English Dolby Digital 5.1
Japanese 2.0 Stereo
At a time when the balance of nature still held the civilizations of mankind in thrall, a single drought could spell the end of a society and doom its inhabitants to piteous deaths. Prince Chagum has been imbued with the power to stave off the drought and bring new life to his empire. However, this is a suspicious time, and he is accused of possession by an evil spirit.
Court advisors only see one solution. Chagum must be put to death by his own father's hand. His salvation is in the form of Balsa, a spear woman and mercenary from Kanbal, the kingdom across the mountains. Her skills are legendary, and although reluctant, she is held by a mysterious vow to save eight souls before she dies. Can she fend off an entire empire and make Chagum her eighth soul?
I love me a good old fantasy and swordplay story. I mean, who doesn't? Other than International Communists and we all know what they think. But that aside, having been given Moribito to review, I was looking forward to it. But then the post office lost my copies of it, so I moved on to other reviews. But then lo and behold, the discs turned back up. So, I got stuck in. Put simply, set in a kind of imagined feudal Japan, Balsa, a bodyguard for hire, is asked by the Second Empress to protect her son, Chagum the Prince of the Yago Empire, from his own father the Mikado (Emperor) as the court believes that Chagum has become possessed by a water spirit. This water spirit has something to do with the original spirit that was slain by the Mikado's ancestor. So, Balsa with the help of her friends Tanda the herbalist and Toya and Saya, two orphans who Balsa saved once, she attempts to evade the Emperors men and keep Chagum alive.
The main draw for this series was Kenji Kamiyama. Having written, produced, directed or worked on Roujin Z, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (a work I feel is superior to the original film), Blood the Last Vampire and Eden of the East (which I'm up next to review), Kamiyama is fast becoming a director who I associate with good writing, great pacing and even better all round product. Moribito is another project that fits that bill.
First up, the setting is unusual but not uncommon. Alternate Japan stories are replete in the annals of anime production. But this has a lovely East Asian feel to it with wonderful places like Kanbal, Yago and Rota, to hear about, explore or visit. The people of this land are refined, rustic, austere and common. They have a rounded feel to me, as if they've always been here. I like this kind of world building. In some anime the world stops at the end of the characters houses. But Moribito is different, with common folk having wedding rings on their fingers, court astrologers having complex keys for access to the private vaults and the kings of Yago's past having statues that look more Polynesian than Buddhist or Shinto. These little things don't amount to anything really but they make the series have a rewatch factor that goes beyond mere set dressing.
Another thing that intrigued me about the title was the main character, Balsa, who presents an old archetype, long dead. The female fighter trope has been around forever but it usually falls into the "she can take care herself but a strong male character will eventually stop her in her tracks and make her want to settle down and have kids and bake bread" view of things. For the record, I've nothing against homemaker or wandering adventurers. I just don't think they always have to turn from being the latter into the former. But a few examples of strong female adventurer types survive. Valeria from John Milius' Conan The Barbarian, Princess Leia and Queen Esmeraldas. Yes, I know they don't strictly first the bill but they didn't shy away from their origins after finding or losing their loves. However the main character of Moribito still maintains a warriors ethic. It's the way she's lived so far and it's what's kept her alive. I have another reason for liking Balsa. In the Anime she's aged 30. Now I think it might a combination of both the fact that I'm fed up with most heroes/heroines in anime are perennially 17 and also that I'm 30 in a few months. Being the age she is, Balsa has seen a lot of life and strife. This informs her of the battles she must face and the ones she must walk away from. She knows how treat people as equals and not see social status. She knows where to get by with a kind word and where to get by with a kind word and a weapon. In an era when female characters in anime are two parts Olive Oil, one part Lois Lane, Balsa doesn't need help from anyone. But her character is organic enough to accept help from those around her.
The relationship between Balsa and her young charge, Chagum, changes over the course of these 13 episodes, evolving from simple bodyguard duties to looking upon him in the same way that Balsa's guardian Jiguro did for her. At times, they are mother and son and at others older sister and younger brother. Chagum to his credit must make massive changes in his life going from royalty that the common folk cannot even look in the eye as a matter of protocol to chopping wood in a rice granary. His most drastic change is where his hair ,which as a royal was shoulder length, gets cut. This breaks any physical connection with his old life. But when the water spirit starts to openly manifest itself in full view of people as a glowing sphere within his chest, the change within Chagum is one that I don't know or can even guess where it will end.
Add to this the palace intrigue as the court tries to readjust to the (perceived) loss of Chagum. His father feels the loss of his son even though he knows he ordered his death for the right reasons as he sees them. His chief advisor, the Master Star Reader also finds himself at odds with having to go along with this course of action simply to preserve the state. Chagum's mother, for her part in helping the prince escape, is sent to the inner palace where she is attended only by her most closet servants. I understand her pain at having to send her son away to protect him. Her only visitor so far has been Chagum's teacher, Shuga, also the master star diviner. Shuga feels personally responsible for the death of Chagum as he was asked by the The Second Empress to find the source of the young prince Chagum's strange behaviour. He reported his findings to his superior the Master Star Reader only for the Master to report this to the Mikado. So now, Shuga finds himself at odds over the sacrifice the Prince made coupled with the fact that the sign of drought has not faded from the star charts. Sagum, Chagum's brother (presumably Sagum's mother is the First Empress), also finds it difficult to let go of Chagum 's memory, all the while keeping things together as the Prince.
The show also deals with the lines between the real world and the spirit world. Torogi, Tanda's teacher, a wily old lady who is more wizard than herbalist, travels through the land trying to find answers to what I think is unrest within the spirit world. She appears once or twice in the series so far, and isn't slow to give take on matters. Something is going on with the land and the water spirit egg that resides within Chagum is the key to it all. Torogi and Tanda have episodes where we get fleeting glimpses into this world and I wish to see more of this plot thread come to the fore.
Character designs by Gatou Asou are really good, running from Toya's endearing big front teeth to the opulence of the Royal courtiers. Balsa herself is designed in a sort of curvaceous but spartan way. She definitely looks like a woman but there's nothing overblown about her design. But Tanda and Chagum have broad, plain features but their eyes have good focus and empathy in them. The Royal court is different from the common folk designs. The Mikado is regal, austere but in his mannerisms he is shown to be reflective. The second Empress and Sagum have good points but Sagum looks too much like Chagum and vice versa. But when Chagum cuts his hair, this confusion is resolved. The court officials all seem to have these huge puffy cloaks that hid all features. I hope that we get to see of these characters in their down time. As I said previously, the local people all have different designs and you'd never confuse any of them.
Music is another good and bad point. Oshii stalwart, Kenji Kawai shows up with a sparingly quiet soundtrack but action scenes all have energy and gravitas. The quiet moments remind me of the original Ghost in The Shell. But...while "Itoshii Hito e" by Sachi Tainaka is good, the opening by L'arc En Ciel kind of rubs me the wrong way. Don't get me wrong, I like J-Pop but Hyde and his buddies with their opening verse in English then the rest in Japanese always leaves me scratching my head. If you're going to sing the title song in English, do that. If it's in Japanese, great. Mixing them together makes me feel like you know you'll be singing this at Otakon and I don't think that's necessary.
Animation is good with some shots looking a little rushed but nothing drastic. The sword fighting scenes and hand to hand are the main draw, animation wise. They are fluid, paced and judicious in their appearance. We know from the first time Balsa faces the Emperor's men, she can take them all on. One thing, I'd like to know what the script is on the right hand side of the intertitle. While the water spirits egg glows, a block of Hiragana appears beside it. Does anyone know what it says? I would really like to know.
I liked the show so much I want to dedicate equal time to both language tracks. Excuse the length of the following three paragraphs.
Voice acting is good. Cindy Robinson as Balsa gives a good performance having to juggle being tough as hell with being a big sister to Toya, Saya and Chagum. But Mona Marshall as Chagum is a nice fit and she plays him with a level take without him being whiny. Though, because of Ms. Marshall's past association with Digimon, I keep waiting for Chagum to say "Prodigious!" Peter Doyle is a nice Tanda and he and Robinson's Balsa are good with each other and hint at their relationship growing and the affection and regard they have for each other.
Yuri Lowenthal and Erika Weinstein give good articulation to Toya and Saya and they make the most of their parts, as does Steve Stately as Shuga. Steve Kramer has a deep voice befitting the Master Star Reader. Tara Platter gives a strange reading of Chagum's mother being both earnest and disconnected. The scene where she seems disconnected is the one where she talks about having mothers hands and after listening to the Japanese track, I can't figure out if this was a deliberate reading of the line. Special mention of Johnny Yong Bosch's role as Sagum. I don't understand what's so great about this guy. All of the Royal Court have a very measured performance in line with being regal but Bosch as Sagum puts me sleep. Well, two for two with Johnny for me. He didn't do anything as Ichigo in Bleach and he's not doing anything here either. In fact, if not for Bosch, I'd not have noticed that this was done by Bang Zoom led by P. Sherman of 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.
Mabuki Andou does a great job as Balsa and she doesn't come across as butch playing the spear wielder. Now granted I don't know what a butch Japanese woman sounds like, I have seen Project A-Ko's Mari so I have some kind of benchmark. Naoto Adachi gives a very honest reading of Chagum and he always comes across as a boy trying to understand why the sand keeps shifting under his feet. Kouji Tsujitani is great as Tanda and his scenes tending to Balsa when she's completely vulnerable and injured are warm and concerned and are reflected in a later scene where the roles are reversed. Tanda is a man sure of everything except his inner path in both his head and heart and Tsujitani pulls it off. Mayumi Asano as Touya and Ryou Hirohashi as Saya have fun playing the two street kids and their playfulness rubs off against the serious but easy going nature of Balsa. Hirofumi Nojima's Shuga is quiet and apprehensive. Considering what later episodes hint at, that might be a good thing. As with the English cast, the Japanese cast seem to grasp this is not a kid's show with a bunch of teenage characters to not care about.
All in all, this is a fantastic series. I love the world it shows and want to learn more. I find the dichotomy of the Royal Court wanting to do the right thing but knowing that caught between being monstrous and saving the kingdom, they choose to be monstrous to Chagum. And yet, both he, his mother and Balsa understand the Emperor's reasoning for all this. It's a fascinating approach and I hope Kamiyama can sustain this. The show itself holds its own for the most part and toward the end of its single digit episode count takes on a power and approach that hints of deeper waters to come. I'm impressed by the maturity of the work and noticed that there are moments of tranquillity and stillness in some of the shots and scenes that go beyond the medium and start to approach the elusive plateau of pure film. Where the function of the show is reflected in it's form and the form starts to take on it's own shape. I don't know how else to describe how I feel when I watch this.
Moribito seems to have been passed up by the fans despite getting a good dub, airtime on Adult Swim and a DVD and Blu Ray release in the US. Now would be a good time to pick this up. You will, hopefully, get the same enjoyment out of it that I did.
The book that the series is based upon is available in English and is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK.