After accepting the responsibility of caring for Prince Chagum, avoiding capture and making a country believe in their death, Balsa settles down into her new life. This presents many challenges as Chagum attempts to learn the ways of a commoner while Balsa remains vigilant in keeping their identities a secret. Based on the fantasy novels of Nahoko Uehashi, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito) continues with two more volumes that tone down the pace quite a bit.
What They Say
Balsa decides the best way to hide from the empire's Hunters is in plainsight. She creates a simple home for herself and Chagum in an old mill, and hopes to live with him in peace. The boy prince must learn to live among the commoners, but intelligence and sense of justice make him stand out. Balsa's new start is halted when she asks a local swordsmith to fix her damaged spear. He knows who she is, and the emperor's Hunters are also his clients. Balsa and Chagum are locked in a back room as the smith meets with the Hunters just a few feet away.
As Chagum develops, the power of the Egg exposes Balsa and the others to a layer of the world behind their five senses. To save Saya, Tanda crosses over to the spirit world. He finds it is not only difficult to go back, but perhaps he has even lost the desire return at all! Chagum's inner nobility demands he challenge a local bully twice his size, and when Balsa gets involved an old enemy recognizes her. He is a patient strategist and master warrior, who attacks her physically and psychologically in perfect concert in a test of skill, endurance and pure force of will.
Included on the disc are English and Japanese 2.0 stereo (192 kbps) mixes and 5.1 mixes (448/386 kbps). Again, I pretty much completely ignored the 2.0 tracks while performing some spot checks here and there. Both the English and Japanese 5.1 tracks sound strong with very good directional clarity. I did notice that the kbps dipped on volumes four on the 5.1 tracks. 448 kbps versus 386 kbps. I didn't notice any real difference between the two volumes, but it is still odd. The dialogue throughout the show is still clear with good placement and is especially good throughout episode thirteen. The only episode with what passes for any kind of "action" in this set of episodes. Finally, Bang Zoom's English dub remains to be a good all around effort so far.
This show is presented in a 1:78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for anamorphic widescreen playback. The encode averages between 7-8 Mbps throughout the entire set. Like last time, there are some minor issues (minor blocking and the ending is still the worst offender on the disc), but I completely forgot about them when settling into this beautiful show. The backgrounds are incredibly rich (episode eleven is a wonderful example), characters are detailed and the fight scene shown in the last episode of the set is an example that the dynamic action sequences seen in the first few episodes were no fluke. I especially love the intricate detail seen in the shadowing on the characters during the different times of the days. The subtle facial expressions are great as well.
The packaging for this series are DVD keep-case sized jewel cases. These are thinner, but wider cases than normal keepcases. These will still stick just a little bit farther out than the rest of your collection. The cover art for both volumes three and four both feature Balsa with the Star Reader Shuga and old mystic Torogai respectively. Each one is set against a nice piece of background imagery. Neither one are stand out covers but, for me, more Balsa is always appreciated. On the back features a set of screen shots from the episodes, a summary and the list of extras on each volume written on hanging cloths.The little booklet in each volume is only one page with a collection of line art on each side.
Again, I personally like the jewel case packaging. I do understand that it makes it a pain to store with the rest of your collection though. If the aim was to make the show stick out like a sore thumb on your shelf, mission accomplished.
The menu here is pretty straight forward with a static image that is a duplicate of that particular volume's cover art. The menu selections are easy to read with the volume's extras listed on the main menu individually instead of in another screen. In each selection, there is a different piece of looping music selections from the soundtrack. The pieces of music have pretty good length to them so it won't drive you crazy with super short, infinitely looping clips of music. No changed here.
The only extras included here were a collection of Moribito trailers and a Promo Film on volume three. The film is an advertising piece featuring Nahoko Uehashi and director Kenji Kamiyama talking about the work in a very general sense. Nothing in depth there but it is a neat little extra.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Having fooled everyone into thinking they are dead, Balsa and Chagum settle down into somewhat of a "normal" lifestyle. They have made a home out of an old water mill out on the countryside, away from any kind of trouble. As such, this set of episodes are much slower than the those that started out the series at a furious pace. There is even some filler that found their way into the show (all three episodes of volume four are filler and not from the source material). In all honestly, you could completely skip the entirety of volume four and you would be right in track with the main storyline. Since all of these episodes are pretty stand alone, here is what we have: The Star Reader Shuga struggling to deal with the "death" of Chagum, the streetwise Toya teaching Chagum the ways of a commoner, Chagum making friends, Toya's little girlfriend Saya falling ill, Chagum fighting in a ring and Balsa's past catching up to her.
The important focus here in this set is the development of Chagum into a smart, strong young man and Balsa's role as caring, nurturing "mother". Through his interactions with normal, everyday people, Chagum slowly begins to adapt to his new environment. He gains friends and even learns a thing or two about survival and haggling from Toya. When the two run across a gambling stand, Chagum displays a great intuition and suspects that the game may be rigged. He is tasked with proving his claims and does so with courage. He still comes off a little bit awkward, especially with his new set of friends, but his growth is fun to witness. Balsa is doing a fine job applying both a firm and soft hand in her care of Chagum. She instills in him the value of hard work and the worth of friendship and independence. Upon hearing the story of her caretaker, Jiguro, she looks to him for guidance as she follows in his footsteps. No matter what Chagum is up to though, Balsa is always watching him. Her newly reforged spear in hand.
The only episode on volume four worth discussing any deeper than casually is episode thirteen. Balsa is discovered by an old rival named Karbo who threatens to expose her if she doesn't fight him to the death. To further push Balsa, he targets a teacher and her companion which forces Balsa to act as an impromptu bodyguard. Using various tactics, he keeps Balsa on her toes and awake all night long to protect the travelers. Finally having enough of the games, Balsa draws her attacker out for a fierce battle that sees Balsa lose herself in the fight, breaking her vow and taking his life. In reality, this is not the case. She does not kill him and doesn't even seem to wound the man. As the episode ends, the travelers rush to inform her that she did not kill the man as she believes.
Everything about this episode on the production side is top notch. The animation, sound effects, music, and action are great. However, it is a black eye to the show up to this point. While the fight is a great piece of action, Balsa's character is completely changed for no discernible reason during the course of it. She is not the calm, cool and collected warrior we saw in the beginning of the show while she was under assault while protecting Chagum. She is portrayed as vicious, impatient and even a little boastful. She fully gave herself to the fight and casually "killing" her opponent. There were no signs of inner turmoil in the decision to do so in her mind. If she would not kill when her life was in complete danger at the start of the show, why should do resign herself to do so now? To protect her cover? To protect Chagum? In that case, she would have had to kill the two travelers as well. After all, what's stopping them from running to the Palace and informing them of a spear wielding woman seen in the countryside?
In the end, she did not kill the man. Whether it is because of her subconcious preventing her from doing so or even her new spear, we don't know. What I do know is that Balsa's character was tampered with for the purpose of attempting to tie a story told to her about a warrior who became a tiger. A warrior so obsessed on acquiring skill and power that he loses his sense of self. There's simply no way one can twist that story in order to apply it to Balsa without it coming off badly. Which it did. Luckily, one can choose to ignore this episode altogether. I would suggest going this route.
Picture yourself in a long distance race where you burst out of the gate and past the competition in all your glory. Then, picture yourself sucking air as you can only manage to walk while you gather yourself. Now picture that runner as Moribito. This set of episodes really slows the pace down and extends it with an entire volume of "take it or leave it" filler. One of which, you can just watch for everything but the plot. Chagum's maturation as a young man and Balsa's growth as a caretaker are the real meat in these six episodes but you will have to take your time to get to it. Moribito is still beautifully animated. It still has a great cast of characters. Its still anchored by a fantastic heroine. It is just dragging its feet after gassing itself out. I hope it recoups and attains its full potential that I saw so much of in its first seven episodes.
Japanese 2.0 and 5.1 Language, English 2.0 and 5.1 Language, English Subtitles
Samsung PN50A400 50" Plasma HDTV, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver, Yamaha 5.1 Surround Sound Speakers, PlayStation 3 Slim via HDMI @720p