Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Author: Nahoko Uehashi
Illustrator: Yuko Shimizu

Translator: Cathy Hirano
U.S. Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 9780545005425
Released: June 2008
Original release: 1996
Awards: Batchelder Award

I first learned about Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit while perusing a list of Batchelder Award winners and nominees looking for Japanese entrants. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit won the award in 2009 and in 2010 it’s sequel Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness was listed as an honor book. Moribito is actually the first book of a ten volume Japanese fantasy series aimed towards younger readers; only the first two books have been translated into English so far. The first novel was made into both a manga series (not currently licensed in English) and an anime series, which I’ll definitely be watching. There is also a radio drama adaptation. Originally published in Japan in 1996, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit was subsequently released by Arthur A. Levine books, an imprint of Scholastic, with an English translation by Cathy Hirano, who also translated the second book.

Despite being a woman and an outsider, Balsa has gained quite a reputation as an exceptional body guard and a master of the spear. When she saves the life of Prince Chagum, Balsa is brought to the palace by his mother, the Second Queen. She suspects that multiple attempts have been made on her son’s life and have been made to look like accidents. The boy appears to be possessed by some sort of spirit and is seen as a threat to the country’s stability. Balsa agrees to act as the prince’s protector and flees the city with him. The two are not only pursued by elite human agents, but by supernatural beings as well. The only chance Balsa has to save Chagum is to understand what exactly it is that’s inhabiting his body—knowledge that has been lost over time and forgotten as myth.

Balsa is so awesome. Next time someone tells you a woman nearing middle-age can’t kick ass, just point to her. She has been training for most of her life to be a proficient fighter and while she has some raw, natural talent, her skills are mostly the result of hard work and practice. Uehashi has written some great action and fight sequences that are easy to follow but are still very exciting. Realistically, people get hurt and have to deal with the consequences of their injuries and healing, something that is often forgotten in other fantasy novels I’ve read, especially those written for younger readers. Another thing that Uehashi has done very well is that none of the characters are inherently good or bad—they’re simply people. They’ve all made mistakes and done stupid things, but they also all have redeeming qualities. Thrown into a situation where their actions are dictated by what society requires as opposed to what they truly want or desires as individuals, they are dealing as best as they can.

I absolutely loved Moribito. Levine’s production values and presentation of the novel is simply gorgeous and includes beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu (which I believe are unique to the English edition). Hirano’s translation is also spot-on, using slightly formal and archaic sounding language that fits the story well. Although it is a contemporary novel, I felt as though I was being told a tale and legend much older. Moribito has a very definite ending so I have no idea where Uehashi plans to take things next. But I was so impressed by the first novel in the series that I immediately went out and bought the second volume. If any of the following books are even close to being as good as Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, I truly hope that Levine will publish the rest of the series.

Brave Story

Author: Miyuki Miyabe
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527734
Released: November 2009
Original run: 1999-2001 (various regional newspapers)
Awards: Batchelder Award

Miyuki Miyabe’s novel Brave Story was originally published in two volumes in Japan in 2003. The English edition, released by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint in 2007, is complete in one volume and received the Batchelder Award from the American Library Association for best English translation of a children’s book originally published in a foreign country. The translator in this case being Alexander O. Smith (who also did a great job with his translation of All You Need Is Kill). The story has undergone several adaptions, including a series of light novels for younger readers, a manga series, an anime, and appropriately enough even a few video games. I first encountered Brave Story through the manga, also written by Miyabe and illustrated by Yoichiro Ono. After reading the first volume I knew that I needed to read the source material. And so it was that Miyabe’s hefty novel, over eight hundred pages, made its way to the top of my reading list.

Wataru Mitani is a typical fifth grader—he’s an average student, enjoys playing video games (the Eldritch Stone Saga is his favorite fantasy series), and gets along well with most of his schoolmates, especially his best friend Katchan (even though his mother doesn’t approve). At least that is until the aloof Mitsuru Ashikawa arrives as a transfer student. Wataru would be more than happy to be friends, but Mitsuru doesn’t seem to care about anyone. Suddenly, everything starts to fall apart in Wataru’s life when his father unexpectedly decides to leave him and his mother. But then he stumbles upon the world of Vision which seems like something out of one of his video games. Mitsuru, whose family situation is even more tragic than Wataru’s, has also found Vision. The two of them become rival Travelers in the fantasy world, given the opportunity to complete a dangerous quest and by doing so change their and their family’s destinies in the real world.

Brave Story is surprisingly dark and deals with some heavy issues such as divorce, death, and suicide. As if problems in the real world weren’t enough, Vision faces religious war and genocide. But even so, Brave Story has a very positive message even if it is hard to accept—realizing that hate and anger are very important parts of being human and shouldn’t be pushed away and hidden but embraced. Yes, things are bad but you have to learn to accept all of who you are in order to change anything. Reality hurts, and Miyabe doesn’t pull her punches. Wataru’s experiences are authentically heartbreaking and he has to deal with circumstances that no one should have to. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of Mitsuru’s story, but ultimately Brave Story is Wataru’s tale.

The book almost seems to have a split personality—the real world is emotionally wrenching while the fantasy world is almost comforting in comparison. But, it works. Wataru’s reality slowly starts to intrude upon his fantasy until it can’t be ignored. Personally, I found the real world elements more compelling than the fantasy elements, but everything is pulled together nicely by the end. The majority of Brave Story takes place in Vision and while important the section felt a bit long to me and lacking in urgency until close to the end. But overall, Brave Story is quite good and is a story that adults and mature younger readers can both enjoy alike. I, for one, am very glad that it’s available in English.