Funimation // 2006 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // August 21st, 2009
From venerable anime director Katsushiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy) comes a peculiar live-action adaptation of a well-respected anime and manga franchise about a man who hunts tiny no-see-ums that infect people with magical plagues. Wait, what?
In turn-of-the-century Japan, a lone man wanders the forest. His name is Ginko (Joe Odagiri) and he is a Mushi-Shi (loosely translated: bugmaster) who possesses deep understanding of mysterious, magical creatures called "mushi." These tiny, imperceptible beings are unseen to most human eyes, but can cause great illness in humans if exposed.
Having lost his own memories of childhood, Ginko wanders the countryside, assisting those in need of his special talents. After spending time in a deep snow-ridden valley assisting deaf villagers and horned girls, he visits an old acquaintance who has become infected by a powerful mushi one that may hold the secrets to his forgotten past.
In a sense, it is easy to see why a director like Katsushiro Otomo would be attracted to a property like Mushi-Shi. The tale of an enigmatic white-haired healer traveling the countryside, curing people of mystical maladies caused by invisible creatures called mushi, tiny invisible creatures wholly connected to nature that can cause all manner of undesirable effect if they come into contact with humans. Ginko travels around helping out the needy and the infirm like a faith healer, trying to right the balance between humans and mushi. He is a force of equilibrium, of reason and control; his job is to right wrongs not by violence or by diplomacy, but simply by listening and thinking. It's all very zen when you think about it...but that's about the extent of the comprehensible elements of the film.
Ironically, the very elements that no doubt attracted Otomo to the franchise in the first place are the same elements he, as an auteur, enjoys making incomprehensible and mysterious to his audiences. The explanations of what the mushi are, or why they do what they do is left opaque and ill-defined, weaved into allegorical tales of one-eyed fish, white hair, tiny bugs that climb in your ear and eat sound, or scroll text that climbs onto human skin. At least, I assume they're allegorical? I honestly can't figure them out. Instead of a story moving in acts towards an inevitable conclusion, Mushi-Shi: The Movie feels disjointed and fragmented, like the plot lines of a half-dozen manga installments shuffled into random order in place of a screenplay; a disjointed, ponderous, and confusing foray into a world we do not understand.
Fans of the franchise should find lots to like here as much of the material comes right out of the anime and manga. It's hard to judge the merits of the casting based on their characters (whom I am unfamiliar with) but Joe Odagiri as the enigmatic Ginko seems to work well. He has that pleasing, enigmatic and stoic Japanese thing going for him, and his best on-screen moments are usually free of dialogue, but as a central character is pretty vague and uninteresting. Much of the final act cumulates in his remembering key elements of his childhood, but the revelation is underwhelming.
Mushi-Shi: The Movie brings the A-game in terms of visuals. Otomo dazzles in the director's chair in terms of design with striking cinematography and art direction. There are some seriously beautiful moments of composition in the feature worthy of praise, of deep rich shadow and leafy green forest vistas, of magical and mysterious creatures that resemble etymological horrors creeping and crawling about. As pure eye candy, it works marvelous on the silver screen, a striking blend of historical Japanese period piece art direction and fantastic CGI flourishes of the strange and wonderful. It is such a shame that the plot is such a disjointed mess.
There is too much subtext missing here to truly appreciate the film for newcomers. Mushi-Shi: The Movie is no doubt more enjoyable as a companion piece for fans of Mushi-Shi, but is too subtle and bewildering a concept, too enigmatic and aimless to attract audiences. Fans of Otomo looking to check out his live-action directorial skills will find satisfaction in the visuals, but inevitable let down in all other elements.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the picture has some serious, serious peculiarities in the transfer. Whether by cinematic design or alcohol-induced post-processing, the picture has contrast and saturation levels ratcheted up to unnatural highs. Blacks are overwhelmingly deep and swallow up everything in sight, while the green leaves of the forest take on an unnatural hue. Whites are so bright as to distort and tangle up, taking the gray scale in its entirety along with it. It certainly has a style about it, but home theater junkies are going to feel like they are staring into the neon sign of a convenience store. The print is also noticeably damaged and marred, with noticeable white spots, water damage and tears appearing in random spots, an inexcusable element in a film this modern.
Audio comes in full 5.1 surround in Japanese and a dubbed English track, but the two are as different as night and day. While both make acceptable use of rear channels in environmental details, the rustle of leaves and the whistle of winds, the Japanese track sounds tinny and detached, like it is being transmitted over telephone cables and tiny speakers. Compared to the English dub, which rocks the LFE frequency range with subwoofer-jarring intensity, the Japanese track barely can eek out the occasional thud. The quality of the English dub is corny, but the dialogue is clean and clear. I hate to suggest the use of a dub track, but the Japanese track is too thin and undefined.
Extras include a selection of deleted and extended sequences, a small featurette at the premiere of Mushi-Shi: The Movie, the original theatrical trailer and some adverts.
Five terrible, damning words, but if ever they required separate enunciation and punctuation, this is it: This. Movie. Makes. No. Sense. Don't say you weren't warned.
Mushi-Shi: The Movie is a visually striking, incomprehensible mess. It is hard to escape the nagging realization that Mushi-Shi: The Movie may not be the best representation of a respected Japanese anime and manga series, or that a film written and directed by Katsushiro Otomo should be much, much more interesting than this.
Admittedly it piques ones interest in the franchise, but disappoints as a
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted/Extended Scenes