I went into this show without knowing or hearing anything about it beforehand. It immediately showed itself to be crafted rather well, in every technical sense. The visuals, the backgrounds, the design, the animation, it was all very fine and fluid. Then the first bit of music began playing, softly at first, and I was officially enchanted.
That’s the sort of feeling I got while watching Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. It was like peeking at another culture, magical and rich with wonder. Oddly, though, some things were just a little bit too wondrous. Rather, they defied my capacity for suspension of disbelief, because it felt realistic enough that one can expect things to make sense, but they didn’t always.
The story primarily follows Balsa, a highly-skilled warrior woman with a spear. She’s a mercenary body guard, and, because of events in her past, she is resolved to save eight lives and do so without killing anyone. As it happens, she saves the life of a young prince, which lands her in the middle of an unfolding intrigue, because said prince, Chagum, is apparently inhabited by the egg of a water spirit. Though the spirit world, Nayug, is close enough that apparently its sun sometimes appears in the night as a second full moon, there is very little known about it, so the local scholar, called a star priest, assumed the spirit egg was an evil possession and recommended killing it by killing the prince in order to avoid a catastrophe. The emperor agreed to this, to killing his own son, so when Chagum’s mother asks Balsa to protect him, she is, in fact, hiring her to keep him safe from the highest authority in the land.
From there, Balsa takes Chagum under her wing, becoming a sort of surrogate mother as they flee, and hide, and live humble, quiet lives. They are assisted by a medicine man, whom Balsa is clearly being set up to couple up with, and Madame Torogai, a venerable old woman of generally blunt and sour disposition. Chagum learns a great deal throughout this, and it’s a time of tremendous personal growth for him. Both the people protecting him and those hunting him are on a search for answers, however, as much knowledge of the past has been forgotten. These answers carry tremendous weight, however, as veils are slowly lifted off the lies of the past and the horrible dangers which now threaten Chagum’s life.
It turns out that pretty much everything about this situation sucks.
Though Chagum’s life was originally threatened out of sheer ignorance, the truth is arguably worse. It turns out that all the water in this particular region, sustaining an empire of a couple million people, is supplied by a great water spirit. This spirit lives for a hundred years, blessing the land with water, before sending out its eggs, soon followed by its death, and with its death comes a drought. The eggs reside safely within the bodies of mortal creatures, usually including a human and some others (we see a young bear, for instance), until the time comes for them to be removed. After said removal, a particular kind of bird carries the hatching egg somewhere it will mature and grow and become the next great water spirit. The removal from the mortal host, however, is absolutely horrific.
The spirit within the egg possesses the host, taking them to a specific place, making them eat a flower that increases their connection to the spirit world. This lures deadly predators from the depths of the spirit world, which the possessed host draws to another nearby location. If it all goes according to plan, then the predator grabs the mortal host with its tentacles, devouring them as they squirm and scream in fear and agony, savoring the meat that is flavored by the egg inside, and then shooting the egg upwards, towards the birds which are theoretically overhead. If there is no bird in the right place at the right time, then the egg falls and splatters on the ground.
If none of the eggs survive, then the entire land dries up and millions of people and animals die. But whether the egg survives or not, the host is doomed to a terrifying, gruesome, painful death. And this has apparently been the way of it for as long as there has been water in this land, so, a very long time.
How would you like to be a young boy, or his protectors, facing that kind of odds, eh? Where the boy is apparently guaranteed to die, and it’ll be a miracle if his death secures the lives of millions of innocent people.
Chagum’s not even really a guardian of the spirit within him. He’s just an incubator.
Pardon my language, but it would seem that the spirits are either a bunch of savage animals or a bunch of assholes.
Setting that aside, however, especially as no one in the show ever comments on it, the story is about the people involved in this. They might be constantly laboring under mistaken notions, but they are always doing their best, and doing their duty the best way that they can see to do it. Even when that duty is painful, they are driven by the belief that it is what’s best for the people of their nation. There is something noble about that, and the show delves into both the virtues and dangers of such selfless service. Even the decision to care more about others than for oneself can become a vice when taken too far. Men and women have become monsters in the name of helping others. Yet, it is also the dominant virtue of any true hero. Heck, growing up is arguably all about learning to balance oneself with one’s community.
I would say that this is what Moribito is really about: growing up.
Balsa may be the lead protagonist, and she is awesome, but she develops very little, even as we learn about her past. Chagum, on the other hand, matures tremendously through his experiences with her and, as he puts it, his struggle with destiny. He begins as a boy, weak and imperious and touched by the spirit world, but by the end he has become a young man, stronger, more mature, more grounded in the real world.
In short, the show has some good characters, good themes, and good action, including one of the best fights I’ve ever seen in an anime, but it could have fleshed out the plot and the character development a bit more. Still, the world it was set in was entrancing, with the design, animation, music, and voice acting all creating a rich, vivid environment. It was mostly entertaining, just a bit disturbing to think about afterwards.
Rating: 8 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid B.