Yuki Urushibara's series Mushishi might be not just one of my favorite manga ever, not just one of my favorite comics ever, but possibly one of my favorite things ever. It's beautiful, fascinating, thoughtful, elegant, and endlessly original; it's thoroughly and firmly rooted in Japanese culture without being inaccessible to non-Japanese readers; it's difficult to define but easy to pick up.
Imagine all the plants and animals we know as the tips of your fingers. As you move down the fingers, following the veins, these beings become more and more simple; where the fingers fuse together into the hand, that's like bacteria, which are part plant and part animal. Progressing further towards the heart, we find simpler and simpler beings, until just above the heart, the source of all life, we find mushi.
(Remember, manga reads backwards. Start in the upper-right-hand corner, work your way left, then down.)
Normally the word just means "bug" or "insect" in Japanese, but Urushibara is using it here to refer to something entirely different, something almost alien. Mushi are neither dead nor alive; they exist only partly in the world around us, and only people with special awareness can see them. There are thousands of different types of mushi, each with different habitats, behaviors, habits, feeding patterns, and so forth. And some of these mushi, in one way or another, come into contact with people.
Some of these mushi are parasites or symbiotes: they latch onto a human being and have strange effects on him or her. Sui, in the image above, has a mushi in her eyes that cannot tolerate light, and so she is shut up in darkness. Other mushi exist on their own and people are simply caught up in them: the swamp that is migrating to the sea and the woman who is dragged along with it, for example. Fortunately, there are doctors who specialize in treating mushi problems: mushishi. (That's 'mushi' plus a suffix indicating a doctor or specialist.) Our protagonist, Ginko, is one of these titular mushishi.
Ginko is virtually the only recurring character in the series; he travels from town to town, curing the mushi problems he finds. The series is very formulaic in that sense: Ginko shows up—either because someone asked him to come and investigate a case, or he's heard rumors of some strange occurrence, and sometimes just out of pure blind luck—finds what mushi is responsible, and finds some way to fix the problem—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It's a formula, but with plenty of room for variation and experimentation, and it makes the few times Urushibara breaks the formula that much more interesting.
It should be noted that the mushi are never presented as malicious or intentionally harmful: they're just another lifeform, trying to live as best they can. If they're harming a human host, then Ginko will remove and, if necessary, kill them, but he's not out to eradicate mushi. They're alive, just like us, and they have the same right to life as we do.
The various and diverse effects that mushi have on their hosts are by turns beautiful and creepy. In one story, there is a secluded village where they worship a deity: a young girl who devours enormous amounts of food, and then ages to become an old woman in minutes as the sun sets. When she wakes the next day, she remembers nothing of the previous day, or indeed of anything before that moment of waking. Of course, she's not a deity; she just has a mushi-parasite with a peculiar trait:
Many of the mushi in the series have the qualities of ghosts: they're largely unseen presences, they create confusion and fear, and they're manifestations of a power we cannot understand. In several chapters, Ginko has mentioned that mushi live on the border between life and death, not fully in our world but not fully in the next, either. In a way, the stories in this series function as post-modern ghost stories: the 'ghosts' are mysterious but ultimately explainable; they are beings just like us, with their own desires and survival mechanisms. Urushibara even draws a direct comparison in one of her afterwords:
But as with the best ghost or monster stories, the tales in Mushishi say more about the people than about the monsters. Each chapter is really about the humans involved in these strange happenings, how their lives are affected by these tiny, ghostly beings. There are some incredibly powerful moments in this series, and very few of them are actually about the mushi.
All of these elements are enormously helped by Urushibara's delicate artwork. The people are fairly simple creations, with a cartooniness that allows a wide range of emotional expression, but the real treats are the mushi, with their multitude of forms and manifestations. Take a look at one of my favorite pages, where a boy with a mushi nesting in his ears hears sounds that no one else can:
Or even just this simple image of a boy whose drawings come inadvertently to life:
She even does some remarkably experimental things with the comics medium, which, frankly, I don't see nearly as much in manga as I do in American (or Canadian, or European, or just plain non-Japanese) comics. Maybe I'm not reading the right manga, but I haven't seen anything like this page, where a young girl discovers that the mushi that cured her blindness has given her sharper sight than any other human:
Overall, Mushishi is a cross between House and a ghost story. Because each chapter is self-contained (with a few exceptions of two-part stories), and there's virtually no backstory or recurring characters, you can pick up any volume and dive right into the stories. There's no objectionable language or behavior, so it's suitable for all audiences, although the complex stories and the subtle language and art is probably best appreciated by, say, junior high students and up. One of my absolute favorite works.
(I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend the television anime adaptation of Mushishi as well. It's an excellent adaptation, preserving the mood of the series and, frankly, improving on the look: some of the mushi designs deserve to be in color and fully-animated.)