This time we will continue our look at the Japanese fantasy novel, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (上橋菜穂子の “精霊の守り人”), and already early in the first chapter there are some departures from the anime version. Generally, Nahoko Uehashi’s writing style is very focused. Each subchapter stays with one topic, often just one character or perspective, and only moves on with the next subsection. The plot also seems more meditative than action oriented, with some dialogue and a lot of reflection. Chapter one has 5 subchapters, which accounts for nearly a third of the novel.
The first subchapter focuses entirely on Balsa’s meeting with the Second Queen and Prince Chagum, where the Queen hires Balsa as the Prince’s bodyguard. The Queen seems distraught about whatever the Prince has conceived within him, mainly because of the frightened reaction of the kingdom’s Star Readers, though Balsa wonders aloud if maybe it could be a happy thing. Immediately the conversation turns to the shaman Torogai, whom I believe doesn’t make an appearance or come up in conversation for quite a while in the anime, certainly not in this scene. But she is a good counterpoint to the more official, cosmopolitan, male ranks of Star Readers, and they talk about seeking her to get her advice about whatever creature the Prince is carrying.
One thing to note about Torogai here is how her title in the English translation of the anime sounds so much more special and poetic as “Magic Weaver,” a perfectly valid translation by the way, but the Japanese used here is plain old “shaman” (呪術師). The “Magic Weaver” translation sticks with the overall style and register of Torogai’s Star Reader counterpart. The Japanese term used for the Star Readers is a bit more straightforward, with the emphasis on their learned position 星読博士.
Another interesting language note in this section is the way the Queen uses モノ (mono) to refer to whatever Chagum has conceived. This is notable because she didn’t use the more common Japanese words もの or 物, which are pronounced the same way, for “thing.” Japanese uses three writing systems, kanji (Chinese characters adapted to Japanese use), hiragana (the alphabet based on Chinese characters that is commonly used in Japanese writing), and katakana (a special alphabet usually used for loan words from languages other than Japanese.) The typical translation of モノ would normally be something like “mono,” the Greek prefix used in more scientific English, so that obviously is not what is meant here. She must be using it in place of もの or 物. My guess here is that the Queen is emphasizing the foreignness of the creature Chagum has conceived by using katakana, or perhaps is expressing her disgust for it by doing so. But it’s a wild effect that of course has no easy way to translate into English.
This same literary device seems to also be used in names throughout the novel. Many of the names use ノ instead of の for a possessive particle. Some examples of this include many place names and even a few character titles: “二ノ妃”, “星ノ官”, “天ノ神”, “一 ノ大路”, “東ノ坪”, “奥ノ間”, “扇ノ下” just to name a few. In this example, I’m not sure why the author would switch to katakana.
I’ve seen this type of alphabet switch from hiragana to katakana done in other Japanese light novels before, and those times it was used to express entire sentences, so it seemed to me to be a way of emphasizing the speaker’s foreignness or something wrong with the way they are talking by tone or meaning. Anyone who has an idea why they make this substitution, please help me out in the comments as to the reason. I’ve never seen it mentioned in any Japanese textbook, and it’s a fascinating literary device that isn’t found in other languages because of Japanese’s unique qualities.
In the second subchapter of chapter one, the story is all about palace Star Reader Shuga. It has a very detailed geography and history of Shin-Yogo and the Mikado who fought the water demon, Torugaru. Here, after Shuga’s reflection on the history of the Star Readers and country, he asks why the two assassination attempts on Chagum both involved water and points out the fire that supposedly killed the second prince broke this pattern. I’m glad he brought that up, because I had noticed that myself, though so far it seems mainly to be a plot device to make it obvious to the Star Readers that Chagum is probably still alive after the palace fire. The main explanation at this point is because the thing Chagum has conceived is a water demon, so water is somehow required to kill him.
The third subchapter is about Balsa’s teenage friends, Toya and Saya, who live in a busy town. When Balsa and Chagum meet Toya at his house, Balsa stays with Chagum while Toya and Saya go out shopping for the goods they need for their flight to the mountains, and the story stays with them in Toya’s house, not showing the actual shopping trip which was shown in the anime. The creature that Chagum has conceived manifests a number of times in this section as a blue glow, which alarms Balsa as she is awake and observing his transformation. This is more consistently shown in the novel than in the anime I think. And Balsa is actively looking for Torogai, not just trying to get Chagum out of Shin-Yogo.
The fourth subchapter gets into a lot of detail about the “hunters.” This is the group of warriors in the service of the Mikado who are sent after Balsa and Chagum. As with the other subchapters, this chapter is solely about them, their personal and national history, and their activities searching for Balsa. The group is based on the original warriors who helped the early Mikado Torugaru kill the water demon. There are eight warriors called “the Mikado’s Shadow,” and three of them are sent along with the group’s head after Balsa. The head of the hunters is a man named Mon whose perspective this section follows, and it includes some of his personal reflections. The other men in the group have equally short, similar names: Jin, Yun and Zen.
The hunters are aware of what the Star Readers think Chagum is carrying in him and know what happened to the commoner child who carried it in the time of Torugaru 100 years earlier. They feel the water demon is taking revenge this time by attacking the Mikado’s bloodline directly by burrowing into Chagum. One surprising detail that comes out here is that Torugai is also a target of assassination at this time. The hunters scour the business district, basing their search on certain assumptions about Balsa, her plans and her concerns in the situation.
The final subchapter in chapter one begins with Balsa and Chagum fleeing at night through the rice paddies, one of the best sequences in the anime in my opinion, with the hunters waiting for any sign of her in town so they can complete their mission. This is as far as I’ve gotten this week in the book, so I’ll pick it up here before we move on to chapter two and the culture beyond Shin-yogo’s court.
Here is a review of the anime that I happened across that makes an interesting comment about how the story rates on the Bechdel test for feminist literature:
I don’t know anything about Bechdel, but I will differ with the assumption that a story is actually about men if the female characters talk too much about the male characters. One thing that impresses me about Nahoko Uehashi’s writing so far is how it really strongly reflects a woman’s perspective and heightens the contrast between her male and female characters. As I noted last post, the very focus of the novel on a man’s spiritual pregnancy and the theme of adoption sound like things more female writers would pick up than male writers. I think you have to look at how the novel is presented and what is emphasized to see how gender affects stories rather than have some conversation test. It seems a bit counterintuitive to dismiss a novel that enlists a strong female warrior, a strong female shaman, and a strong queen willing to defy the entire male leadership of the palace to save her son as somehow not really being about women.
But next time we’ll see if the pattern in the author’s writing style continues.
Part two of a four part series