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Ecological resistance in Mushishi

How to survive a nuclear disaster

In a previous article regarding Mushishi, I argued that the story was carrying an endogenous knowledge from which the author finds her source of creativity. Now, I wish to focus on the figure of Ginko in an attempt to show how Urushibara Yuki shaped her imaginary landscape to create her Mushishi story.
Ginko - main character in the Mushishi manga - is a perfect study case of what the anthropology of imaginary calls the poietic. Derived from ancient Greek ποιέω which means "To Make", this term refers to the process of creation and transformation. Its anthropological perspective is about understanding how a - visual and/or mental - image is made. Mushishi being inspired by ecological contexts of people's interrelations with their environments, I'll attempt to draw parallels between Ginko the character and a species of trees called Ginkgo Biloba. 

Ginko: portrait of a character

Ginko (ギンコ) is an unusual looking man in his late twenties-early thirties. Deep green-eyed, he is a heavy smoker whose face is half-hidden behind a perpetual strand of his silver hair. Despite the fact that the story takes place in a rural imaginary time between the Edo and Meiji periods, Ginko wears very modern clothes, distinguishing himself from other characters wearing the more traditional kimono.
The plot follows Ginko from place to place. He seems to be traveling endlessly stopping only to help people suffering from problems caused by the Mushi, this because his natural born abilities drove him to become a Mushi master (蟲師 mushi-shi).

These features are explained along the storyline, over the course of his wanderings. Ginko, it is said, is a rare person who attracts the Mushi. As a consequence, he cannot stay in one place for too long, otherwise the Mushi he attracts would break the natural balance of the place he stays at. This particularity is also the reason why he is smoking: the smoke he exhales keeps the Mushi away.

In chapter 15 of the manga, the story focuses on Ginko's childhood and his making as a Mushi master. Having lost his mother while traveling across the mountains, he is found as a boy by another Mushi master, a woman called Nui. At the time, his name is not Ginko, but Yoki. Being able to perceive the Mushi since his younger age, Yoki learns a lot about those ethereal creatures. Nui - despite her reluctance - teachs him how to understand their nature, what they are and how to deal with them.
This knot of the story seals the making of Ginko. When he is found by Nui, one of his legs is injured and he has nowhere else to go. It is like Yoki had died with his mother in the mountains. His stay at Nui's home -who lives in a remote house near a pond- is a rite of passage (metaphor of the injured leg putting him on an edge between two worlds).
This passage is linked to the pond. In its water live one-eyed white fishes and two types of Mushi: the Mushi of Darkness named Tokoyami, and the Mushi of light named Ginko. The Tokoyami live hidden in the shadows during daylight and become dangerous during night-time - making living creatures disappear. The Ginko, in the other hand, live into the Tokoyami and their light is what drives the fishes blind. When these fishes lose both eyes, they vanish - more precisely, they become part of the Tokoyami.

If you can't remember your name or your past, says Nui, it means that Tokoyami is near you. They say that if you can remember you can get away from it. But if you can't, then find a name for yourself. It doesn't matter what.

Of course, one night Yoki get caught up by the light and trapped into the darkness. To save him, Nui gives herself to the Tokoyami and tells Yoki to close one eye (looking at the Ginko light makes living creature blind before they eventually vanish, just like the fishes). Having forgotten his own name and past, Yoki comes up with a new name for himself: Ginko. When he later wakes up, one of his eye is missing and his hair is as white as the fishes in the pond.

The event can be read from a modern psychological perspective: having lost his mother, the boy has to become a man for himself. He has to find the light into the darkness (period of mourning) to lead a life as a grown-up man. The boy vanished into the darkness to be reborn as the light (hence his new name Ginko). The symbols are also very accurate: Ginko the one-eyed Mushi master is able to perceive the world of the humans and the world of the Mushi. He can travel between both and face the light (Ginko) radiating from the essence of life, with his blind eye.
Modern psychology is interesting but it leaves out the creative purpose of the author. As Nui says: Mushishi are people who search for wisdom that has been gathered since ancient times. This wisdom refers that said endogenous knowledge gathered from the Green Seat.

Ginko as a tree

This endogenous knowledge is born within the ecological contexts of people's interrelations with their environments. It's genuinely phenomenological. I don't speak Japanese but contrary to tokoyami which is based on commun Japanese words and concepts, ginko sounds different.
To me, ginko refers to the name of a french bus company, but that's just me. According to Wikipedia, a ginko is also a tree.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba; in Chinese and Japanese 銀杏, pinyin romanization: yín xìng, Hepburn romanization: ichō or ginnan), also spelled gingko and also known as the maidenhair tree, is a unique species of trees with no close living relatives. The ginkgo is a living fossil, recognisably similar to fossils dating back 270 million years.

The Gingko tree is said to be the oldest species of trees. His older Chinese name is  銀果, meaning "silver fruit". Other usual names are 白果 (bái guǒ), meaning "white fruit" and Japanese  ぎんなん (ginnan) meaning  "silver apricot".
According to Wikipedia, the ginkgo is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is believed to have nootropic properties, and is mainly used as memory and concentration enhancer, and antivertigo agent. [...] In 2010, a meta-analysis of clinical trials has shown Ginkgo to be moderately effective in improving cognition in dementia patients but not preventing the onset of Alzheimer's disease in people without dementia.

Firstly, the etymology of the tree's name is visualized into the color of the character's hair (white as its ovule) and eyes (vivid green as its leaves). Ginko - with his modern clothes - also appears as a timeless character, just like the tree which seems to be ageless. They both are living fossils (one as a visual metaphor) on which time has no power. 
Then, to push the comparison further, it happens that the Mushi Ginko encounters with during his journey are mainly related to the types of phenomena described by the traditional medicine: headaches (boy with horns, girl who can't bear the light), memory lose (the grandma), dementia (or social perception of it: marginalization of people with special behaviors, or adoration), mental concentration/focus and its links to creativity (several cases are linked to the process of writing, copying and painting), and stories of people paying attention to unusual liminal elements (sky, bridges, forests). It's as if most of the Mushi mastered by the main character were visualizations (more or less personification) of the symptoms the gingko tree is effective on. Symptoms also related to the creative process, the poietic.
And there is more. Still according to Wikipedia:
Extreme examples of the ginkgo's tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees growing between 1–2 km from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. While almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgos, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again. The trees are alive to this day.
Here we are, driven back again to the ecological context. If the nuclear dangerous power is a Tokoyami then the Mushishi and his quest for wisdom gathered since ancient times is the personification of an ecological (that is to say: phenomenological and endogenous) resistance against a human-made and destructive technological knowledge.

The rite of passage lived by Yoki can therefore be seen from another angle: the Tokoyami Mushi (darkness) which can make living things disappear would be that nuclear power, while the Ginko Mushi (the light inside the darkness) are the essence of life. During his initiatic rite, Yoki reaches out to the light trapped into the darkness before taking the name of this Ginko light. The boy then embodies this light that is a visualization of the essence of life, inspired by the oldest species of trees on Earth, strong enough to survive a nuclear disaster. The only way to survive (and prevent the disappearance of life) is to become one with the endogenous knowledge of the "Green Seat".  

Barbara Auger

doctor of mythicity

Art historian and mythographer, Barbara Auger holds a PhD from the Centre de Recherche sur l'Imaginaire (University of Grenoble, France). She has been working on medieval and viking cultural perception.

3 commentaires:

  1. This post may be old, but I have a few objections.

    People lose sight after prolonged exposure to the Ginko, with the loss of one eye the Ginko steals the victim's memory and identity while giving them rebirth, with the loss of two eyes the Ginko steals the victim’s humanity. The loss of eyes eyes from the light of the Ginko as well as the transition into tokoyami symbolizes blindness and darkness from pursuing superficial light. Tokoyami don't turn people into tokoyami, the forbidden light of the Ginko turns people into tokoyami. This is both very important mirrors the mushishi Ginko, epitomises the themes of dangerous knowledge, inward and outward beauty and balance and parallels the forbidden light of the kouki in multiple episodes ,very notably "darkness of the eyelid" where sui compares herself to Ginko and and similarly looses her eyes to prolonged exposure to a dangerous light.

    We have also a juxtaposition of of light and dark: and light in darkness and ultimately darkness in light, which brings up "darkness of the eyelid" where the manako yami causes sui to seek darkness but her desire for light draws her toward the unearthly river of light which is toxic to eyes of humans. This also ties in outward and inward appearances and meanings: the tokoyami which seems dangerous is actually innocuous but the Ginko is both beautiful and terrifying.

    Furthermore, Ginko is not a morally perfect character and his ability to empathize with humans (such as with Sheguru in "Mud Grass" who is a cold blooded murderer) and mushi alike stems from his sins :once, very much like the Ginko mushi who to makes a dark and comfortable place to live destroys fellow beings, a young Ginko stays in towns knowing that dangerous mushi will appear and makes a living banishing them at the cost of tragedies and disasters faced by fellow humans, a period of his life referenced in a second coming of age episode "Cushion in the Grass" . The mushi Ginko represents a much darker side to Ginko akin to how Frankenstein's monster is the ambiguity in Frankenstein's psych. (cont.)

  2. Ginko the human has many similarities with the mushi known as Ginko. In addition to previously described similarities, how prolonged exposure to the Ginko’s light brings much harm is paralleled Ginko: Ginko attracts balance disturbing mushi and causes disaster if he stays too long. But the two are also very different. In the scheme of juxtaposition we have good and evil, light and darkness,nature and mankind; these differences brings us to the common theme of balance. We shall examine the model of balance in Japan as well as in much of Eastern Asia:the Yin and the Yang- light and dark duality with a twist. Within the yang of the tokoyami there is a circle of sinister light, the Ginko. Ginko may be Yin to the the Ginko mushi’s yang: a universally dark human nature that sits in Ginko, who at first seems as an ultimately wise mushishi, a completely light yin. But like how the Ginko mushi is dangerous despite its light aspect human nature can be good despite it seeming to be evil: people save each other constantly, sympathise and empathise, something symbolised by Ginko’s often altruistic reasoning and actions. Also interesting to note is the split leaf of the ginko tree which too symbolises balance and duality in both eastern and western literature.

    Finally, I would like to note another parallel concerning light within darkness and darkness within light and comparisons: the already discussed river of light, specifically the case of “Darkness of the Eyelid”. Sui is startlingly like the manako yami in her eyes. Sui is painfully sensitive to light due to the mushi just like the manako yami’s weakness is sunlight. But both of them have a deadly attraction to light: Sui goes blind after seeking the kouki vein and the manako yami is eradicated and killed by Ginko after seeking the light of the moon. Mushi may seem different than humans: humans are advanced and far from life while mushi are extremely close to the essence of life. But they are too very similar: both at once good and evil, natural and unnatural, both are part of and destroy ballance, have desires and above all, a meaningless will to exist for the sake of existing. Ginko, symbolises balance, helps humans and mushi alike reconcile contradictory qualities and transcend the depressing realization that existence has no innate purpose.

    1. Thank you so much for this very interesting comment!
      Mushishi is such a deep story, we're never done analyzing it. I think you're right to bring the notion of balance. I might post another article quoting your argument.