Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 28th 2009
Two-Packs - DVDs 5-6 and 7-8
Madame Torogai and Shuga each independently discover that the official history of New Yogo has obscured the truth about the Nyunga Ro Im, leading the former to uncover a deadly threat to Chagum which lurks in Nayug and the latter to find evidence that Chagum is still alive. A chance encounter leads to more perilous conflict as the Mikado's Hunters pursue Balsa and Chagum on their fact-finding mission to an isolated Yaku village, after which Balsa's group and Shuga's forces eventually come to an understanding: the prince is to be protected by Balsa while Shuga continues to look for clues in New Yogo's long-concealed true history about what, exactly, Chagum needs to do and how the dreadful Egg-Eater Ra Runga can be fended off, allowing the egg within Chagum to be born without killing Chagum. During a long winter in hiding, Chagum toughens up, learns to fight from Balsa, and finally hears the truth about Balsa's past with Jiguro. As the fateful day approaches, Balsa's group, Shuga, and the Hunters must all band together to oppose the Ra Runga and give Chagum a chance to complete his purpose. Staving off the upcoming drought, and thus the fate of the Empire, hangs in the balance.
As Moribito begins its second half, it leaves behind the flirtation with filler content which dominated the previous few episodes and gets back to its core plot: figuring out what, exactly, must be done with the mystical egg within Prince Chagum and what role he must play in helping to avoid the upcoming drought. The only distraction from this course is a two episode flashback arc detailing Balsa's past with Jiguro, but it is so well-executed and plays so directly into Balsa's underlying motivations for what she is doing in the current time that no one should have issue with it. In fact, “execution” is the word of the day for the series as a whole; no fantasy anime series made to date brings all of its story elements and production aspects together better than Moribito does, especially in its second half.
Such a grandiose statement may sound like hyperbole, but that is only true if the series cannot back up such a claim. This one can. Moribito is, without question, one of the best-looking anime series of any type ever made. It is Production I.G.'s visual masterpiece, complete with rich coloring, distinctive and beautifully-rendered character designs that even convincingly de-age characters (and my, wasn't Balsa a cutie at younger ages!), gorgeous selections of background art, and even inventive critter designs when dealing with the Ra Runga, important birds, and other spirits from Nayug. The artistry consistently stays on model, never showing the flaws that most other series eventually do, and even integrates its occasional use of CG effects very smoothly, which is an important consideration given the presence of some massed troop movement scenes. Its animation is crisp and smoothly-flowing, including dynamic and fully-detailed fight scenes that, surprisingly, never take shortcuts. That Production I.G. was able to create a movie-grade effort on a series budget is, frankly, astonishing.
Its fully orchestrated musical score is the only aspect of the series which is not brilliant, but even so it does its job very well. Scenes that are supposed to be intense never lack for intensity, and the deep, resonating beats suit the tone of the series well. Prominent towards the end is an insert song intended to represent a Yaku children's song relevant to the plot, which provides a nice complement to critical late scenes.
Even the most impressive visuals and music would not matter much if the story and writing were not there, but that is another of Moribito's strengths. This is a story with two distinct angles: one is the relationship that Balsa forms with Chagum and her motivations behind what she does, the other is the unraveling of a mystical puzzle whose true nature has been blurred by history. Both aspects can fascinate. Balsa's stern but caring and devoted treatment of Chagum established her as a motherly figure for Chagum earlier in the series, a dynamic which continues to allow Chagum to grow as a person and gives him the strength to face the deadly trials that befall him late in the series. Moreso than before, certain key scenes give the impression that Balsa's protection of Chagum is much more than just a job; it is a solemn commitment, the same kind that Jiguro made towards her when he took on the damning task of having to protect her during her childhood; as that two-episode arc plays out, the parallels between Balsa's childhood situation and Chagum's become increasingly clear, which also makes it absolutely clear why she took on this task in the first place and why she is reluctant to kill.
The mystical puzzle surrounding the Nyunga Ro Im never gets lost alongside that character development. As these episodes progress, the story deals with issues like history being falsified for political purposes and the way that vital old traditions can die out over time when one culture is absorbed into another. It also deals with how seemingly innocuous current traditions can provide vital clues to important events of the past. Too many series make these discoveries too easy; watching characters have to work for it, and figure things out on the fly based on past knowledge, is a treat.
Just as important as the mysteries being sorted out here and the relationships being built is the intelligence on display. Unlike so many other fantasy stories out there (or anime series in general, for that matter), these characters actually think things out and carefully strategize rather than just jumping into rash action; the warriors' assault on the mill early in this block of episodes is a perfect example of this. Sure, they sometimes act in ways that ultimately prove counterproductive, but that is nearly always from a lack of knowledge rather than recklessness. They are even willing to admit when mistakes have been made and change their viewpoints accordingly, which ultimately leaves no true villain in the story except the dreadful Ra Runga.
Bang Zoom! provided the English dub, and while it is not one of that institution's finest efforts, it is good enough to minimize quality drop-off from the Japanese dub. Cindy Robinson handles both old Balsa and young Balsa's emotional moments well and generally gives a convincing feeling of competence, experience, and motherly guidance to her role while still getting suitably intense when Balsa gets riled up. Barbara Goodson gives one of her career-best performances as crotchety old Torogai (and that's saying a lot, given that she has one of the longest anime voicing careers of any active VA), while Mona Marshall impresses as Chagum and Steve Cannon is solid as Shuga. In fact, the only major role which is even questionable is Peter Doyle's less-than-completely-smooth cadence as Touya. Secondary roles vary in performance quality but generally do not disappoint.
Media Blasters is one of the few companies that is not Viz Media still not only resolutely continuing to release series as singles, but doing so mostly with three-episode singles, a practice common in the first half of the decade but rarely-seen these days. Those with a bit of patience along the way could have picked up the Two-Pack sets, which bundle volumes 5-6 and 7-8, at the same time as the second volume in each pair and for a 30% reduction in price; in fact, if you are going back now and buying up the series, there is no point whatsoever in buying the singles instead of the Two-Packs unless you only happen to need one of those volumes. Sadly, none of the volumes offer any Extras.
Some may still complain about the pacing here, but now that the filler episodes have passed the story is too involving, and too many things are going on, for that criticism to have much legitimacy. Besides, those looking for a more dedicated action fantasy probably gave up many episodes earlier anyway. This is not a fantasy action series, but a true and full-blooded fantasy series at its finest. It even does a superb job of taking the more bare-bones original novel by Nahoko Uehashi and expanding it by enriching the characterizations and more thoroughly exploring the setting. Some details do get changed along the way – Chagum's relationship with his brother Sagum is entirely different in the book, for instance, and there was only one Ra Runga – but no one who read the book is likely to complain about how director Kenji Kamiyama handled things here. The end result makes this one of the decade's highlight anime series.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Top-of-the-line series artistry, animation, and storytelling, improves on source material.
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