Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit Vol. #1 (of 6) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Monday, December 22, 2008
Release Date: Tuesday, November 04, 2008

When a wandering bodyguard finds herself caught up in a situation that places a prince under her guard, her life on the run begins across the countryside.

What They Say:
She carries the pain of eight souls. He carries the burden of one sacred spirit.

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?
 

What We Say:
Audio:
Media Blasters has a pretty good selection of mixes here with four audio tracks, two of which are relatively unnecessary if DVD players are built properly. The Japanese and English language mixes are presented in both a 5.1 mix and a 2.0 mix to ensure the best overall playback. The stereo mixes are done in a standard minimal 192kbps encoding while the 5.1 mixes get the full 448kbps. The 5.1 mixes almost feel like overkill for a lot of this since it’s basic dialogue and little more for the bulk of the episodes. When the big action scenes do kick in, the mix comes across a bit more dynamic but not in a way where it’s really strong. The mix is used more for accent and clarity of placement more than overall impact. We only spent a little bit of time on the stereo mixes and they came across well, stronger with the forward soundstage, but there isn’t a huge world of difference between the two.

Video:
Originally airing throughout 2007, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. With very strong production values by Production I.G., the transfer for this is pretty disappointing in a lot of ways. The bitrate hovers in the sixes and sevens for a lot of it, but there’s a good deal of blocking and noise along the way that keeps it from looking clean and fluid. While some amount of noise is expected, it seems to be stronger than it should be and a lot of scenes come across poorly because of it. The ending sequence in particular, where it shifts from the dark blue to the lighter blue with the headshot of Chagum, really showcases a good deal of banding and blocking as it goes along. Colors look good in general and there isn’t any over saturation nor is there any visible cross coloration. With such a high marquee value title, the transfer overall here left me feeling fairly disappointed. In shifting to smaller and smaller sets (to a 50” plasma and a 34” HDTV), it looked stronger and more solid. But the larger the display, the more visible the issues.

Packaging:
Media Blasters has always tried different things with their package designs and Moribito is no exception – unfortunately. This release is another sideways piece from the company which looks great with its artwork of Balsa and Chagum together against the mountain range. The character artwork is strong and the background is highly appealing with its colors, especially with the lengthy layout. The downside is that they put it in a large jewel case that’s keepcase sized. Other than a few music releases in the US and a number of Japanese releases, you don’t see these kinds of cases often. They’re thinner than keepcases but the non-standard aspect is certainly going to annoy some, especially those that try to transition them to regular keepcases since they don’t fit in all that well. The back cover is nicely done with the background from the front cover extended here along with a few shots from the show. The summary runs through the predictable basics of what to expect and there’s a listing of the discs extras as well. The production information and technical grid is solid as always and comes across in a very easy to read fashion.

The front cover for this release doubles as the booklet as well. The interior opens up to several pieces of character concept design items as well as some nice storyboard to animation shots as well. There’s nothing on the back of the panel though which keeps it from feeling like anything truly worthwhile. It’s not a bad booklet, but it’s very minimal overall.

Menu:
The menu design was one that while basic could be quite serviceable if not for the poor look of it. The static image of Balsa and Chagum set against the lightly snow covered mountains and blue sky is a great image, but the artwork looks fuzzy and noisy along the edges in a way that is rather unappealing. Instead of crisp clean line work, it comes across as jagged and rough. The navigation strip is simple, especially as the sole extra is listed along the top level, and submenu navigation is easy. Language selection is awkward since once you make a selection, it doesn’t really show what’s selected in any way. The disc didn’t read our player presets and defaulted to English stereo with sign/song subtitles.

Extras:
The only extra included here is a clean version of the opening sequence.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the series of light novels by Nahoko Uehashi which was originally published in Japan back in 1996, Moribito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit is a twenty-six episode series by Production I.G. with story and direction by the quite acclaimed Kenji Kamiyama. Though the comparisons aren’t fair for a lot of reasons, this has the same kind of high gloss feel as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex in terms of its production values and execution. Coming off of the novels, it also has a very different flow from a lot of traditional shows airing out there since it’s working with a larger narrative and storyline.

Moribito has a sort of languid pace to it at first that is rather appealing as we get a sense of the country and world that these characters inhabit. The brief look at the double moon already makes things apparent that we’re not dealing with the past in a slightly different form or an alternate Earth history anything. The world comes across as something from centuries ago in Japan where it’s very agriculturally based with kingdoms and countries that deal with each other through all manner of means. Much of this is seen early on as Balsa, an attractive and hardened young woman, is traveling into the land of Shin-Yogo. Through her brief and cautious chit chat with the locals going through their every day routines, she gets a feel for how the country operates rather easily.

The Imperial Family is one that is not to be looked upon by the commoners as it will cause them to die. There’s a good deal of fear among the general population, but they’re mostly doing well and the country seems to be in good shape. Something is afoot though as there have been several attempts in the last two months to kill off Prince Chagum, son of the Second Queen of the Mikado. The latest attempt occurs when Balsa is traveling along one of the bridges and can see him being carried along only to have his carriage fall into the river below. Her quick work and actions enable her to rescue him, but that opens her up to the guards and others who don’t look favorably on her for the way she handles the unconscious prince.

With her own history that’s yet to come to light, she’s not exactly eager to have any kind of royal entanglements in her life. She’s come here to do a little work on her spear and to move on to her next potential job if she can find one of being a bodyguard in order to pay back the debt she’s created in her head. This incident puts her squarely in the sights of the Second Queen who has plans for her since Balsa had rescued her son. It’s a bit of cat and mouse until this happens, but eventually Balsa is brought into the Imperial grounds where she gets to live the very sweet life until the Second Queen boxes her into a deal that she would really want no part of.

With the various assassination plots in place for her son, the Second Queen puts Balsa in a position where she has to take on Chagum as her next assignment and to keep him alive for as long as she can. Once trapped into this, she tackles it with the intensity of a real professional however. With the might of the Mikado after her, it’s rather restrained in how they approach this at first by trying to keep it very secret and quiet in how they attempt to take her down and regain Chagum. Throughout this, and with the small bits leading up to the deal Balsa lands in, we get introduced to some supporting characters that come into play during all of it to aid in her escape. It’s not a large or terribly rich cast yet, but it’s providing for something that will expand the scale and scope of it as the real story begins to unfold.

I’ve long enjoyed the work that Production I.G. puts into their shows, so I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest by what we get here with the animation, the pacing or the story. Everything here has a very distinct and intended feel to it, where not a moment is really wasted. There are a lot of pauses, moments where the characters think to themselves with no actual monologue playing along, and this is very welcome as it has a real world feel to it. The backgrounds are highly detailed, similar to their past works but done in a very agrarian setting which feels very lush and rich. This is the kind of production that has such strong values to it that you can get lost in the visuals very easily, even before taking in the actual story and the flow of the animation.

In Summary:
As engaging as the production is, Moribito is very much a slow starter. This isn’t a surprise as most novels tend to be rather pedestrian and mundane during their first fifty or so pages until it really establishes itself. So it’s little surprise that an anime adaptation of a novel would feel the same. There are no real surprises here with the story and we have more questions than anything else, but with the way it’s slowly teasing things out and introducing us to this world, we definitely want to know more. Everything here is all about the introduction and setup, but it does it without a whole lot of flash. It provides enough to keep you engaged and interested and ensures that you come back for more so that it can really begin to reveal itself. Media Blasters’ release is a real mixed bag on a few levels, but the content is what really sells it in the end.

Features:
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening

Review Equipment:

Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: C
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: B-
Extras Rating: B-
Age Rating: 13+
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Media Blasters
MSRP: 24.98
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (Mixed/Unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit