Moribito – All for One

What really stood out about Moribito when I watched it a couple of weeks back — aside from the gorgeous visuals, of course — was the collective intelligence of the characters, not just on the side of the heroes (Balsa’s crew), but also on the side of the supposed villains (those in the royal court who at first try to kill Chagum, and later try to capture him once it is clear he is still alive). In fact, what really intrigued me is that, as becomes clear as the series goes along, the intelligence and ability to reason of the “villains” is such that there really is no real, traditional villain in Moribito.

The only reason the two sides don’t team from the start is an unfortunate lack of complete information on both sides. The entire reason for Chagum being hunted is due to misinformation planted in the very history of the kingdom; the mikado believes a water demon is using Chagum’s body to resurrect itself — just as what happened way back before the kingdom was first established, or so say the “official” records — and he believes Chagum should be killed before the demon can be let loose on the people.

(By the way, the mikado is the only character for which I can see a villain argument being made, but when you consider the nature of Moribito‘s world, I can’t really consider him a true villain, even if the audience is clearly not intended to support the decision to kill Chagum. He’s doing what he believes to be best for the good of the kingdom and its people, even if he comes off as cold and overly pragmatic in the process. The show makes it clear that this is NOT an easy decision for him, and that if Chagum actually died, it would have haunted the mikado the rest of his life.)

That muddled history — a case of building a legend to establish power, just as the mikado does at the conclusion of the series — causes many problems, a rippling effect of misinformation. The officials believe Chagum needs to die; Chagum’s mother wants her son to live, of course, so she enlists Balsa, who knows as much about the water spirit as anyone else in the kingdom. (Which is to say, nothing.) The soldiers sent after Balsa and Chagum are loyal to the prince, but are more loyal to the kingdom itself. If the mikado says that Chagum must die for the good of the people — which he believes with true conviction given the available information — then they have no choice but to obey. Balsa keeps Chagum alive but has to hurt a lot of people and suffer quite a bit herself to keep him safe. That false premise causes a lot of real pain.

Even when the true nature of the water spirit begins coming to light, the process of the two groups coming together is quite slow because the necessary information is spread thinly and in obscure places. (Ironically, the true information has followed the path of traditional legends and disappeared almost completely, while the false legend thrives in the minds of every citizen.) Balsa’s crew discovers that the water demon actually helps the kingdom by preventing a long drought every 100 years (although it seems to come at the cost of the egg bearer’s life), and that the very premise upon which the kingdom was built is false. Shuga, one of the kingdom’s star readers, also discovers the false nature of the founding myth while searching deeper into the origins of the drought, and he comes to the same conclusion as Balsa — that the water spirit must be born.

Unfortunately, it is a continued lack of information that keeps the two groups on opposite sides. They both want to keep Chagum alive, but since neither side knows everything there is to know about the water spirit, they both have different ideas about what should be done. Balsa and company know that the water spirit must be born, but they have no idea what the exact procedure for that is, so they search for stories to help illuminate them. Shuga and the soldiers, meanwhile, believe it is best to take Chagum home; they, too, do not know all that is going on, and thus mistakenly believe they can just take Chagum home and all will be well.

The misinformation that runs through the series breeds much mistrust between the main groups until their conflict comes to a head at Inishie Village. Both sides lay their cards on the table — Balsa’s group has the information they have been collecting from various myths and stories, and Shuga’s side has the secret tomes that detail the real history of the land and the true nature of the water spirit (though not all of the tomes have been deciphered). It is this that causes both groups to truly come together; they start accomplishing their goal not by meeting in physical battle, but by pooling their information, truly seeing each other for what they want to do (keep Chagum alive and birth the water spirit) and taking the proper course of action (although Torogai has to do some fast, smooth talking to make it happen).

It is the intelligence of the characters that makes this possible. They’re more than willing to work with each other once each side sheds a bit of light on what they were not able to see before. Both sides have the same goal; it’s just that they were on completely different paths the whole time. That’s a big part of what impressed me about Moribito — a solid amount of tension is built without there being an easy villain to point to and say, “That guy is evil and must be stopped.” If you look at it from Shuga and the soldiers’ point of view, it’s not difficult to sympathize with them to a certain extent. They don’t know what Balsa is doing with Chagum. All they know is that the prince has been kidnapped by a fairly dangerous person. They’re just trying to do the best they can to help Chagum and the kingdom; unfortunately, they just begin with enough of a disadvantage to make that impossible without help.

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6 Responses to “Moribito – All for One”

  1. Moribito is an excellent show, I disagree with this statement, however:
    The only reason the two sides don’t team from the start is an unfortunate lack of complete information on both sides.
    I completely agree that lack of knowledge, and even misinformation played a big part here, but there was also a problem of bigotry. The court doesn’t want to accept help from the indigenous people.

    Ultimately this story is very effective at rehabilitating the characters that seemed villains at first. I would like to believe that people, once they have really started talking, can learn to work together to achieve their common goals.

    This may be too heavy for a post about a fantasy anime, but I think there was even something of an analogy for a big problem in modern politics. Hidden away by the government is this huge amount of information, that essentially represents a shameful secret. The governmental administrators don’t want to release the information because they are afraid of the impact it would have on the stability of the government. Ultimately, however, the secret must be opened to public discourse, else a greater threat cannot be averted.

    Wikileaks is going to release a large cache of Classified information tomorrow. Sometimes the information, even if it is shameful, needs to be released for us to do what is necessary, because the temple priests and government administrators would rather keep things secret, even if that means necessary corrective action isn’t taken.

    • Yeah, I shouldn’t have said “only” when I meant “main”. My fault.

      Part of what’s interesting about the hidden information is that, unless I’m remembering something incorrectly, the government officials don’t even know what they are secreting away. Clearly they hadn’t read what was on the tomes because 1) they were surprised at the contents (everything they had believed to be true was a lie) and 2) they needed interpreters for the writing, so most people couldn’t have read it even if they wanted to. The current government is guarding these secrets without knowing why they are guarding them. They’re sticking to a tradition without really questioning or knowing its purpose, which is why the people lack in information and set off on the wrong foot.

      I couldn’t find a way to weave this into the post, but a big part of Moribito is the careful balance between remembering tradition and being open to change. In the government’s case, it stubbornly stuck to the wrong traditions because it had the wrong information — and relying too much on that information left it unwilling to change without significantly pulling the rug out from under everything believed to be true. But Balsa’s crew paid heed to the stories and traditions that threatened to disappear, while not following them to the letter (which enabled them to save Chagum’s life).

  2. Villains and heroes are sometimes inadequate tags for characters. Sometimes the stories are rich enough that we can deconstruct this binary and reorient the relationships.

    What we get are charcters circumstantially antagonistic to each other.

    That said, ignorance is made into a conceptual villain. It is the root of bigotry against the ‘other,’ with the empire at the center.

    • Yes, maybe in Moribito’s case it’s better to say that, rather than being no real villain, it’s that the villain in this case isn’t human — it’s stubbornness, being unwilling to open up to new ideas and sticking to self-defeating actions.

  3. It’s interesting to observe how authors often rely on the same core ideas throughout their works. People who know Moribito’s author also wrote Kemono no Souja Erin quickly notice how similar their themes are, even through the filter of anime adaptations. A powerful country built on a creation legend, long held prejudices between people, intelligent characters whose foremost aim to resolve problems is by learning and compassion; they’re like requisite elements for all high-aspiring oriental fantasy stories.

    Erin does have a softer visual design than Moribito, for the kiddies I assume, but at the same time it’s decidedly more tragic.

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