May 23, 2008
by: Serdar Yegulalp
A breath of fresh air: one of Japan's better light-novel series for younger readers now comes to English-speaking shores.
Novel Description: Balsa was a wanderer and warrior for hire. Then she rescued a boy flung into a raging river—and at that moment, her destiny changed. Now Balsa must protect the boy—the Prince Chagum—on his quest to deliver the great egg of the water spirit to its source in the sea. As they travel across the land of Yogo and discover the truth about the spirit, they find themselves hunted by two deadly enemies: the egg-eating monster Rarunga…and the prince’s own father.
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
When I lived in New York City, I was within walking distance of no less than two major Japanese bookstore chains, Asahiya and Kinokuniya. Stepping into either one of those stores was both exhilarating and depressing. I looked at all those labyrinthine shelves of books—manga and literature alike, a whole continent’s worth of popular culture churned out furiously over the course of decades—and realized I’d never read more than the tiniest fraction of it in my lifetime no thanks to the language barrier. It was like being told I would never in the whole of my lifetime travel more than ten miles from my hometown.
Then the manga explosion came, and now we seem to be on the verge of a similar explosion in the light-novel space as well. Vampire Hunter D, Dirty Pair, Guin Saga, and many other series are all showing up in good-to-outstanding English translations—and all of it is material I would never have staked any odds on them ever showing up on these shores. And now we can add Moribito to that list, the first in a cycle of ten novels and counting by Nahoko Uehashi, and it’s one I hope they give us the rest of the volumes for. Even if they don’t, I now feel like I have traveled that much further from home.
The first thing worth mentioning about Moribito is that it’s not pure adventure in the molds of D, Guin, etc. It’s actually a touch more sophisticated than that, as it deals directly with questions that normally aren’t tackled in a fantasy adventure. The way history can be rewritten to support the agendas of a ruling class, for instance: heavy stuff, to be sure, but it’s handled here with a directness that will be appealing to both younger readers and fantasy novices.
Moribito is superficially set in Japan’s ancient past, but it’s really a fictional setting named “New Yogo”— a pastiche of Japan, Korea and China, with elements from each of those settings mixed freely together for color and drama. The protagonist is a woman warrior, the spear-wielding, worldly Balsa, who will protect anyone if the pay is right. One day she’s crossing a bridge when she encounters a caravan of nobles—not in itself extraordinary, but then one of the draft oxen flies off the handle and sends a young man plunging into the water below. Her quick thinking and peerless prowess with her weapon saves his life.
It’s only after she’s pulled both of them from the waves does she realize who she’s rescued: Chagum, the Second Prince of New Yogo, heir to the highest throne in the land. Worse, that incident with the ox was no mere mishap but the latest of several assassination attempts. Chagum’s mother is determined to keep the boy out of harm’s way, and so pays an initially reluctant Balsa a staggering sum of money to protect him from his own family.
The assassins have more than just the future of the throne in mind. Chagum has been chosen as the Guardian of the Spirit, the “Moribito”—the host for an egg that contains the Water Spirit. Unless Chagum is able to bring the Water Spirit to fruition, the country will fall under a murderous drought. It’s not the kind of responsibility that a boy of noble origin wants dumped on his shoulders, especially when he’s used to having his every whim anticipated and catered to. But under Balsa’s care over the year that follows, he matures into a young man with a better sense of what he must be to prosper in this world … and the ability to both take a punch and dish one out.
Uehashi surrounds these two with a lively gallery of supporting characters. There’s Tanda, the apothecary with whom Balsa has a long history, and whom Chagum can’t help but see as a husband for his new mentor. Torogai, the old crone, has an encyclopedic memory of history and folklore that comes in handy—and a startling amount of fighting spirit on top of that. Shuga, the Star Reader (their version of an onmyōdō), begins with ambitions of occupying his master’s position, then delves into the deliberately-muddled murk of his country’s past and comes up with a great deal more than he bargained for. And finally, there are the numbered assassins who go after Chagum and Balsa without quite realizing just how dangerous both of them really are. They’re all interesting to watch, but Balsa’s the real attention-getter—not just because she’s a woman with a weapon, but someone who has survived everything thrown at her thus far and doesn’t automatically take that as proof she’ll survive everything yet to be thrown at her.
What’s most interesting about the book, again, is how the emphasis is not on slam-bang action; in fact, apart from the opening and closing sequences and a couple of short bursts along the way, there’s relatively little swashbuckling. Moribito is more about its characters, the world they live in and the history of the nations that make it up. Even more surprising is that such a formula usually yields something ponderous and bloated; I couldn’t count the number of fantasy novels I’ve put down where the author makes the mistake of assuming everyone else is going to be just as interested as he is in the genealogies of thirteen dozen characters. Nothing of the kind happens here—Moribito remains fast on its feet all the way through, and never completely bogs down, not even when it’s recounting in detail the mythos of an age long gone, even for the heroes.
Footnote: Moribito sports a pedigree that ought to get the attention of anyone who reads this site regularly: it was the inspiration for a TV series that Geneon licensed for the U.S., one produced by many of the same creative folks behind the superlative Ghost in the Shell series. After Geneon circled the drain I despaired of it ever being seen outside of the likes of the pre-legit CrunchyRoll.com, but the fine folks at Media Blasters/ Anime Works have since snapped it up for release later this year.
Translation: Moribito has been given one of the most lavish and, honestly, beautiful editions I’ve seen on this review beat. The jacket and interior art’s by Yuko Shimizu, who came to my attention for illustrations of hers that were featured recently in the New York Times, and who delivers designs that deserve their own artbook on the order of the Yoshitaka Amano tome I looked at. The translation itself, by Cathy Hirano, is “modern” without being hopelessly hip; there were only two or three points in the whole book where I felt a choice of colloquialism or localization was off.
The Bottom Line: The mere fact that Moribito is in English at all is for me a recommendation: it’s one of the many, many bits of Japanese popular culture that until now have never even been considered for an American audience. And now here it is, thanks in part to the anime/manga boom, and it was well worth the wait. It may not be the kind of bruising action spectacle that fans of the D/Guin/Dirty Pair axis will lap up, but it doesn’t try to be, and that’s refreshing.