The next book we will be looking at is the first volume of a Japanese fantasy series, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (上橋菜穂子の “精霊の守り人”), published in 1996. The title just literally means Guardian of the Spirit. Here is the purchase information for this volume in Japanese, which is the edition I will be reading and commenting on:
There are more books in the series, I think about ten, which can be found on the Amazon Japan webpage for Nahoko Uehashi here:
The book is also available in English, and here is the link for the English translation:
Only two volumes of the series are available in English at the moment, and the first volume which we’ll be looking at is the only one to have been made into a very impressive, elegant 26 episode anime, which is available on DVD at Amazon.com here:
I want to do more of an analysis with this novel since it is available in English in both book and anime versions.
The book starts with a map of the world and a list of major characters. Here is the map.
The general storyline is as follows: legendary spear wielder Balsa comes from the country of Kanbal to visit Shin-Yogo, a nearby kingdom. She becomes the bodyguard of the second prince of Shin-Yogo, Chagum, who is about 12. The prince is in danger of assassination because his father the Mikado has discovered that Chagum has been possessed by a regularly arriving spirit that the annals of the kingdom prophesy will bring the kingdom down, and his team of elite warriors is after the boy to put a stop to this catastrophe. Two things that become immediately apparent even from the start of the book looking at its structure is that there is an emphasis on the class difference between the royal family and the commoners as well as an emphasis on the conception and hatching of the spirit’s egg, an interesting thing to note since the egg is implanted in a male character!
The story also has strong themes of adoption, fatherhood and motherhood among the gender inversion aspects. The parallel stories of male warrior Jiguro and girl child Balsa who is left in his care and warrior woman Balsa as an adult and Prince Chagum really illustrate this reluctant parenthood forced on the warriors and how they each cope with their new charges. Adoption of young children in Japanese society and the larger context of East Asia was not really that common until recently because the emphasis was on lineage. This cultural aspect also isn’t emphasized in the story from what I’ve seen in the anime, however. It focuses more on the reluctant solitary man or woman who is very independent who has a child forced on them by friends and circumstance, and they must rise to the occasion. This is particularly striking with 30-year-old Balsa, who is dodging her gentle healer-suitor Tanda and who is very non-maternal as a bodyguard for hire, but when the Second Queen hires her to protect her son from assassination, she can’t escape developing that side of herself.
The other theme that is apparent regarding gender and pregnancy is immediately obvious just looking at the table of contents. The main chapter titles include “Conception in the Prince’s Body,” “The Egg-eating Apparition,” and “The Hatching.” I think that the anime didn’t really emphasize this aspect as much, as it also didn’t emphasize the gender flip between warrior woman Balsa and Tanda; it does however focus attention on it with the back story of Balsa as a child with her adoptive father Jiguro, but really only there does the situation get any notice. Everywhere else in the anime version at least it is just approached as completely normal. Perhaps the book will be different. Here Chagum conceiving, carrying, and hatching this spirit egg is front and center just in the underlying structure of the novel.
The class difference comes up immediately in the prologue describing how Balsa saves Prince Chagum when his procession across a river is disrupted and he falls into the water. In this scene, the text goes into some detail about the two bridges the characters are traveling on, the names of which can be translated as the Mountain Shadow Bridge (山影橋) and the Bird Shadow Bridge (鳥影橋). As the imagery would suggest, the Bird Shadow Bridge is the bridge for commoners, while the Mountain Shadow Bridge is exclusively for the royal family to use; commoners are as small and insignificant as birds while the royal family is as imposing and significant as a mountain.
The first subsection of the first chapter, “The Escape Begins,” is rather lengthy and focuses on Balsa’s audience with the Second Queen of Shin-Yogo, Prince Chagum’s mother, who will hire Balsa to protect her son. At many points in the text, references are made to the fact that the royal family descends from the gods and therefore some power they have that makes it harmful for commoners to look at them. While this is discussed in the anime, one thing I think isn’t emphasized as much there as maybe in the book version is the way this belief is challenged by Balsa’s protection of Chagum. On one level, Balsa adopts Chagum in order to protect him and is forced to explore her maternal side by her charge, but the thinking that the royal family is so separated from normal people is shattered by the close proximity of commoner Balsa with Prince Chagum. Her protection humanizes him in a very strong way, and their class differences disappear.
I think this is considered a light or young-adult novel, and one advantage such a category has for people reading in their second language is the use of furigana, little Japanese pronunciation guides over new kanji in each volume. So I recommend this general category for students of Japanese who want to tackle novels. Also, it’s very helpful for students to select foreign language books that they have already seen in movie or TV form because it provides background knowledge which can be activated when reading and lighten the vocabulary load.
Part one of a four part series