While I've always enjoyed Japanese cinema, especially in the fantasy and anime genres, when I heard that Katsuhiro Ôtomo had a live-action film at Sundance, it became one of my must-sees. His film Akira is one of the most popular animated films in the world, and a pillarstone of Japanese animation. It helped give rise to the popularity of Japanese animation that continues to this day with films like Spirited Away and Ghost in the Shell, and I couldn't wait to see how this foray into live-action was. Fittingly, it is an adaptation of the 'Mushishi' manga from Japan, and I wasn't disappointed with this film.
Bugmaster is a multi-layered film that tells the story of a young boy as he grows from an orphan into a 'bugmaster' (mushishi), a sort of doctor/alchemist who treats problems caused by 'bugs,' or spirits. He travels from village to village in turn-of-the-centry Japan, diagnosing symptoms and then selling remedies from a sort of combination backpack/chest of drawers that he carries around on his back. He doesn't deal in martial arts, which I quite frankly expected him to bust into at any moment. He's a bit like Caine from Kung Fu, except without the butt-kicking. His first such encounter finds him forced off the road by snow, and seeking shelter in house of the matron who overlooks a small village. Once inside, the lady of the house calls for him to help him with the villagers; they have all lost hearing in their left ear. He identifies a certain type of bug that eats sounds, and has taken up residence in their ears -- yuck. This scene reminded me of Star Trek II, where Chekov had that creepy bug in his ear that made him susceptible to suggestions. I had nightmares for years after I saw that, and used to sleep with my fingers in my ears.
Through multiple flashbacks and non-linear storytelling, we come to find out that this bugmaster, Ginko, was orphaned while he was very young; he and his mother were caught in a landslide while traveling through the mountains. The boy, then named Yoki, was taken in by a female bugmaster named Nui. Nui wears her long silver/white hair over one eye, just like Ginko will later do. I won't divulge why this is, since it is the result of something that later becomes pivotal to the plot, but it explains why the pupil later becomes the master.
Ginko encounters pieces of his forgotten past while traveling through Japan, and he also acquires a sidekick along the way -- a bumbling peasant who is traveling with a large iron pot on his back, determined to catch a rainbow. He joins Ginko, and becomes a sort of de facto assistant to him. They eventually travel to a record-house that contains thousands of scrolls detailing all of the known bugs that have been encountered, and later serves as the setting for one of the films more dramatic, and special effects-filled scenes. Giant iron chopsticks, swirling 3D characters, and bloodletting all together. Sign me up.
Bugmaster has a dense storyline that requires your full attention. Add in the fact that you're reading subtitles, as well as trying to absorb an unusual type of mythology and storytelling, and it makes this a film not for everyone, as was evidenced by my bus trip after the movie. One guy asked me, "Hey, did you just come out of Bugmaster?" I told him yes, and he sort of blankly looked at me and then said, "I didn't understand what the fuck that was about." So I tried to talk to him about Japanese mythology, and the multiple layers in the film, to the distinct looks and costumes of main character. After my long-winded diatribe, he just blinked at me and said "He looked just like a skater, brah."
Like I said, it's not for everyone. But if you like Japanese cinema, fantasy storytelling, and interesting characters, you'll love this film.