Thus far in the series, there have been two essential categories of mushi: those whom Ginko can control, and those who are so untouchable and powerful that he can't even attempt a cure. In other words, either beasts or gods. And some do take on the form of gods, literally: they command humans' worship (episode 6), control their dreams (episode 7), establish their taboos (episode 9), and even have dominion over the nature of their lives (episode 1). But if the mushi are gods, what does that make the mushishi?
Why, they're the priests, of course.
"Shaman" might be a more appropriate term, given the often magical nature of both mushi and mushishi, but the point remains the same: they are the intermediaries, messengers, and arbiters between humans and mushi. When humans are afflicted by mushi, their purpose is to alleviate those afflictions. In the same way, mushishi teach humans to fear, respect, and coexist with mushi.
This idea is greatly furthered in episode 11. Ginko performs rituals, is able to walk on a mountain mere villagers cannot, and shows his usual knowledge of the esoteric. Mujika, the other mushishi in the story, goes much farther. He performs just as many spectacular feats, but his real role is as a teacher and communicator. He tells the villagers when it is and is not safe to approach the mountain, how to properly live in its shadow, and a large part of what they're allowed to do in general. He holds just as much (arguably more) power to command the villagers as their own elder does; it's hard to not see the similarities to a religious leader.
|Tell me that's not magic.|
That's not the only way Mujika differs, however. Mujika is the villager's priest (or shaman, whichever you prefer), but he is also the mountain's "Guardian" - a being that suppresses the power of the Koumyaku (Mushishi's all important river of life) and keeps the surrounding area in balance. In some ways, he is much like a god himself, holding a certain omnipotence over the mountain and keeping the mushi at bay.
There are several more ideas floating around in this story, man becoming god not the least among them, but I want to skip to Ginko's confrontation with Mujika on the mountain summit. The latter wants to sacrifice his life and let a Guardian-eating mushi called Kuchinawa take over his position, and the former wants to find another way. What makes this scene attention getting are two things Ginko says. The first is this:
"What about the villagers? They revere you. . .need you."While seemingly little more than an attempt to persuade Mujika with logic, it reveals a lot about Ginko's reasons for involvement. He doesn't care about the mountain or the position of Guardian so much as he does the villagers. What's most important to him is that they have a leader to look up to and learn from. The second and much more striking statement is this:
". . .the truth is, I was a little envious of you, too."It took me a few moments to let this sink in. Ginko is envious of Mujika for the position he's in. Mujika holds stability and respect, but most of all holds a place among humans. He's a mushishi, but he's accepted as a part of a community - something Ginko has never had, but more importantly something he wants. There's another revelation about his character in this episode, too.
"If I live in one place for too long, it will end up becoming a nest for mushi. So I learned how to drive them away out of necessity."Ginko became a mushishi (/priest/shaman) because it was necessary. Taking these two pieces of information in hand, then, Ginko is on a journey because he has to be, doing something he only learned so he could survive, and is unable to fulfill his desire to have a some place to belong. A rather grim affair, to be sure, but it's not quite the whole story. At the end of the episode, he says this in reference to the Kuchinawa, in the same breath that he admits Mujika's decision was the right one:
Ginko wants to have a place among humans, and he wants the villagers to have a mushishi to rely on - with a little stretching of our interpretation, then, he wants to give something to them (much as a doctor or a craftsman might) and in turn be accepted. But he realizes that it's not for the best. A priest should stay a priest, shrouded in mystique and slightly apart from everyone else, and gods should remain gods - powerful, distant, beyond conception, and above the judgement of man.
That's something I've always admired about Ginko. The occasional emotional outburst reveals him to be a slightly conflicted, complex, and even passionate individual, but sooner or later (usually sooner) he always lets his wisdom rule. He has a sense of balance in the world, and he knows who should belong where and what needs to happen in order to maintain that balance. Most of all, he knows his place in that balance, and he accepts it for what it is. So many characters in anime (and, indeed, all media) try to mold the world around them, and that conflict usually ends up driving the story. Mushishi takes a different road and instead shows us, slowly and subtly, someone who changes to fit the mold given to him. Brave for a show about invisible monsters and white-haired magicians, no?