Story = A
Video = A
Audio = B
Balsa the spearwoman is a wandering warrior, who takes on the task of saving lives, in atonement for a past sin. On her journey, she happens to save a prince, and is tasked with becoming his bodyguard. And he is going to need one, for his own father, the emperor, wants him dead. (Source: ANN)And now third in my series of anime that I watched months ago is the famously under-appreciated Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. I watched this one on Adult Swim back when it had broadcast, then canceled, then restarted the series, and finally finishing it back in December 2009.
I say that this show is “famously under-appreciated” because most reviews that I have seen has praised it, but has also said that nobody is watching it. Even Adult Swim canceled its run half-way through presumably due to poor ratings. And I think it’s worthwhile trying to understand why people don’t watch it when it is so good.
I think one of the main reasons people love it in terms of both its art and its story is the same reason that people don’t watch it: its level of detail. This show has an intricate story, deep characters, and lush art; but the time it spends showing these things to the audience means that there is less action and slower pacing.
In terms of the characters, that means that they will analyze and discuss their choices before taking action. That means there are conversation about politics and culture and religion, as well as analyzing the motivations of other characters. I am guessing that a lot of viewers would have no patience for this and would prefer characters to use action to solve their problems. But for others, myself included, the detail helps to maintain the pace because you can understand the setting and the characters’ motivations better and are not constantly distracted by thinking “why did they do that?” or “why didn’t they just do this instead of that?” You get a deeper understanding of the characters and their actions, and as a result makes the story more engrossing.
Another criticism that I’ve heard about Moribito -- and other Kamiyama-directed shows -- is that the characters are dry and don’t show enough emotion. And maybe you could provide an argument supporting the latter, but I seriously contend the former. Instead of “dry” I would say that they are “restrained.” Meaning that there is emotion, but since these characters are so mentally strong, they either choose not to show it or don't show it because of the situation or because of the culture that they live in. And this makes the times when they do show that emotion all that much more earnest, believable, and significant.
The mental resilience of the characters may also put off some viewers. By that I mean that many anime shows include at least one character who is unsure of him or herself or has some vulnerability that they have to learn to overcome. The characters in Morbito have vulnerabilities as well, but it takes time for the audience to discover them. And in the meantime, all the main characters seem strong-minded and reasonable, which may make them harder to sympathize with.
Also, the emotion of the characters is more subtle than you find in much anime where characters have intensely exaggerated reactions and emotions whether they be romantic or violent. Balsa is a prime example of this subtle approach. Her main motivation appears to be to save the eight lives to make up for something that happened in her past, and the last of those lives is the prince Chagum. But she insists on not just protecting his life, but also keeping him mentally and emotionally safe. And in doing so she acts both as a gentle mother and a stern strong father-figure. When she fights, it is for a specific purpose relating to protecting someone, and not out of anger. And almost all characters in this show offer the same level of complexity and subtlety making them more interesting to watch.
One thing that may put some people off is the fact that there are not really any good guys or bad guys. There are just people with different goals and a series of different understandings of the facts that cause the conflicts in the story. But there is no real dichotomy of good and evil since all the characters are trying to act for what they think is the best for everyone. And while this makes for fantastic characterization, it makes it hard for those who want to know who exactly to root for and who to root against.
The setting of the story is also complex and believable. This is a fantasy story, but it feels more real than the usual fantasy. The closest thing I could compare it to would be Twelve Kingdoms, with that level of detail and that level to which the fantasy elements are intertwined with the world and its culture. The characters in Moribito are not surprised to when they see something magical happen – at least the magic itself is not surprising, even if the significance or impact of the magic is. In fact the word “magic” is not really an accurate term and I don’t think it’s really ever used in the show. The characters simply accept that the world is the way it is. Like we see a tree and don’t question why it’s there; the characters in Moribito accept things like spirits existing in an alternate world because it is a factual part of their history and ingrained in their culture.
On the flip-side, the setting also may put off some viewers. Moribito is a fantasy, but one that is very eastern in appearance and takes place in it’s own self-contained world without any plot-connections to our own world. So the concepts and elements are not as familiar to western audiences, and as a result, there is little to relate to.
For those who love the show – or at least for myself – the unfamiliarity of the setting and the strength of the characters are part of what makes the show so great. As the story progresses and we learn more details about the world, it becomes more engrossing. The fact that the setting is something new and that we learn new things about it as the story progresses is stimulating.
And for me the strength of the characters is more refreshing than it is off-putting. I can enjoy characters who gain confidence throughout a story, but it is also enjoyable to see strong, competent characters react to one another; and then as the story progresses, discover their vulnerabilities. It makes any changes that they go through that much more impressive.
Of course the visuals in this story are downright incredible. This was animated by Production IG, the studio behind Ghost in the Shell. And keeping in line with the story, the visuals are also detailed and realistic. But you won’t see speed lines or exaggerated action in the animation either. The character movements are very grounded in reality, but still beautiful to watch. But the animation is always in service of the story. When there was a fight scene, there was always a purpose behind it in terms of the character motivations. When there was an action scene I was more focused on why the characters were fighting more than I was getting caught up in the action of the fight itself. That’s not to say that the animation was not stellar, it’s just that – like a good soundtrack – the animation enhanced the story instead of defining it.
At any rate, I’ll wrap of this review (seeing as how this is probably the longest and most convoluted one I’ve ever written) by adding my voice to the others who have said that this show is vastly under-appreciated and deserves more recognition. It’s a smart story with strong characters and beautiful animation. And I would say that it’s probably one of the best shows I’ve seen.