Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 29th 2009
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Balsa has earned renown in New Yogo for her skill with the short-spear and proficiency as a bodyguard, so when she saves the life of Chagum, the Second Prince of New Yogo, during an accident, the Second Queen calls upon her to perform the most dangerous task of her life: protect young Chagum from the Hunters of the Mikado (Chagum's father and the ruler of New Yogo). Chagum, it seems, has been possessed by a spirit creature, an inconvenient truth in light of the Mikado's supposed divinity which may also be connected to portents of an upcoming drought cast by the influential Star Readers. As Balsa, Chagum, and the Star Reader Shuga eventually discover, though, Chagum is actually the centennially-appearing Moribito: the guardian of the egg of the water spirit Nyunga Ro Im, which implanted it within him for safekeeping and whose proper hatching is vital to ending the upcoming drought. The Mikado's Hunters are not the only threat Balsa faces, however, for the dreadful earth spirit Rarunga, which hunts for and seeks to eat the eggs of the Nyunga Ro Im, is also on the move. Balsa is not without her own resources, however, and in the relationship she forms with Chagum over the ensuing months she finds insight into her own relationship with the man who raised her and taught her to fight.
Nahoko Uehashi's 1996 fantasy novel, on which the 2007 anime series of the same name was based, was supposedly inspired by a seemingly innocuous minor scene in a random movie, but there is nothing innocuous about the franchise it established. The ten books in the Guardian series have sold more than 1.5 million copies in Japan and won Uehashi numerous Japanese literary awards, and it isn't hard to see why. With Moribito she crafts a rich fantasy world heavily grounded in ancient Japanese lore, and yet wholly its own creation, and uses it to tell an involving tale about a female warrior's struggle to protect a young prince from forces both natural and supernatural. That it took until 2007 to be turned into an anime series is somewhat surprising.
Moribito is classified as children's literature, and indeed it does have the feel and flow of writing aimed at younger readers. That can give it the false impression that it lacks the sophistication of comparable anime-germinating novels, although this may not be an entirely unwarranted criticism. Uehashi's strength clearly lies in her storytelling, deft handling of action scenes, and poetry, but not so much in the technical fine points of writing. It has no glaring errors but is a little too passive, sometimes a little too abrupt and/or inelegant in the handling of some scenes, and less than deft at painting some of its characterizations, especially of Balsa; the latter the anime version does far better.
Despite those flaws, the writing still spins some satisfyingly harrowing action scenes, evokes a proper sense of wonder in the spirit world of Nayugu, and assembles a remarkably intricate tale which gradually pulls bits and pieces of actual truth together out of a sea of lies and misinterpretations to assemble the complete Big Picture. Like any good fantasy novel, it crafts a rich setting alive with history, has a likeable hero, and even has a proper monster in Rarunga, a terror reminiscent of the dreaded Monster Under the Bed from childhood but with far nastier potential. When it finally arrives on the scene about three-quarters of the way through the book, the stage has been properly set and it does not disappoint.
Unlike with the recent The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya novel, this one can be looked upon more as an inspiration for the anime version than a direct source material. Many of the early scenes do, indeed, adapt directly into the anime, but a reader who has already seen at least the episodes broadcast on Adult Swim will quickly notice that the anime story was distinctly more fleshed out and took a markedly different direction beginning around the point where Balsa is recovering from injuries sustained in the first fight against the Hunters. The anime also established Balsa's character and motivations much better than does the novel, introduces a reluctance to kill into Balsa's actions that she does not have in the novel, and handles Crown Prince Sagum, and Sagum's relationship with Chagum, entirely differently.
Scholastic, Inc., a company not normally associated with anime-related titles, originally released the hardback version in June 2008, with the paperback version released in April 2009; the latter is the version reviewed here. Its 272 pages include two pages of Author's Notes, an extensive glossary, and an 11-page preview of the second novel (Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness), which is due out in May 2009. It also includes spread-page black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each of the three major parts and full-color cover art done in the style of classic Japanese artistry. The translation seems sound enough that there should be no major complaints, while its layout provides a more decorative flair than has been seen on most other translations of anime-related titles.
Though it may have flaws, the strengths of Moribito are more than enough to outweigh the weak points and probably sufficient to encourage readers to ignore said weak points. Fans of the anime may find it an especially interesting read for discovering the way the novel handles things differently, while newcomers should find it to be a worthwhile introduction to an interesting new franchise.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Interesting and surprisingly intricate storytelling, well-described action scenes, suitable monster.
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