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DVD Review

DVD cover

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Part 1


Starring (voice): Mabuki Andou, Naoto Adachi and Kouji Tsujitani
RRP: £24.99
Certificate: 12
Available 20 September 2010

At a time when the balance of nature still held the civilizations of mankind in thrall, a single drought could spell the end of a society and doom its inhabitants to piteous deaths. Prince Chagum has been imbued with the power to stave off the drought and bring new life to his empire. However, this is a suspicious time, and he is accused of possession by an evil spirit. Court advisors only see one solution: Chagum must be put to death by his own father's hand. His salvation is in the form of Balsa, a spear woman and mercenary from Kanbal, the kingdom across the mountains. Her skills are legendary, and although reluctant, she is held by a mysterious vow to save eight souls before she dies. Can she fend off an entire empire and make Chagum her eighth soul...?

'Strong female character' is a descriptive term that gets thrown around a lot in reviews, often with the implication that audience members, particularly the females, should automatically like and admire the character in question and extend that approval to the rest of the work (and the reviewer's good taste). A lot of the time when it comes to genre fiction, it means little more than a female character who's physically competent and good in a fight, no matter how weak her characterisation might be in other areas or how she might be objectified and compromised by the author's choices. It's true that Balsa, the heroine of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, gets into and out of a lot of fights, but as we'll see, she rises above the clichés of action-girl territory with ease. That's just the starting point for a series that impressed me from the outset and, by the halfway point where this release closes, had me thoroughly gripped.

It's no exaggeration to say that at times Moribito approaches the level of Hayao Miyazaki's best works with its attention to detail, depth of characterisation and most particularly, in the main character's determination to carry out her duties as a bodyguard without killing and doing the minimum of harm. Balsa's shrewdness, insight and resourcefulness in staying out of trouble wherever possible, yet once in a fight ensuring it ends quickly, decisively and without needless bloodshed, is once unusual and something that only gradually becomes evident: in her early skirmishes with her young charge's pursuers she seems to be ruthlessly efficient, yet as the lightly injured guards reflect in a later scene, she has a gift for tactical thinking and misdirection that's without bloodlust or cruelty. This scene further illustrates Moribito's strengths, as the initially faceless guards quickly prove to have distinct and likeable personalities of their own; from the soldiers and peasants of the kingdom to the hustlers and gangsters that Balsa and Chagum tangle with later on, through the isolated nobles of the court and the astrologer-priests whose divinations control its every decision, the characters are variously heroic, noble, petty, selfish or everyday, but never evil. Even the seemingly cruel decisions the king and his advisors make over the prince's fate are believably drawn with the fate of the country in mind and tainted with regret; it's not until the final episode of season one that an authentically vicious character makes his appearance.

This first release of two in the series breaks down more or less evenly across its two discs, with the seven episodes on the first disc devoted to Balsa's recruitment, the intrigues of the court, the main characters' efforts to flee the kingdom and the mysteries of the supposed curse carried by Prince Chagum. With disc two the pace slows considerably as the characters find a place to call home and Chagum begins to adjust to life as a commoner, with room for the supporting cast to grow alongside the leads. The later episodes might be leisurely, yet they're no less gripping - Chagum and his friend Toya's efforts to expose a crooked street hustler are unexpectedly tense, and the medicine-seller Tanda's vision of the 'other world' that lies beyond conventional sight has hallucinatory power. It's testament to the skill of director Kenji Kamiyama and the writing staff that the most light-hearted episode provides the setup for a shocking reminder of Balsa's violent legacy and the difficulty of the path she's chosen for herself, ending the first volume of Moribito with a conclusion that's more compelling than any simple cliff-hanger.

Moribito is a beautiful-looking series, with Production IG having brought the expertise on display in previous shows such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex to bear on creating a wholly credible fantasy world: the Heian-era romance of the court, the bustling town markets and foodstalls, the mystical forests and mountains haunted by gargantuan wolf-spirits and shamanic catfish-men, all are rendered with such that the occasionally intrusive use of CG animation is easily disregarded. The cast is eminently likeable, with Chagum quickly bypassing the usual incognito-prince standbys to emerge as an insightful and sincere young boy, and Balsa herself ties everything together with a screen presence that's never merely tough or blandly compassionate, but always compelling to watch. A delight of a first season and a highly recommended release.


Richard Hunt

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