REVIEW: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi
[Jia’s Note: The English translation was done by Cathy Hirano.]
Dear Ms. Uehashi,
With the increasing popularity of manga and anime in the West, it only makes sense that Japanese novels would follow. I first heard about your ten-volume Moribito (Guardian) series via various blogs discussing the anime adaptation of the first book, Guardian of the Spirit. The premise sounded interesting so when I heard the book was going to be released in English, I asked for a review copy.
First off, I want to say I know translation is difficult. While I’ve read about the various conflicts that arise out of English adaptations of manga and anime, both of those are still highly visual mediums. I imagine novels, where the storytelling vehicle is purely textual, are much harder. Something is bound to get lost in the translation, and I’m aware of that.
Even so, I couldn’t help but notice how dependent on exposition this book’s narrative is. I usually dislike that in my books, but I have a feeling this is a cultural difference. I also realize this is a childrens/young adult novel so I think my criticisms regarding the clunky text might be similar to those complaints leveled by readers of the Harry Potter series. So keep that in mind.
Balsa is a skilled spearwielder. When she was a child, eight lives were lost needlessly to protect her and as a result, she vowed to save eight lives to make up for it. Since then, she’s worked as a bodyguard. Then one day, she saves the life of Chagum, the Second Prince of New Yogo, from an accident in which he almost drowned. While spending the night at the palace as a reward, the prince’s mother, the Second Queen, asks Balsa to protect her son. It turns out the Star Gazers, advisors to the emperor, believe Chagum has been possessed by a demon and must be killed. Balsa inadvertently thwarted the second assassination attempt in nearly as many weeks.
But when Balsa agrees and takes Chagum away, their journey reveals the truth. Chagum hasn’t been possessed by a demon. Instead, he carries the egg of the water spirit, a godlike creature responsible for bringing rain to the land. Failing to protect the egg will result in catastrophe. Because the water spirit lays its egg shortly before it dies, already the land begins to suffer from drought. And so Balsa’s mission to protect Chagum takes on new importance — not only because she must protect her charge from imperial assassins but she must also keep him safe from the Rarunga, creatures from the spirit world that love to eat the eggs of the water spirit.
The mythology and worldbuilding truly are the highlights here. You don’t encounter these concepts in Western fantasy very often. The cosmology is based on the existence of two separate realms — Sagu, the human visible world, and Nayugu, the invisible spirit world — that nevertheless can interact. The water spirit is not cast as a humanoid god but rather as a giant shellfish that lives in a river in Nayugu and whose breath gives rise to clouds in Sagu. It’s very original, and I really liked that.
The author’s biography mentions a background in cultural anthropology and I think that comes through here. Not only in the mythology which I found exotic and alien, but also in the plight of the Yakoo, the people native to the peninsula that Chagum’s ancestors colonized. Due to intermingling with the Yogoese, the Yakoo’s culture’s is dying out and the traditional folklore is slowly being lost. This is driven home when that lost knowledge is exactly what Balsa and her companions need to save Chagum from sharing the fate of previous guardians. (Yup, they all died in gruesome ways — usually ripped apart by the Rarunga’s claws.)
I’ve been reading more young adult novels lately so this shouldn’t surprise me but I was struck by the level of sophistication in Moribito’s thematic arcs. Not only do we have the cultural clash between the Yogoese and Yakoo, we also have the cultural decay of the Yakoo’s traditions. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also the destiny of Chagum, who didn’t choose to be second prince, or to be a guardian the water spirit’s egg. This especially comes into play at the end of the book when Chagum finds he must bear yet another destiny not of his own choosing.
And finally, there is Balsa and her vow to save eight lives to make up for the lives lost to protect her. This story could have stayed simple and clear cut — Balsa’s protection of Chagum is a reflection of the way she was protected as a child, after all — but it doesn’t. Instead, the story presents the grim reality — that in this world, to protect a life, you often have to take one in return and that being a hero isn’t glamorous at all.
But I admit what charmed me most was the relationship between Balsa and Tanda, the Yakoo healer and apprentice magic weaver she grew up with:
“I wish this winter could never end but spring is coming.”
“And then we’ll say goodbye to peace and quiet. Rarunga will wake, and it will be do or die.”
Tanda gazed at her. “You’re right. From now on, we’ll be fighting for our very lives.” Then he added, “If we survive, why don’t we stay together, the three of us, just like this winter?”
Balsa’s eyes wavered. Tanda said quietly, “I’ve been waiting all this time. You know that. I thought I would wait until you fulfilled your vow.” His eyes suddenly filled with something that could have been either sorrow or anger. “But I’ve begun to think maybe you’ll never come back, no matter how long I wait. Your life has become one long, bloody battle. Somewhere along the line you started to fight just for the sake of fighting.”
Balsa did not answer, but in her heart she knew that he was right. The fighting impulse had penetrated the very marrow of her bones. During the winter, there had been times when she had been burning for a fight. She smiled wryly. “What should I do? Do you have any medicine that can cure me?”
Tanda smiled bleakly and shook his head. “If you can’t believe I could be that medicine, then there’s no point in waiting, is there?”
Even though this book works well as a standalone, I have to be honest. I sincerely hope the rest of the series gets translated so I can find out what happens to Balsa, who continues her semi-justified wandering, and Tanda, who despite everything he says, still chooses to wait for her. B-