Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Back when I wrote about Claymore for this column, some of you folks recommended I try Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit as well. In a fit of profligacy, I bought the DVDs… and they sat on my shelf until recently, when I took a holiday from the real world and spent a day and a half doing nothing but watching all twenty-six episodes.

The anime Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is based on the fantasy novel of the same name by Nahoko Uehashi. (Said novel is the first, apparently, in a series of twelve, although only two, Guardian of the Spirit and Guardian of the Darkness, are as yet available in English translation.)

I’m the first to admit my complete ignorance when it comes to anime.* Apart from this and Claymore, my exposure consists of a few episodes of Bleach and half an episode of Rurouni Kenshin. I’m not qualified to critique: only to point at what I like and say YES THIS I LIKE THIS.

*And let’s not pretend my understanding of Japanese history and culture in general is anything to write home about. I know it exists. I have heard of things like the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Sengoku period, and I identify in the Japanese-originating media I have seen somewhat different conceptions of the role of the individual in society to those in modern UK or US productions. But that’s about the sum of things.

Moribito? YES THIS. I LIKE THIS. WHERE CAN I GET MORE?

Balsa, a spearwoman and wandering warrior pushing thirty, returns to the country where she did a lot of her growing up. Matters open with her saving the life of young Prince Chagum from an ostensible accident. But Chagum’s accident was no accident: he carries within him a kind of spirit, on account of which his father the Mikado wants him quietly done away with, so that the image of the dynasty won’t be tainted by magic. His mother, the Second Queen, convinces Balsa to take on the task of bodyguarding him—which means leaving the palace and going into hiding.

Pursued by the Mikado’s elite guardsmen.

While trying to find out why all the signs appear to point to the spirit (the spirit’s “egg”) inside Chagum being the cause of the omens of a coming drought that the Mikado’s star diviners are reading in the constellations.

It ain’t an easy job, that’s for sure.

Although at a casual glance, Moribito seems to be preponderantly about men and their concerns,** further examination reveals that the female characters are among the most interesting, and it’s principally their actions that propel the anime’s narrative. Let’s leave aside the maternal protective choices of the Second Queen, though, and focus on Balsa and one of her allies, Madame Torogai.

**I’m not entirely certain it passes the Bechdel test, since most of the conversations between the female characters concern the not-quite-twelve-year-old Prince Chagum and his spirit egg. But the Bechdel test isn’t the be-all and end-all of screen feminism.

The English dub translates Madame Torogai’s role as “magic weaver.” She’s an old woman, a master of her craft and of old ways of magic (who rather reminds me of a cross between Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, if I’m being honest), unfailingly blunt, unfailingly interfering, unfailingly cranky—and unfailingly competent. If Gandalf the Grey was an old woman with few manners and a gerbil living in his hat, he’d look a lot like Madame Torogai. It’s her knowledge, skill, and ability to communicate with elemental creatures that in the end produces answers about the nature of the spirit inside Chagum.

As for Balsa… she’s the quintessential wandering warrior. But she’s dedicated herself to fighting without killing, and to saving eight lives in order to atone for eight deaths in her past. She is badass, and interesting, and when she takes on the charge of protecting Chagum has to combine the role of martial protector with the role of parent. She’s essentially adopted an eleven-year-old prince who has very little understanding of how the real world works… And who has an awful lot of people who seem to want him dead.

It’s a remarkably strong series. Many of the episodes stand out for their narrative quality: next to none of them sag into tedium or over-extended fight sequences—even the fights tell a story of their own. I really enjoyed it, and recommended it exceedingly.

And as soon as I had finished watching it, I went out to order the novel.

MORE LIKE THIS, please.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books and occasionally watches things

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