TIFF Report: Bugmaster Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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[TIFF info page here.]

Though the anime series this latest live action film from Akira's Katsuhiro Otomo is based on has proven a great favorite for many it is something of an odd choice to adapt for live action. Not only is it a very recent series but what makes the show work so well on the small screen is the gentle pacing and the free ranging wandering of its lead character, Ginko, as he drifts in and out of different villages and scenarios. Mushishi is a show almost entirely devoid of any sort of villain figure or even any sort of grand quest for its lead, he simply leads a quiet life and helps people when he can, which works well in twenty minute bursts on the small screen but you have to wonder whether it can be sustained over a feature length on the big screen. The short answer is no.

If you're not already familiar with the characters and mythology of Mushishi there is virtually no point in seeing this feature adaptation as Otomo makes virtually no effort to explain what the mushi actually are - a major oversight - or the relationships between key characters. And fans of the series will likely be disappointed as the feature is nothing more than a blending of three stories from the very recent anime series with virtually nothing new to offer. Neophytes will simply be confused, fans will be disappointed by stories they've just recently seen told better elsewhere, and that leaves nobody particularly happy.

Mushi - given the very poor English translation of 'bugs' throughout the film - are a sort of pre-animal / pre-plant life form; instinctive, non-sentient, and almost magical. They are present everywhere, co-existing with humanity, unseen by all except for a handful of specially gifted people known as Mushishi, people who have studied these strange creatures and are expert in manipulating them. One such Mushishi is Ginko, played here by Joe Odagiri, who travels constantly from village to village offering his help when he encounters people with Mushi-related ailments.

The film revolves around three key stories, two in the film's present and one in the past. In the present day we have the stories of a village stricken by deafness in one year along with a little girl who has sprouted horns and is plagued by loud noises only she can hear. This particular tale is told almost word for word and shot for shot as it was in the anime series. We also get a version of the man trying to catch a rainbow for his father, this one significantly modified so that our questing man can be present as a companion for the otherwise solitary Ginko through the body of the film. The main thrust of the film, however, bridges past and present with the story of Nui, another Mushishi with intricate ties to Ginko's past who is also the indirect cause of Ginko's unnaturally white hair and missing eye.

Otomo has clearly tried to give an overview of the character, layering in both back story and a pair of the most popular stories from the series. The problem however, is that Otomo simply never takes the time to explain any of the underlying mythology of this world, a fact that when combined with the poor English translation of the mushi themselves left the neophyte audience enormously confused. And Otomo also has little to offer long standing fans of the series, his versions of the stories nothing but reflections of the versions already out there with no significant variations. We do get some very detailed work around Nui but it all just felt over-familiar and over-long. Given the entirely episodic nature of the show itself it makes very little sense for Otomo to have simply rehashed so much old material when he could very easily have written a new story for Ginko that would fit easily into the existing body of work while also being tailored to the demands of a theatrical release.

Long, slow, fairly pedestrian in its visual style, confusing for the newbies, over-familiar for the existing fan, Bugmaster is a significant missed opportunity from Otomo. This world and character could make for a fascinating feature film. Sadly, this film aint it.

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Don BrownSeptember 17, 2006 5:08 PM

"Bugmaster" is definitely a misleading title, but in fairness the manga itself does refer to the spirits/creatures/whatever the hell they are as "mushi" (bugs).

innocentlyjadedSeptember 19, 2006 8:33 AM

a little girl which has sprouted horns... in both the manga/anime, it was a boy (oh, just a small nitpick)

a pity, though. i was looking forward to seeing this. it was the underlying mythology that made this anime great to watch, so if you don't include that in the movie... gah.

i guess Odagiri will be the only reason to watch this one.

Tom PJanuary 2, 2007 2:15 AM

Sad that a film I found to be pretty profound, though acceptedly more speculative than conclusive, was let down by a few flaws like the translation. Yes, Mushi literally means Bug, but it's so much more figurative in the Japanese that they could have done well to give them a word more localised to Western folk lore. Esper, Daemon, even Dryad, surely? Bugmaster has such a corny 80s ring to it, that really gives off totally the wrong image for a film as melancholy and thoughtful as this.