Welcome to the best new anime series that you have probably never heard of.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is up there in the same stratosphere with Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and all other anime that not only entertain and dazzle but enlighten and illuminate.
More than anything else, Moribito is adventure on an epic scale — one of those rare shows that creates its own world and draws us into it completely. It’s an adaptation of the first book in Nahoko Uehashi’s series of novels by the same name, now being released in English and which I took a look at on my own earlier this year. The book was outstanding, and reading it only raised my anticipation for the series all the more. The series is, if anything, even better: it expands on the original in all the right ways, the way Basilisk used its source novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls as inspiration rather than a lockstep path to follow, and produced a masterpiece of its own kind too. Look at me: not even three paragraphs in and I’m already sliding into blathering fanboy gush. There’s a reason for that.
Moribito is set in the land of New Yogo, a fictional amalgam of multiple Asian cultures, mainly Japan, China and Korea, but with touches of Tibet and Thailand and Cambodia and well. A terrible drought has been devouring the whole country — and in a classic example of “show, don’t tell”, this is not dramatized in dialogue but demonstrated in the show’s masterful opening shots, where only a small island of arable land remains amidst a growing desert.
Returning to New Yogo after several years’ absence is Balsa: bodyguard-for-hire, master of the spear, and carrier of a burden of guilt and atonement that she may never fully discharge. She rescues a boy from certain death when he’s thrown off a bridge, and learns after the fact that the young fellow is Chagum, an heir to the highest throne in the land. What’s doubly surprising to her is to learn that this was no accident, but an assassination attempt — the latest of many, as the boy’s mother explains to her under the cover of night. She is prepared to pay Balsa handsomely to have him spirited out of the castle and protected for as long as it takes to have his would-be killers found and dealt with.
Balsa’s plan involves buying a few favors from those who remember her from before: a boy-and-girl pair, Toya and Saya; Tanda, an apothecary who rather haplessly fell into the habit of patching Balsa up again and again in the good (?) old days; and Torogai, a magic-wielding crone from the wilderness who looks like a sister to Yubaba from Spirited Away. It’s the last who uncovers the reason why powers-that-be want Chagum dead: he’s the host for a spirit from days gone by, a water spirit that if unleashed will turn what arable land remains in Yogo into a desert.
Chagum and Balsa’s flight is intercut with a parallel plotline — the Mikado and his advisors, sending out a team of four professional assassins to find Chagum and deliver him, alive or dead, back to the capitol. They quickly realize that he’s in the care of someone who’s not just apt with a spear but a smart tactician as well. There is also Shuga, the court astrologist, sent on a research mission into the archives to learn more about the ongoing drought, and who quickly realizes even his superiors may be in over their heads. Perhaps the magic-weavers (read: Torogai and her ilk) can help him, but he’s sternly warned away from doing so: “Star readers must never go to magic weavers in search of advice!”
Now, this all sounds like the setup for an epic adventure, and it is. But as with the novel that inspired it, there is much more besides: a level of intelligence to the storytelling and characterization that’s presented almost effortlessly. Example: When Chagum’s mother tries to pay Balsa to buy her services, the bodyguard’s first words are “Do you want to get us killed?” There’s no way, as she goes on to explain, that they can buy any degree of safety with currency so clearly taken from the royal coffers; they might as well paint targets on their chests. Likewise, after they’ve gone on the lam, Chagum is puzzled by a queer feeling in his stomach. That’s hunger — which he has never had the misfortune to know, so industrious have been his feeding schedules.
No story is worth following unless it happens to people we care about, and Moribito takes the time to make each of its characters into full-blooded people. At the center of it all, as you can guess, is Balsa — weatherbeaten by life but conscious at all times that she elected for all this. She has embarked on a personal quest to save the lives of eight, as a way to atone for eight others whom she killed. The fact that others are surprised to find that the Balsa of legend is a woman! — that’s the least of her worries. There’s a superb moment early on where she deals out a beating to a would-be challenger, and does it so swiftly and with such contempt that we instantly realize she has done this countless times before. It’s just part for the course.
There is another moment during a battle where she lies on the ground, wavering near death, and the look on her face is one of total acceptance: If I die, I die. If that is the cost of attempting to atone in this manner, so be it. It comes early enough that later on we’re forced to contrast it with another impulse growing in her — the will to live despite everything, even her own guilt, now that she has someone she’s responsible for in ways that money alone doesn’t account for.
That other is Chagum, of course, who forms the other major emotional nexus for the story. He begins as a hapless victim of fate but by degrees decides that he does not want to continue that way. He’s startled by life outside the walls of his palace, and doubly startled by how ineffectual he feels in the face of it. If I’m meant to survive all this so that he can grow up and take power, he tells himself, then I need to go about doing a better job of surviving without the help of others. The scene where he is confronted with the fact that it may not be possible for him to do so is heartbreaking.
It wasn’t until after I’d finished with the second disc that I started making comparisons with another series that at first might not have anything to do with Moribito: Ghost in the Shell. The two shows share the same screenwriter, Kenji Kamiyama, and were realized by the same animation studio, Production I.G Rather than opt for Yoko Kanno for the music, this time around they drafted in composer Kenji Kawai — he who created the dreamtime-gamelan sound for the Ghost in the Shell films. Here, he adds just the right touches of both exoticism and adventure. (I picked up both CD soundtracks for the show despite their rapacious pricetags [$35], without even having seen the show proper. The music’s that good.)
But outside of shared credits, the shows also share a similar depth of intelligence and insight. Ghost in the Shell dealt with how life in an “information society” came with all of its own caveats; Moribito revolves around how an archetype can be shaped to suit the whims of those who promote it — how a national mythology can be used to propagandize and divide, or unite and inspire. And if I sound like I’ve made all this sound dry and academic, forget all that; it’s one hell of an adventure that belongs on any anime fan’s shelf, and many more other peoples’ besides.
Audio: Both English and Japanese audio on the disc feature full 5.1 and 2.0 mixes — the former are best on a full sound system that can support it, while the latter are better on headphones or PC speakers.
Video: Would that we could have this series on Blu-ray. Apart from the spectacular colors and the immaculate compression and transfer, the show’s also been flagged (for the most part) to render properly on progressive-scan TVs. It looks fantastic on a PC monitor, too, although the occasional interstitial frames between shots have interlacing artifacts.
Menus: Simple text slates with artwork from the show, which is fine with me as I hate animation in menus for the most part. Media Blasters also gets bonus points for not saddling us with annoying unskippable FBI warnings or opening logos.
Dialogue: Bang Zoom! were the folks contracted to do the dubbing, which you’ve almost certainly come into contact with if you’ve watched the show on Adult Swim rather than on DVD. I am honestly not that fond of it — not because the voices are poorly chosen (Cindy Robinson makes an excellent Balsa), but because the dub script’s choice of language and direction takes us out of the story all too often. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching something that’s a product of its milieu anymore, and that hurts.
Extras: I expected slightly more in the way of extras for a show of this caliber — maybe director’s commentary or some extended behind-the-scenes material, or perhaps even something from Nahoko Uehashi herself about the series. Instead, we get a spate of bonuses that are relatively minimalist: clean opening and closing sequences, line art from the show’s production files (which are still nice, actually), and insert booklets with some bonus imagery as well. Maybe I’m only disappointed because the last major Production I.G release that came my way was the criminally underrated Otogi-Zoshi, for which each disc had an entire bonus disc of material that delved into the mythology and history behind the entire series. Quibbles about bonuses and presentation aside, though, the real annotation for a show like this is up there on the screen.
The Bottom Line: I feel mildly ashamed to realize that the best word I have to describe Moribito is basically a marketing word: essential. But there it is: this is as essential an anime as any released this year, or any year.