Sunday, April 4, 2010

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit - Complete Collection (anime TV series)

(I said I'd publish this post sometime this weekend, and now I have. Two posts in one week - and this one is very long, as I said it would be. If you haven't seen this show, skip the synopsis. I can't promise that the commentary won't spoil things for you, but at least you won't get a description of all the main events in the series.)

In a previous post, I mentioned that I got my copy of this series from Walmart - it's missing the production art booklet that the back of the box says it's supposed to have, and I never got around to trying to contact Anime Works about it (I'm not even sure how to contact them, since there appears to be no contact form, number, or address on the Media Blasters website...). It's too bad, because I imagine the production art is gorgeous.

My first exposure to this show was via Adultswim - I watched the first 3 or 4 episodes and then gave up, because I kept falling asleep during it. Granted, I had to stay up pretty late to see any of the shows I wanted to see on Adultswim (I remember one show that was on at 4 in the morning), but I even had trouble with this show during my first viewing of the DVDs.

Notice how I said "first viewing"? I've now watched the entire show twice, and the final DVD at least 5 times. I think part of my initial problems with this show stemmed from an assumption (Maybe based on Moribito commercials shown on Adultswim? Not sure...) that this was going to be a fast-paced, action-oriented show. Although it has some fairly awesome action and isn't as slow-paced as some shows, it turns out I was expecting it to be something it's not - and, once I got past my original expectations, I really liked this show.

Well, if I'm not careful, I'll start writing everything I wanted to say in the commentary. So, on to the synopsis...

Synopsis:

Balsa, a female bodyguard, returns to the city she left two years previously. All she wants is to see some old friends and get her spear fixed, but, after saving young Prince Chagum from drowning, she finds herself quickly caught up in court politics. It seems that Prince Chagum has been possessed by what is believed to be a water demon, and, in order to prevent the drought the water demon will cause, Chagum's father, the Mikado, had ordered him to be killed. So far, all attempts to kill Chagum, including the most recent near-drowning incident, have failed. Chagum's mother asks Balsa to take Chagum away and protect him for the rest of his life. It means Balsa may be on the run for the rest of her own life, and she almost refuses, but, in the end, she accepts the job. She has sworn an oath to save as many lives as were taken to protect her when she was a child: Chagum will be her eighth and final life.

In order to protect Chagum, Balsa must evade everyone the Mikado sends after her, including eight skilled hunters. Luckily, she has several friends she can count on: Toya and Saya, two orphan children Balsa saved from being sold as slaves, Tanda, a healer Balsa has known since they were both children, and Torogai, an elderly magic weaver. They help her teach Chagum how to blend in and act more like a commoner, and they help her figure out what's inside Chagum and how to deal with it.

It turns out it's a good thing Balsa prevented the Mikado and his eight hunters from killing Chagum, because the being inside Chagum isn't a water demon at all, but rather a being that, once hatched, makes the clouds that provide the land with rain. Once the people at the palace discover their error and learn that Chagum is still alive, they try to find him and get him back, but Balsa refuses to give him up - she, Torogai, and Tanda have learned something that the people at the palace don't know, that, when it's time for the egg to hatch, a being from Nayug (sort of a spirit world that exists symbiotically with Sagu, the world in which humans live) will come and rip Chagum apart. This appears to be the only way the being inside Chagum can be born, but, again, Balsa isn't just going to stand there and let Chagum die. By this point in the show, Chagum is more than just her eighth life, he's almost like her son.

When winter comes, Balsa, Chagum, and Tanda live together almost like two parents and their child. Chagum, who, after learning of his older brother Sagum's death, had begun to chafe at being in Balsa's care and away from his mother, finally learns about Balsa's childhood. When she was only 6 years old, Balsa had to flee her home country of Kanbal. The eight men sent to kill her were all friends and comrades of Jiguro, the man who, for reasons unknown to Balsa, had agreed to leave behind the good life he'd had in Kanbal in order to protect her. Jiguro taught Balsa to wield a spear, so that she could protect herself, and, at great personal cost, he eventually killed all eight men who were after her. Even though Jiguro tells Balsa to forget it, Balsa can't help but feel a great debt toward him. Jiguro has long since died, but Balsa still seeks to atone for the lives he was forced to take for her sake.

Chagum sees the similarities between his current situation and what Balsa and Jiguro went through, and, in fact, protecting Chagum has led Balsa to new realizations about Jiguro. Unfortunately, the peaceful family existence between Chagum, Balsa, and Tanda can't last forever - Spring is coming. Chagum finds himself drawn to a place everyone believes is the location where the egg will hatch.

By this point, the people from the palace (the eight warriors and Shuga, a star reader) have decided to work together with Balsa, Torogai, and Tanda, because they all want the same thing, for Chagum to survive. Shuga has learned that the monster that will attack Chagum is vulnerable to fire - unfortunately, the monster is also invisible and impossible to touch until it's almost too late. When the egg takes Chagum over and makes him run away, everyone assumes that Chagum is only trying to evade the monster until morning, when it's time for the egg to hatch. However, what the egg really had Chagum do was attract the monster - the true hatching place is elsewhere, and it's still necessary for the monster to rip Chagum apart in order for the egg to hatch.

After they learn how to interact with Nayug so that they can see and fight the monsters, the eight warriors and Balsa find themselves fighting a seemingly unending sea of monsters. Chagum, in pain and afraid the egg will die, wants them to just let the monsters get to him, but Balsa won't let that happen. In the end, Tanda arrives, having learned a spell from Torogai that allows him and Balsa to safely remove the egg from Chagum's body. The egg is carried away by a bird, and that's that.

Rather than getting to live the rest of his life with Tanda and Balsa, Chagum must now go back to the palace and become the new crown prince, since his brother has died. So as to preserve the country's mythology for the present and the future, Chagum must pretend that he alone is the hero who allowed the spirit within him to be born, even though he knows he wouldn't have survived without Balsa's help. Although he wants nothing more than to run away with Balsa, Chagum has grown up and knows what his duty is.

Commentary:

I can't wait to read the book this anime is based on, although my past experience with English translations of Japanese novels has not been good. I imagine I'll like the additional details the book will provide me with but, in the end, I'll probably prefer the anime to the book.

I was very pleased with how the subtitles were done for this show - a good thing, since the dubbing was less than stellar. First, I thought some of the casting decisions were very bad. Mona Marshall as Chagum was one of my least favorite, since something about her voice made Chagum seem more whiny than royal, and I hated Peter Doyle as Tanda because his voice came across to me as slightly dorky, rather than nice-guy-next-door sexy like Kouji Tsujitani's voice. Second, I think the dub translation lost some of the emotional impact, particularly the parent-child connection between Balsa and Chagum. Third, maybe it was just my DVDs, but there were some parts where the English dub was just plain awful, production-wise. During the bit where two of the eight warriors are visiting the swordsmith, a few of the English dub lines are almost impossible to hear, and there's a slight echoing quality to the swordsmith's voice. There are no such problems with the Japanese language track. As a result, I have only watched portions of this show in English - my two complete viewings of this show were both in Japanese. The subtitling is usually so good, though, that it was easy for me to forget I was reading off a screen.

During my first viewing of this show, for the first 9 episodes or so, I had the terrible feeling that I had wasted my money. I had hoped that my memories of this show being boring were the result of sleepy early morning viewing - I forget what time Adultswim showed this, but I think it was after all the other stuff I planned to see, so it was probably pretty late/early in the morning. Although there are some exciting scenes at the beginning of the series (Balsa saving Chagum from drowning, Balsa fighting the eight warriors), I just couldn't seem to stay interested.

Then came episode 10. In that episode, Balsa asks Toya, the orphan boy she saved, to show Chagum how to act more like the other boys in town. As part of the experience, Toya shows Chagum a gambling game, which Chagum quickly figures out is fixed. Using a combination of observation, intelligence, and guts, Chagum proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the game is fixed and manages to win back everyone's money. Maybe it's my love of shonen anime like Hikaru no Go and Naruto, but this episode really struck a chord with me. Suddenly, Chagum was no longer a slightly blah character who must constantly be protected by others, but rather a character who could believably one day become someone who could take care of himself, and I wanted to watch him grow. Once I began to like Chagum, I also began to like watching Chagum, Balsa, and Tanda become a little family, and I liked getting to see the hints of romance between Tanda and Balsa (romance fans, don't hope for too much, or you'll be sorely disappointed).

The main storyline is about Chagum and the egg, so, in my first viewing of the show, it felt like there was a lot of filler. It wasn't until I watched the show a second time that I realized that even the episodes that felt like filler contained information that laid the groundwork for later events and details. For instance, in one episode, Saya's soul ends up leaving her body because of a flower wine she drank and her own distress. Later on, Tanda realizes that certain flowers can allow Balsa and the warriors to interact with Nayug and protect Chagum. In one episode, there's a moment where Chagum stares at a bear cub for a long moment. A few episodes later, a bear cub also carrying an egg inside it is torn apart by a monster. I had originally thought he maybe saw himself and Balsa in the bear cub and its mother, or maybe he saw the bear cub as a sign of Spring, but now I wonder if it wasn't an unconscious part of him recognizing another being with an egg inside it. There's tons of other examples I could name. Even if episodes don't directly advance the plot, they develop the characters, their relationships, and the world they live in. Now that I can recognize that, I appreciate it - in fact, I can't help but want more, which is why I'm looking forward to getting to read the book.

This show had the feeling of something that would end with a tragic-but-noble death, so I was afraid to watch it all the way to the end the first time. I'm very glad that it ends happily, even though the way it ends may still annoy some people. I admit, a part of me wanted Balsa, Tanda, and Chagum to become a happy family together. However, Chagum would have had to abandon his duty for that to happen, and he had matured too much by the end of the series for that to be believable. The romance lover in me would have liked for something more to happen between Tanda and Balsa - it looks like they end up right back where they started, with Tanda waiting for Balsa, and Balsa not willing to settle down, although I like to believe that they'll somehow find a way to make a relationship work without Balsa having to abandon being a tough and skilled warrior.

Which brings me to my next comment. At first, it looks like this show falls into the same trap that some other stories with strong female main characters have - the female main character is kick-butt awesome, and the main male character is weak and boring, possibly so that the female main character will look even more awesome by comparison. However, instead of just making Balsa the strong one and Tanda the weak one, it turns out that they actually each just have their own strengths - Balsa is physically strong, protecting Chagum and others with her spear, and Tanda is spiritually strong, protecting Chagum and others with his knowledge of Nayug (even though he's not nearly as good as Torogai, it's him, and not Torogai, who figures out that the flowers will help Balsa and the others protect Chagum). Both Balsa and Tanda are intelligent, and, although Balsa may be less inclined to talk about her feelings, neither one of them are what I'd call emotionally stunted.

Ok, one more comment. One thing I realized during my second viewing of this series is that this series doesn't really have any villains. At the beginning, you might think that the Mikado, the eight warriors, and most of the star readers are the show's villains, but they're really only guilty of acting before fully researching the situation. Yes, they were trying to kill Chagum, but they thought that by doing so they'd save the land from a terrible drought. I had initially thought that Chagum really was possessed by a water demon, which would have made for a much more intense and probably depressing show, since a "good" ending would have been difficult - had Chagum lived, the land would have been plunged into a drought, and had he died, everyone would have mourned him and Balsa would have never saved her eighth life. With the way things actually turned out, there is really no villain, only nature. The only truly "bad" person Balsa encounters is the man from her past who threatened to kill innocent travelers if she didn't fight him - in the end, he's reduced to a pathetic shell who realizes he's beneath someone like Balsa's notice and can hardly remember what used to be driving him (I can't wait to read about this part in the book - does Balsa somehow now have a weapon that doesn't kill, but rather literally only "cuts the bonds of karma"?).

As you can probably tell from the length of my commentary section, I love this show. There's so much to think about and write about, I feel like I should probably be writing multiple posts instead of just one. Well, tough, you can deal with one long post.

Extras:

There's a textless opening and closing (the closing bores me, but the opening grew on me to the point that I now love it), several Japanese Moribito trailers, promo films (that's what they're called on the back of my DVD case, but they just look like more trailers to me), a press conference (which includes the novel's author, the Japanese voice actress for Balsa, the Japanese actor for Chagum, who I had not realized was really a child, the director, and the woman who sang the closing song), and a discussion panel (primarily the director and the novel's author). There are also lots of previews for other shows.

Again, my DVD case says there should also be a production art booklet, but there wasn't one, and there wasn't one in another case a Walmart employee opened for me. Either the back of my DVD case is wrong, or some or all of these boxed sets were accidentally packaged without production art booklets. I'm a little peeved that contact information for Anime Works/Media Blasters appears to be unavailable.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore - When she was only 8 years old, Katsa learned that she is Graced with killing. By the time she is 16, Katsa is in control of her abilities and has become King Randa's tool for punishing those who disobey and defy him. However, what Randa doesn't know is that Katsa has formed a secret council designed to right wrongs perpetrated by the kings of all the kingdoms. After Katsa rescues the elderly Prince Tealiff, she finds herself working with Prince Tealiff's grandson, Po, to try to uncover the motive behind his kidnapping. Those who loved Balsa and the early episodes, in which Balsa and Chagum try to evade capture, may like Katsa and, in particular, the last half of this book, in which Katsa, like Balsa, must also try to protect a child in danger.
  • Ghost in the Shell (anime movie) - This movie takes place in a future where just about everyone has some sort of cybernetic implant, if not entirely cyberized bodies. Unfortunately, this leaves people vulnerable to brain-hacking. Section 9, a group of cybernetically enhanced cops, is called in to investigate a brain-hacker called The Puppetmaster. The sound effects and look of this movie are a little dated, in my opinion, but it's still an excellent movie (although it may require more than one viewing in order to figure out what's going on), and it's a great place to begin before trying any of the newer incarnations of this franchise. However, those who prefer something newer might want to try the anime TV series (I know there's an updated version of the original movie, but I haven't seen it yet, so I can't comment). Something about Balsa's character design reminded me of Motoko Kusanagi, one of the main characters in Ghost in the Shell - they're certainly both the same in their kick-butt toughness.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - During the violent Bakumatsu era, the assassin known as Hitokiri Battousai paved the way for the Restoration, killing many. Years later, this man, now known as Rurouni Kenshin, has given up killing and chooses to wander from town to town. After he helps a woman named Kamiya Kaoru, his wandering life becomes more rooted, at least temporarily. Like Balsa, Kenshin is also willing to fight to help others but does whatever he can to avoid having to kill.
  • Princess Mononoke (anime movie) - While fighting to save his village from an attack by a demonic wild boar, Ashitaka is inflicted with a deadly curse that forces him to leave his village in search of a cure. He ends up in the middle of a war between the forest gods (including a girl raised by wolves, or maybe wolf gods) and a village determined to continue producing iron. This movie's setting feels similar to the one in Moribito, a sort of fantasy-filled past. Those who enjoyed Moribito's environmentalist elements and wished more had been done with them may like this movie, in which the environmentalist elements are much more pronounced.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - I admit, I have yet to see the anime, although I own it and have read two of the books in the series (the books would probably also make good read-alikes, particularly the first one in the series, upon which it sounds like the anime is primarily based). In this series, an unhappy high school student from our world encounters a strange man who swears allegiance to her. The two of them are attacked by demon-like beasts, and the student ends up being transported to another world, one in which there seems to be no one she can trust. Somehow, she must survive and figure out why she was brought to this other world. Like Moribito, the setting feels almost like something from a historical anime/book, with enough fantasy elements mixed in to make it clear that it's not quite an Earth setting. Although the high school student, Yoko, doesn't start off very strong, she becomes stronger because she must. Those who liked the survival elements of Balsa and Chagum's story may like this series.

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