Review for Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit Collection
At this point in time, my anime collection is such that when I watch a show and put it to the bottom of the figurative pile, it will be around five years before I next get around to watching it. This is actually a good thing, as my memory of a show will probably have faded enough to make the re-watch something of a rediscovery as well. Yet when it comes to Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, I’m watching it again after just four months. That isn’t too much of a chore, as Moribito is one of my favourite anime series, a fantasy adventure from the director of Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex and Production IG. Of course if I’d know back in June that MVM were going to re-release Moribito on Blu-ray I might have waited.
MVM originally released the show on DVD here in 2010, a pretty decent release, but hamstrung, like so many anime of the era by a soft, NTSC-PAL standards conversion. I had fallen in love with the show so much at that point, that I just wanted it in as good a quality as possible, and by 2014, I had laid my hands on the original Media Blasters DVD release, all eight volumes collected in one boxset. It wasn’t perfect; a show with a native 5.1 audio release in Japan got a rather average audio presentation, but the image quality was as good as DVD could give. It’s this boxset that I re-watched a few months ago.
You might ask why I didn’t go for Blu-ray, as Media Blasters had upgraded the show by this point, on a couple of region free interlaced releases. But one look at the screen-shots blighted by compression and combing artefacts dissuaded me of that. In 2014 Viz had got the licence, and they re-released it on Blu-ray as well, this time progressively encoded, but locked to Region A and lacking the surround audio. This year, Sentai Filmworks got the licence in the US, and gave it yet another Blu-ray release, this time with the surround audio and some of the extras restored. It’s these discs that MVM have sourced for their UK release.
Arriving in Yogo after two years away, the spear-woman Balsa has nothing on her mind but getting her spear repaired. She certainly doesn’t expect to rescue a young prince who has been thrown into a raging torrent. The prince’s mother invites her to the palace to thank her, but it’s more to lay a burden upon her than to endow her with riches. Prince Chagum has been possessed by a water demon, at least that is the opinion of those who know of his nightmares, and it’s the Mikado’s duty to rid the land of water demons. So it is that Chagum’s father has ordered his death. The second Queen pleads with Balsa to take her son and keep him safe. It’s a good thing that Balsa has a self-appointed mission to save eight souls. If she can protect Chagum, that will be the eighth soul.
The palace is set ablaze as the perfect cover for an escape, but there are those in the court who are too shrewd to fall for such a ruse. The populace may be kept appeased by announcing the prince’s death, but there’s still the matter of establishing it as fact, so seekers are sent in pursuit. Balsa and Chagum have to find shelter in the town with a couple of Balsa’s friends, Toya and Saya, and they also find help from a herbalist named Tanda. Hiding in plain sight, Balsa goes about raising Chagum as a common member of society, but the water demon’s egg that is gestating in Chagum hasn’t finished with him yet. Also, looking after Chagum reminds Balsa of her own past. Meanwhile, there are those in the royal court who realise that with the ‘death’ of Chagum, the ill omen that lies over the land hasn’t lifted as yet. The great drought is still imminent, as two worlds draw ever closer together.
The 26 episodes of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit are presented across 4 Blu-rays from MVM as follows.
1. Balsa, The Female Bodyguard
2. Hunters, Hunted
3. Fight to the Death
4. Torogai’s Letter
5. Secret Plan, The Blue Hand
6. To Die in the Misty Blue
7. Chagum’s Resolve
8. The Swordsmith
9. Shuga Thirsts
10. Soil and Heroes
11. Flower Wine For Tanda
12. The Summer Solstice Festival
13. Neither Human nor Tiger
14. The Knot
15. Untimely Death
16. With All One’s Heart
17. The Water Mill Burns
18. The Ancient Village
20. To Hunter’s Hole
21. Jiguro Musa
22. Season of Awakening
23. In Search of the Shigu Salua
24. The Last Hope
When I reviewed the US DVDs, I made some noise about how they weren’t progressive transfers, although watchable at 60Hz. It turns out the reason is that Moribito came out around the time when animation was being done at variable frame rates. In particular CG elements in shows tended to be animated at 30fps, 60Hz. That causes an issue on this Blu-ray release. Just like the Viz release before it, these Sentai sourced discs are presented as 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p at 24fps. The image looks spectacularly good at first glance, a genuine HD animation coming across with stunning clarity, detail and crispness on the Blu-rays, free of compression, and all but the most minor banding, and a significant improvement over the Media Blasters DVDs, let alone the old MVM release. The problem is that there is a jerkiness where there is 30fps animation on screen, which affects a few pans and scrolls, and a lot of the CG elements. You can see it in the end credits, and there is a water wheel in the middle of the series that really exhibits the problem (Manga’s Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex BD release suffers the same issue).
Moribito is a rich, lush and vibrant show, with a gorgeous palette of colours, and a constantly high frame rate. The character designs are distinctive and memorable, while the emphasis on conveying emotion through subtle animation is astounding. There is so much detail here; a raised eyebrow, pursed lips, half a smile, it all comes across clearly. As much as the voice actors, the animated characters here are performing as well. It's also a very dynamic anime, there's always some aspect of motion, some energy to the scene. The action scenes in particular are spectacular. When Balsa wields her spear, you might be tempted to watch the scene in slow motion to take all of the action in. It's indicative of a lavish budget, dedicated animators, or both.
Again, when I reviewed the Media Blasters release, I opined that the 5.1 audio wasn’t native to the show. It turns out that I was completely wrong, and that Moribito is one of those rare TV anime that does get native Japanese 5.1 surround, like Stand Alone Complex and Ergo Proxy. The thing of it is, Media Blasters presentation of the 5.1 audio was so overcooked and unnatural, that to me it sounded more like a shoddy upmix, and I got much better results with it down-mixed to stereo on the DVDs. Naturally I was concerned when these Blu-rays arrived, with only the option of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and Japanese, with player locked subtitles and signs.
It turns out that I shouldn’t have worried, as these are the surround tracks that those DVDs should have had, immersive and effective, making the most of the action, and the show’s excellent music, while keeping the dialogue clear throughout. Kenji Kawai does the honours for the show's score, and it's very much a piece of the story, hard to categorise out of context, while the show's opener from L'Arc en Ciel is just the rousing theme to get you jazzed for another episode. Having said all that, I did feel that the Japanese audio was a mite crisper than the dub. It’s not perfect though. The audio level for the Japanese in episode 21 is a little too high, leading to distortion, particularly in high frequencies, which comes across as a high pitched chime with Balsa’s voiceover. There are also a couple of typos in the subtitles which you can’t miss. ‘Epistles’ quickly become ‘epitaphs’ and remain that way for much of the show, and on four occasions to my recollection, ‘drought’ is misspelled as ‘draught’ which is quite funny in the context of the story.
The discs boot to static menus, and each episode is followed by a translated English credit reel. Given each credit reel lasts 2 minutes, and there are 26 episodes, you can see here that the overall runtime for the show is padded out by almost an hour.
All of the extras are on disc 4, and have been brought over from that Media Blasters release.
You get the Textless Credits.
Moribito Panel Discussion lasts 10:03.
There are 2:48 of Japanese Promos, and 6:47 of Japanese Trailers for the show.
The Cast Press Conference lasts 7:29.
Finally there are trailers for Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon II, Beyond the Boundary, Z/X Code Reunion, and Bodacious Space Pirates.
A couple of minor interviews and some more promo material is still exclusive to those Media Blasters DVDs.
I’m going to cheat once more, and simply link to the reviews that I wrote originally for Moribito’s DVD release from MVM, Part 1, and Part 2. I really do go into some depth about the show, and rather than write it all out again, a link or two is just as effective; after all, my opinion of Moribito hasn’t changed much or at all in the last ten years. It’s a perfect piece of storytelling, the kind of adventure tale that I would rush home from school to watch as a child, but with an intelligence and maturity that makes it appeal to broad audiences.
It’s a fascinating fantasy world, not too far removed from feudal Japan, but set in a country where the original inhabitants have now come to be ruled over by an ‘invading’ empire. The foundation of that empire happened so far back that the story has become legend for both the native Yakoo and the Yogo rulers. But it’s that legend that is invoked when the second prince Chagum is ‘possessed’ by a demon. When his father the Mikado turns against him, his mother begs the bodyguard Balsa to protect her son, and so the two run from the palace, avoiding the guard and then embark on an adventure, a coming of age tale for Chagum, and with Balsa the warrior thrown into an unexpected role as surrogate mother.
All this takes place against the politics of the Imperial Court, the lost histories behind that ages old legend, and the fact that this fantasy world is actually two worlds existing in parallel, only occasionally touching at certain times or in certain places, one of those times now resulting in the spirit that Chagum now harbours.
The immediate tale of Chagum and Balsa drives the series and always holds the attention, but the other characters in this show are also rich and engaging. And all the while you have this story unfolding in the background regarding the politics and the lost histories and myths of this world. At the same time, the world design is so rich and vivid that you wind up wanting to lose yourself in every frame, the sheer storytelling possibilities that this fantasy world hints at.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a perennial favourite of mine, and I can always make time to watch it. When it comes to other shows that I love, familiarity can breed contempt, and I find myself leaving bigger and bigger gaps between re-watches. Moribito on the other hand has none of that problem. The whole package is perfect, from the animation and production value, to the storytelling and the characters. I’ll be happy to re-watch this show at any opportunity. The big question is if the Blu-ray is worth it. I’d give that a qualified yes. The presentation puts MVM’s previous DVD release out of mind, while the clarity of the image is far better than even the original Media Blasters DVDs. You get the 5.1 audio which the Viz Blu-rays lacked, which leaves only the problem of the frame rate. The 24fps progressive playback on these discs is good, but it doesn’t reflect the original frame rate, and where 30fps animation was used, particularly in digital elements, there is a jerkiness. The only place that hasn’t been an issue is with the original Media Blasters Blu-ray release, but that had so many other issues that effectively, this Sentai sourced Blu-ray is the best that Moribito has been in the West, imperfect though it is.