Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 17th 2008
Moribito - Guardian of the Spirit
Female bodyguard Balsa the Spear-Wielder was once responsible for the deaths of eight people she held dear, so to make amends she has vowed to save the lives of eight people. Her last, though, may be the most challenging assignment of her career. After rescuing a young prince from a suspicious accident earlier in the day, Balsa is secretly hired by the Second Queen of Yogo to safeguard Chagum, that same prince, from the efforts of his father, the Mikado (i.e. Emperor), to kill him. (Chagum, it seems, has been possessed by a water spirit, and signs indicate that his continuing life could bring great calamity to the land.) Harried by agents of the Mikado and badly injured in a critical fight, Balsa must call upon the aid of old friend Tanda and his mistress, the magic weaver Torogai, as well as that of Touya and Saya, two children whose lives she once saved.
Meanwhile, Chagum's former tutor, the Star Gazer Shuga, has a difficult time accepting the situation even once he knows the truth, and so explores the mystery surrounding Chagum's possession, and what it truly portends, through his own means.
With the first four episodes of Moribito, Production I.G does to fantasy anime series what they did to hard-core sci-fi anime with Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a couple of years earlier: use a combination of impressive technical merits, excellent storytelling, and a compelling lead character to set a new standard for the genre. Never has a fantasy anime series looked better, and rarely has one been more involving. That its Adult Swim broadcast has not been very successful so far is a shame, as those avoiding it because it does not have the high-octane feel of a Bleach or Code Geass are doing themselves a disservice.
The series gets off to a rousing start with a fantastic opener which combines “Shine,” one of fan-fave L'Arc-en-Ciel's best songs, with a sampling of the series' gorgeous artistry and animation. (For those who have been following the series only via the Adult Swim broadcasts, the broadcast version of the opener is slightly truncated.) If any further proof of the series' sterling artistic merits is needed, the very first scene delivers a panoramic shot of a mountain range that is so breathtaking that it should be used as a textbook example of how to draw mountains in animation. Throughout these four episodes Production I.G piles on one fabulous-looking scene after another; even in the mundane details the series shines, and the shots of palatial opulence rival the best anime has to offer. Every detail, from costuming to elaborate building design to even depictions of rice patties, impresses, and even minor visual flaws or drop-offs in quality are few and far between. Rich use of color and lighting effects, whether from a sunny late afternoon, a stormy night, or even underwater, distinguish the series amongst any competition. Though character designs sometimes stray a little too much into caricatures, they nonetheless show the same quality and attention to detail.
Such great artistry would still struggle without good animation to support it, but the series shines here, too. Short cuts are infrequent, or at least less obvious, and the few true fight scenes are things of beauty. Characters move, dodge, and thrust with great smoothness and alacrity, creating convincingly dynamic fights filled with motion and an all-too-frequently-absent sense of danger; the highlight four-on-one fight scene from episode 3 may, in fact, stand amongst the year's best. These are fights not fueled by ridiculous displays of skill or super-human powers, but ones ground in reality. The production team threw in a few neat 3D tricks for good measure, but these episodes look plenty good enough without the extra gimmicks.
The series has much more than just a great opener and technical merits in its favor. In Balsa, Moribito offers a fully credible heroine, a woman in her late 20s who is attractive in a vaguely ethnic way (but not distractingly so) and has the kind of solid, powerful build one would expect of a true warrior. She is very skilled, capable, and practical, a woman good at thinking on her feet and taking charge of a situation without being needlessly arrogant or flashy. Unlike so many of her anime contemporaries, she does not exist to be ogled, but to do her job and do it both completely and well while coping with her own demons. She is such a refreshing change of pace that the series would be worth watching for her alone. Chagum, her charge, is well-crafted as a privileged young boy who quickly realizes the dire nature of the situation and that he must adapt to the circumstances if her wants to survive; the inbred arrogance of his former position gradually gets set aside. Madame Torogai, the old witch who serves as the series' obligatory colorful character, does not have enough screen time in this volume for her eccentricities to fully establish themselves, and key player Tanda also has little chance to reveal his character or past with Balsa by the end of episode 4. Long-haired Shuga shows some promise as the astrologer-insider, while the children Saya and Touya distinguish themselves less but still have better-defined personalities than the norm for being minor recurring characters.
Even these elements in a series' favor can still ultimately fail without proper support from the writing, but this volume has no concerns there, either. Based on a novel by Nahoko Uehashi, the story grounds itself in a setting heavily influenced by medieval China yet offering enough of its own novel twists to distinguish itself as something unique. This is a story and setting which dabbles with mysticism and the supernatural without being dominated by it or, indeed, even making a big deal about it. The story it tells about the need to safeguard a special boy despite deadly threats against him is a staple of sci fi, fantasy, and action titles around the world, and in many senses the basic plot strongly resembles that of Scrapped Princess, but the quality here lies in the details and story execution. The Mikado and his servants are not painted as heartless villains, but instead people reluctantly carrying out what they see as an onerous and unfortunate duty, while Balsa is crafted as a powerful figure and yet is not above serious harm. The writing smoothly works in many details about the well-defined setting without yet resorting to any kind of info dump and tantalizes with hints about the past. It finds novel ways to present and carry out daunting tasks, such as the slimy, slippery rocky ridge Chagum must traverse in a rain storm to fetch help for a gravely-wounded Balsa in episode 3 or the water rescue in episode 1. Perhaps most importantly, it has smart characters consistently taking sensible actions, something woefully lacking in the many prominent series which depend on a parade of idiocy to aggrandize their heroes. Moribito does not need to do that to carry out its story, and thus never stoops that low.
Although the opener may be the soundtrack's shining gem, it is hardly the music's only strong point. Original closer “Itoshii Hito e” by Sachi Tainaka, which does not air during the Adult Swim broadcasts since it only has translated Japanese credits, is a lovely matching of song and visuals in its own right, while an adaptation of one of the soundtrack themes is used for the English credits closer which does play at the end of the Adult Swim broadcasts (and appears here at the end of the volume). The music in between peaks with the intense, pounding rhythms used during the dramatic battle in episode 3 but serves the production well throughout. Good use of background sound and an especially good 5.1 mix – listening to this series in 2.0 does not do it justice – further complement the sound production.
Bang Zoom! Entertainment does its usual solid job in assembling a worthy cast for the English dub. Cindy Robinson's voice and delivery style may not be a perfect match for Mabuki Andou's fine original performance, but she has a deep, slightly rumbly feminine voice that suits Balsa quite well and gives her a convincing sense of age, competence, and authority. It may take sub fans a little while to get used to, but they should definitely give it a chance. Mona Marshall, by comparison, is dead-on with the original performance in crafting a proper voice for Chagum. The supporting cast varies a bit more, with long-time veteran Barbara Goodson as Madame Torogai being a highlight and Peter Doyle's Tanda sounding a bit flat and uninteresting, but generally it hits the mark. The English script finds a satisfying balance between accuracy and smooth flow.
The first volume, which is available separately or in the combo pack with the second volume, offers nothing significant for Extras, though it does have both 2.0 and 5.1 sound tracks. Notably, the menu art is decidedly inferior to anything in the actual animation.
Some have complained about the pacing of Moribito being a bit on the slow and deliberate side, but that does not show as much in this span of episodes as it does in some later ones. This block chugs along quite nicely, offering a fair share of action scenes and intrigue to complement its thoughtful, well-paced storytelling. All-in-all, it is an exceptionally strong start to a highly promising series.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Gorgeous artistry, excellent fight scenes, strong heroine, rich storytelling.
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