In my first foray into the wonderful enchanting world of Mushishi, I was treated to a very rare instance of deafness in anime. In episode 3 of Mushishi, Tender Horns (sub here or dub here), we delve into the concept of sound and silence along with a hint of a fascinating biological theme. Naturally, I have a great deal of interest in this episode and thus shall explore this lulling sublime story about a boy and his mother.
The Un is a mushi that consumes sound, and its appearance is that of a snail. So it comes to no surprise to me that it would emulate the organ responsible for our perception of sound itself. This portion of the auditory system is the cochlea, which is from the Latin of snail-shell. Within the fluid-filled cochlea is the Organ of Corti, holding thousands of minuscule hair cells. This is how the cochlea works in bringing us sound: First, sound waves enter through the ear canal and enters the fluid in the cochlea. The waves are transferred to the fluid, creating a wave motion that moves the hair cells. The hair cells, sensing this motion, sends a series of nerve signals to the brain and voila, sound.
When I was born, the hair cells in my cochleae were undeveloped. What this mean is that, although sound waves could go all the way up to the cochlea and enter the fluid, there were no hair cells or they were simply too underdeveloped to help carry the signals to my brain, thus rendering me deaf. Loss of hearing can also happen if the hair cells are infected or damaged by other causes. So beneath all the cases of deafness in this episode, there is a perfectly plausible biological basis on how the villagers became deaf. As for the unceasing sounds that inflicts the boy and his mother, a different biological plausible basis is given, though it is rarer.
The boy, Maho, has grown horns and suffers from ceaseless noises. His mother has suffered the same infliction and has died, unable to bear the noise no longer. I can empathize with Maho’s mother about being unable to sleep at night, as that has happened to me a few times in the sound of either a ringing or steady tone. There is no need to be alarmed about my case, as this is a natural effect brought about my underdeveloped hair cells and it rarely happens, thankfully. So with this experience under my arm, I feel for Maho and his mother as they have had to endure long nights of insomnia. Could you imagine being unable to sleep for more than one night in a row?
The cause of this infliction is the Ah, a mushi that consumes silence, with its shell in the opposite direction of the Un‘s shell. This infliction brings to my mind one similar real world symptom that I previously alluded to in empathizing with Maho and his mother, tinnitus. Tinnitus happens when there is no sound to be heard in the environment, and yet, an out-of-place sound such as a ringing, hissing, humming, or steady tone is heard. There are many possible causes of tinnitus, and there are extremely rare cases of incessant tinnitus like Maho and his mother’s cases. But out of all these causes, one is relevant to this episode, the sound of the human body.
The human body is perfectly capable of producing sound. You already know one familiar sound: your heartbeat. And as a special relevant bonus, I’ll teach you where you can hear another sound from your body. That heartbeat is what keeps your blood flowing throughout your body, and there is a vein, the jugular vein, that passes near the ear. This vein can be pulled closer to the cochlea by the muscles surrounding the ear, and the rhythm of the vein’s blood flow in turn stimulates the fluid and the hair cells to create sound, causing a fleeting tinnitus in the sound of a pulse. Unfortunately I cannot attempt this and confirm it, but you can actually try hearing this for yourself; this is most noticeable with your head on a pillow with your ear closed off by the pillow.
Maho’s mother, in the end, was not trying to close off Maho’s ears at all; she only wanted him to hear her sound. It is said that the sound of the muscles in the hands sounds like the sound of lava, crackling. Maho’s mother, once a long time ago, viewed an eruption of a volcano and kept that sound as a remembrance of memory and life. Although I still cannot hear this, the crackling of muscles is another sound that you can hear from your body. That sound, along with your heartbeat, is a testament to the fact that your body is thriving and rich with life.
Along with the sound and silence motifs, I loved the themes portrayed here in this sublime episode. We are treated to some wonderful moments and to the trained or hearing ear, some melodious and subtle background music as has been pointed out to me by a friend. A tale about the sound of life, this is one sound that I may never be able to relate to in my lifetime, but perhaps, you may just be able to hear your own sound.