Chapter two of the first volume of Japanese fantasy series, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (上橋菜穂子の “精霊の守り人”) continues with the same quiet plot, which is quite a contrast from the anime. Many of the more active scenes so far, just passed the halfway mark in the novel, never come up, and a lot of key information that is withheld and revealed a little at a time in the anime is openly discussed from the beginning, particularly concerns about the egg-eating monster, the Rarunga, who is going to come from the other world of Nayug to attack the bearer of the egg. They must figure out whose version of the last egg bearer a hundred years earlier is correct so they can prevent the Rarunga from killing Chagum. Therefore, while the content of the novel is the same, the presentation is starkly different, which gives it less urgency, and the characters seem to be more interested in the cultural and historical differences between the Yogo, the Yakuu and even Kanbal. This is not unexpected since author Nahoko Uehashi was trained in anthropology in her university days, but it may disappoint readers who prefer a more active plot.
One example of this difference comes up at the end of the battle between Balsa and the Mikado’s “hunters” as they flee through the rice paddies at night. In contrast to the anime, Chagum is not shown going to find Tanda, walking along the strange bear-shaped ridge at night and wandering a bit to discover the herbalist’s house. When Balsa is injured and they have escaped the palace hunters, Balsa tells Chagum to get Tanda, and then the next chapter immediately shows Balsa waking up in Tanda’s house.
The subchapter with Tanda stays focused on his home as he tends to Balsa’s injuries. He knows immediately the full details of what sort of entity Chagum is carrying, of the conflict between what he knows it to be and Shin-Yogo’s official history, and the guardian’s danger of death from the monster called the Rarunga. It’s all disclosed in front of Chagum himself. I’m interested in seeing how the story progresses since that is the situation – the anime leaves all of this to be revealed very dramatically in small segments throughout the story. The story seems much simpler in the novel as a result, but where can the story go from here?
Another striking difference is how often Balsa is shown in very domestic settings with her allies, often scenes involving food – eating with the Second Queen, her teenage friend in town Toya, Tanda, even Torogai when they eventually meet with her at the very end of chapter two. There are only two action scenes with Balsa thus far, saving the prince at the very beginning and their flight through the rice paddies. However, even on the side of the Mikado and his Star Readers and hunters, who form the opposing team in this struggle, most of the time is spent talking with far less suspense than expected. Highest Star Reader Gakai is presented with a note from Torogai by one of the hunters who encountered her, I assume on the order to assassinate her. A more active scene choice would be for Torogai to speak more directly to him, and I honestly don’t recall her note at all in the anime. But it does leave the two sides quite segregated in the novel up to this point. The reader is clear on who is the enemy and who is on Balsa’s side. Gakai is also more prominent so far in the novels than Shuga, which was a surprise.
Torogai is the highest Magic Weaver of the old Yakuu tradition, the equivalent of Gakai not Shuga of the Star Readers. For some reason, Chagum seems surprised when he is told Torogai is a woman. As I’ve noted, the novel primarily switches back and forth between two camps: Balsa’s, which is technically headed by Torogai with both women from cultures alien to Shin-Yogo; and Shuga’s, which is technically headed by Gakai and has the hunters as their extension in the countryside since so far neither man has left the palace. Balsa’s side seems highly feminized, with Tanda in a rather feminine role of healer and herbalist in spite of being a man as well as Torogai’s pupil, and Chagum still being an underage child. In contrast, the Star Readers Shuga and Gakai head a team of elite male warriors, the hunters, and are in the service of the male Mikado. That side only has one strong, mostly passive female figure, the Second Queen, make an appearance. So there does seem to be something about the storytelling of the novel itself that emphasizes the male versus female sphere, the traditional kingdom of Shin-Yogo with their warrior ancestral king and royalty as descendants of their god versus the more native, nature-based culture of the Yakuu with their highly intuitive, spiritual take on life.
Even Chagum’s “thing” connects more to the archetypally feminine symbol of water. When we first see Torogai in this section we’re covering, she is talking with a member of the water folk about the birth of the water spirit’s egg. A lot of the action thus far has involved water: the accident on the bridge that opens the story, Balsa fighting in the rice paddies, Torogai’s water wisdom, and the old story of Torugaru killing the water demon 100 years earlier. As storyteller and folklorist Valerie Estelle Frankel points out about the archetypal imagery of water in world myth:
Water is dual; it both saves and kills. Purification and regeneration. Tears, perpetuity, drowning, inundation. Amniotic fluid….
Water is dark and secret, always changeable. It is the coolness of yin, rather than the hot wind of yang. From there are born the perpetually varying sea spirits, like Proteus…or genies set adrift in their bottles.
Water is maternal, as all life springs from it. The sea, treacherous and changeable, infinitely potent, was often regarded as the domain of the goddess. (From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend, p. 60)
Frankel quotes Meri Lao here, who gives an even stronger feminine metaphor for water:
The sea, the womb, Eleusis – all are places of birth and transformation, wonder, pleasure and mystery, the dangers of the sea became metaphors for the dangers of the feminine realm. (Meri Lao, Seduction and the Secret Power of Women: The Lure of Sirens and Mermaids, p.37)
Valerie Estelle Frankel has a really wonderful personal site with her own special analysis of women’s journey in world myth, contrasting with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth:
Perhaps I’ll look at Moribito in light of her analysis as we wrap up this series next time. However, I suspect it is Chagum and not Balsa who fits her analysis best in this book, and the gender reversals and spiritual pregnancy of a boy should make it particularly interesting.
As noted, Torogai in particular embodies this connection between the feminine realm and water quite explicitly, as we see in her connection with the water folk in one of the two subchapters she makes an appearance in:
This part describes what Torogai sees as she looks into the water’s surface at a spring. One of the water folk, the Yona Ro Gai, comes to talk with her, and the text describes its appearance.
Torogai only makes a personal appearance twice so far, once when she meets the water folk and later after Tanda and the group go to the Yakuu village to consult with them. In the last subchapter, she is present. With her input, they very briefly at the end of the last subchapter make preparations to spend the winter in a mountain cave to wait for summer solstice when the water spirit is supposed to be born, nearly nine months after Chagum conceived it.
Yakuu culture is the general focus of chapter two, and this includes a more in-depth contrast between the Yakuu’s belief in the two worlds of Nayug and Segu with Shin-yogo’s lack of belief in the afterlife and a consultation at a Yakuu village. Many of the same elements of this portion of the anime are kept here, though again, it is brief, mostly stays with Tanda and the villagers, particularly the little Yakuu girl who knows more of the story of the egg bearer, with no intrusion of Shuga and the hunters as is shown in the anime.
On a language note, katakana is used for all personal names of characters and things. It is not a mixture of kanji and katakana, and none of the names are presented as real Japanese names as a result.
Part three of a four part series