. Both traditional storytelling and the hallmarks of previous series entries are highly warped and even disregarded so we can have twenty minutes of people talking. If you can take that step, though, this episode has perhaps the most to say of any others up to now.
|Breaking taboo, yet moving towards light.|
There are two central ideas in this episode. The first is the morality of murdering someone to save others (and as an extension lying to someone for their own benefit), an issue explicitly talked about in the episode. The head priest (henceforth called Saishu for convenience) of the village is using the Narazu seed - a mushi-derived device that causes a bountiful harvest at the cost of one of the villagers' lives - to give his people enough food to survive the next year.
The issue at the heart of this is instantly apparent, and not just because Ginko states it outright. The use of the seed, regardless of whatever good intentions behind it, is essentially pre-meditated murder. Furthermore, no one else in the village knows about this, so they have no say in the matter. That said, these "parting harvests" have saved the village from many disasters and alleviated the poor crop yields of the surrounding fields.
On a broader level, it's the dilemma of performing a lesser evil for a greater good. It's a complex and rather timeless dilemma, and the lines are blurred quickly (which ends up being the reason for Ginko's involvement - his interest is in "restoring the balance", serving as yet another brief insight into his personal philosophy). But while that's a fascinating topic in its own right, I want to concentrate on the second idea explored, if only to give the post a little more focus.
The clash between older and newer generations is a less apparent theme, but it looms over everything else throughout the episode. The old ways are the village ancestors (represented by the Narazu seed). They're effective at keeping the village alive, but are archaic and often come at great cost (in this case human life). The newer generation is best seen in Sane (a boy who helps Ginko) and the research the villagers are doing to increase crop growth on their own. The old ways let them live, but it's a life of fear. They want to find their own way of living, totally separate from the old.
|They've had enough.|
What becomes quickly obvious is that neither side can work independent of the other. Sacrificing someone for food is unacceptable but produces results, while the villagers' frugal investigations into new farming methods have yet to come close to sustaining the village on their own in times of need. That's where Saishu comes in.
There needs to be someone or something to bridge any two generations. The world and the people in it are constantly changing. If there is no one to help the old adapt to the new, they will become alienated and useless, unable to contribute towards the success of the future. In the same way, if no one teaches the young what has already been learned, they will have undone a generation of progress. If there is someone to do this, though, the new and old ways can be synthesized into something better than either. Saishu, as both a member of the village and its religious leader, has ties to both groups but complete loyalty to neither. He's the perfect bridge to realize that synthesis. Or at least, he should have been.
Instead, Saishu does just the opposite. His plan is to use the Narazu seed one last time with himself as its sacrifice, then leave the village to its own devices in the future. Doing so, however, is no better than simply taking advantage of the old ways before abandoning them entirely. Saishu was desperate to maintain tradition, to keep the village's history preserved and the struggle of its past inhabitants honored. But for all that, he was unwilling to accept the ideas behind that tradition, and in doing so betrayed his purpose. He wanted to take the easy route, the one with no need for compromise or mutual understanding.
|Saishu's burden is beyond his strength to carry it.|
With Ginko's help, though, a true solution - one that accepts the new while acknowledging the old - shows itself. Saishu eats the seed and becomes immortal, forever finding better techniques on how to farm the land and bringing them back to the village. In doing so, he becomes a facilitator, what every older generation should be to its descendents. He is there to help them find their own solutions, not just force them to use his.
In a way, then, this episode continues an ongoing theme of the past few episodes: letting go and moving on. There are so many ideas present - Saishu's redemption, the more general breaking of taboos, our misplaced confidence in our own beliefs and personal truths, and the virtue of perseverance, just to name a few - but at the center is still this idea of how to make a transition from one part of life to another. In this case it just had to do with an entire village instead of just one person.
Ginko, too, had to break away from tradition to reach the better solution. In order to restore the balance, he ended up breaking a mushishi's greatest taboo, the use of mushi to manipulate (in this case extend) life.
It's always interesting to see the role female characters play Mushishi's stories. Saishu's wife is one of two women to appear in the episode and is only on screen for a few minutes, but she has a greater effect on Saishu (and consequently the rest of the episode) than any other individual element.
For as long as this post was, I barely scratched the surface. If you want to really take a piece of media apart and think about it, I implore you to make it this episode. It won't take long, and there's a lot to ponder.