A plot to kill a young prince, a spear wielding bodyguard who vows to protect him, and the fabled rebirth of a spirit from the egg inside him. A prince hosting an egg might sound strange, but male seahorses carry their eggs too, you know.
Title: Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit
Original airing: Apr 7, 2007 to Sep 29, 2007
Studio: Production I.G.
Duration: 25 mins per episode
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Supernatural
Source: Moribito novel series by Nahoko Uehashi
Where I watched: Netflix (dubbed)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
On the precipice of a cataclysmic drought, the Star Readers of the Shin Yogo Empire must devise a plan to avoid widespread famine. It is written in ancient myths that the first emperor, along with eight warriors, slew a water demon to avoid a great drought and save the land that was to become Shin Yogo. If a water demon was to appear once more, its death could bring salvation. However, the water demon manifests itself within the body of the emperor’s son, Prince Chagum—by the emperor’s order, Chagum is to be sacrificed to save the empire.
Meanwhile, a mysterious spear-wielding mercenary named Balsa arrives in Shin Yogo on business. After saving Chagum from a thinly veiled assassination attempt, she is tasked by Chagum’s mother to protect him from the emperor and his hunters. Bound by a sacred vow she once made, Balsa accepts.
Moribito follows Balsa as she embarks on her journey to protect Chagum, exploring the beauty of life, nature, family, and the bonds that form between strangers.
The reason why I began watching this series has less to do with anything about its story or presentation than a simple fact of married life does. Early in 2016, somewhere in the long gap between My Little Monster and Myriad Colors, my wife complained that we don’t spend enough time together. At the time, I was still in something of a funk after Your lie in April and didn’t have much patience for our usual entertainment options. Still, I helped pick out a show from our queue and sat through an episode of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.
Some of you might be expecting to hear that it was a great experience. Something for the two of us to bond over and have thoughtful discussion about. Anime is often romantic like that, but real life is far less glamorous. When I say I sat through it, I mean that in a literal sense. I gave the episode a “meh” and went back to what I was doing, much to my wife’s chagrin. While she wasn’t particularly impressed with the episode either, she wanted more from me than the unengaged 25 minutes I gave her.
It wasn’t until Anohana and Ouran that we actually started bonding over anime, but I think that’s a story I’ll leave for another post. To cut a long story short, that night was part of the reason Moribito came so late in the list despite the fact that I started it in March. When I was in a better frame of mind to give the series a shot, I found that there was much more to it than I saw at first glance. There was an intriguing story, compelling characters, and an artistic presentation that grew on me more and more as I watched. Best of all, it was something I actually wanted to discuss with my wife. Having matured as an anime enthusiast, I present my thoughts in the below review.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit was originally a series of Japanese fantasy novels written by Nahoko Uehashi. What is unique about this story is that it has been adapted for nearly every media outlet including: printed novel, radio drama, manga, and of course anime. The series first debut in the U.S. on Adult Swim in 2008 but was dropped without warning after airing only ten episodes. The series finally returned to American television in summer of 2009; this time airing the full twenty six episodes.
The narrative unravels a tale of Balsa, a female spear wielder from Kanbal, and her encounter with a young, 11 year old, Prince Chagum. After rescuing Chagum, the second prince to the Shin Yogo Empire, she is invited to the royal palace to be rewarded for her heroic efforts. It is during this time that Balsa learns of the rumor that Chagum is believed to be a living host for an evil water demon. Fear that this water demon is responsible for the rampant drought and famine plaguing the kingdom has caused the prince to become the target of assassins. Worse still, these assassination attempts have been tracked all the way back to the royal palace of the Emperor (the Mikado) himself, Chagum’s own father.
With the Mikado determined to kill his son for the sake of his empire, the Second Empress, Chagum’s mother, pleads with Balsa to flee the kingdom with the prince. As it turns out, Balsa is on a mission of her own. In a bid for redemption after causing eight deaths, the spear welder vows to save the lives of eight people. Having already saved seven lives, she agrees to take in the prince and guard him with her own life as the eighth life she sets out to save. Balsa slowly begins to realize that rescuing Chagum includes far more than protecting him from assassination attempts. To save him, she will need to find out the truth behind long-forgotten ancient legends about water spirits and demons. Inevitably, the mission becomes not only saving a prince, but an entire country as well.
The first half of Moribito is engaging; infused with action and conspiracy as Balsa attempts to evade the imperial assassins sent to murder Chagum. Though the story progresses at a steady pace, it begins to wane a bit towards the middle. There are several consecutive episodes that felt like slice of life filler, though they do serve to flesh out the characters. I can argue this relaxing pace allows viewers an opportunity to reflect on the overwhelming events that set this series in motion, but for some this lull may prove to be a deal breaker.
The supernatural idea of a spiritual realm becomes a prominent thread in this tale. The physical world, visible to all living creatures, is known as Sagu. Though most people are unaware, there is also a parallel spiritual realm known as Nayug; where spirits of nature dwell. But there are times where these two worlds, Sagu and Nayug, will overlap, interact, and affect one another. A nearly forgotten legend governs the spirit that dwells within the young prince, and foretells of an event that will usher in its rebirth. As the fated day comes ever closer, Chagum hovers between the two realms, with the forces of nature attempting to lure the spiritual egg he hosts back to its rightful place.
Some anime series with concepts as foreign as water spirit eggs and parallel realms fail to establish a convincing world for the characters to inhabit. To counter this, writers may avoid delving too deep into explaining unlikely phenomenon that occur within these fictitious realms. This helps bypass the danger of crafting mythology that doesn’t hold up to close examination. Moribito does the exact opposite. As arcane as the legend is, most of the characters themselves are unfamiliar with its details. The series thus takes great care to flesh out the cultural and religious background, to teach them, and the viewers, in a way that shows how much effort was put into building the story. The characters, mythical elements, and surroundings are so firmly executed, that viewers may be fooled into thinking that their creation is rooted in real world myth.
The fact that the writer could make a completely original tale sound as if it was ancient myth makes it all the more impressive, but the anime adaptation leaves something to be desired in terms of pacing and execution. The lull that I mentioned in the middle of the series leads to a time jump near the end that feels a little disorienting. With the realms of Sagu and Nayug overlapping rapidly, Moribito moves much more quickly toward the conclusion. While the series spends four episodes detailing these events, it may be easy for viewers to miss something given the slow pace of the prior ones.
I’ve heard said that the key to compelling characters is to create inherently likable people, then force them to endure devastating hardship. Viewers naturally feel consumed with dread when they sense impending danger.This is partially due to the high regard felt for the person fated to collide with an unknown threat. It isn’t much the fear of injury that strikes a nerve with the audience, as it is witnessing an individual struggle with moral value when faced with inconceivable circumstances.
The characters in Moribito, including the supporting cast, are multi-dimensional and memorable. Balsa, a middle aged, spear-wielding bodyguard, is unlike any protagonist I’ve witnessed before. Though there are a fair share of warrior-esque type women in anime, they tend to be idealized. These heroines are portrayed in a way that highlights their femininity, caters to fanservice, or are carefully placed pawns used to progress the story. Secondly, how often do you witness a thirty-something female powerhouse as a main character? When female fighters are represented in anime, they are usually younger, or limited to supporting cast at best.
It is satisfying to see a stand alone, older female warrior presented in a respectful and credible way. By doing so, viewers can focus on the attributes that make Balsa a compelling character, like her intellect and skills. Although her more ‘feminine’ traits are minimized, no one condemns her stoic, commanding nature. Instead, as the story unfolds, viewers notice that even those who oppose Balsa have respect for her skills. She intelligently outwits the assassins who pursue her, yet refuses to take their lives; even if they would gladly end hers.
It is Balsa’s prowess and astute reactions that lead her to rescue Prince Chagum. As the second prince of the Shin Yogo Empire, Prince Chagum is central to the story progression. Given that he is only a child (11 years old) and nobility, the direction for this character could have easily ventured into spoiled, entitled territory. Instead, Chagum is portrayed as insightful and respectful; having likely been inundated with a sense of duty and sacrifice at an early age. Rather than lament over having to exchange the rich comforts he is accustomed to for a nomadic life on the run, he remains brave and composed.
Even though Chagum is insightful, he subtly conveys a youthful, naive approach to certain situations. Sheltered from the world, Chagum is clueless as to how to live by himself (and for himself). He is baffled by the concept of playing with other children his age and ponders the mechanics behind the games his youthful counterparts play. When the gravity of the dire situation finally sets in, Chagum’s resolve begins to wane; giving a glimpse of the frightened, confused child viewers anticipate. But even these emotions are executed well. Rather than appear like a blubbering, petrified child, he conveys his trepidation like an adult would. Having resigned himself to the circumstances, Chagum reminisces over the experiences he will never have, rather than breakdown in the face of death.
The supporting cast is individualistically diverse; with no one coming off as inherently good or evil. Introduced into the plot after Balsa is injured, Tanda is a traveling Yaku herbalist. As an intriguing twist, he embodies the stereotypical traits often assigned to female characters. The crux of Tanda’s personality is that of a nurturing, docile person; aspiring to settle down and have a family. While his unrequited love for Balsa, that has existed since their childhood, is apparent throughout the series, it doesn’t take focus away from the heart of the narrative. Another engaging character is Tanda’s mentor, Madame Torogai, an elderly, wise Yaku magic weaver (shaman). As a master of the ‘old ways,’ she is able to communicate with those in the spiritual realm, Nayug. Due to this, her character is needed to explain the more complex supernatural elements of the story. Torogai also adds humor to the narrative with her eccentric nature, alcoholism, and blunt comments.
As I stated before, none of the characters in this series are intrinsically righteous or corrupt. Instead, like most of us, they fall somewhere in between. They struggle between moral value and sense of duty. Chagum’s father, the Mikado, orders the assassination of his son out of an obligation to protect his kingdom. The imperial guards tasked with destroying the second prince embark on the mission with a heavy heart. Balsa’s need to protect Chagum can be attributed, in part, to her quest for redemption after taking the lives of others. Each believe their assessment of Chagum’s plight, and how to handle the water ‘demon,’ to be the most logical choice. This makes the story not about good conquering evil, but handling moral dilemma when faced with overwhelming circumstances.
From the consistently drawn characters to the picturesque landscapes and architecture, Moribito is at worst technically sound and and best stunning. Coming out in a very competitive year altogether in terms of anime, it was likely easy for viewers to pass this series over in its debut season itself with series like Gurren Lagann, Claymore, and Lucky Star coming out as well. Moribito is, however, a great example of what Production I.G’s realistic style is capable of. Highly comfortable with futuristic, historical, and fantasy settings alike, there was no reason to think that the blend of historical and supernatural elements present in Moribito would be anything to worry over.
To start, the landscapes and scenery that serve as a backdrop to this series are some of the best in any Production I.G work, and could make a claim among the best in the entire medium. With Balsa and Chagum’s travels taking them through a wide variety of settings, from imperial cities and forests to rice farms and remote mountain passes, every scene is carefully crafted with great attention to detail and atmosphere. Serving as more than just static backgrounds, the settings interact with the characters in an accurate and natural way, such as footsteps in snow and dirt paths or rain drops forming puddles and bouncing off characters.
As for the characters themselves, their designs are nothing short of brilliant for the type of story Moribito is. As stated in the Characters section above, Balsa is somewhat atypical as far as female protagonists go. Though she is certainly beautiful by most standards, she is dressed modestly and her form, depicted in a way that accurately reflects her years as a warrior, is never depicted in a way that is meant to entice. Indeed, the series is remarkable in the sense that it doesn’t have a single moment of fanservice. Even when she disrobes to treat a wound, the audience is made to look away, amusingly, along with Chagum.
Chagum himself has an interesting design progression. Dressed in finery at first with his hair knotted as per royal custom, he is soon forced to adopt a modest set of clothing and cut his hair. Even in this ‘disguise,’ the fairness of his skin and the way he carries himself set him apart from the people they come across. It’s a subtle reminder to the viewer that taking him out of the palace did not erase his nobility, and it’s done in a way that needs no narrative explanation. His smaller build, especially next to children who spend their days playing outside or fighting, is telling as well, as is the wide eyed curiosity of his expression when he experiences things he would have never seen behind the palace walls.
Action comes infrequently in this series, but is incredible whenever it does appear. The battles scenes are remarkable in both their choreography and execution, maintaining a fluidity that would rival a higher budget film. The realistic movements and faithfulness to a variety of traditional fighting styles translate well on screen, providing a riveting display whenever skilled characters like Balsa engage in a fight. The fighting is not limited to simple melee combat either, as many different weapons are employed throughout the series for a variety of effects, but each of these cases is treated with the same care and attention as the hand to hand fights are.
While the events of the story are fairly localized, various lands are depicted that give a sense of the breadth of the kingdoms involved. Balsa’s native Kanbal is a rugged land reminiscent of a mountain nation like Bhutan. Shin Yogo’s capital city and surrounding area appear to be modeled after the Imperial cities in Southeast China, and remote lands will remind viewers of scenes set in feudal Japan. The decidedly Asian influenced setting thus lends itself to certain aesthetics, but is not strictly Japanese in its design.
There was a period of my life where I was fascinated with rock and alternative rock music, but unlike most who grew up in the USA, my particular musical interest was of the Japanese rock variety. For that reason I feel I have a bias when talking about SHINE, as it carries the familiarity I had come to know from my more obsessed days. I hadn’t heard L’Arc~en~Ciel’s music since their song READY STEADY GO was featured in Fullmetal Alchemist, so I was glad to hear their distinct style return in another anime series. The inspirational, upbeat chorus of the OP theme fits well with the story; reflecting the hopeful emotions of the characters as they try to rewrite Chagum’s destiny.
More so than the OP or ED, the soundtrack to this series works incredibly well in building the atmosphere of any scene it accompanies. Composer Kenji Kawai is well known for his work on Fate/Stay Night and the Ghost in the Shell movies. So, naturally, the music he created for this series is equally incredible. The fast paced battle scenes and emotional moments alike are enhanced greatly by their respective themes, and not a single one feels out of place. Aside from music, environmental sounds and effects are also handled very well. The background sounds of horses, crickets, and other animals aren’t forgotten in the various scenes they appear in, and the clang and clatter of weaponry during fights give a great sense of the action taking place, even if you’re not looking at it.
When I watched this series on Netflix, the presence of an English dub enticed me to give it a try. Before I knew it, I ended up watching the whole thing in English and barely got a chance to sample the Japanese version. Balsa actress, Cindy Robinson, has not had many well known leading roles in anime, but has done a lot of support roles for more famous titles. Most interestingly, she is an accomplished Broadway actor. The two professions don’t always translate well from one to the other, but her portrayal of Balsa sounded very appropriate for the character’s demeanor. Similarly Chagum, played by Mona Marshall, was highly convincing, and is remarkable to still do a voice as young as his. Watching this in English had the added benefit of being able to hear just how different Chagum was from other people. His manner of speech always sounded more refined, even as Balsa counseled him to try to fit in better. It was an interesting little detail that I wouldn’t have picked up as well in the Japanese version.
There is a reason why Moribito ranks high among viewers, and it is because of the tremendous amount of detail that went into its creation. Take, for example, the setting in which the story unfolds. While the areas traversed in this series are fictitious, the remarkable creation of novelist Nahoko Uehashi, they incorporate elements to represent the rich Asian history and the plight of indigenous people during the era of feudal Japan. By doing so, this ‘make believe’ world becomes so realistic, that it will leave viewers seeking the historic sites illustrated in this series.
Morbito portrays the struggle for cultural preservation, when old traditions are diluted by technology and modernized practices. With the setting taking placing in Shin-Yogo, representing a innovative, modern culture, the ancient culture of the Yaku is being forgotten. This is a significant topic to address, as every generation experiences a departure from ‘outdated practices;’ replaced with faster, seemingly more satisfying results. To take a real world example: electronic correspondence has made letter writing obsolete and glossy photos have been swapped for camera phones. In the constant pursuit of progress, the old ways become lost, as does the culture centered around them.
It’s not surprising then that the importance of cultural ties and respect for the old traditions is a common theme beneath the overarching plot. This is perhaps best represented through Balsa. Being the target of imperial assassins gives her a strong reason to keep a low profile, but she never shies away from explaining to others where she is from. Her stubbornness in this contrasts the Yaku people, who see a gradual loss of land and oral traditions thanks to Shin Yogo expansion. The mystery surrounding the legend of the water spirit itself stands as a lesson in understanding the importance of cultural history.
Overall, the plot, and any added twists, favor realism over sensation. By this, I mean there is no forced or excessive amounts of drama. Instead, the narrative slowly builds over the course of the series; making for a solid storyline. Though the gradual pace of some episodes may feel a bit tedious at times, the end result is a detailed narrative with well fleshed out characters. Not only are the characters well-defined, but each has a distinct personality that leads to thought provoking rationale and, at times, conflicting opinions. Furthermore, despite a fairly large supporting cast, none of the characters appear to be tossed in for the sake of filling time or as purely entertainment fodder.
But when a series surpasses expectations, even the most minor of issues become glaringly obvious. Perhaps the biggest problem viewers mention, as I wrote above, is the pacing. While I’ve not read the Moribito novels, known as the Guardian series, I have heard from other reviewers that the anime is based on an extended adaptation of volume 1. Roughly under 300 pages, the volume had substantially less plot than needed to fill twenty six episodes. Due to the necessity to add filler content, there is a significant lull in the series halfway through where not much takes place. Overall, it isn’t very distracting, since the time is used to flesh out the characters and surroundings. But given these calm, reflective episodes are sandwiched between a dramatic intro and climactic ending, some viewers may become bored with the series.
Another common complaint is that Moribito does not offer enough action to warrant the ‘Action’ genre description that most give it. While the fight scenes are admittedly limited, they are among the best I’ve seen in terms of choreography and animation. Battle scenes in anime tend to result in a mix of rapid, jittery movements that leave viewers disoriented. Moribito, however, manages to accurately execute smooth action scenes and doesn’t rely on using inconceivable attack moves for someone to gain the upper hand. It is refreshing to see such care taken toward the battle scenes, especially in a fantasy series.
While the action scenes in Moribito were heart-pounding and believable, the writers failed to achieve these same standards for the conclusion. As the plot unfolds, a dangerous situation arises that, if not handled properly, could spur world destruction. While the cause and consequence for this imminent obliteration is well explained, I had a difficult time feeling the level of concern the writers anticipated. After the heart-pounding, harrowing intensity of the initial episodes, the conclusion failed to come close to the same magnitude. The finale was indeed climatic and riveting, but seemed to lack the ability to fully sell the audience on the enormity of the dire situation.
Summary and Recommendations
Moribito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit is a tale of struggling with moral value when faced with inconceivable circumstances. The narrative centers around Balsa, a female spear wielder, and her encounter with a young Prince Chagum.
Believed to be a living host for an evil water demon, responsible for bringing drought and famine to his kingdom, the prince has become the target of assassins. In fear for the life of her child, Chagum’s mother pleads with Balsa to flee the kingdom, with the prince in tow, and protect him from those who intend to harm him.
The first half of Moribito is engaging; infused with action and conspiracy as Balsa attempts to evade the imperial assassins sent to murder Chagum. As story progresses, however, the steady pace begins to wane. A few episodes in the middle of the series, being dedicated to mostly filler content, leads to a time rush near the end.
The characters in Moribito, including the supporting cast, are multi-layered and distinctive. None of the characters are intrinsically good or evil. Instead, like most of us, they fall somewhere in between. Rather then the story being about good conquering evil, it becomes a lesson about handling moral dilemma when faced with overwhelming circumstances.
The consistent art style and naturalistic scenery creates a breathtaking atmosphere for viewers to immerse themselves in. This series utilizes Production I.G.’s realistic style to blend historical and supernatural elements into a credible, engaging story.
The inspirational, upbeat chorus of the OP theme conveys the message of hope when faced with impossible circumstances. Similarly, the soundtrack to this series reflects the atmosphere; enhancing battle scenes and emotion fueled moments on par with great music that is on par with Kenji Kawai’s best work.
Overall, Moribito favors realism over sensation; with no forced or excessive amounts of drama. Instead, the narrative slowly builds over the course of the series; making for a solid storyline. Though the gradual pace of some episodes may feel a bit tedious at times, the end result is a detailed narrative with well fleshed out characters.
Watch if you:
Like atypical but realistic characters
Enjoy well executed action
Don’t mind slow progression
Don’t watch if you:
Want a faster paced action series
Dislike realism in Fantasy stories
A solid series from a technical standpoint, with only small flaws that drag it a little. My rating is 4.5 out of 5 Balsas.
Moribito felt to me like something of a hidden gem, and I believe this had everything to do with how many anime came out at the same time to overshadow it. In the six months before it aired, we got Death Note, Code Geass, and Naruto: Shippuden. In the six months after we had Baccano! and Clannad. These titles gained quite a bit of fame since their airing, and if you were to ask for anime recommendations, chances are that some of those might be among the top of the list instead of this series.
It’s unfortunate that some anime tend to get overlooked this way. I myself hadn’t even heard of Moribito until I found it on Netflix this year. Even when I did start it, I had a poor attitude and dismissed it as a Xena knockoff. And while I might hesitate to say it’s as well conceived and presented as something like Death Note, it was a great anime that deserves a watch from anyone who is interested in its genre. It makes me a little sad that I didn’t realize this and review it months ago though, because as of this posting the series is no longer available on Netflix for streaming (in the USA).
The point I’m getting at is you shouldn’t immediately balk away from an older series or one that you might not have heard of. People do this all the time, it’s understandable why they do. As I learned very well doing my challenge this year, time is precious; even when you have plenty of it to spend on anime. Why take a chance on an older series when everyone is talking about Re:Zero? The answer is because you might miss out on some great anime if you put it off too long. Much as I have loved watching Yuri!!! On Ice this season, it will be around for a while. Maybe check which series are losing their streaming licenses before you decide on the next one to pick up.
There is a special charm in going into a series blind, like I did with Ergo Proxy, but if you’re doubtful it pays off to do a little research. Check out trailers, read reviews, and make a decent effort to find out if it’s something you might enjoy. I myself am guilty of brushing off K and Durarara!! simply because I wasn’t sure about the premise. If you have a legal streaming option for Moribito in your region, I highly recommend giving it a try. If you’re in the States, you can actually still find the complete series for as low as $6 on DVD. What are you waiting for?
Moribito by Renxkyoko
I know Ren loves this series, so I wanted to share her thoughts on it. She reads a lot of manga too, so check out her other reviews as well.
Swords, Sorcery, and Spears: A Little Review of Seirei no Moribito by medievalotaku
A great look at the parallelism portrayed in the series and how it can appeal to those who don’t have a favorable opinion of anime. I love this blogger’s look at historical themed anime, so take a look for yourself.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by ave1125
An interesting look at the supernatural element of the series and how this series is different from others.
For more from me, you can find my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows. As always, thank you for reading.