I loved it, and I watched a lot of it, but there were certain things that I kept seeing all the time that just made puzzled, confused, and...well, honestly, it made me fascinated by the cultural aspects of a nation that would shape their entertainment this way when it was clearly so different from American entertainment.
For instance, I could go on and on and on about how only teenagers are able to save the world. Whether it's being the best pilots of giant mechanical armor suits, the best magic-wielders, the best soldiers, or just the best at, well, anything, Japan seems to flourish in its animation by having it feature teenagers that the audience connects with.
That isn't to say that American studios don't do the same thing. Harry Potter is a pretty good example of "hey, this kid could be YOU, he's so bland!" Lots of cartoons for kids feature either children or teenagers as the stars, whether they're turtles fighting ninjas or just someone with two wacky magic-casting fairy godparents.
But look at some of the biggest names in movies these days. Iron Man, Batman, Superman, Captain America, these aren't kids. Robin was originally introduced to the Batman mythos because someone at some point realized it's easier for children to connect with "a kid who really loves Batman" than "Batman."
I'm getting drastically off-topic, but this is one of the many tropes that I didn't expect this series to not just avoid, but stomp on in full view of the audience.
It's easily one of my favorite things I've seen this year.
First, let's look at the history.
Moribito started out as a book series that initially came out in the 90's in Japan, continuing well into the 2010s with the release of the ninth volume in 2012. The series is insanely popular in Japan, being converted into radio plays, manga, and an animated series was created based on the first volume, "Guardian of the Spirit."
The lead of this story is Balsa, a female warrior who's also an outsider to the kingdom she's currently in, having been born in a neighboring nation. She wields a short spear, works as a bodyguard, and, as she states in one of her first on screen moments, is "almost thirty."
|This is Balsa. In a perfect world, we're married.|
Balsa winds up being the protector of the young prince Chagum, believed to be the host to a magical/spiritual egg containing an evil spirit/demon. Chagum's father, the Emperor, has ordered Chagum's death in order to save his nation from the drought it's believed the spirit inside his son will unleash if the egg hatches.
Now, having watched anime for years, this is what I expected:
1) Chagum's going to be an annoying brat, used to being spoiled and refusing to "lower" himself to being like one of the common people while he and Balsa are hiding.
2) The emperor is going to be a cruel, heartless man, who might have emotions connected to needing to kill his son, but will never show them. Ever.
3) Someone, somewhere, is an evil master manipulator behind it all, and will be twirling their mustache while plot machinations will come together.
4) There will be a heartbreaking death of a character partway through the series.
5) The people tasked with hunting Balsa will initially be bad ass when they confront her, but if they aren't flat-out killed by her, they'll turn into buffoons and incompetents who spend a lot of time doing pratfalls, being horny, or becoming more and more evil as they fail to beat the hero.
Only one of those things happened. I won't spoil which.
Moribito is a series that has something going for it that I can rarely say about any series I've watched, American or Japanese: there are no bad characters. Every character in this story has a role to play, no matter how minor it initially seems to be when you first meet them. Children who could come across as annoying in any other series instead show bravery and compassion at key moments. Warriors don't simply charge blindly into battle, but sit and contemplate the orders they've been given, and respect their opponent. "Bad guy" bosses whose minions lose to the hero don't immediately order them killed, but instead ask them to "please heal" and seems to care about their well-being. The manipulators are open to new ideas and are willing to completely change their point of view when presented with new evidence contradicting what they believed. The Emperor actually cries at one point while discussing how he regrets needing to have his son killed.
There's really only one character through the whole series that I could qualify as being genuinely "evil" but he's...well, I won't spoil too much, but he only shows up for a short time and then leaves the story completely.
There are also lots of interesting background story details that the series expands on. The nation is made up of two tribes of people, one of which is more "absorbed" into the other, with just a few small villages on the outskirts of the nation that still hold to the old beliefs. There are two worlds, the normal one we can all see and connect with, and a spirit world filled with elemental spirits that keep each other in balance, no side getting stronger against the others.
The series flaunts how much it doesn't want to play with classic story habits of other anime series, making every character sympathetic and, in their own way, likable. A friend of mine who I've started to get to watch it protested a few episodes in, because there was nobody to "hate." They're still watching it. With vigor.
The story is also willing to focus on character development, allowing many episodes in a row to go by with either minimal or no combat. I commented to one friend, "I just watched an episode where someone went around the land looking for signs in nature that a drought was still coming, and that would easily be the most boring episode synopsis I could ever imagine...yet I was riveted to every minute." By letting these characters grow, we feel a connection to each one, and every time the various factions start to come together, you find yourself silently hoping that there won't be some "wacky misunderstanding" or someone "won't get a moment to speak" and explain everything...and it doesn't happen. People who talk each get a chance to say their piece, and neither side leaves the confrontation as certain about their beliefs any more (except for Balsa, whose only belief is "protect the child.")
This is, by far, one of the best anime I've seen in years, probably taking a place in the top three I've ever watched. You care about these characters, and the series doesn't jerk you around with them like, say, a certain hugely popular book series/TV series does. Each character is intelligent in their own way, able to contribute to the story instead of simply being set dressing or something that drags the story down. The climax of the story is a perfect conclusion to everything that's been building up for the whole series, with sacrifice, bravery, and characters finally confronting each other to learn the truth about the whole situation they all find themselves trying to find the right solution to.
If you take one recommendation from this blog this year, have it be that Team Ninja needs to stop. Just, seriously, guys, stop.
But if you want a great series to watch that will leave you wanting more after every episode (and silently praying with me that the other books will be released on this side of the ocean, and loudly praying that the books will also be turned into their own animated series), watch this one.
Really, you guys, it's great.
Also, side note, if Balsa's design wasn't lifted for Korra from the Legend of Korra series, I'll be amazed at the coincidence.