Based on the fantasy novels of Nahoko Uehashi, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito) finds it's way to our shores although not from the original licenser Geneon, but by Media Blasters. Is this possible though? A cast of characters of all ages headed up by a thirty year old female? A show that's aimed at an older fan-base that's not named Ghost in the Shell? Production I.G.? How can we lose? The answer is, we can't.
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:
Included on the disc are English and Japanese 2.0 stereo (192 kbps) mixes and 5.1 mixes (448 kbps). Upon seeing the 5.1 mixes, I pretty much completely ignored the 2.0 tracks. I have to think that having a DVD player of any sort decent quality would end up rendering these mixes completely moot. Both the English and Japanese 5.1 tracks sound strong with very good directional clarity. While this set of episodes are a little light on the action where the mix would really shine, hearing Kenji Kawai's lovely soundtrack, L'arc en Ciel's "Shine" and Sachi Tainaka's "Itoshii Hito e" in 5.1 more than makes up for it. To round everything out, the dialogue throughout the show is clear with good placement. It's not a powerful set of mixes worth writing home about, but I'm certainly glad they're included.
This show is presented in a 1:78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for anamorphic widescreen playback. Like Chris said in his review, the video does have some issues, but I found them to be pretty minor on my 50" 720p plasma set. There is some blocking present along with noise that seems to be more noticeable to my eyes in shots involving CG. The ending sequence of each episode is probably the biggest culprit when it comes to faults in the video quality. With that being said, I was still pleased with the video quality overall. Moribito is a really colorful show with gorgeous backgrounds, bold characters and spurts of fast action. Nothing distracted from my enjoyment of the show as the colors looked rich with no cross-coloration and the great bits of action in the show looked really crisp. This is a title I would definitely love to see on Blu Ray.
The packaging for this series is quite a departure from the norm as Media Blasters have selected to go with DVD keep-case sized jewel cases. These are 3/8" thick (opposed to 1/2" on a normal keepcase) but 3/8" wider than normal keepcases. Meaning, up on your shelf, these will stick just a little bit farther out than the rest of your collection. The cover art for both volumes one and two are group pictures set against gorgeous background in a landscape format. Balsa and Chagum are posed back to back together set against a gorgeous cloudy mountain range. On volume two, Balsa is set in a fighting pose with her spear alongside two members of the Hunters set against a cloudy night sky with a big, bright full moon.
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. Each disc also features line art of various characters from the show. The little booklet in each volume is only one page with a collection of line art on each side. The art box, sadly, is nothing to write home about. The cardboard is not very thick at all but is a step above that of the flimsy boxes Media Blasters uses for some of their collections as of late. It is still very easy to dent or crack though. The artwork used is repeated both sides of the box and features a head shot of Balsa set inside of her spear while Chagum stands on top of a cliff looking out into the distance. On top is the series logo and on the spine is a summary of the series with the name of the series in Japanese which is a really odd decision to me.
I personally like the jewel case packaging. I wouldn't like this sort of thing all the time, but this gives the release something a little bit unique all its own. I can understand how this decision would really perturb others though. The art box I can live without. It's low quality and seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity.
The menu here is pretty straight forward with a static image that is a duplicate of that particular volume's cover art. The only difference here is that the Moribito logo looks like it was haphazardly photo-shopped in at the last second making it look really bad against the nice image of Balsa and Chagum. 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.
Textless opening, closing and a tiny selection of production line art are your only extras here. Considering the high quality of work Production I.G. puts into it's craft, I was hoping for more interesting extras. Hopefully there will be more in later volumes.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Set in a world reminiscent of medieval Asia that's been lightly dipped with mysticism, Moribito revolves around a spear-woman named Balsa who has been charged with the protection of the youngest Prince of the land, Chagum. Chagum has found himself the target of assassination attempts because he has been possessed by a water demon said to cause great drought to the land. The man behind the plot is none other than the Mikado; the ruler of the kingdom who cannot afford to have the delicate perception of the ruling family and government undermined because of this possession. Having already saved Chagum from one of these attempts on his life, Balsa is asked by his mother, the Second Queen of the Empire, to take the boy and protect him for the rest of his life.
There are plenty of ways I could describe how great I believe this has started out. You can just make a checklist of everything you look for in a great show and they would all be here. Interesting characters, compelling story, excellent animation and so on down the line. I don't think I can do that in this case. It is simply because every aspect of the show complements each other so well that it is hard to talk about one without the other. Not to mention that it does it all in a very mature way that you rarely see in anime now.
At the center of everything lies the over arcing plot line of an Emperor forced to make an impossible choice. Imagine having to chose between the stability of your country and the life of your child. A child that your country has come to life immensely. Frequently throughout the show, when the subject of the unfortunate Prince Chagum comes about, the faces of those concerned instinctively turn grim and sad. Even on the faces of the Mikado's own secret troops, the "Hunters" and his mysterious "Star Readers" (those who divine signs from within the stars). No words need to be said in these moments sprinkled throughout these seven episodes. Instead, the intricate animation used in the facial expressions on every character in the show is the only thing needed to get emotions across.
Now, imagine you're the mother of this child. You know the situation clearly, The needs of the many outweigh this one life. A life that is burdened with what people feel is a demon that will bring about great suffering to the country. Yet, you take a chance on a stranger who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to save your child once and ask her to do it again. An act which automatically makes this stranger an enemy of the entire country. Staring across at her is that woman, Balsa. A spear-wielding warrior from a faraway land who is a down to Earth, intelligent woman who sees through most any scheme set in front of her. She realizes she is being blackmailed but she can't help taking on this duty to save a life to atone for those she has taken in her past.
Dragging along a young Prince who is surprisingly aware, even accepting of his situation and his burden, Balsa is forced to use a variety of resources to carry out her job. From here, it turns into a game of chess as Balsa pits her inventive tactics against the might of an empire. It begins with one of the most beautiful and intricate action scenes I have seen in quite a long time as the aforementioned Hunters are dispatched to take the Prince back by force which culminates in a four on one battle of spear versus swords. Then it escalates into a full on man-hunt where victory is not achieved by force, but by ingenuity. By the end of the seven episodes on these two discs, you can't help but smile to yourself at just how clever and well crafted this show is.
I'm happy to say that it doesn't matter how you choose to watch the show. If you like Japanese w/subtitles or English dub, you're going to be pleased with the performances given either way. In Balsa, both Mabuki Andou and Cindy Robinson give an excellent portrayal of the strong, yet oddly exotic main character while Naoto Adachi and Mona Marshall are convincing as the naive, yet strong willed Chagum, The rest of the main cast are well represented on both sides. Of note, Barbara Goodson is highly enjoyable as the eccentric, slightly comedic shaman Torogai, Steve Cannon is good as the eager, concerned Star Reader Shuya and finally, Yuri Lowenthal and Erika Weinstein are fun as the young couple Touya and Saya. Only Peter Doyle, in the role of Balsa's child-hood friend, herbalist and potential love interest Tanda, seems to be a tiny bit flat. Overall, Bang Zoom! did a great job.
Yes, I realize I've only seen seven episodes. For all I know, this show could fall off into the deep end into an ocean of mediocrity from this point on. I'll find out as I go. As it stands though, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a meticulously crafted, enthralling piece of work. It's beautifully animated from the grand scenic vistas down to the smallest, subtle facial expressions, the story is compelling and its colorful cast of characters is anchored by a fantastic heroine. Best of all, Production I.G. wraps it all in a package that treats the viewer as if they're an intelligent person who desires something more out of their anime. Media Blasters is really going out of their way to get this show into your hands in a variety of ways and I can't blame them. I would try to do the same thing too.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Production Artwork
Samsung PN50A400 50" Plasma HDTV, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver, Yamaha 5.1 Surround Sound Speakers, PlayStation 3 via HDMI @720p