I tend to be more impressed by a show that accomplishes a lot with a little than I am by a show that attempts to accomplish a lot with a lot. It's not that I dislike the glorious excess of Gurren Lagann or Giant Robo — those are two of my all-time favorite titles, for those keeping score — but that not every story benefits from such an amping-up. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit has a wide-ranging plot and a teeming cast of characters, but what makes it most impressive is how much restraint and discipline has been brought to the storytelling, how it stubbornly resists the urge to go over the top and cater to an audience's worst impulses, how its heroes are actually heroic, and how all that has been deployed with the technical excellence it deserves.
Moribito adapts, with some expansion and modification, the first in a series of young-adult novels written in Japan — twelve volumes and counting, of which two have since shown up in English courtesy of Scholastic. It has been treated better by its licensors than it has by audiences. An earlier DVD and Blu-ray pressing, courtesy of Media Blasters, is now deleted, and an airing of the show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block was so haphazard and ill-timed it might as well have not aired at all. Now VIZ has elected to distribute it domestically, and maybe their marketing muscle will ensure a show this genuinely good isn't received with such inexplicable indifference by Western audiences.
Save the heir; save the world
Anime loves to mine Japan's own past as fodder for fantasy. Moribito works roughly in that vein, but by way of analogy and allusion rather than straight-up retelling. The world it depicts is a loose amalgam of multiple Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, Tibet — and it pays meticulous attention to how life might be lived in such a setting. Small wonder the author of the original novels, Nahoko Uehashi, is a professor of ethnology; her doctorate analyzed an indigenous Australian tribe, and the way native wisdom and civilized certainty come into conflict is a core theme for this story.
Into the land of Shin-Yogo (roughly, Japan) and out of her own native land (roughly, Tibet) comes Balsa, a bodyguard for hire. With her spear slung across her shoulder and her muscles hardened by battle, she's a type seen at least as much in noir as in fantasy: a loner with a code she not so much adheres to as embodies reflexively. When a royal procession goes horribly awry and the crown prince of the land, Chagum, falls into a river and almost drowns, she throws herself into action and saves his life. To hell with all that folderol about how commoners are forbidden to look upon the prince, let alone lay hands on him. It's not the first time she will defy the order of things for the sake of a higher standard (even if that standard is only her own).
For her bravery she's rewarded with a night's stay in the palace, a meal almost too massive and succulent to eat, and a bed to sleep in that's bigger than the house she grew up in. But there's no sleep for her, as the empress brings Chagum to her in the dead of night and begs Balsa to take him far away. That was no accident that almost claimed the boy's life; that was an assassination attempt, and only the latest in a whole succession of them. The boy has become the custodian of a strange power, one others will kill to control, and Balsa's mission — should she choose to accept it — is to carry Chagum to safety, wherever safety might be found in this world. She accepts that mission, but on her terms, and not theirs.
One of the pleasures of a smartly written show is when it demonstrates, rather than explains, how intelligent its own characters are. Balsa is no fool and isn't about to become anyone else's fool, which is why at first everything about this mission smells wrong. Why would they reward her with currency out of the crown's own coffers, money that would draw the attention of all the wrong people the minute it was spent? But the empress isn't malicious, just unschooled in how to handle something of this magnitude, and the fact that Balsa is so canny and worldly is their salvation. And Balsa is determined to make sure the boy survives, if only because he represents for her the fulfillment of a vow she once took: to save eight lives, as repayment for eight lives taken.
Life as the crown prince has left Chagum ill-equipped to deal with anything outside the walls of the castle. Everything about him betrays his royal origins: his demeanor, his language, his unfamiliarity with the natural world or with the facts of everyday peasant life. He barely even recognizes hunger when he feels it, so punctually has he been fed. He has also missed out on a great many simple pleasures: at one point when he's too exhausted to walk, Balsa offers to carries him on his back — something he's never had done for him, not even by a wet nurse. The boy has lacked for everything but a childhood, and perhaps also for actual parents. The adventure he undertakes will toughen him up, but also provide him with a kind of intimacy he has not had, and one he deserved to have.
History is what you can get away with
Balsa wastes no time leveraging all the connections she's made in her travels. Tanda, a healer in the countryside — and the closest thing Balsa has ever had to an intimate — helps them disguise the boy as just another peasant's son. Two orphan children, Tōya and Saya, help them assemble supplies and conceal the stash of royal money Balsa is reluctant to spend (but just as reluctant to dispose of). They look up to Balsa as a big sister, and she seems only too happy to assume the role, even as she knows full well a day may come when it will no longer be possible for her to do so.
That day almost comes swiftly — and violently — when a gang of expert trackers and assassins from the capitol come gunning for Balsa's head and almost kill her. It's now Chagum's turn to save her by finding Tanda, the whole incident being one of what prove to be a succession of events over the course of the show that bind Chagum and Balsa all the more tightly to each other. They both know they can fulfill the roles of mother and son, and as events unfold they are offered all the more reason to do exactly that — even when it might ultimately do them more harm than good.
Only after Chagum comes under the inspection of Torogai, a grumbling crone of a magic-weaver (amusingly reminiscent of a grouchier Yubaba, from Spirited Away), does the truth about the strange spirit harbored by the boy come to light. It's the egg of the water spirit, something that once hatched will bring water back to the land, as per the mythology passed down from mouth to mouth. It doesn't hurt either that Torogai can delve into the world where these spirits dwell and speak to them. But the official mythology developed by the state tells a different story: the spirit is a demon that must be slain, in recapitulation of the nation's own creation myth, one where a great hero tames a great villain.
That story is also familiar to Shuga, the master star reader for the throne — a white-haired prodigy who has never had reason to doubt the official version of anything. But as he delves into the archives and retrieves one piece of evidence after another about the nature of the water spirit, his doubts mount — not only about the official story, but about the nature of his own complicity with it, and about whether or not the prince is even dead. Unfortunately, Chagum may not have long to live, as one of the conditions foretold in the legends about the birth of the egg is that it requires the death of the prince in return.
The first thing worth clarifying about Moribito is the tone and flavor of the series, because I suspect at least part of its lack of uptake with audiences stems from it being advertised, wrongly, as non-stop martial arts mayhem. For a story about a literal freelancer, there's relatively little of the wuxia/chanbara-style action one would expect. Yet when it does come, it comes in bursts that are not only beautifully animated and choreographed, but plugged directly into the story in ways that matter. There is no gratuitous showmanship of violence in Moribito, something that ties back into its own heroine's character: she's heroic because she does the right thing and sticks to her ethics (the more about which we find, the prouder we become of her), and not merely because she can beat any comers. She, like the show itself, has not been pumped up with artificial plot heroics or braggadocio storytelling.
I suspect this directness and sincerity of both story and character is part of why I think of Balsa as one of anime's truly feminist heroines. She is not great merely because she's female, but because her greatness and her heroism allows all that is female about her to be seen as part of her entire character. When she takes Chagum under her wing, she steels herself to defend him from everything — including both his own cowardice and, perhaps, her own maternal instincts. In one of the show's saddest sequences, Chagum attempts to flee and return to the castle rather than die for the sake of the egg; Balsa offers him his freedom if he cuts her down with her own spear. He can't do it, of course, but the way he throws himself into something even that impossible moves her to not only train him to fight (something he would have never risen to before), but to relate her own backstory to him. Someone did all this for her once, too, and at the cost of the lives of eight men whose worst crimes were protecting an order they had sworn to defend with their lives anyway. She owes those dead men at least that much.
The fact that Moribito doesn't feel the need to pump all this up might, again, come off as being too leisurely. The timespan for the show — it takes place over a number of months — means that sometimes events have the urgency drained out of them, although there is never a moment when I felt the show did not know where it was going. And the climax, involving a kind of extradimensional monster horde that chases Chagum between worlds, while ingeniously conceived, plays out somewhat clunkily. It's the culmination of the show's weakest tendency, which is to have the wisdom of the ages incarnate in behaviors and mechanics that seem better suited to a console RPG. But in between and top of all that is a great deal that is exactly right.
The fantasy we want; the story we deserve
Most any show that impresses me deeply often does so only after it's over, and the conclusion I've described is part of how Moribito goes from interesting to good to great. It's not just that it's enjoyable to watch, although there's plenty of that: the sheer physical razzle-dazzle of watching Balsa in combat is made all the more exciting by the fact that it's not whipped out every episode as a leavener. It's also not just that it's smartly assembled and written, although it is that, too: look at the sequence where Chagum witnesses the local equivalent of a three-card monte hustle and turns the game against its own players. (We root for him even though we know he's only drawing unwanted attention to himself in the process.) The most impressive thing about Moribito is the way it makes us proud of the people we've been asked to follow — not just like them, not even just admire them, but feel grateful for what they have been able to achieve.
it's made all the more poignant by the show's conclusion (warning: spoilers). Order and peace are restored to the land, and Chagum has been restored to his throne and his family. But it has all come at the cost of the truth being buried in favor of a heroic myth — one designed to create a nation, but at the cost of having the real heroes salted away into anonymity. Then again, the very fact that they never sought out the limelight is what makes them heroic in the first place. The final episode even teases us, fleetingly, with the possibility that it will cave in and give us one of those impossible happy endings where the heroes all decide to defy authority and run off together for more adventures. But it doesn't happen. The show knows better than to lie to us or flatter us, and it's rare to see that kind of wisdom in a show that nominally wears the fantasy-adventure label — the very place where such resigned realism is typically left out.
If the cost of that approach is a show that's a little too reined-in, dialed-down, and sobered-up for some, it's not like we have any shortage of shows willing to cater to our ids. Variety in anime shouldn't just mean sixteen different flavors of whacked-out or amped-up, and Moribito is Exhibit A for any defense of anime as an intelligent, thoughtful, and artful medium, something I expected from much of the same creative team behind Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. And if none of that constitutes a selling point, then perhaps this will: it's a grand adventure by most any standards you could choose, high or low.