Aug 27 2013 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Moribito Guardian of the Spirt anime

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.


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.


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

1. Nico_F
Glad you enjoyed the series.
About the books (read both translated), the series adapts quite well the first, extending some plots. Only really significant difference was Balsa´s standing about killing, much more pessimistic. I advice to read the second too, as it tells the reasons for Balsa´s exile.
Jack Flynn
2. JackofMidworld
I'm glad you enjoyed it, too. I didn't know anything about the novels, though, so I'll have to look for them.
3. wandering-dreamer
Yeesssss, Moribito is wonderful on all accounts (I can even forgive them for having to rewrite the plot of the first novel to expand it into an anime) and the spear fight scenes are pretty awesome too. But I'm sad to say that I read the first two novels and went looking for information on them and found someone from the American publishing company commenting on a forum that they hadn't sold enough for them to license more of them. And this was even three or four years ago so I'd imagine by now our chances of getting the rest are pretty slim, more of a reason for me to practice Japanese! (although it's a shame considering how nice the American volumes are, such nice presentation!)
4. stardreamer74
So glad someone else has discovered this gem of an anime. I really enjoyed it and count it among my favourites. I have read both books as well and they are well worth reading - I really recommend them, even to those who haven't seen the anime. Too bad we're not likely to see the rest of them.
5. SBarg
Yep -- Moribito is pretty excellent.

Try Wolfs Rain next. Easily the best anime I've ever seen -- a perfect show. My go-to reccomendation for anime and non-anime fans alike. Fantastic English dub.
6. Tehol Lives
Now it is time for you to check out the second most recommended anime from your Claymore post:

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

It is awesome and is pretty short, about 13 episodes. Don't let the initial premise fool you, it is great.
adrian bellis
7. Nilrem
Another Moribito fan here, I bought it blind as it was cheap and loved it.
The story was a little different to most of the anime I've seen, despite it using various common themes.
I'm getting an itch to watch it again now, which is a bad thing (my "watch again" list is already huge, let alone the "pile of shame")

Nico and wondering_dreamer I'll have to look out for the books, I didn't realise there were any.

I'd definitely recommend Wolf's Rain even though it does have (from memory) 3 episodes that are basically recaps about halfway through, or Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which takes a very common anime trope and spins it on it's head, with some great characters (and is quite different to what it appears to be at first)..

Witch Hunter Robin is pretty good and has a strong lead from memory (I'm not sure if it's "in print" at the moment as I think the distributor left the business, and I can't remember hearing of a licence rescue).
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
8. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
I really glad you enjoyed Moribito! The animation quality really blew me away when I first watched it. I also appreciate that Balsa is a naginata warrior -- a traditional female martial art that not many people know about in the US (c'mon, people can't *all* be samurais!). That, and the different cultural groups in the show are based off of Japan's indiginous peoples too.
9. ctkierst
While"Wolf's Rain" had some good bits, if it's the series I'm thinking of, the ending really peeved me and turned me off the entire series. Personally, Patlabor is my all-time favourite series. Ghost in the Shell is also very good.
10. rashkae
Since fantasy with strong female leads seems to be thing, shouldn't Twelve Kingdoms (J?ni Kokuki) be next?
11. karina burana
I'm totally seconding rashkae's recommendation of Twelve Kingdoms. Especially for the female characters, and the world building.

Plus, this is another series where you can supplement the anime with the (few) novels translated into English.
12. cosmicyoruba
I'll have to add my voice to those recommending Twelve Kingdoms and Puella Madoka Magica. Although I prefer the former to the latter.
13. shellywb
I'd agree with 12 Kingdoms, though it was never finished in book form and leaves you hanging. Puella Madoka Magica addresses Magic Girl anime tropes, but I didn't think it all that great, and the style is off-putting.

But, before you watch any of these, watch Revolutionary Girl Utena. The TV series, not the movie. The movie is f*cked up and wonderful in its own way, but incomprehensible if you haven't seen the series. The whole series is an exploration of gender and sexuality (in a fantasy setting), the like of which you don't normally see in any animation.

For something more normal, I always recommend Saiunkoku Monogatari. The first 6 episodes or so seem like they might be standard girl romance, but the whole series is about a young woman who wants to be the first female government official in China, and how she achieves that and what she (starts to do) with it.

And last, a series which reminds me a lot of Moribito (I think it's the same author or something). It's called Erin, or Beast Tamer Erin, or Beast Player Erin, and is the story of a girl from the time she's very young, 4 or so, into adulthood. She's a keeper of giant flying lizards (a vet) that are used in war as weapons, and she discovers they are intelligent. It's her fight to preserve them all the while they keep being destroyed, sometimes by her own mistakes. It's a lovely series, 50 episodes, an arc about her childhood, about her learning years, about her early adult years, and her adult years. It's also available for free (legally) on Crunchyroll. I've heard some people complain about the first episodes being like a kid anime, but she's a little kid in that part of the story, and it doesn't shy from some terrible things, so I think that's a mistaken impression caused by the animation style. (yes, this is an overlooked anime and I love to push it toward people.)
Cain Latrani
14. CainS.Latrani
Anime is one of the few mediums where I often find women to be treated as absolute equals. That's not a rule, of course, but it is hardly uncommon.

Ga-Rei Zero is all about the two female leads, and has one of the most awkward and hysterical seduction attempts ever by a secondary female character.

Haibane Renmei is sheer brilliance. The only anime to date I have ever pre-ordered in a fit of excitement.

Hell Girl is full of leading women, some strong, some not, all complex and interesting.

Full Metal Alchmeist Brotherhood has Riza Hawkeye. Besides being one of the most brilliant television shows ever, it has Riza Hawkeye. Vulnerable and strong as iron all at the same time.

El Cazador De La Brujah has two female leads, strong in different ways, and the entire show is about them and their relationship. It's a beautiful little show.

Corpse Princess, despite its small failings, is brilliant use of a strong female lead.

Hands down, though, my favorite female character, not just in anime, but anywhere, would have to be Erza Scarlet of Fairy Tail. The writing of the manga and series casts her not as a woman, but as a wizard. Her gender is never approached as a matter, only her skill as a wizard and swordswoman. She is a tragic and inspiring character that I adore, and the two times in 175 episodes that she cries, it devestates me.

There are many more, of course, just as many as there are examples of women being objectified. However, anime is still lightyears ahead of American television in terms of presenting strong, believable, well rounded female leads.

You should watch more. You'll see why I always say that if you can't find strong women on television, it's because you are watching the wrong television. They are out there, and they are amazing.
15. JPeters
I didn't see a second recommendation for Haibane Renmei, so I figured I'd better chime in. I'm pretty sure I fell in love with it within the first five minutes, but the opening theme is a good selling point too:


And the female characters aren't just "strong"--the two leads are both incredibly complex.
Cain Latrani
16. CainS.Latrani
@15 Oh, that unforgettable theme. Brilliant in its simple complexity.

So fitting for the leads of this show.
17. Bookyurt
I love the Moribito books - the second in particular!

And on the anime side, try Noir - it's still my all time favorite
18. Cybersnark
Seconding recommendations for Beast Player Erin, El Cazadore de la Bruja, and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (which, in addition to Riza, also has Winry Rockbell; a geeky automail-loving mechanic).

Madoka Magica is tentative; it's brilliant, but it is a deconstruction, so it might have more impact if you're already familiar with the Magical Girl sub-genre.

I'd also add a rec for Soul Eater. It's a wonderfully wacky tale about young Reapers in training (imagine if Tim Burton had invented Harry Potter). The lead character is scythe-wielding Maka, who is cool, competent, intelligent, funny, and can totally take a serious punch to the face and shrug it off like it's no big thing --because girls aren't fragile blossoms that need to be babied.

I'd also recommend Read or Die (R.O.D.). There's both an OAV and an anime series (set after the OAV), and they feature a group of female, book-loving "Paper Masters" who use telekinetically-controlled paper to fight crime/terrorists/conspiracies. The series especially is all about strong-willed (yet sometimes ditzy, stubborn, awkward, and sarcastic) warrior women saving the world (and, more importantly, Literacy).

Shangri-La is another obscure title, about a young girl in a post-(economic)-apocalypse world (and her trans* "mother"-figure), leading a rag-tag rebellion against the sadistic and corrupt wealthy in their ivory arkology.

Of course, there's still Bubblegum Crisis 2040, which is basically a cyberpunk take on Power Rangers with an all-girl team.

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