Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit Review

Though trapped between the genres of a character-focussed slice of life drama and supernatural action series, Seirei no Moribito nonetheless adapts Nahoko Uehashi’s work with stunning production values and tight direction, a potent emotional core and constant intrigue and development that transcends its often slow pacing.

Plot synopsis: Believing that Chagum, the prince, is housing a demon inside of him, the royal family have ordered his execution. However, the queen does not wish for her child to die, and enlists Balsa, a mysterious and powerful body guard, to protect her son. Together, they must discover the nature of the spiritual entity residing inside him as their fates become intertwined.

Seirei no Moribito‘s immersive world and intriguing characters present themselves right off the bat through natural dialogue and immediately high stakes as Balsa, a powerful spear woman, is given Chagum by the queen who is aware of the presence of a stirring force inside of him and the royal familiy’s plans to neutralise it, even if it means killing him. The action and mystery start early, with the elite guard, many of whom have their own personal agendas, setting of in pursuit of Balsa and the prince to save their kingdom. Along this perilous expedition, Chagum and Balsa are strongly characterised and the nature of the series as one lacking a true villain becomes slowly more apparent, with each character having their own justifiable stances and carrying out actions accordingly. In between political intrigue and heart pounding action amid a world of rich and wild beauty where the royal and poor co-exist peacefully, the foundational relationships and characteristics of key supporting characters like Balsa’s good friends, Tanda and Torogai, are established with sharp efficiency and grace, entering the plot naturally and becoming an integral part of it from then onwards. The first third of Moribito is very much a dense, brisk and exciting journey that never forgets it’s humanity or emotional core.

However, but the end of the first third, the action has more or less completely dried up, all urgency has been dispelled and the characters are going about their daily lives as they would in a series closer to Spice & Wolf or even Snow White with Red Hair. Like those series, the characters still face dilemmas, and the overbearing threat of the egg inside Chagum’s stomache is always present, but the focus is more on Chagum’s growth as an individual than the overcoming of evil. His naivety and sheltered life are gradually made less important to him as his wits and kindness allow him to at first survive, and eventually thrive, among the villagers. Though he is the one who developed the most, as a young man thrust out into circumstances different from anything he’d previously faced, Touya and Saya serve as great foil for him and they themselves undergo change, exhibited by potent characters moments later in the series. The threat of the egg still looms, and Shuga is doing everything in his power to investigate the drought, and the elite warriors who initially tried to kill Chagum also make an appearance, allowing the series to not only keep a rounded cast, but even flesh out its multiple points of view and create a nuanced conflict of interests between several parties, all with good intentions.

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Balsa, Tanda and Torogai are each given their episodes to shine in their own unique way. The allusions to Balsa’s past and her outstanding action sequences solidify her as one of anime’s strongest adult woman (in more than one sense of the word) and the stone thrower even adds a bit more texture to the world. Tanda is a cleverly gender bent “husband figure” to Balsa, engaging in more feminine, spiritual activities that require calmness of heart and mind, and are every bit as challenging as Balsa’s physical feats. Torogai’s escapades are the most comical, and least relevant, to the overarching narrative, but they do show off the more whimsical, supernatural side of the world of Moribito.

Despite having so many players in the field, the climax of Moribito comes more cleanly than one would expect. Shady, cryptic military operations and signalling is done by both the royal elite and Balsa’s clan, and the emotional stakes are ramped up as the nature of the egg inside Chagum is revealed. The character drama is weightier, trust and courage are put to the test and every pawn has their part to play. Though not as viscerally harrowing as the first third, the action in the final stretch is as soulfully damaging as it is physically. Balsa’s past is revealed, leaving her rife for a spin off (that will probably never be animated, unfortunately) and both Shuga and Tanda, though lacking in the areas of physicality that their assistants excel in, provide the spiritual and observational insight that is just as pivotal to saving the realm as Balsa or the elites’ skills with a blade. The ending isn’t a contrived happily ever after, however; after all, given everything that Balsa and the kingdom have undergone, the story leaves everyone still having much to do, such that both Chagum and Balsa could easily have a story devoted to them (and in novel form, they do). Calling the ending bitter sweet doesn’t quite do it justice, but it certainly isn’t a sappy “happily ever after” that attempts to win over the audience with forced sentimentality. Like every other part of the narrative, Moribito‘s finale is natural.

seirei-no-moribitoThe visual presentation of Moribito is outstanding on so many levels. Many who have not seen the series may have heard of the incredible precision and attention to detail in movements and reactions during its (admittedly few) action sequences, and for good reason. The choreography allows the viewer to easily determine where the characters are in respect to each other at any time, even in moments of high intensity, and the attacks have a palpable sense of weight to them thanks in large part to their short length (never exceeding three minutes) and tight editing. The fights are deceptively complex, and multiple viewings of them may be needed to catch fine details, like how a character may attempt to stab someone, miss, then adjust their body so that their established momentum can deliver a devastating knee to the groin. The fights of course cannot match the scope of director Kamiyama’s other outstanding Production IG series, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but it may exceed them in terms of attention to detail and precision. The only other anime that shows armed combat sequence craftsmanship like this is Sword of the Stranger, which has the advantage of an R rating (Moribito is only PG-13 and near bloodless), though it is a testament to the quality of Moribito’s fight direction and production values that even a decade since release, it still stands high above nearly all TV anime in this regard.

What propels it close to the level of a visual masterpiece, however, is the subtle character acting and editing in the more conversational and emotional scenes. It’s common for action oriented series to have noticeably diminished production values outside of the grand set pieces, but Moribito provides detailed character art and lush, lively locations from beginning to end. With its high points in animation of course come dips, though they are few and well placed, instead of having a few glorious first episodes and then burning out. Characters are depicted in different moods and at different stages of maturity, most notably Balsa and Chagum, and the facial features change to reflect this. Chagum’s softness, youthful hesitance to leave his family despite knowing that if he doesn’t, he will die, is presented with nuance and authenticity, making it easier for the audience to sympathise with him despite willing him to grow as a character. When he eventually does grow, he looks and acts differently, instead of regressing back to his former self and resetting his dynamics for the sake of consistency. Balsa’s growth is depicted similarly, though in much broader strokes due to its shorter running time, as her strong belief against killing is expressed more as a reaction to past horrific incidents than an easy method of making her an obvious “good guy”. She’s every inch the warrior, aggressive in battle and not afraid of fighting dirty and inflicting serious injuries, though through her supervision of Chagum, she is also given an opportunity to express her motherly nature and no nonsense attitude.

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The witch, Torogai, has a face lined with experience and wisdom, Tanda’s gentle face is often quietly concerned, Shuga’s contemplative and deliberate mannerisms make him a convincing schemer and even some of the elite assassins are given memorable designs. Much of the scenery is also to die for, notable for having harsh, jagged edges that lend it a wild beauty that contrasts brighter fantasy worlds, like Akagami no Shirayuki-hime, while fitting the gruff, yet beautiful world of Moribito just as well. The castles, rendered mostly in CGI, don’t quite gel with the rest of the anime, however their near utopian cleanness does provide a strong contrast to the surrounding world. Like the other Sengoku period-like Production IG series Sengoku Basara, the CG characters are relegated to he background, barely noticeable, while still giving a sense of population density and activity. There are many other little touches that make the world of Moribito pop, like the detailed weaponry, library and various locations that even the occasional odd piece of technology (flame throwers definitely didn’t exist 500 years ago) doesn’t break immersion.

Kenji Kawai, known for his work on the famous and influential 1995 Ghost in the Shell and the hauntingly overbearing Death Note, asserts his status as one of the most diverse, and distinctive, anime music composers. Here, instead of opting for character themes, his tracks are tailored to fit the tone and setting of each scene. Fast and wild in action scenes, matching the on-screen action so well it would not be unbelievable if the scenes were designed with the soundtrack in mind, it allows threatening situations to feel legitimately dangerous. The calmer tracks are mellow and have more than a hint of kindness to them, but they have a sharpness that well keep audiences awake, but even when there is no immediate danger, circumstances like Shuga investigating the water levels to see if a drought is occurring feel more forbidding than they would have been without Kawai’s score. It’s a truly outstanding OST, however it does feel a tad repetitive, as though it was composed for a tighter 13 episode anime that was lengthened after he’d finished composing. Nonetheless, greatness spread a little too thin is better than mediocrity in abundance.

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The OP is quite the visual feast, showing of the world of Moribito in splendid detail and providing more than a few thoughtful visual metaphors that become more apparent in meaning towards the end of the series. The shot of Balsa riding a galloping horse with Chagum at her back is the real money shot, as the rest of the opening is pretty standard fare (displaying characters, indicating relationships etc.). The song, “SHINE” by L’Arc~en~Ciel, has the uplifting, optimistic and kind tone befitting of the second third of the series most of all, and is a strong song both on its own and in compliment to the visuals. There are a few hiccups, as L’Arc~en~Ciel clearly isn’t the must proficient at singing in English, though this lends the OP more charm than it does distract from anything. The ED, “Itoshii Hito e” by Sachi Tainaka, is very simple, yet effective, in terms of visual presentation, simply showing the prince’s face filled with different emotions, then panning out to show the grass, sky and mountains, indicating the influence of his actions on the world. The song is an absolute joy, Tainaka’s beautiful voice hitting every note with the sharpness and emotion fitting of the intimate lyrics of gratitude and inexpressive affection.

Both the English and Japanese casts largely do the characters justice. The Japanese cast is something of an oddity in that many of the major characters were voiced by unknowns or those with little experience. Chagum was played by Naoto Adachi, who was 13 years old at the time, who gave a performance that was very convincing largely because of it’s raw emotion and rocky edges; lines are not delivered with the smoothness of an adult woman playing a child, but rather a vulnerable and weak player in this world who’s youth and inexperience leave him at the mercy of others’ decisions. Consequently, Chagum’s English voice actress, Mona Marshall, just isn’t able to give of the sincere youthful innocence and feelings of worthlessness as effectively. It isn’t bad by any means, but it doesn’t quite breach the gap between a good performance and a great one. Manuka Andou, the voice of Balsa, was also inexperienced at the time, as her only major voice acting role preceding was in Mujin Wakusei Survive. As a result, she doesn’t sound like a conventional anime girl, but rather a convincing hardened warrior shaken through a life of fighting, death and guilt. The rest of the English cast serve their roles well, and regardless of the language in which it is experienced, Seirei no Moribito is an absolute must see series that never received the wide acclaim that it deserved.

Overall: A-

Story: B+

Characters: A-

Visuals: A-

Sound: B+

Seirei no Moribito is not available for streaming in Australia, and I am unaware of anywhere it may be legally seen.

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