What do an award-winning anime series and a psychological horror anime have in common? It’s more than just catchy tunes and cool art styles. MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE both teach valuable lessons about owning up to our pasts.

Ginko holds a glowing white flower in this cover art for MUSHI-SHI's second season.
Cover art for MUSHI-SHI’s second season. | Image: Crunchyroll

MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE both share a similar premise: a man carrying a medicine box travels through feudal Japan and helps those who encounter the supernatural. On the surface, the commonalities end there. As similar as the premise may be, these shows are different in their art styles and the general vibe they both give off. It may seem strange to compare the kaleidoscopic colors and sharp angles seen in MONONOKE’s animation to the soft, spiritual atmosphere of MUSHI-SHI. Yet these two shows have a lot more in common than you’d think. It’s the lessons and morals the shows teach that really tie them together. MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE both give their own answers to the same question: In the face of the supernatural, how should we deal with our own demons?

In order to make this comparison, we first need to examine each series individually. Let’s take a look at what makes MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE both unique anime in their own right, then see how they tie together in the lessons they teach in the end.

Ten Thousand Miles in a Mushi’s Shoes

MUSHI-SHI takes place mostly in forests and villages surrounded by nature. These beautiful landscapes are inhabited by strange creatures called Mushi. Mushi (which means “insect” in Japanese) are ethereal beings that are a cross between plants and animals. They are invisible to most humans and usually leave people alone. However, outside disturbances sometimes cause the Mushi to interfere with human life. Ginko, a white-haired man with one glass eye, travels throughout the land helping people as a skilled Mushi Master.

Several Mushi float around in this screencap of MUSHI-SHI.
Suguro, Ginko’s old teacher, examines Mushi in the woods. | Image: Crunchyroll

Not all Mushi are troublesome; some can give humans gifts, such as the boy in the first episode who possesses the ability to make anything he draws come to life. But when Mushi bring avalanches to a village through one person’s prophetic dreams, Mushi Masters like Ginko are summoned. Usually, a Mushi Master exorcises the troublesome Mushi and frees the person suffering. However, Ginko takes a different approach to handling the “problematic” Mushi. Instead of simply killing them, he uses special incenses and salves to draw them out of their hosts. Ginko’s philosophy and know-how are what make him both unique and admirable, especially in the face of lethal Mushi.

Ginko always tries to find a balance where humans and Mushi can coexist. Some Mushi Masters think Mushi are just bothersome pests, but Ginko disagrees. To Ginko, Mushi are like any other animal, simply trying to live in the ways that come naturally to them. They shouldn’t have to die just for existing. For this reason, Ginko finds methods of helping humans that other Mushi Masters wouldn’t think of. In some cases, Ginko even heals people that other Mushi Masters failed to heal because they never thought of the Mushi.

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The Atypicality of MONONOKE

MONONOKE’s story follows a man known only as “The Medicine Seller,” who sports a blue kimono and red facial markings. Each of the 5 story arcs introduce new characters and Mononoke for him to vanquish. Mononoke are vengeful spirits born from negative human emotions. The Medicine Seller carries a magical sword with the ability to exorcise them. However, he cannot draw the sword until he learns the Form of the Mononoke, the Truth behind its creation, and Reason for its existence. The Medicine Seller uses his expertise to ward these spirits off until he can piece together those three clues.

The Medicine Seller draws his sword, holding it before his face.
Kinda extra for such a tiny sword, don’t you think? | Image: Crunchyroll

The art of MONONOKE is atypical for anime. It uses static movement and bright colors to create a psychedelic feel. TVTropes calls this abstract animation “unmoving plaid,” which uses textures to fill in shapes (like plaid shirts). Since the technique is easy to master, it’s generally considered lazy. However, the unmoving plaid animation works well for MONONOKE. It creates an abundance of activity that forces you to pay careful attention to detail without being totally overwhelmed. The animation is the crowning jewel of MONONOKE’s bizarre aesthetic that makes it stand out as a horror anime.

The animation isn’t the only surprising thing about MONONOKE. When it comes to gore and uncomfortable topics, MONONOKE holds nothing back. MONONOKE is definitely not for the faint-hearted; it dives into topics like forced abortion, murder, and so on. The Medicine Seller doesn’t hesitate to air everyone’s dirty laundry in order to find the Mononoke’s Form, Truth, and Reason. All things considered, MONONOKE is unafraid to stand out and make a point.

When Worlds Collide

While both shows introduce heavy themes, MUSHI-SHI stays lighter in tone. Some episodes are tragic, but it doesn’t get overly graphic like MONONOKE. With these two contrasting approaches, how do MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE tie together? It’s precisely because of their differences that they can coexist. MUSHI-SHI’s Ginko works to help people while emphasizing that Mushi are not inherently evil. The Medicine Seller lays bare toxic human emotions when he slays Mononoke. Both shows illustrate a broad spectrum of human reactions to the supernatural.

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When faced with troublesome or dangerous Mushi, the characters of MUSHI-SHI express fear, annoyance, and many times, genuine curiosity that sometimes leads to infatuation. “Curiosity killed the cat” is a recurring theme in the stories of MUSHI-SHI; sometimes, people get drunk with the mystique of the Mushi. They become obsessed with the Mushi’s powers and end up hurting themselves and others in the process, like the man whose “prophetic” dreams are brought to life by the Mushi living in his pillow. Many times, humanity is actually at fault for playing with fire and ignoring Ginko’s warnings.

In MONONOKE, the Medicine Seller actively seeks out menacing Mononoke to hunt down. With each arc, the supporting characters relive the experiences that led to the creation of the spirit. Again, MONONOKE shows a variety of reactions to the appearance of the spirits. Generally, the victims are terrified by these haunting specters, and they’re reluctant to admit their own guilt. The Medicine Seller and the Mononoke draw out their guilt and force them to confess to their misdeeds.

Realizing Our Own Form, Truth, and Reason

When the Medicine Seller discovers the Mononoke’s Form, Truth, and Reason, he also reveals a person’s inner demons. By exorcising the Mononoke, he forces people to face their demons instead of burying the hatchet.

When we disavow our past, we allow vengeful spirits like Mononoke to fester. Denying our mistakes to ourselves only makes the situation worse. Like one monk who comes to terms with the sins that created a Mononoke, only by acknowledging our mistakes can we truly move on to become better people. The Medicine Seller teaches us to face our demons, especially the ones we don’t want to face, because the consequences are always worse if we ignore them. Just like in real life, only by accepting the Form, Truth, and Reason can the demon be truly vanquished.

Contrarily, MUSHI-SHI emphasizes coexistence, even with seemingly dangerous Mushi. Ginko teaches us that acknowledging the problem is only the first step. After accepting the problem (the Mushi), we realize that the Mushi are not inherently bad and our own actions play a role in the situation as well. Ginko teaches that people and Mushi need to find ways to coexist, and that same philosophy applies to accepting the mistakes of our past. Even if we acknowledge the mistake, and feel true remorse, our mistakes are what shape us. Like many of the afflictions people suffer due to encounters with Mushi, our mistakes stick with us for many years. It’s important to learn that not all mistakes are easily erased. The only thing we can do is accept them, coexist with them, and learn from them.

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MONONOKE and MUSHI-SHI: Two Artistic Treasures

MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE are two artistically breathtaking and philosophically intriguing shows. Both bring forth a number of moral questions about humanity through their unique storytelling and aesthetics. And while it may seem a little weird to compare the soothing atmosphere MUSHI-SHI provides to the psychological horror of MONONOKE, the two really do go hand in hand when it comes to dealing with the spiritual. MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE are in deep conversation with one another, like two sides of the same coin.

The Medicine Seller stands in front of traditional Japanese buildings in this screencap of the title sequence.
A quick taste of MONONOKE’s unique art style from the title sequence. | Image: Crunchyroll

A lot of popular anime tend to gravitate toward the action and romance genres. Because of that, it’s rare to find a series with as much artistry and depth as MUSHI-SHI or MONONOKE. Both shows are true treasures that stand out from the typical handful of anime. They have alluring aesthetics that make them totally unique. The music, especially MUSHI-SHI’s (yes, even the “Sore Feet Song”) is icing on the cake. Everything about them, from their art to their characters, creates an atmosphere perfect for the stories they tell. If you’re a lover of anime that make you think, or if you just like to be wowed by flashy or soothing art styles, MUSHI-SHI and MONONOKE are definitely worth your time.

MUSHI-SHI is available for streaming and on DVD via Funimation. MONONOKE is available for streaming via Crunchyroll.

Featured image courtesy of Crunchyroll

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