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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tradition, Modernity, and the Archetype in Mushishi

EAST 214: Japanese Animation and New Media
Professor Heather Mills, Professor Gyewon Kim
15th February 2010

Tradition, Modernity, and the Archetype in Mushishi

In Mushishi, the audience is presented a solution to the modern loss of identity that occurred with the “Death of God” phenomenon through the archetypical figure of Genko who mediates between the world of tradition and modernity, as well as the dualities of light and darkness and sight and blindness. In addition, we are warned to the dangers of a “Freudian” regressing into the pre-modern consciousness1 in the imagining of the past as that of a rural, idyllic and unified utopia.

In the episode “Light of the Eyelid” 2, we are introduced to an alternative pre-modern world of rural villages as seen through the modern, cynical eye of Genko. Although this mythic world is shown to be a magical, marvelous universe populated by spiritual entities called mushi, they are “dangerous because they threaten the fabric of security” (Campbell 8)3 of the modern consciousness, causing and spreading diseases. Genko, acting as part folk healer, modern doctor, psychotherapist and collector of the weird, represents the progressive individual who seeks to overcome the pre-modern consciousness through a process of successful integration of selected archaic values- a symbolic psychological ‘healing’- into the kernels of the modern identity. His role, thus, is the modern equivalent “of the Wise Old Man of the myths”, “the modern master of the mythological realm, the knower of all the secret ways and words of potency” (Campbell 9), who is vital in enabling humankind to mediate between difficult, conflicting binaries.4

1 Joseph Campbell refers to this idea in his chapter “Myth and Dream” of “The Monomyth”, stating that, “the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the un-exorcised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood”. Likewise, the re-emergence of the pre-modern consciousness can be the result of the unsuccessful integration of that realm from the ‘childhood’ of man into the ‘adulthood’ of modernity.

In the anime, mushi are described as “beings in touch with the essence of life, far more basic and pure than normal living beings”. They are ephemeral, unable to be perceived by the naked human eye. Only those with the power of supernatural sight- the mushi master or individuals with special sight- are able to see and interact with the mushi. In quintessence, mushi are entities that live beyond the physical level of consciousness; they can be likened to the essential matter of subconscious materialised in an outward form. They are creatures of both fear and awe analogous to the folk spirit, the foundation from which superstition and folk belief stem from. They project the idea that there is a level to human perception and understanding that cannot be comprehended by the modern Enlightenment-influenced mindset. This is the anarchic world of superstition, tradition and the rural village. In this world, yokai and spiritual deities live among humans, in forests and in objects. Here, God is a living entity existing in Nature. It is, thus, in direct conflict with the modern world and naturally an attractive counterpoint to the atomised modern neurosis of Jung’s “mass man” whose “rootedness and depersonalisation amid the masses of the modern industrial city seemed like a dark parody of tribal collectivity” (Ellwood 28)5.

4 I refer to the Levi-Strauss’ theory stated in “The Structural Study of Myth” that myth serves as a structure that enables society to mediate between conflicting dualities that may pose a problem when presented at face value.

However, as anachronistic creatures, the mushi only arise to cause diseases in the modern world. They are the “vapours, odd beings, terrors… in dream, broad daylight, or insanity” (Campbell 8) that the unconscious manifests when the modern mind represses the traditional in his seeking of progress. In this particular episode, Sui gets afflicted with an eye disease caused by the yami mushi that thrive in darkness and is thus unable to go into the light, living all of her existence in the storage shed of Biki’s house. She is rendered, thus, immobile and unable to participate in daily life. Later, it is learnt that the reason for this is because when she opens her second eyelid- here, reminiscent of the ‘3rd eye’ of Indian mysticism-, she is lured by a strange river of light that enraptures her to the point in which she is not only unable, but unwilling, to close her second eyelid. Crossing the river, at any instance, would have proved fatal, furthering her from any chance of recovery. Her diagnosis by Genko is that she “spends too much time in the darkness”. Modern medicine cannot cure her, and only Genko can; ironically, he uses the apparatus of the modern doctor such as syringes, glass eyes and externally administrated medicine in the form of a tamed mushi, indicating a need to negotiate past and present realities through one’s resourcefulness rather than romantic affiliations. Furthermore, Sui’s disease can be seen as an example of how the traditional past can be damaging to the present, serving to add- rather than subtract- from the modern ‘sickness’. As a hero-healer figure, thus, Genko “retreat(s) from the world scene of secondary effects to those casual zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside” (Campbell 17), to the dark river of the subconscious in order to eradicate the now demonic ‘anti-matter’ psyche debris, manifested in the yami mushi.

Genko also plays the archetypical6 role of the ambivalent modern hero for the audience, serving as the mediator between the traditional and the modern. Genko’s mission is to move through villages ‘healing’ people from various diseases and afflictions inflicted by the mushi. Often, the motif of disappearance, blindness and getting lost reoccurs in the symptoms of the disease, indicating a connection to the danger of losing one’s identity to the past. Genko, in solving these cases, restores the identity, re-establishing a present, stable reality.

Moreover, Genko is a liminal figure, straddling the modern and pre-modern world. He moves through rural villages dressed in modern clothing, betraying his modern outlook with his blatant cynicism. He is divorced from the social conditions of rural Japan, not having to subscribe to their customs and traditions. Genko’s cynicism can be interpreted not so much as an intolerance in embracing the traditional world, but as stemming from an understanding of how this pre-modern world is a fragment of the past and thus, must be ‘put away’. Like Sui, he had crossed the river and lost his eye. Sight, in the Mushishi universe, is a recurrent, important motif. It represents the ability to see things as they actually are on the spiritual level (ability to see the mushi) and on a physical level (maturity, wisdom). Genko can be said to possess both forms of sight in his ability to see mushi, yet acknowledge the reality of the real world. However, he has a ‘second eyelid’ and is able to see the river of light made out of mushi. The sacrifice of sight, in Genko’s case, gives the audience some comfort that even Genko- purveyor of modernity- succumbed to the romantic tendency of desiring to ‘cross the river’ into a deeper darkness. As a heroic figure, he becomes the “scapegoat for (the modern mind’s) fear and… guilt” (Leeming 267), descending into the ‘underworld’ of the lake and emerging alive and “transfigured... (to)… teach the lesson” (Campbell 20) of its dangers. The darkness of the world beneath the second eyelid, thus, is the darkness of Aladdin’s cave. It is the consequence of leaving the present for a stagnant past that ensnares, rather than liberates. Thus, in the portrayal of Genko, the audience is reminded that everyone has the tendency to want to ‘regress’ to the world of romanticism that Gnosticism projects in its promises of salvation; however, one has to ‘move on’, ‘reject the river’ in order for one’s psychological health.

The river made out of yami mushi, in this episode, represents the attractive light of the past- it is the internal light of the folk that resonates from the river that holds the Gnostic promise that the past will provide salvation. It is made out of a different element of earthly light- the mushi- which Genko states is harmful and represents escapism into the primordial realm of the traditional past. In the anime, Biki states “It was so pretty I felt myself being pulled towards it. I wanted to stare at it forever”. Likewise, the light of the past is alluring, beautiful but dangerous, and when Biki spends too long with Sui in the darkness, he contracts her disease and gets dragged into the darkness. Thus, the anime acknowledges the past is awe-inspiring, beautiful, and romantic to the modern eye, but in this allure there is a danger that is potentially fatal. If one mediates too long upon it, one suffers potential irreversible damage- Sui, in the anime, suffers the loss of her eyeballs as they get eaten up by the darkness. Likewise, when Sui embraces the light, she is bathed in light and is initiated to the beauty of the real, present world- that of trees, flowers and the sun. She enters “through the sun door (into) the (continuous) circulation of energy” (Campbell 42) of the earthly realm and is able to heal. It is stated, too, that she probably will never get lured into the strange light again now she has successfully exorcised it. She goes through katharsis “a purification… from sin and death” (Campbell 26).

However, there is a parallel to this dangerous light in the light of the daytime realm- that of the sun, which represents the promise of the future. The mushi are drawn naturally to light, wanting to come out into the consciousness of the psyche to disrupt the modern reality of progress: they are naturally antagonistic. When they emerge, though, they dissolve, wither, disappear, charred by the sun. They- like the mushi in Sui’s eye transforms into a dragon/serpent entity- transform from invisible, inscrutable entities to yokai. Like forgotten gods, they ‘metamorphose’ into monsters when neglected. This is reflective of the modern consciousness’ predicament: one fights a desire to cling onto a primordial world where universal values were held in great esteem, but has to deal with the realities of a disassociated, atomized existence. In our present world, the universe does not simply ‘disappear’, but lurks at the edge of the modern consciousness. Mushi are, here, like memories that need to be buried properly and given the appropriate funeral rites so one can move on psychologically. The mushi, however, only have power when one chooses to reside in the darkness, rejecting the present reality. When exposed to light, they disappear like the yami mushi disintegrates when Genko calls them out into the light. As the anime postulates toward the end, “it (was) perhaps for the better to those living for before that time. It is said that many had lost their eyesight from staring too much at the river of light”. In other words, it is a life/death imperative that one stays in the present light of the sun, and does not regress into the past, mythic world by “crossing the river”.

Finally, the fact that Sui is given a glass eye with a mushi injected into it by Genko seems evident of the necessity to restore a remnant of this old world in the modern framework. The pre-modern can be ‘tamed’ to Sui the modern. This seems to be Mushishi’s ultimate solution: one salvages what is useful to the present reality, and healing and (partial) wholeness is restored. However, as the modern man has lost an essential thing, he is forever lacking something. As Sui’s eye is constructed by the mechanics of science, our eyes are coloured by the rational, progressive outlook. We no longer possess ‘true sight’, having glass eyes. However, preserving a remnant of the mushi in our eyes helps us mediate between both ways of seeing, and live a spiritually healthier life. Ultimately, Mushishi teaches us that the solution to the modern problem of the loss of the spiritual consciousness is not a regression to “the primordial and eternal world” (Ellwood 7) of “small, self-contained idyllic villages” (Ellwood 5) envisioned by nineteenth century visionaries, but in confronting the past through a successful integration, and then moving on to the present life imperative.

In our modern era, there is a tendency to romanticize the past “as a repository for disappearing traditions” (Foster 139)8. However, in Mushishi, we are alerted to the dangers of such a mindset by the figures of mushi. Genko, in this case, brings to us a post-modern ‘elixir’9 as a counterpoint to Modern Gnosticism in the artful balancing the past and present. The present- in the end- is imperative and the past serves only as a curiosity we have to put into the museum of the past wherein they become relics to be admired by the modern eye just as Genko, inevitably, can’t help but collect artefacts of the mushi for seemingly ambivalent reasons. Having rightfully integrated memory into its rightful place, we are able to relish a more practical sanity in reality’s light, whatever historical milieu we happen to find ourselves in.

9 I refer to the stage of the hero’s life stated in Joseph Campbell’s theory of “The Monomyth” in which the hero returns, transfigured, with an ‘elixir’ to transform his society

Works Cited

Mushi-shi: The Complete Series. Dir. Hiroshi Nagahama. Perf. Yûto Nakano, Travis Willingham, Kenny Green, Randy Tallman, Mika Doi. Funimation, 2007. DVD.

Campbell, Joseph. “Prologue: The Monomyth”. Print.

David Adam Leeming. “Introduction: The Meaning of the Myth” . Print.

Doty, William A. “Definitions and Classifications”. Print.

Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Thury, Eva and Devinney, Margaret. “The Structural Study of Myth: Claude Lévi-Strauss”. Print.

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