In The Year 2000: Moribito, Guardian of the Spirit

Think of all the anime titles you could show to someone who is not already a fan of the medium. Imagine this person is relatively open minded, but adverse to excessive blood and gore, lurid sexual comedy and/or general transgression for transgression’s sake. Depending on your own tastes, that narrows the selection down a bit, doesn’t it?

“But,” the Colony Drop reader says, “wouldn’t a show devoid of all the above result in a watered-down, design-by-committee pile of pap?” Not always. In 2007, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit showed that it was still possible to create anime that can be enjoyed by everyone. And I mean everyone, because, at the end of the day, Moribito is a children’s show — the kind that should really be shown to kids.

One of the recurring themes in the anime fandom “dialog” these days is the debate, and/or mourning, over who the next big-name directors are going to be. The 1970s and 80s played host to a wellspring of directorial talent forged in the crucible of studios like Mushi Productions and individual shows and movies like Space Battleship Yamato, Rose of Versailles and Macross: Do You Remember Love. For a whole slew of reasons, none of them very pretty, it seems to many as if the crucible has grown cracked and crumbled outright since the early 00s.

Who are the successors to names like Osamu Dezaki, Noboru Ishiguro, Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii? The talent pool seems shallow indeed. Madhouse has Mamoru Hosoda. BONES has Masahiro Ando. Studio 4C has Masaki Yuasa. Ghibli has—yeah, we’ll get back to you on that. But Production IG boasts one of the most promising in Kenji Kamiyama. Some say that the veneer of promise has begun to show cracks, after the perceived shortcomings of the TV series Eden of the East and its accompanying film, and they are not completely off-base. For the vast majority of the decade, however, Kamiyama proved to be one of anime’s most talented princelings, and Moribito is still among the brightest jewels in his crown.

Looking at Kamiyama’s body of work preceding Moribito, it is a bit hard to imagine him as the creator of a highly accessible anime. Kamiyama cut his teeth on sequels and spinoffs of projects by his mentor, a guy named Mamoru Oshii. Some of his earliest work with Production IG was on the staff of Patlabor 2 in 1993, a property he revisited in the early 00s with Minipato, a companion piece to the third Patlabor film consisting of several omake-style shorts in which papercraft-and-crayon versions of the cast pontificate on the science-fiction technology that appears throughout the show. His debut as a series director, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, was based on yet another franchise previously adapted by Oshii. None of these works are particularly accessible. Patlabor 2 is a dense, complex political thriller about the nature of liberal democracy and its relationship with violence and war. Ghost in the Shell follows a similar vein with a larger focus on the convergence of ontological philosophy with cybernetic technology.

In fact, throughout the 90s (arguably even starting with Red Photon Zillion, the studio’s first project from when it was still a part of Tatsunoko Productions) many of Production IG’s most notable works followed the formula established by GITS and the Patlabor films: A crack team of paramilitary operators investigates crimes, supernatural happenings and/or terrorism in a near-future, terrestrial setting. So I was more than a bit incredulous when I heard that IG’s new flagship television series would be a fantasy story based on a young adult novel and directed by Kenji Kamiyama.

Moribito is fantasy fiction for people who dislike fantasy. Magic and supernatural elements are kept to a minimum, only being deployed as plot devices where it is absolutely necessary. In similar fashion, combat is sparse and sporadic throughout—making it all the more gripping when it is finally unleashed: sudden paroxysms of (very well-directed and animated) violence abbreviating what is otherwise an introspective and down-tempo narrative.

The closest anime comparison I can think of is Studio Pierrot’s The Twelve Kingdoms, another fantasy TV series of the 00s. Both series’ strive for a sort of fantasy “naturalism,” where a made-up world and fantastical creatures, nations and cultures are no reason for human beings to not act like human beings. For similar reasons, Moribito reminded me of everything I like about Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, my two favorite Ghibli works. In all of them is a tendency towards the picaresque, a spirit of invention and sense of wonderment, but always tempered with a hard, sharp edge sheathed just underneath the soft fuzzy exterior. Characters struggle to do the right thing, but they also hurt each other, physically and emotionally. Magical powers might exist to varying degrees, but they are never a hand-wave explanation to excuse an absence of the factionalism and tribalism to which humans will always be prone.

Unlike Twelve Kingdoms or Nausicaa, however, Moribito eschews large-lens views of the movements of nations and armies in favor of a far more personal approach. The story is about Balsa, an adept spear-wielder in her early 30s from the harsh Nepal-like kingdom of Kambal. At first glance Balsa is not an unusual protagonist for a Production IG anime: a semi-nomadic mercenary bodyguard taking jobs to make amends to the souls of the people she killed in the past. My eternal half-joke about Moribito is to describe it as “The Adventures of Major Kusanagi in a Cloak with a Spear.” Like the Major, Balsa is an even-tempered professional warrior who functions off a highly personalized code of ethics, and like the Standalone Complex rendition of her cyborg counterpart, she also has a soft spot for children, a quirk that speaks to both of their personal conditions, and serves as the impetus for the major plot point of Moribito.

Balsa finds herself a new job right in the backyard of her base of operations in the idyllic Yogo Empire. She is entrusted with spiriting away and raising the emperor’s younger son, Chagum, who has been implicated in trouble equal parts mystical prophecy and palace intrigue. Sent after them is a detachment of secretive warriors tied to the cabal of Star Readers, the Yogo emperor’s fortunetellers and mandarins.

Kamiyama manages to imbue every side of the story’s central conflict with credible rationale for why they do the things they do. This is not the stock standard throwaway rationales that crop up in a lot of other fantasy fiction — “I’m a mass murderer with swastikas on the backs of my hands because my twin brother left me alone in the woods during a game of hide-and-seek!” — but material vaguely relatable to actual human beings. The emperor does not want Chagum to be killed, but knows his first responsibility above all others is to maintain the prosperity of the empire. None of the Star Readers take any sadistic glee for sadistic glee’s sake in mandating the death of an imperial heir, but believe in their own prophecies with utter conviction. To do any differently would be to question their own legitimacy as the emperor’s advisers.

I can see how some could turn this around on its pommel to thrust out as a criticism. When every character is trying to do “the right thing,” who am I supposed to root for? This criticism is ridiculous bordering on redonkulous. If anything, a full cast of developed, sympathetic characters heightens dramatic impact.

Chagum, the character central to the story’s forward motion, could have easily been horrible. After all, the default approach to depicting child nobility is as the living embodiment of everything spoiled, beastly and venal about feudal bourgeoisie. In contrast, Chagum is noble, in every sense of the word, to the point of fault. There is a distinctly Confucian aspect to his character, the sensation of a youth who has spent the few years of his life being inundated with notions of duty to the state, self-sacrifice and self-denial. Rather than throw hissy fits and whine over his fate of having to live as a pretend commoner for the rest of his life, he steels his face and compartmentalizes the trauma behind the facade.

Sheltered for years in Yogo’s equivalent of the Forbidden City, Chagum is clueless not just on how to live by himself, but on how to live for himself. Scenes abound in which he is left baffled on the concept of playing with other children, or simply taking time for recreation itself. In one episode Chagum and another boy find a group of people playing a game of pseudo-roulette in the shadow of a raised dirt bridge. While his friend’s first impulse is to put down a bet, Chagum’s first impulse is to analyze the mechanics of the game, looking for slants in the system that tip the odds towards the unsavory dealers and slide the coins into their wallets.

The confrontation between the imperial heir and the street grifters (with Balsa watching from a safe distance) is as clear an illustration of the best in Chagum’s character as any, as well as the most quixotically noble. In a later scene, however, the cracks in façade become clear.

When Chagum is no longer able to take his fate with a stiff upper lip, though, the viewer’s reaction is not one of distaste, but of real sympathy. What he rails against is something everyone moving into adulthood has felt: the feeling of being a means to an end, an empty vessel for the dreams and obsessions of others. Sometimes one grows tired of being “the responsible one,” the one who never voices complaint and always takes it on the chin for the rest of the team. Kamiyama’s directing is such that said nuance shines through. Chagum is portrayed as the keystone to so many characters in the cast; as such, he bears the weight of every other stone in the arch.

Someone once said the trick to strong characterization is to create inherently likable people, then subject them to horrible hardship. In that vein, the conflicts in Moribito take on a baleful, dolorous aspect. Violence, as rare it is, comes with real consequences and brutal intensity for all involved. As other CD staffers have commented, the viewer begins to dread the coming of every fight with the sensation one feels when two people they hold in high regard are fated to collide and hurt each other.

Moribito‘s strong characterization would be far less effective had the characters not been given an interesting world to inhabit. Yogo is portrayed like the romanticized images of imperial China’s more vibrant dynasties, such as Tang of the First Century AD and Song in the Second. The resemblance is not merely a visual one. Kamiyama and author Nahoko Uehashi sound out echoes of China throughout Moribito‘s picaresque depictions of Yogo culture and daily life.

In the Star Readers one is reminded of the conclaves of Daoist diviners and Confucian bureaucrats that surrounded so many of China’s emperors and influenced their daily affairs. In the prophecies surrounding Chagum, all of which center around the onset of ruinous drought and famine, there is a reflection of the old view of the Chinese emperors as the custodians of the Yangtze, the river around which Han culture first developed. Like the Chinese emperors, rulers of Yogo pay special attention to the state of their empire’s river and irrigation systems, knowing that the collapse of previous dynasties has almost always coincided with the failure of aforementioned systems. Like any real empire, Yogo also deals with the issue of ethnic minorities that fall under its stead. The Yakoo, a sort of mish-mash of the people of Southwestern Chinese regions like Yunnan cut with a dose Japan’s Ainu for good measure, live on the fringes of Yogo society, despite having a larger influence on the foundations of its culture than many would think.

Moribito is in that now-rarified vein of animated series: the true “world-class” Japan cartoon that can be watched and enjoyed by virtually anyone. Show Moribito to someone who has never watched anime before (as rare as that has become nowadays). Show it to someone who has watched every anime under the sun, grown cynical and disgusted with the medium and convinced that it has nothing more to offer. Show it to history otaku and fantasy buffs. And, yes, show it to kids.

Moribito is the sort of kids’ show that needs to be made, full of lessons about “outmoded” and “archaic” values such as honor, personal ethics and doing the right thing, even when it looks like no one will pat you on the back for it, or even recognize that you’ve done anything. I pat Kenji Kamiyama and Production IG on the back for making this kind of show in 2007. Along with Michiko and Hatchin, here lies one of the missing links of world-class Japanese animation of the 00s.


  1. I agree completely with this. Moribito was excellent in all the ways you outline here. The only place I felt it fell down was in the denouement, which wasn’t quite as complete and satisfying as it could have been.

    I’ve mentioned before on here about Kemono no Souja Erin, which was based on books by the same author, albeit aimed at a rather younger audience, and which I think shares the strong points of Moribito (and I will fight anyone who says otherwise). I think Erin draws together all the story threads, both epic and personal, more fully, and also explores the parallels between the small scale incidents and larger events in a way that children can grasp.

    But yeah, as a series to show someone unfamiliar with anime, there are few shows more ideal than Moribito. It’s a truly lovely production on pretty much all levels.

  2. The best part about Mark writing this is I’m forever free of trying to compose my thoughts on this show intelligently. He’s said it far, far better than I could hope to. Watch this show, damn it!

  3. Good review. I normally like action series, but when I watched Moribito, I liked it, despite the lack of action scenes in most of the show, because something about it just felt right but couldn’t exactly put my finger on what it was.

  4. I have. And bought the damn books. I think it’s worth mentioning that the 2nd book which follow Balsa’s story is available in English.

  5. Probably one of my favorite series of the last decade, if not, from all time.

  6. Nice review. I Can’t wait to give this a look now. Good to see a shout out for Kemono no Souja Erin. I am 7 episodes in and eager to learn more about the world and characters, seems like it is going to build up to something quite great.

  7. Mark, great article on a great series. No need to add to what’s been said by you and others.

    Except that, this show was fantastic, it’s a true gem, and someday, I hope to read the novels.

  8. The entire series has recently been added to Netflix’s HD streaming content. FYI, in case this bugs you – It’s the English dubbed version. I’m four episodes in and digging it so far!

  9. I’m pretty sure “I’m a mass murderer with swastikas on the backs of my hands because my twin brother left me alone in the woods during a game of hide-and-seek!” will be airing this spring.

  10. I’m not sure what you mean by “the perceived shortcomings of … Eden of the East.” That series has gotten really nothing but praise from critics. The only real distain from the show has been from fairly dumb people for dumb reasons (very similar to the distain Moribito gets because of its “filler” and “slow pace” from those morons who lack the ability to see the value of the stand alone episodes in the context of character-related aspects) such as finding issue with or being ignorant to the 11 episode, 2 movie format of the series (causing them to proclaim that the show is unresolved and rushed) and from those whose recognition of realism-based quality in character design is so broken by years of shonens that they judge the characters as boring and uninteresting (precisely because the lack of an “interesting,” implausible traumatic scenario like you described); and I certainly am not aware of any serious dialogue in the community about EotE’s poor reflection on Kamiyama.

    A+ Review though, a thoroughly entertaining read.

  11. Huh, seems I completely missed this. Looks interesting. I’m not nearly so great a fan of Kamiyama as you seem to be though. GITS SAC left a lot to be desired both in terms of story and story-telling. Hopefully the fact that this is based on someone else’s work improves matters.

    Also, sorry to nitpick, but “feudal bourgeoisie” isn’t what you think it means.

  12. RW, I’d be interested in hearing what was problematic about GitS SAC’s story and storytelling, and compared to what. The only issue I found was the directoral and stylistic inconsistencies of the first fourth-or-so of Stand Alone episode of season one when compared to the rest of the series (i.e., too much “badass cop” crap: speeding scars, endless sarcasm, ect…). Also, just so you know, GitS SAC was based on other material also; only the central plots were entirely original.

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