Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit


With the first four episodes of Moribito, Production I.G does to fantasy anime series what they did to hard-core sci-fi anime with Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a couple of years earlier: use a combination of impressive technical merits, excellent storytelling, and a compelling lead character to set a new standard for the genre. Never has a fantasy anime series looked better, and rarely has one been more involving. That its Adult Swim broadcast has not been very successful so far is a shame, as those avoiding it because it does not have the high-octane feel of a Bleach or Code Geass are doing themselves a disservice.

The series gets off to a rousing start with a fantastic opener which combines “Shine,” one of fan-fave L’Arc-en-Ciel’s best songs, with a sampling of the series’ gorgeous artistry and animation. (For those who have been following the series only via the Adult Swim broadcasts, the broadcast version of the opener is slightly truncated.) If any further proof of the series’ sterling artistic merits is needed, the very first scene delivers a panoramic shot of a mountain range that is so breathtaking that it should be used as a textbook example of how to draw mountains in animation. Throughout these four episodes Production I.G piles on one fabulous-looking scene after another; even in the mundane details the series shines, and the shots of palatial opulence rival the best anime has to offer. Every detail, from costuming to elaborate building design to even depictions of rice patties, impresses, and even minor visual flaws or drop-offs in quality are few and far between. Rich use of color and lighting effects, whether from a sunny late afternoon, a stormy night, or even underwater, distinguish the series amongst any competition. Though character designs sometimes stray a little too much into caricatures, they nonetheless show the same quality and attention to detail.

Such great artistry would still struggle without good animation to support it, but the series shines here, too. Short cuts are infrequent, or at least less obvious, and the few true fight scenes are things of beauty. Characters move, dodge, and thrust with great smoothness and alacrity, creating convincingly dynamic fights filled with motion and an all-too-frequently-absent sense of danger; the highlight four-on-one fight scene from episode 3 may, in fact, stand amongst the year’s best. These are fights not fueled by ridiculous displays of skill or super-human powers, but ones ground in reality. The production team threw in a few neat 3D tricks for good measure, but these episodes look plenty good enough without the extra gimmicks.

The series has much more than just a great opener and technical merits in its favor. In Balsa, Moribito offers a fully credible heroine, a woman in her late 20s who is attractive in a vaguely ethnic way (but not distractingly so) and has the kind of solid, powerful build one would expect of a true warrior. She is very skilled, capable, and practical, a woman good at thinking on her feet and taking charge of a situation without being needlessly arrogant or flashy. Unlike so many of her anime contemporaries, she does not exist to be ogled, but to do her job and do it both completely and well while coping with her own demons. She is such a refreshing change of pace that the series would be worth watching for her alone. Chagum, her charge, is well-crafted as a privileged young boy who quickly realizes the dire nature of the situation and that he must adapt to the circumstances if her wants to survive; the inbred arrogance of his former position gradually gets set aside. Madame Torogai, the old witch who serves as the series’ obligatory colorful character, does not have enough screen time in this volume for her eccentricities to fully establish themselves, and key player Tanda also has little chance to reveal his character or past with Balsa by the end of episode 4. Long-haired Shuga shows some promise as the astrologer-insider, while the children Saya and Touya distinguish themselves less but still have better-defined personalities than the norm for being minor recurring characters.

Even these elements in a series’ favor can still ultimately fail without proper support from the writing, but this volume has no concerns there, either. Based on a novel by Nahoko Uehashi, the story grounds itself in a setting heavily influenced by medieval China yet offering enough of its own novel twists to distinguish itself as something unique. This is a story and setting which dabbles with mysticism and the supernatural without being dominated by it or, indeed, even making a big deal about it. The story it tells about the need to safeguard a special boy despite deadly threats against him is a staple of sci fi, fantasy, and action titles around the world, and in many senses the basic plot strongly resembles that of Scrapped Princess, but the quality here lies in the details and story execution. The Mikado and his servants are not painted as heartless villains, but instead people reluctantly carrying out what they see as an onerous and unfortunate duty, while Balsa is crafted as a powerful figure and yet is not above serious harm. The writing smoothly works in many details about the well-defined setting without yet resorting to any kind of info dump and tantalizes with hints about the past. It finds novel ways to present and carry out daunting tasks, such as the slimy, slippery rocky ridge Chagum must traverse in a rain storm to fetch help for a gravely-wounded Balsa in episode 3 or the water rescue in episode 1. Perhaps most importantly, it has smart characters consistently taking sensible actions, something woefully lacking in the many prominent series which depend on a parade of idiocy to aggrandize their heroes. Moribito does not need to do that to carry out its story, and thus never stoops that low.

Although the opener may be the soundtrack’s shining gem, it is hardly the music’s only strong point. Original closer “Itoshii Hito e” by Sachi Tainaka, which does not air during the Adult Swim broadcasts since it only has translated Japanese credits, is a lovely matching of song and visuals in its own right, while an adaptation of one of the soundtrack themes is used for the English credits closer which does play at the end of the Adult Swim broadcasts (and appears here at the end of the volume). The music in between peaks with the intense, pounding rhythms used during the dramatic battle in episode 3 but serves the production well throughout. Good use of background sound and an especially good 5.1 mix – listening to this series in 2.0 does not do it justice – further complement the sound production.

Bang Zoom! Entertainment does its usual solid job in assembling a worthy cast for the English dub. Cindy Robinson’s voice and delivery style may not be a perfect match for Mabuki Andou’s fine original performance, but she has a deep, slightly rumbly feminine voice that suits Balsa quite well and gives her a convincing sense of age, competence, and authority. It may take sub fans a little while to get used to, but they should definitely give it a chance. Mona Marshall, by comparison, is dead-on with the original performance in crafting a proper voice for Chagum. The supporting cast varies a bit more, with long-time veteran Barbara Goodson as Madame Torogai being a highlight and Peter Doyle’s Tanda sounding a bit flat and uninteresting, but generally it hits the mark. The English script finds a satisfying balance between accuracy and smooth flow.

The first volume, which is available separately or in the combo pack with the second volume, offers nothing significant for Extras, though it does have both 2.0 and 5.1 sound tracks. Notably, the menu art is decidedly inferior to anything in the actual animation.

Some have complained about the pacing of Moribito being a bit on the slow and deliberate side, but that does not show as much in this span of episodes as it does in some later ones. This block chugs along quite nicely, offering a fair share of action scenes and intrigue to complement its thoughtful, well-paced storytelling. All-in-all, it is an exceptionally strong start to a highly promising series.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Gorgeous artistry, excellent fight scenes, strong heroine, rich storytelling.
− Pacing may be a little too slow and deliberate for some, no Extras.

Life undercover for Balsa and Chagum means dealing with the mundane aspects of Yogoan life, but given the individuals involved, even the mundane aspects can have greater complications. When Saya passes out and falls into a deep sleep in the wake of a marriage arrangement, Tanda must go on a spirit walk to call her back, only to find it difficult for him to return. Later, Chagum gets drawn into an arranged fight with a tough visiting boy during a local festival, an affair which eventually involves Balsa, too. The incident draws unwanted attention, however, in the form of a man from Balsa’s past who bears a deep grudge over a past defeat. When he threatens to involve innocent bystanders, Balsa is left with no choice but to become a tiger and confront him.

Review:

Lesson learned from this volume: forcing Balsa into a situation where she actually has to try to kill someone is a really, really bad idea for her foe.

After nearly eight months of delays and repeating the first 10 episodes twice (a practice that newer anime fans may not realize used to be commonplace for Cartoon Network/Adult Swim), Adult Swim is finally starting to broadcast the rest of Moribito. For those who could not wait, or preferred a hard copy with the full opener and original closer intact, there’s always DVD volume four, which covers episodes 11-13. Sadly, the first three new episodes in quite some time have the feel of filler about them.

In fact, if “filler” content is defined as content which tells stories not drawn from the source material, then these three episodes are exactly that. While they touch on some things described in the original novel – such as what Nayugu looks like or Balsa’s commitment to not taking any life – these are entirely original tales. Calling them “mundane” would not entirely be accurate, since one does involve spirit-walking and another contains a very dynamic fight scene, but none of these three episodes are more than very peripherally involved with the overall plot. Those waiting to get back to the quests of Star Reader Shuga and Madame Torogai to find out what is going on with the egg inside Chagum will apparently have to wait for episode 14 in volume 5.

As filler stories go, though, each episode has its own appeal. Episode 11 focuses as much on the relationships of the series’ two main couples (Balsa and Tanda, Toya and Saya) as on the spirit-walking Tanda must do save Saya; one simple but great scene shows Chagum glancing at Balsa and Tanda knowingly after having Toya and Saya’s potential relationship spelled out for him. Episode 12, by contrast, is more of a setting-building exercise in the way it details a prominent festival and the different ways city and rural folk celebrate it. Episode 13 shifts the series back into action mode, returning to the fluid, vibrant, intense fight choreography which was one of the series’ early hallmarks. The allusions to a warrior assuming the spirit of a tiger (and the dangers thereof) take on a more fascinating dimension when the series shows an unusually fierce Balsa briefly but literally taking on the aspect of a tiger. The effect the incident has on Balsa also makes the episode noteworthy.

As it showed in its earliest episodes, Moribito is practically in a visual league of its own. This is Production I.G’s artistic masterpiece; no other anime fantasy series ever made even comes close to equaling the richness of its backgrounds and character renderings or the energy and sense of movement portrayed in its action scenes. The series is not shy about using character designs that are distinctly ugly, yet even those are drawn exceptionally well. Even its opening animation, complete with a wonderfully-detailed scene of a flock of birds taking off from a pond and a gorgeous shot of an eagle soaring into sunlight-colored clouds, shows off this title’s artistic excellence.

While the soundtrack is not quite as overwhelming as the artistry, it is still effective and distinctive, with its moody numbers and deep, resonating recurring themes. The wonderful L’Arc-en-Ciel opener continues through this run in full form (rather than the trimmed-down version shown on Adult Swim), while the original closer skipped over in the American TV broadcasts has been restored with intact Japanese credits; English credits follow at the end of the volume using the theme that serves as the broadcast’s closer.

The Bang Zoom! dub continues to be solid (if unexceptional), with Cindy Robinson as Balsa and Mona Marshall as Chagum firmly anchoring the cast in the key roles and newcomer Amy Johnson ably serving in a key episode 13 guest role as a traveling teacher. Other performances are generally at least adequate. The English script varies a bit in some places but not in any meaningful way.

Although Media Blasters is selling this one at a lower price point, they still are offering only three episodes with no Extras for an MSRP of $24.99 – an outdated practice in the current market and definitely not a good value compared to most other releases over the past couple of years that did not have Bandai Visual somewhere on them. This volume is also available in a two-pack with vol. 3 for a better per-episode value, however. Conspicuously absent is any translation of the text inscribed on the mountainside in certain scenes in episode 13, which is one of this episode’s coolest background visuals.

The one strike often laid against Moribito is that it progresses rather slowly, and this volume does nothing to allay that concern. The series is clearly stalling at this point to fill up 26 episodes for a novel not originally long enough to directly support more than 12 or 13. Even with expanding certain aspects of the story, it still drags a bit through this run. Still, it looks great, sounds good, and does its job well in world-building and character development departments. That should be enough to sustain fans until the meat of the main story returns.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B+

+ Top-rate series artistry and animation, superb fight scene.
− Filler stories which only peripherally involve the main plot, no Extras.

Madame Torogai and Shuga each independently discover that the official history of New Yogo has obscured the truth about the Nyunga Ro Im, leading the former to uncover a deadly threat to Chagum which lurks in Nayug and the latter to find evidence that Chagum is still alive. A chance encounter leads to more perilous conflict as the Mikado’s Hunters pursue Balsa and Chagum on their fact-finding mission to an isolated Yaku village, after which Balsa’s group and Shuga’s forces eventually come to an understanding: the prince is to be protected by Balsa while Shuga continues to look for clues in New Yogo’s long-concealed true history about what, exactly, Chagum needs to do and how the dreadful Egg-Eater Ra Runga can be fended off, allowing the egg within Chagum to be born without killing Chagum. During a long winter in hiding, Chagum toughens up, learns to fight from Balsa, and finally hears the truth about Balsa’s past with Jiguro. As the fateful day approaches, Balsa’s group, Shuga, and the Hunters must all band together to oppose the Ra Runga and give Chagum a chance to complete his purpose. Staving off the upcoming drought, and thus the fate of the Empire, hangs in the balance.

Review:

As Moribito begins its second half, it leaves behind the flirtation with filler content which dominated the previous few episodes and gets back to its core plot: figuring out what, exactly, must be done with the mystical egg within Prince Chagum and what role he must play in helping to avoid the upcoming drought. The only distraction from this course is a two episode flashback arc detailing Balsa’s past with Jiguro, but it is so well-executed and plays so directly into Balsa’s underlying motivations for what she is doing in the current time that no one should have issue with it. In fact, “execution” is the word of the day for the series as a whole; no fantasy anime series made to date brings all of its story elements and production aspects together better than Moribito does, especially in its second half.

Such a grandiose statement may sound like hyperbole, but that is only true if the series cannot back up such a claim. This one can. Moribito is, without question, one of the best-looking anime series of any type ever made. It is Production I.G’s visual masterpiece, complete with rich coloring, distinctive and beautifully-rendered character designs that even convincingly de-age characters (and my, wasn’t Balsa a cutie at younger ages!), gorgeous selections of background art, and even inventive critter designs when dealing with the Ra Runga, important birds, and other spirits from Nayug. The artistry consistently stays on model, never showing the flaws that most other series eventually do, and even integrates its occasional use of CG effects very smoothly, which is an important consideration given the presence of some massed troop movement scenes. Its animation is crisp and smoothly-flowing, including dynamic and fully-detailed fight scenes that, surprisingly, never take shortcuts. That Production I.G was able to create a movie-grade effort on a series budget is, frankly, astonishing.

Its fully orchestrated musical score is the only aspect of the series which is not brilliant, but even so it does its job very well. Scenes that are supposed to be intense never lack for intensity, and the deep, resonating beats suit the tone of the series well. Prominent towards the end is an insert song intended to represent a Yaku children’s song relevant to the plot, which provides a nice complement to critical late scenes.

Even the most impressive visuals and music would not matter much if the story and writing were not there, but that is another of Moribito’s strengths. This is a story with two distinct angles: one is the relationship that Balsa forms with Chagum and her motivations behind what she does, the other is the unraveling of a mystical puzzle whose true nature has been blurred by history. Both aspects can fascinate. Balsa’s stern but caring and devoted treatment of Chagum established her as a motherly figure for Chagum earlier in the series, a dynamic which continues to allow Chagum to grow as a person and gives him the strength to face the deadly trials that befall him late in the series. Moreso than before, certain key scenes give the impression that Balsa’s protection of Chagum is much more than just a job; it is a solemn commitment, the same kind that Jiguro made towards her when he took on the damning task of having to protect her during her childhood; as that two-episode arc plays out, the parallels between Balsa’s childhood situation and Chagum’s become increasingly clear, which also makes it absolutely clear why she took on this task in the first place and why she is reluctant to kill.

The mystical puzzle surrounding the Nyunga Ro Im never gets lost alongside that character development. As these episodes progress, the story deals with issues like history being falsified for political purposes and the way that vital old traditions can die out over time when one culture is absorbed into another. It also deals with how seemingly innocuous current traditions can provide vital clues to important events of the past. Too many series make these discoveries too easy; watching characters have to work for it, and figure things out on the fly based on past knowledge, is a treat.

Just as important as the mysteries being sorted out here and the relationships being built is the intelligence on display. Unlike so many other fantasy stories out there (or anime series in general, for that matter), these characters actually think things out and carefully strategize rather than just jumping into rash action; the warriors’ assault on the mill early in this block of episodes is a perfect example of this. Sure, they sometimes act in ways that ultimately prove counterproductive, but that is nearly always from a lack of knowledge rather than recklessness. They are even willing to admit when mistakes have been made and change their viewpoints accordingly, which ultimately leaves no true villain in the story except the dreadful Ra Runga.

Bang Zoom! provided the English dub, and while it is not one of that institution’s finest efforts, it is good enough to minimize quality drop-off from the Japanese dub. Cindy Robinson handles both old Balsa and young Balsa’s emotional moments well and generally gives a convincing feeling of competence, experience, and motherly guidance to her role while still getting suitably intense when Balsa gets riled up. Barbara Goodson gives one of her career-best performances as crotchety old Torogai (and that’s saying a lot, given that she has one of the longest anime voicing careers of any active VA), while Mona Marshall impresses as Chagum and Steve Cannon is solid as Shuga. In fact, the only major role which is even questionable is Peter Doyle’s less-than-completely-smooth cadence as Touya. Secondary roles vary in performance quality but generally do not disappoint.

Media Blasters is one of the few companies that is not Viz Media still not only resolutely continuing to release series as singles, but doing so mostly with three-episode singles, a practice common in the first half of the decade but rarely-seen these days. Those with a bit of patience along the way could have picked up the Two-Pack sets, which bundle volumes 5-6 and 7-8, at the same time as the second volume in each pair and for a 30% reduction in price; in fact, if you are going back now and buying up the series, there is no point whatsoever in buying the singles instead of the Two-Packs unless you only happen to need one of those volumes. Sadly, none of the volumes offer any Extras.

Some may still complain about the pacing here, but now that the filler episodes have passed the story is too involving, and too many things are going on, for that criticism to have much legitimacy. Besides, those looking for a more dedicated action fantasy probably gave up many episodes earlier anyway. This is not a fantasy action series, but a true and full-blooded fantasy series at its finest. It even does a superb job of taking the more bare-bones original novel by Nahoko Uehashi and expanding it by enriching the characterizations and more thoroughly exploring the setting. Some details do get changed along the way – Chagum’s relationship with his brother Sagum is entirely different in the book, for instance, and there was only one Ra Runga – but no one who read the book is likely to complain about how director Kenji Kamiyama handled things here. The end result makes this one of the decade’s highlight anime series.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Top-of-the-line series artistry, animation, and storytelling, improves on source material.
− No Extras.

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About animemidwesterner

I started watching in 2010. After the cruel and unusual treatment I received via silence from my conventional American culture journal(s), I decided upon an anime Japanese approach to meet new people and have otakus comment. I can finally emulate pursuit of happiness in some fashion. Pursuit of happiness wasn't happening in dead silence. myanimelist.net/profile/renegadeviking
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