Management: 12 Days of Anime continues with a review of Moribito: Guardians of the Spirit.

I was originally recommended Moribito last year as part of Anime Secret Santa. It took until the new year to finish it. Overall, I thought it was an enjoyable work.

Moribito is a 26-episode anime that aired in 2007, produced by Production IG, directed by Kamiyama Kenji (Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex), based on the novel of the same name by Uehashi Nahoko. It is set in a fantasy kingdom where the Prince Chagum has been infected by a feared spirit, and therefore the imperial court has planned to kill him. After discovering the plot, his mother hires Balsa, a travelling spear-woman to escape with him so that he might have a chance to live. The rest of the story follows Chagum, Balsa, and their friends as they evade their pursuers and search for a way to rid Chagum of the spirit.

World-building is important for a fantasy series, and Moribito delivers solidly. The atmosphere evokes a Middle-Ages East Asian kingdom: the architecture looks to be traditional East Asian, and the writing looks Kanji-like but unintelligible (it kind of reminds me of Khitan script). The citizens have their own customs, festivals, taverns, and mix of ordinary townsfolk, wanderers, and troublemakers. There are even hints of rival kingdoms with distinct cultures and customs, and glimpses into the spirit world.

The plot has two separate conflicts that take turns in the spotlight: “evade the pursuers” and “find a way to rid Chagum of the spirit”. The former is prime opportunity for action, suspense, and fight choreography, which the show delivers reasonably well. The latter conflict requires an understanding of the rules of the spirit world, which the show reveals bit by bit, and for which your mileage will vary based on how invested you are in the world-building.

The character work centers around the relationship between Balsa and Chagum, with some spotlight for their allies: the medicine man, the elderly shaman, the urchin siblings. Of the characters, the most fascinating is Balsa. We are introduced to her as a master spear-wielder on a quest for atonement, and throughout the series we watch her bond with Chagum grow and discover her backstory. To be fair, her quest for atonement and its backstory are presented as is; there doesn’t seem to be any deeper meaning behind them. Her fights are pretty badass though. Chagum, for his part, experiences a nice coming-of-age story from a pampered boy-prince to a self-reliant man.

It’s interesting to see Moribito‘s subtle subversion of traditional gender roles, most prominently in the three most important protagonists Balsa, Tanda, and Chagum.

Most obviously, Balsa is a master spear-wielder, a job traditionally occupied by men (in the Japanese dub, characters always refer to her as the female spear-wielder). This mastery of martial force, combined with economic power from her mercenary work, is likely what gives her relative independence in her society. However, she also shows a nurturing, protective side in her role as Chagum’s caregiver.

Balsa’s friend, the medicine man Tanda, takes the domestic role in his relationship with Balsa (though there are hints of a romance at some points). He tends the home that Balsa periodically returns to, and heals her when she visits with battle wounds. Although the nurturing role is often traditionally associated with femininity, it is also to be noted that the field of physicians has traditionally been male-dominated (a trend that thankfully has been changing). So, how do we read Tanda’s gender role? My bet would be “complicated”.

Finally, while Chagum is presented as a male, his infection with the spirit evokes imagery of pregnancy: the spirit forms an egg inside his abdomen, incubating until birth. Near the end of the series, he even holds his abdomen as an expectant mother would.

In Moribito, the defiance of traditional gender roles too is presented as is: people do little more than raise their eyebrows at it. Nevertheless, it was interesting to note. 

The animation and music are serviceable (I say this because I am uncultured and don’t have an eye or ear for this stuff unless it grabs me). Give a listen to the ED and read the lyrics, which tie back to the show’s central relationship: it can be interpreted as the bond between parent and child. It grows on you.

In short, Moribito is a reasonably good fantasy series whose main draws are the world-building, Balsa being a badass, the bond between her and Chagum, and the interesting take on subverting traditional gender roles. If any of those interest you, give it a watch.

Moribito can be streamed on TubiTV.

You can read about my other posts on 12 Days of Anime here.