Japanese animator Katsuhiro Otomo (“Akira,” “Steam Boy”) comes up with an eclectic mix of melancholy and magic in live-action period yarn “Bugmaster.” Neither a regular horror flick nor a straight drama, pic is gently unsettling, like many Asian movies, for its apparent normality and lack of clear division between the human and spirit worlds. Otomo’s name will attract some interest, but film’s longueurs and narrative obscurities consign this “Bug” to highly specialized outings.
It’s only Otomo’s second live-action feature, following the 1991 “World Apartment Horror,” and the writer-helmer seems to have mellowed in the interval. Adapted from a manga by Yuki Urushibara, “Bugmaster” spends a good deal of time drawing an everyday world in a remote, suspicion-laden corner of the country 100 years ago (“the dawn of modern Japan”). The title “Journals of a Traveling Bugmaster” would better reflect the pic’s rambling narrative.
Pic has little of the usual buildup to scary moments and is small-scale throughout, with little CGI razzle. One of the most impressive effects, in fact, comes at the start, as, in one single shot, young Yoki (Hideyuki Inada) is separated from his mother by a mountain landslide.
Post-main title, Yoki has survived and is an adult, cared for by his adoptive mother, the beautiful, silver-haired Nui (Makiko Esumi). She is a mushishi (bugmaster), an expert in controlling mushi, “the phantom soul of nature breathing inside every living thing…and the dead,” per an intertitle.
Mushi are basically tiny bugs with fluorescent tentacles, like something on a coral reef, that can slide in and out of people’s bodies.
Yoki, now called Ginko (Joe Odagiri), shows off his own de-bugging smarts when the owner of an inn (Lily) asks him to examine her staff and he correctly diagnoses an infection by the Wn of the Ah-Wn bug (script has a lot of such gobbledygook).
She also asks him to look at her young granddaughter, Maho (Reia Moriyama), who’s growing horns on her forehead.
The calm way in which everyone accepts the presence of the mischievous mushi in their lives continues as Ginko travels to the house of Tanyu (Yu Aoi, from Shunji Iwai’s “Hana and Alice”). She’s an elegant but crippled bugmaster, who has fallen ill after hearing about an especially powerful mushi called Tokoyami. This mushi story connects with something in Ginko’s youth.
Aoi makes a charismatic figure and features in the most astonishing CGI sequence, in which she marshals floating Japanese ideograms with her sword like a flyfisher. But film’s second hour also wanders hither and yon, and the resolution between Ginko and Tokoyami is offhand to the point of so-what.
Like most of the film itself, Odagiri is low-key but intriguing as the main bugmaster. Veteran actress Lily adds a touch of class as the innkeeper. Offbeat music includes a strange sound that’s like an Australian didgeridoo; lensing is just OK, with no special flavor.