An anime series with a realistic plot, beautiful animation and stunningly-executed fight scenes should be a runaway success, especially with a strong and intelligent woman as the lead.
Regrettably, network and distributor troubles gave Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Spirit) limited exposure to English-speaking audiences so it never enjoyed its rightful time in the sun.
The mind behind the show is no less spectacular. Moribito is based on a series of light novels written by Nahoko Uehashi, a PhD in cultural anthropology.
After being lucky enough to unearth this gem, I wanted to share the love.
A Review of Seirei no Moribito
AKA The Incredible Feminist Anime That’s Criminally Obscure
Seirei no Moribito begins by introducing viewers to Balsa, a spear-wielding, no-nonsense bodyguard who’s seeking to save eight lives in exchange for eight that were sacrificed to protect her. During her travels she comes across a royal procession carrying the second prince of the Yogo Empire, Chagum, who is thrown into danger under mysterious circumstances.
In a display of impressive heroics, Balsa saves the boy, then retreats as his retainers scramble to remedy the situation. Later on she’s intercepted by royal guards and reluctantly accepts a summons from the Second Empress to express her “thanks.”
I was immediately impressed with the show’s careful approach toward realism.
During the meeting it’s revealed the incident involving Chagum wasn’t so random after all. In fact, it was a calculated attempt on his life sanctioned by none other than the Mikado (emperor). Chagum had the misfortune of being chosen by a water demon to host its egg, which is expected to bring about ruin and drought to the empire.
The Second Empress begs Balsa to protect her child, seeing no other way to remove Chagum from harm’s way. As it happens, Balsa has saved seven lives so far, which would make Chagum the final eighth to end her debt. She accepts.
What follows is an exciting, mature and thoughtful show that will likely exceed your expectations.
The Right Way to Do Realism
I was immediately impressed with the show’s careful approach toward realism. Yes, it involves some magical aspects like the water demon and Nayug (spirit world), but these are dealt with in an even-headed manner and don’t overshadow character development. It was when real life situations occurred that I most appreciated Moribito‘s attention to detail.
The warriors show (not even grudging!) respect toward Balsa, admiring her skill and viewing her as a superior in battle.
For example, when the Second Empress asks Balsa to protect Chagum, she offers her a huge bag of money. More than most peasants would ever see in their lifetime. Balsa is almost comically unimpressed, and explains in no uncertain terms that using those coins would be pure idiocy, since they’re stamped with the royal seal and would be linked back to her.
It’s an obvious thing to note, yet how many anime would completely ignore those repercussions? Balsa does end up taking it, but Moribito never forgets the delicacy of her situation, and you see her hiding the money, portioning it out over time, saving it and sending others to use it in her stead.
This theme is carried throughout. Injuries are serious business, Balsa is muscular and wears sensible clothes, and even experienced warriors have trouble against multiple combatants. It’s such a relief when a series feels plausible and you know it isn’t going to test your suspension of disbelief.
You Can’t Hate Anyone
Pretty much everyone in Seirei no Moribito is likable. Balsa, Chagum, their friends and even the folks who initially seem bad. Take the hunters, who are a band of royal assassins sent to track down and kill Chagum and Balsa.
People are tired of “strong female characters” who are grandstanding types, pairing brash attitudes with (unrealistic) physical strength. Balsa is nothing like that.
While I don’t agree with the hunter’s actions, they do express regret and guilt over being required to perform such an awful service. The warriors show (not even grudging!) respect toward Balsa, admiring her skill and viewing her as a superior in battle.
When it comes to the main characters, I was initially worried about Chagum, expecting him to display the typical traits of displaced royalty: arrogance and distain. Instead, he’s shown to be a respectful, intelligent young man, showing discipline under stressful circumstances.
Several other characters defy expectations, with Tanda, Balsa’s long-time friend, acting as a mild-mannered healer. Torogai is Tanda’s mentor, a shaman who communicates with water spirits, wields powerful magic and gets shit done. She has an adorable pet bunny-pig-thing, and there are several moments when her gruff manner and outrageous events collide, providing humor amid a fairly serious series.
The animations are smooth, visuals are rich and Ghibli-esque, each attack feels like it carries real heft.
The crew is rounded out by Toya and Saya, two orphans Balsa saved during her sojourn. Balsa herself is, of course, fantastic. People are tired of “strong female characters” who are grandstanding types, pairing brash attitudes with (unrealistic) physical strength.
Balsa is nothing like that. She is indeed stoic, but she has her reasons, and she’s also smart, loyal, headstrong and loving in an understated way. She’s definitely become one of my favorite female characters not only in anime, but in a TV series overall.
Meaningful and Awesome Action
Since most of the battles in this series center around major plot points, I’m not going to describe too much here, but suffice to say that the action is stunning. The animations are smooth, visuals are rich and Ghibli-esque, each attack feels like it carries real heft.
This show doesn’t constantly throw fight scenes in your face, instead favoring the progression of steady plot development, which makes the combat even more impactful.
I was left dazed and starry-eyed after one battle in particular, in an episode where the fight has a big and draining lead-up. A story that initially seemed to be a “throwaway” is incorporated into the scene through an artistic depiction of Balsa’s rage and determination. I couldn’t help but rave about it afterwards, punctuated by a screech of, “Balsa is so cool!”
Seirei no Moribito follows a course of hills and valleys as the action ebbs and flows, which made perfect sense to me.
The surprising resolution of that fight is also connected to a prominent story from an earlier episode, which left me wondering, “Did that just happen!?” It was great. I’m not making sense right now, but to sum up, the action is not only epic but ties into plot progression. Nothing is there for the sake of creating shallow, whizz-bang fluff.
I have to be honest, though. There were moments I wish the show did feature more fight scenes because they were so well-executed and fun to watch.
A Few Lapses in Judgment
Do I have anything negative to say about Seirei no Moribito? Not a whole lot.
My main gripe is that in two instances, the plotting felt a little odd and forced. Again, I can’t go into details due to spoilers, but for a show that is so refreshingly good about being realistic, those few moments felt out of left field. Like they had to happen to push the plot a certain direction.
It felt very Japanese, in the sense of cultural values, and I liked that.
Truly though, these were minor disappointments that I don’t mind overlooking. The only other thing I’ve heard leveled against the show is that some people think it gets a little slow during the middle of its 26-episode run.
I’ve seen comments from U.S. viewers describing an episode that mostly involved talking/discussion of past events as dull. But ironically, it was one of my favorites. It revealed how Balsa’s history was linked to a current problem while illuminating the perspectives of both Balsa and her “enemies.”
The episode showed these warriors’ views weren’t so different after all, using themes that explored the meaning of honor and respect for life. It felt very Japanese in the sense of cultural values, and I liked that.
A Can’t-Miss Series
Seirei no Moribito follows a course of hills and valleys as the action ebbs and flows, which makes perfect sense to me. Like any series, whether you see it as well-paced or languid is a matter of perspective.
I believe that most people will greatly appreciate this show for its intelligence and artistry, but if you’re expecting constant battles just because, Moribito will feel slow during some episodes.
If, however, you like exploring the lives of the show’s unique main characters, watching their relationships grow and having those moments punctuated by action that surrounds a smart plot, this one will be sure to blow you away. Get the full series below.
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