An Unnatural Pregnancy As Coming of Age – Moribito, Part 4

This time, we will be wrapping up our look at 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”). This part is quite a departure from the anime, and I think the novel has a stronger literary interpretation because that is the case. The general meaning of the story gets lost when the order is rearranged.

First, the character of Shuga isn’t as big in the last chapter, “Hatching,” as he is in the anime. The Head Star Reader Gakai seems to play a stronger role in the novel, and Shuga is mostly relegated to spending time in the underground book depository where the old national annals of the first Head Star Reader Nanai are kept. He stays there so long that the other characters think he is sick because he is so pale.

The two opposing sides of the Mikado and Balsa come together at last in the same subchapter where they start to appear together, subchapter four about the flower, Shigu Sarua, which gets far more explanation in the anime. At this point within the subchapter, the text breaks and switches from Shuga’s perspective to Chagum’s, then the hunters immediately appear and interact with Balsa’s friends in an attempt to protect Chagum from the egg-eating Rarunga. The adversaries have aligned against this monster in the hopes Chagum can safely hatch the egg and still live when earlier egg-bearers were killed by the beast.

Previous subchapters one and three deal with Chagum in the cave where he is spending the winter with Balsa and Tanda. These subchapters have Chagum in a sort of symbolic womb, incubating in preparation for his battle with Rarunga at the summer solstice, with a traditionally structured family steeped in Yakuu culture, including Balsa and Tanda as surrogate mother and father. Surrogate grandmother Torogai is mostly absent, looking for some member of the Earth Folk, which are not seen in the anime, to consult about the Rarunga. Chagum even expresses curiosity about why Tanda and Balsa aren’t married to each other. Four months later in the second of these subchapters, Chagum gets so lethargic he can’t get out of bed, and Tanda decides it is probably the egg growing and Chagum’s body changing rather than illness, so Chagum is indeed undergoing a parallel sort of pregnancy. The time he spends with Balsa from the beginning to the ending is eight months total, so it is a real-time parallel.

What I find interesting about this part is that in the middle of his physical problems, Balsa points out that he is almost 12, nearly a man. This very pointedly brings up the possibility that this bizarre pregnancy Chagum is suffering from is a metaphor for his coming of age, and in some way his birthing this egg could be viewed as preparation for his role in adulthood. This is underscored by news of his older brother the Crown Prince’s death, which first is mentioned in the novel after the egg is hatched and Chagum back at the palace. We only hear briefly in a chapter on the Star Readers after Chagum has entered the cave for the winter that his brother has fallen ill. But by the end, Chagum must take his place as the new Crown Prince. Perhaps he would not be ready to lead Shin-Yogo without having had the time with foreigners and commoners or had to go through this physical ordeal to reach manhood that the egg represents. Here is a link that explains more about coming of age ceremonies and expectations in some indigenous North American cultures for comparison, a subject that author Nahoko Uehashi surely would know about as a trained anthropologist:

This particular site mentions that coming of age for boys can be at age 12 or 13, and certainly that is the timing of the more familiar Jewish Bar Mitzvah.

The story also takes Chagum from a broken household where Chagum is to be potentially killed by his father with his mother living in fear for his safety and placed into a warm, loving family in the cave, a sort of repairing of that relationship on a more symbolic level. So while he is physically suffering and afraid he won’t survive the hatching, he is also going through social changes to prepare him to become the Crown Prince. Nothing much is said about his older brother in the novel, so I don’t know what his purpose is in this other than to underscore Chagum’s transformation and preparation for that role. It’s unclear if the older brother was unsuitable to be Mikado. The only detail about him that made any impression on me besides his sickness is that he was 14.

Also, the mention of Chagum about to become a man is brought up in the context of Balsa telling her story of her upbringing by warrior Jiguro and a comparison with Tanda at the age of 11. So we have a bit of personal oral history of sorts connecting Chagum to them even as the palace has the official history connecting him to the legendary founder of Shin-Yogo, Torugaru.

A nice touch at the end is how Balsa and Chagum are back at the bridge with the ox pulled cart, which is where Balsa first rescued Chagum from the assassination attempt. This section isn’t long and culminates with Balsa pondering how she feels about Chagum, if it was how Jiguro felt about her at one point.

Here is part of Valerie Estelle Frankel’s theoretical chart for the hero and heroine’s journey that we will use to analyze this novel a bit:

Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
The World of Common Day
The Call To Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Supernatural Aid
The Crossing of the First Threshold
The Belly of the Whale
The Road of Trials
The Meeting With the Goddess
Woman as the Temptress
Atonement with the Father
The Ultimate Boon
Refusal of the Return
The Magic Flight
Rescue From Without
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Master of the Two Worlds
Freedom To Live

Frankel’s Heroine’s Journey
The World of Common Day
The Call To Adventure
Refusal of the Call
The Ruthless Mentor and the Bladeless Talisman
The Crossing of the First Threshold
Opening One’s Senses
Sidekicks, Trials, Adversaries
Wedding the Animus
Facing Bluebeard
Finding the Sensitive Man
Confronting the Powerless Father
Descent into Darkness
Atonement with the Mother
Integration and Apotheosis
Reward: Winning the Family
Torn Desires
The Magic Flight
Reinstating the Family
Power over Life and Death
Ascension of the New Mother

Here is the site that is excerpted from:

Frankel’s book From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend gets into more detail with this theoretical framework and is quite good.

Let’s look at some of the main features of these two theories and see how Moribito fits into them. Glancing at the lists side by side, I would say Chagum fits most of Joseph Campbell’s framework with a few exceptions. (That framework, by the way, would be found in his book Hero With A Thousand Faces.) Both lists have “A Call to Adventure,” which here seems to be Chagum’s conception of the spirit. I don’t see any way he can refuse that, yet he still becomes the “victim to be saved.” Balsa is a reluctant rescuer and bodyguard of Chagum, though she isn’t supernatural. By extension, Torogai could fall into the category of “supernatural aid” or “meeting with the goddess.” Apparently, those aspects don’t actually have to be supernatural at all.

Balsa flees with Chagum through the rice paddies and has to fight the hunters, so this probably fits the “crossing the threshold” part. Chagum is certainly in “the belly of the whale” when he is holed up in the cave for the winter. “The virgin birth” Campbell talks about shows up in quite a different place in this novel; rather than the hero being born of a virgin, Chagum experiences a virgin birth by giving birth to the water spirit. His trials certainly are his mostly psychological battle with the disembodied claw of the Rarunga, which plunges him into a strange dream world where he can see both the physical world Segu and the spiritual world Nayug as the hatching nears; this is also consistent with the Native American coming of age journey explained at the link above.

When the story reaches the “Hatching” chapter, it switches more into Frankel’s perspective on the heroine, however. I think the storyline focuses more on “winning the family” and “reinstating the family,” as I’ve already explained. Chagum does return, crossing the threshold back to his life at the palace, with the “power over life and death” because of this strange birth he participates in, and with his role as Crown Prince and in the future Mikado, that would fit better with the “ascension of the new mother” heroine aspect. Chagum will have to lead the nation properly and nurture it, so the destination he has is less about personal freedom and is a role with a more feminine aspect.

Reading fantasy novels in non-Western languages can pose a unique challenge since made up names and languages can be hard to detect for a non-native reader. How do you know for sure if it is a legitimate word in that language that may just happen to not be in your dictionary or if it is something imaginary? So next to the literary genre, I would suggest it is one of the most difficult genres to tackle as a foreign language student.

Finally, I’ll end this series with a linguistic note: I thought it was really interesting the way the author writes some of the key terms differently depending on who is using them. For example, Rarunga is written in the katakana alphabet for most of the novel, but when Shuga and the Star Readers discuss it and the annals of Nanai, they use hiragana. I’m not sure why that is, and I have no idea how the translator for the English version might have handled it other than completely ignoring that usage, but it is quite unusual and fascinating since Japanese is one of the few languages on the planet with a writing system capable of that sort of subtlety. If anyone wants to speak to that question, please add your two cents in the comment section.

Next time: We return to South Korea to get into some corporate espionage and romantic drama in Minshik Jeon’s, The Man Who Walks Dogs.

Part four of a four part series


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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