BluRay/DVD Reviews

MUSHI-SHI (BUGMASTER)

By • Dec 5th, 2009 •

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You honor an original story by staying true to its unique spirit, not by making sure your hero’s hair is perfectly dyed.

MUSHI-SHI (aka BUGMASTER) is a live-action adaptation of the popular manga series of the same name. Contrary to what the poorly translated title may lead you to believe, this is not a film about a man who can summon hordes of cockroaches to terrorize the neighborhood. Instead, MUSHI-SHI is set in an ancient, agriculturally-inclined Japan that is populated by simple, mystical organisms called mushi. These mushi, which usually look like randomly shaped, gravity-defying amoebas, straddle the line between a spiritual and material existence and are undetectable to nearly all humans. Unfortunately, some mushi interact with their environment in a way that causes humans to experience disease-like symptoms, such as deafness and blindness. Some humans even die.

Ginko (Jo Odagiri) is one of the rare individuals who can actually see mushi. Having studied mushi all his life, Ginko travels Japan while earning his living as a mushi master, a person who treats people who have fallen ill because of the mushi.

The original manga, as well the anime inspired by it, was famous for its tone–a bewitching, yet peaceful atmosphere that, combined with its subject matter, conjured stoicism. With this in mind, I knew that for a live-action adaptation of MUSHI-SHI to be successful, it would need to utilize a unique point of view (aka a distinct style), which is why I got excited when I saw its opening sequence:

You might be thinking “Nothing happened.” Well, oddly enough, that’s the point. It takes some courage to start off a film with a whopping minute-long montage of mountain shots just to establish the atmosphere. Doing so signals to me that the director is willing to take a creative risk to make this film memorable…which is why I was so disappointed by the caliber of the scenes that followed:

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this sample slice that closely represents the style of every other scene in the film. It’s shot “seriously” enough, with moody lighting, conservative camera movements, and a grainy texture reminiscent of film stock from 1972. Unfortunately, the storytelling and shot selection is as bland as a cup of Lipton tea. Where’s the flavor? Where are the visual cues hinting at the characters’ inner emotions? Why does every second feel like an exposition? It’s not enough for the film to just look good…Water can be brown like tea and still taste like dirt.

Also, notice that Ginko has long white hair that looks completely unnatural. And with his stubby beard and droopy eyelids, he looks like a distraught college student recuperating from a failed suicide attempt via a Tylenol overdose after his perm job didn’t turn out quite so well. Ginko’s demeanor is so goofy that it never stops being a distraction. Even by the end of the film, watching him is akin to witnessing a trombone player accidentally marching through the concert of a string quartet. Jarring.

I understand why the filmmakers made Ginko’s hair white–that’s how it is in the original manga, and Ginko needs it long to hide a missing eye. When adapting such a popular work, it pays to be faithful to the most crucial elements that make up a character. But there is no reason to adhere to a shallow attribute of a character if you fail to encompass his greater spirit. In the manga, Ginko is portrayed as subtly refined and in control, albeit laid back and somewhat ruffled. His demeanor inspires trust. I doubt villagers would trust a man who looks like an unemployed drug addict.

What hurts this live action adaptation the most, however, is its poor story structure. In both the manga and anime, MUSHI-SHI is told episodically: the only recurring elements are Ginko and two or three rarely-seen side characters. The screenwriter attempted to have the feature film reflect this format, consequently creating an odd plot that utterly fails to draw the viewer into the lives of the main characters…you know, so that we actually give a damn. It’s a challenge to stay engaged when, for the entire first act, Ginko heals villagers who we never see again and never cared about in the first place.

Even more baffling is that when the film does attempt to develop an emotional connection between major characters, it does so in reverse. We see “suspenseful” scenarios first, and afterward we’re explained the sentimental reason why we should have felt that suspense in the first place.

For example, Tanyu (Yuu Aoi) is a girl cursed with writing about mushi all day because if she doesn’t they will take over her body and kill her (yes, it’s a bit weird, but still believable within this world). We first see her around the one-hour mark, at which point she suddenly becomes a key character. We don’t know her relationship to Ginko; we just know that they know each other. A long, drawn-out event occurs in which the mushi overtake her body, causing her to teeter on the verge of death. Ginko–spoiler here– then goes to great lengths and personal sacrifice to save her.

As I watched this all transpire, I thought, “That’s nice. It would have been more interesting, though, if there were a deeper connection between Ginko and Tanyu, so that I could have better related to Ginko’s motivation for going above and beyond his usual routine to save her.”

And then the film cuts to a flashback. Ginko and Tanyu hanging out by a river, chatting whimsically and almost romantically about how both their lives are tied together by mushi. …

90 minutes into the film, and now you decide to show us why we should care?

Watching MUSHI-SHI was an odd experience–a bit like watching a proud bald eagle fly into the trunk of a tree in slow motion. The film is nothing more than a facade: a string of pretty shots woven together with a lifeless plot.

What a disappointment! Its protagonist had so much to offer on a philosophical level. You see, Ginko believes that the mushi, which inadvertently cause so much trouble to humans, are not evil. Mushi are what they are, and people must work with them as best they can. Taken a step further, life is what it is, and we must work with it as best we can, constructively, without fretting, without sadness, in the same way Ginko handles mushi. It is a subtle and deeply peaceful philosophy. Can you imagine no one being upset over waiting in a long line at the supermarket? Or being able to handle disease, death and life with a calm and rational poise?

It would be heaven on earth. But that’s not this movie.

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