With Bugmaster, Katsuhiro Otomo adapts someone elses manga in this case, Mushishi by female manga artist Yuki Urushibara, which ran from 1999 to 2008. Just prior to Otomos live-action adaptation, the manga was also adapted into an anime tv series Mushishi (2005-6), which lasted for 26 episodes. I havent read the manga or seen the anime but what Bugmaster reminds of is the underrated Warlock (1989) wherein a then unknown David Twohy created a fascinating world that asked what would happen if there were a witchcraft made up out of folk remedies and old wives tales. There is a similar sense behind Bugmaster, of taking aspects of Japanese folklore and mythology seriously spirits that feed on noise, inhabit peoples ears and leave them deaf; a little girl growing horns after taking them from her mothers body; spirits that inhabit the rainbow and so on.
Unlike Katsuhiro Otomos work in anime, which is usually focused around a sense of epic scale and constant spectacles of mass destruction, Bugmaster is an altogether quieter film. It has a 131-minute running time and proceeds much more sedately. Indeed, less than a spectacle of mass destruction or a horror film, Katsuhiro Otomo delivers something that resembles more of a traditional Japanese period film. As a film about exorcism, Bugmaster sits at almost 180 degrees remove from The Exorcist (1973) and its ilk. Where they rest in a Christian dialectic about the battle between good and evil, Bugmasters cosmology is more Eastern in its outlook, more about harmony with nature.
Within this, Otomo certainly produces a number of striking set-pieces indeed, it is these set-pieces that drive the film more than anything else. Images like Jo Odagiri lying down to sleep whereupon tendrils from a seashell appear, crawl across the floor to cover and then enter his body through his nose; Reia Moriyama being swarmed by hordes of bugs in her room; the entry into the library to see that the ink spirits have escaped from the scrolls and are crawling around the walls en masse; the character of Tanyu covered in ink, her leg and arm blackened and withered, resulting in the ink having to be bled out in a bath; the flashback scene where the young Ginko enters the river with Makiko Esumi as she surrenders to the mushi there and he is dragged in too and left floating in the light halfway between worlds; seeing Yu Aoi capturing the stray ink spirits from the wall with a rod, whipping them off and flinging them back onto the waiting scrolls.
The main problem with Bugmaster is that it is episodic. One suspects that this is Katsuhiro Otomo being too faithful to the source manga he has adapted four different stories that were originally told as self-contained individual issues of the comic-book. As a result, the story simply follows Jo Odagiris Ginko through a series of encounters. Aside from the issue of his backstory, the film has a sense of meandering lack of drive and there is not much of a through story that connects the episodes we follow Ginko as he deals with various individual spirits but there is no larger nemesis that he must face throughout as you would probably get were this a more Hollywoodised film.