Ink & Paint XV – Seirei no Morobito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

A young woman, carrying a spear, stands at the crest of a lofty mountain pass and surveys the verdant farmland spread out below. Her name is Balsa, and she’s a wandering mercenary—a bodyguard-for-hire. The lowland kingdom is Yogo, a prosperous land of farmers and craftsmen whose culture resembles feudal Japan.

But this isn’t Japan. It isn’t Earth. This world has two moons, and the flora and fauna are subtly different from our own.

As Balsa descends into Yogo, she encounters a royal caravan crossing a bridge. A beast pulling one of the wagons bolts, sending the wagon and a passenger tumbling into the rushing river below. Balsa plunges into the torrent and recovers the victim, a young boy, but not before she witnesses something impossible beneath the water.

The boy, Chagum, is a prince, son of Yogo’s supreme ruler, the Mikado. Balsa is invited to stay overnight in the palace as thanks for saving Chagum, but a midnight summons from his mother, the Second Queen, reveals something more sinister is afoot. Chagum is believed to be possessed by a water demon that threatens to blight the land with an apocalyptic drought. The Queen suspects the Mikado is planning to murder Chagum in order to destroy the demon and prevent the drought. She asks Balsa to take her son away from the palace and protect him until the danger is past. Balsa reluctantly agrees, and she directs the Queen to start a fire in the prince’s quarters in the hope the Mikado and his advisors will believe Chagum has died in the blaze.

The subterfuge is quickly discovered, sending Balsa and Chagum on the run from the Mikado’s elite guard. Balsa must both defend Chagum and act as his surrogate parent. In the course of their fugitive travels, they discover the entity residing within Chagum is not a demon at all, but the egg of a benevolent water spirit, and its survival is vital to Yogo and all its inhabitants.

But for the water spirit to be born, Chagum must die.

Seirei no Morobito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit, is based on the first volume of a popular series of fantasy novels by Nahoko Uehashi. It’s an unconventional anime in several ways. Its story centers on a strong female warrior, and her exceptional combat skills are secondary to the story. This is a tale about the bonds between people, and about love and courage under pressure. The setting is an earthlike parallel world, but that world overlaps yet another, unseen, world living in symbiosis with the first.  The story continually shifts in pacing and focus, holding the viewer’s interest and gaining depth as it moves along.

We watch the stoic Balsa grow into a more complete person and blossom emotionally as she takes on a responsibility that mirrors her own heritage. As she emulates her guardian, she comes to terms with her tragic past. Chagum also matures under Balsa’s tutelage from a frightened, pampered princeling into a wise, capable young man.

It’s interesting to me that there are few genuine villains in this story, and the worst of them are relics of the past. Most of the dramatic conflict is created by well-meaning, good-hearted people trying desperately to do the right thing, but hobbled by conflicting priorities and misinformation. There is magic in this world, but it is unreliable, and much knowledge has been lost over the centuries. Those seeking Chagum’s death are not malicious but caught in a web of circumstance from which they see no alternative if they are to prevent a disaster that will claim millions of lives.

Balsa is a wonderful, believable, down-to-earth heroine. She is a skilled warrior, but doesn’t sacrifice her femininity or her compassion for others. She has an intense sense of responsibility and strives to fulfill an oath she took long ago in penance for a series of needless deaths for which she still holds herself accountable. She looks after her friends, and they take care of each other. She guides Chagum with pragmatic wisdom—she’s firm and even harsh when necessary, but increasingly gentle and loving as she begins to bond with him through their shared experiences.

The visuals are beautiful, from mountain panoramas to broad landscapes of lush farmland, to tangled forests, to bustling cities, all brimming with meticulous detail. Fight scenes are fewer than you would expect, but each one is a jaw-dropping gem of martial arts choreography and well worth waiting for. Bloodshed is restrained, and the few moments certain to involve mayhem or gore happen discreetly, off-screen.

The version I watched was dubbed in English. I thought the voice acting was very well executed, particularly in the leading roles, and the actors a good match for their characters.

I only had a couple of gripes. The rich potential of overlapping parallel worlds never quite fulfills its promise, serving instead as mostly a problem for the characters to overcome. Balsa and Chagum do a lot of hiding in plain sight, and it was hard to believe a woman who carries a spear wherever she goes wouldn’t be quickly spotted by pursuers, especially as there don’t seem to be any other female spear-wielders about. Toward the end of the story, a couple of otherwise sympathetic characters describe plans to attack Balsa even though it would be meaningless to do so at that point.

Fans of the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender will probably enjoy Seirei no Morobito very much, as will anyone who likes a well-rounded story with martial arts elements, a little magic, and a hint of alternate-world science fiction. It’s a treat for the eye and a powerful illustration of honor, self-sacrifice, and love, from beginning to end.

Suitable for younger teens and up. No nudity or sexual situations. Some martial-arts violence and non-gratuitous spilling of blood. A few instances of mild swearing.

Note to parents: There are two scenes of confrontation between a parent and child in which the child is struck in rebuke. There is reconciliation afterward, but these are “teaching” moments that merit discussion of the situation and the issues involved with your children, if you choose to share this series with them.

Seirei no Morobito is currently available for viewing on Hulu and Netflix.

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4 thoughts on “Ink & Paint XV – Seirei no Morobito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

  1. Ahh, this is one I know. Great series. Balsa actually acted as part of the inspiration for my character Zerieth, one of the main characters in my Universe of the Nine Roads (which has a lot of anime influences, most of them not overt.)
    Although, I don’t think its really terribly unconventional among anime as far as most of the reasons you mention-I think its simply that it’s part of that category of anime. We Westerns tend to think of “anime” as a “genre” but it isn’t, its an art form containing many genres. A lot of what we get over here is very action centered and all, but there exist just as many which, like Morobito are not necesarily so. I think the Japanese also do an abnormally good job of often creating stories that manage to include a great deal of action and such in equal measure with other themes and depth of narrative. Sadly, in Western cinema the two sometimes seem mutually exclusive.
    Likewise the lack of clear villains is pretty common for Japanese media. Most of Miyazaki’s stuff, for example, is similar. I recomend you try out the series Mushi-Shi, which is available for Instant Viewing on Netflix, and Kino’s Journey, which isn’t but which you should still watch.

    1. Hi, Justin!

      Yeah, I’ve gotta watch that tendency to overgeneralize. You’re right…most of those elements weren’t all that unconventional, at least in isolation. I think what struck me was the aggregate of wise choices and the restraint the filmmakers displayed in bringing the story to life. Made me want to read the books. Miyazaki’s stuff hits a lot of the same notes with me. Beautiful worlds with complex characters that make a powerful emotional connection.

      I’ve seen a couple episodes of Mushi-Shi, and I think I enjoyed it, but it was a while ago, so I’ll have to go back and take another look.

      Fred

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