Based on the first volume in a series of fantasy novels by Nahoko Uehashi, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit – Complete Series is a 26 episode televised anime seeing its full release as a DVD set through Viz Media. Set in an alternate historical Japan, the series centers on Balsa, a tough spear-wielding bodyguard, and her charge, a young boy prince from New Yogo who has assassins pursuing him. Suspected of being possessed by a demonic water spirit whose birth will lead to a devastating drought, Prince Chagum is considered a threat to the realm by the Mikado, who has dispatched this group of secret soldiers.
Fortunately for Chagum, Balsa proves to be one tough cookie. Seeking to atone for the deaths of eight souls for whom she feels responsible, the bodyguard strives to protect the young prince without taking any lives. Doesn’t hurt that she’s a kick-ass fighter, of course, or that the Mikado can’t openly admit to ordering the death of an heir to the throne. Aiding Balsa are a pair of scrappy orphans, a sorceress named Madame Torogai and an herbalist named Tanda, who we quickly realize has a thing for Balsa though neither character openly acknowledges it. (Perhaps in a later volume in the books?) Straddling both sides of this conflict is a long-haired Star Reader named Shuga, who strives to determine if the prophecy surround Chagum’s water spirit has been properly deciphered.
Deliberately paced, with moments of strong character development interspersed with well realized (rather bloodless) fight sequences, Moribito has long held a reputation as one of the better anime adaptations out there, in large part due to its strong heroine and a plot that ultimately respects each of its characters. If a few of the secondaries (most notably Madame Torogai and the buck-toothed orphan Toya) appear at first to be a bit more cartoonish than the rest, they’re never made the victim of a cheesy punchline. Even Balsa’s adversaries, the squad of secret soldiers sent out after Prince Chagum, aren’t cardboard villains. Too, the subplot following Star Reader Shuga’s investigation into the labyrinthine history of Chagum’s water spirit, all the while trying to keep his head down in the palace, is particularly engaging.
If Moribito shares the same flaw that a lot of televised series have – occasional side track episodes obviously designed to fill out the full season – it doesn’t detract from the series as a whole. Beautifully visualized by Kenji Kamiyama and the Production I.G. team, the series possesses a variety of gorgeously realized settings, both in the “real” world and the underwater spirit world, which we first see through Madame Torogai’s travels. Watching the series, I switched back and forth between English dubbed and Japanese subtitled versions and found both to be suited to the material. The four-disc DVD set contains a few special features (trailers, pilot film, a discussion panel and press conference), but none of these really added to my appreciation of the series – nor did it need to. As a well-wrought anime teleseries, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit stands on its own.
A good introduction to those viewers only familiar with more kid-directed television anime.