Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit

It is difficult not to gush over an intelligent anime that respects its characters, is filled with solid storytelling, and gives us a break from the genre expectations so common to this hobby. When it happens, you just want to yell out from the rooftops, "I found one!!" More surprising to me is when I find a program that has all those elements that leaves me merely saying, "Well, that was good." Such was the case with Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit. It was an enjoyable watch that did its slot on Adult Swim proud. I wouldn't quibble with seeing it again. I just wish it had found its way from being solid to being great.

Balsa's a standout for a number of reasons. One is that she's a spear-wielding bodyguard, an extremely rare profession for a woman. The second is that she can best virtually any man -- or legion of men, actually -- that stands against her. Third is her desperate refusal to kill those who would be more than happy to separate her head from her shoulders. As the show begins, Balsa happens to be in the right place and time to rescue Prince Chagum, the youngster second in line to the throne. Soon afterwards, Balsa is given a mission by Chagum's mother: take him and run. For various political reasons, Chagum is in danger...not least of which is that he is carrying a special water spirit inside of him. The country's legends all have it that this thing is some kind of demon, but it's's an egg, essentially, that must come to term properly if their world is to have any water for the next hundred years.

Balsa's skills keep them alive as they make their way from place to place with the help of her friends. Meanwhile, prophets and warriors alike become a part of the hunt, gaining admiration for Balsa as they become more aware of the unique and dangerous circumstances surrounding the prince and his flight. But as the story progresses, one thing seems certain...unless a miracle happens, Chagum is marked for death. The legends all bear witness to the fact that the spirit bearer must sacrifice himself to complete his mission...or is there another way?

The anime shown on Cartoon Network's late-night slots have a habit of being among the best animated shows on the market today, and Moribito is no exception. Most of the players share a uniformly natural look without typical anime exaggerations -- think Ghost In The Shell or Wolf's Rain, and you'll get the idea. Most of the episodes lack tons of action, but the crew pulls out the stops at appropriate times. If you're a discerning fan that appreciates high technical merits, you'll appreciate this show. (And while L'Arc~en~Ceil's opening theme song isn't quite as catchy as their "Ready Steady Go" from the original Fullmetal Alchemist, "Shine" is still quite good.)

Moribito has plenty for any mature anime fan to enjoy...and when I say "mature," I mean someone who can appreciate a slower-moving narrative where payoffs aren't necessary made every episode. While Moribito has a few great chases and battles, it's more of a drama than an action series. We don't have every character's story right up front, but once we learn their backgrounds, we empathize with them more. Even many of the secondary personalities are intriguing.

Even during some obvious filler episodes, like one where Chagum figures out a swindler's way of manipulating a game of chance, we feel like the leads are growing up or growing closer. We never feel like we're standing in place. And while there are a couple of nasty guys encountered during the show's run, Balsa's enemies are usually not evil so much as trying to follow orders when it's not certain whether those orders are in the best interests of king and country. There are antagonists, but no villains. Most anime have little sense of that kind of moral complexity, and I sincerely enjoyed it. And for those who are tired of enigmatic endings, know that Morobito has a satisfying denouement.

The troubles with Moribito are not major, but when a series excels, its failures can be all the more disappointing. A few of them spring from the problem (recognized in interviews by the show's director) that the novel on which it was based had less plot than the twenty-six episodes required. As such, some episodes genuinely don't have much going on of importance. But for me, there are two other issues that distract from the whole. One is that we don't get the sense of other-worldliness necessary for us to believe in the whole narrative. It looks like feudal Asia. While the world is not our own -- the dual moons and other similar conceits prove that -- parts of it like the water spirit realm were never explored in enough depth for it to come alive in my imagination. Even when worlds collide in the final few episodes, it's not terribly convincing. The other problem is that the stakes never feel high enough in the conclusion. We're told that failure could destroy this world, but we don't feel it. The intensity of the first few episodes makes them the high-water point of the series; had the conclusion come close to the same magnitude, this title would be considered a classic. As it is, the finale is far from anti-climatic, but it lacked the power it needed to engage me fully.

If someone were to tell me Moribito was one of their favorite anime, I would sincerely respect that. There's a lot to like here, and I genuinely wished I loved it. Even though I don't, I'm glad I watched it and would recommend it to anyone looking for a grounded fantasy anime. It lacks the finesse and power of the very best anime I've seen, but it's packed with great moments. I'd take a smart show like this that doesn't pander to its audience any day of the week over most of the anime programming being churned out today.

Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit -- violence, mild language -- A-