Ok, I’ve finished reading Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and strongly urge you to go get your copy NOW! This isn’t a new novel; it was first published in Japan in 1996, and is now a series of books, a show on Cartoon Network, and a manga series. I’m new to manga and anime, so let me start with what I know best—a great novel. Moribito is the story of Balsa, a child from Kanbal who is orphaned and forced into an arduous, nomadic life because of the treachery and ambition of princes in the royal family (for whom her father once worked). Raised by Jiguro, a martial arts expert, Balsa grows up in poverty and is trained to defend herself in case her protector one day fails. Because Jiguro took the lives of eight assassins sent to kill Balsa, as an adult she vows to make amends by saving the lives of eight people. But over time Balsa comes to realize that she must end some lives in order to preserve others; the warrior within her cannot release the anger she still feels over the injustice of her life. Yet Balsa’s instinct to help others is also strong, and so when she witnesses an “accident” involving a member of another royal family, she plunges into the river and saves Chagum, the Second Prince. A journey filled with danger and intrigue ensues, and Balsa finds herself assuming the role Jiguro once played with her—in order to keep the prince alive, he must become like a commoner and he must train in the basics of martial arts. One smart, strong woman character would have been enough to make my day, but the powerful Magic Weaver in this novel is *also* a woman; Torogai is training Tanda to follow in her footsteps, though Tanda would like nothing more than to settle down and marry Balsa. As they flee from assassins, Chagum, Tanda, and Balsa become a sort of family; as they learn more about the water spirit’s egg that has found a home within the prince, they learn more about themselves and just what it takes to survive in a world that honors, fears, and sometimes tries to obscure the power of the spirit world. This translation is impressive; the battle scenes are heart-stopping, and Balsa’s strength and daring keep you on the edge of your seat. Her ambivalence about Tanda is touching, as is the love she develops for the young prince. The author, Nahoko Uehashi, is a cultural anthropologist, and she takes time in the novel to consider what is lost when cultures mix and the oral tradition is replaced by written texts. So basically, I’m now a fan! And that’s why I went over to You Tube to see what the cartoon series looked like. I was not that impressed:
Balsa—to me—looks and sounds like a white American woman (I definitely prefer to watch the original series with subtitles). I expected this professional bodyguard to be muscular and tough, not svelte and buxom. In the novel, Tanda (a Yakoo) is described as “a kind-looking man of about twenty-seven or twenty-eight. His dark, almost black skin contrasted with his brown, unruly hair.” Yet this is how he looks in the cartoon show:
Now, I don’t know anything about anime, and this will serve as my motivation to find out more. For now, I’m sticking with the amazing illustrations drawn by Yuko Shimizu. The author claims that the world she created in Moribito in some ways mirrors medieval Japan, and this image conveys that successfully.
I’m not a big fan of comics—in part because of the hypersexualization of women—but I am aware that artists often develop a particular aesthetic to depict their characters. Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks comes to mind:
As we continue to battle the misrepresentation of Asians in The Last Airbender, I worry about my own critique of an image that doesn’t “look Asian” to me…I thought Ah Yuan had written about this on her blog, but I can’t find the link—suggestions for further reading would be appreciated!