Note: This article covers episode twelve of Mushishi. It approaches the episode vaguely in such a way so as to avoid spoilers, but be warned if that is something that concerns you.
Perhaps the most basic difference in Western versus Eastern thought is the view of the significance or destination of life. I’m sure you’ve heard the frames through which Buddhism and Hinduism operate, at least to some simple degree. In Hinduism, the soul (or the Atman) is trapped in the cycle of reincarnation known as Samsara. Buddhism follows some of the same conventions, though (at least from my perception) the execution is much more complicated. Instead of a single consciousness traveling through the same cycle over and over again, a sort of collective stream travels through a similar convention until one reaches Nirvana, or total annihilation.*
Judaism and Christianity (and Island, I assume, though perhaps someone can confirm this for me) operate under a different notion: that God is leading His people to a definite conclusion. Time is not in a state of perpetual repetition, but traveling decidedly forward.
However, just as Buddhism is not as simple as people like to make it out to be, often in erroneously assuming that Buddhism states that people reincarnate their consciousnesses directly a la Hinduism, when the truth is that the Buddhism proposes something much more complex, Judeo-Christianity is similarly difficult to pin down. And it is because of this that I was heavily reminded of aspects of biblical accounts and extra-biblical history surrounding it that reflect cycles in episode three of Mushishi.
Mushishi has always proposed rather naturalistic ideas in its thought-provoking narratives. However, that does not mean it has no bearing on people of a different train of thought (which is why I was able to draw Proverbial wisdom from the same show). Though perhaps a bit of a departure from “naturalism” in the most basic sense, episode twelve of the second season of Mushishi continues to stimulate the minds of its watchers, this time focusing on the concept of being trapped in a sort of “time loop.”
As smartly as the series has been written, I would be absolutely surprised if an understanding of religious thought did not at least affect this writing. Much like the Monogatari series, as mentioned by Medieval Otaku, something with as much depth as Mushishi could hardly ignore the cultural significance surrounding it. But is the frequent Christian denial of the “cycles” of Eastern though correct? Does it mean we should ignore when a piece of literature references it?
I believe there is middle ground to be found between the cyclical and timelines modes of thought, and thus I have disliked the use of either model. A perfect example of this can be found in the book of Judges. The evils that the Hebrews faced during the time of ancient history often seems to present itself as a circle. Israel would wallow in its misery, doing “what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25, ESV). A great leader would come about and lead the nation toward righteousness. Then, after an extended period of time, the nation would revert back to where they were before the appearance of this leader. Rinse and repeat.
But isn’t this incompatible with the Jewish view that they were destined for something? Headed in a distinct direction to a distinct goal (this is the idea of a straight timeline approaching a significant event or end)?
The the two images I have appreciated in marrying these two ideas, lifted from a professor and a good friend of mine, have been the wheel and the spiral. Looking from a two-dimensional view, a wheel appears to be a perfect circle. It turns in a perfect cycle. However, as it turns, it is also moving forward toward some sort of goal. Likewise, from the three-dimensional view, a spiral from above (or perhaps a helix to be more precise) looks like a perfect circle that also results in a perfect cycle. However, upon the introduction of the z-axis, one can see that the spiral approaches a point in a distinct direction.
In the same way, Judges ultimately leads to the time of Israel’s kings, which leads to the time of Israel’s prophets, which, ultimately (as Christians like myself believe) leads to the coming of Jesus Christ in the New Testament: the fulfillment of everything put forth in the Old Testament.
In episode twelve of Mushishi, we see a glimpse of what could be interpreted as one of several views. Most importantly, though: is someone trapped in a cycle like that apparent in the episode doomed to repeat it forever (depending on your view of the final moments of the episode, this is a possibility)? Or, is progress being made each time through?
The episode is left rather open-ended, much like real life, and thus it is up to the viewer’s interpretation, also much like real life. However, regardless of whether or not it is true, I like to believe that the application of the adage “history is doomed to repeat itself” brings with it the thinking that analyzing that repetition is what brings us to a brighter future.
*Information in this paragraph taken from my own knowledge and studies, supplemented with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reincarnation.