Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness

Author: Nahoko Uehashi
Illustrator: Yuko Shimizu

Translator: Cathy Hirano
U.S. Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 9780545102957
Released: May 2009
Original release: 1999

Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness is the second volume of Nahoko Uehashi’s Guardian series of children’s fantasy novels. I absolutely adored the first book, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, so it was a very easy decision to pick up the second. Guardian of the Darkness was originally published in Japan in 1999 and was released in an English translation by Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books imprint. I own both Guardian books in hardcover since Arthur A. Levine Books’ English editions, which include wonderful illustrations by the immensely talented Yuko Shimizu, are simply gorgeous. Like the first book, Guardian of the Darkness was nominated for a Batchelder Award (given to the best foreign language children’s book published in an English translation). Although, unlike the first novel, it did not win but did receive an honorable mention. Once again, Cathy Hirano has provided an excellent translation, one that is even better than her work on Guardian of the Spirit.

When she was only six years old, political scheming forced Balsa to flee her homeland of Kanbal with only her father’s best friend Jiguro as her protector, guide and companion. Jiguro was the leader of the elite King’s Spears and one of the country’s most respected warriors; to leave was not an easy decision for him to make. Decades later and after Jiguro’s death, Balsa returns to Kanbal, not realizing how greatly her entire homeland was affected by Jiguro’s decision and their disappearance. The people of Kanbal have a much different understanding of the events surrounding their flight. Balsa quickly learns that there is more to the story of her and Jiguro’s shared past than she previously knew. She also discovers parts of Jiguro’s life of which she was unaware—the man she grew to admire and depend on was a much more complicated person than she realized.

While Balsa is the main protagonist, I actually consider Guardian of the Darkness to be Jiguro’s story. Obviously, Balsa is a very important part of that story—their lives were irrevocably entwined and even after his death Jiguro continues to influence Balsa. He will probably continue to do so for the rest of her life. Guardian of the Darkness allows Balsa to come to terms with this and better understand her mentor. Uehashi’s characters are wonderful. Even through the fantasy veneer of the story, they come across as real people with real problems. They make mistakes and must learn from them and deal with the results. They have goals and desires. Good intentions can be clouded by selfish motivations. There are no real villains in the story, just incredibly driven but unfortunately misguided individuals who are trying to do the best they can with the opportunities they are given.

Although some references are made to the first volume, it is not necessary to have read Guardian of the Spirit to enjoy and appreciate Guardian of the Darkness. If I had to choose a favorite, I would probably lean towards the first novel. But honestly, I truly loved both books. Uehashi is a fantastic storyteller, creating a complex world full of greys that can be enjoyed by older and younger readers alike. Because the books are aimed towards children, they are fairly easy reading and not terribly long, but this does not mean they are lacking in the depth of their characters or story. I can easily recommend both Guardian of the Spirit and Guardian of the Darkness to any fan of fantasy and even to many readers who are not. If I have one lament, it is that the rest of the Guardian series is unlikely to see publication in English; the last I heard, the series had been put on indefinite hold. I cannot begin to explain how greatly this breaks my heart, but I will continue to treasure the first two volumes and encourage others to read them as well.

My Week in Manga: November 8-November 14, 2010

My News and Reviews

I stayed home sick from work for two days this past week. I ended up sleeping for most of the time, but I also got some manga reading in and finished watching Moribito when I could sit up again. I was also able to get a couple reviews written. One, Tourism in Japan: An Ethno-Semiotic Analysis, was written as part of the 2010 Green Books Campaign. I had the chance to participate in this event last year, too. The second review (and my first in-depth manga review for November) was for Yumiko Shirai’s Tenken, which won the 2007 Japan Media Arts Award Encouragement Prize—it’s a gorgeous manga if nothing else.

I also made a few updates to the Resources page. Two publisher pages have been added: Manga University and DrMaster. In the “News and Reviews” section I’ve included MangaCast, run by Ed Chavez and Khursten Santos; Manga Views, which includes a nice aggregator feed among other things; Manga Report, the manga specific site of fellow librarian Anna from TangognaT (who also runs Manga Views); and Slightly Biased Manga which has a lot of great manga reviews.

Quick Takes

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by Moto Hagio. I wasn’t originally going to pick up this collection, but then a lot of people whose opinions I respect started raving about it. I’m very glad I bought a copy. There’s a lot of depth to these short stories, sometimes more than what first appears. It’s a great selection spanning Hagio’s entire career so far. I’ve not previously read any of Hagio’s works, but after reading this collection and the included interview I really want to. Not much is available in English by this influential mangaka yet, but I hope that changes. I’m particularly interested in reading her science fiction and boys’ love pieces.

The Embalmer, Volumes 1-2 by Mitsukazu Mihara. I came across this manga mostly by accident, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. The second volume is even better than the first, so I’d definitely like to read the rest of the series as well. Shinjyurou is an enigmatic and charismatic character and I want to know more about him. At first he seems only to be a good looking playboy, but it’s soon apparent he’s deeper and more complex than that. He faces a fair amount of discrimination as an embalmer in Japan but believes in his chosen profession and the peace it can bring to the living. So far, the manga seems to be fairly episodic although there’s an underlying story and romance.

GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka, Volumes 21-25 by Tohru Fujisawa. It’s outrageous, over the top, and completely unbelievable, but I do love this series and was very happy when I was able to find the last few volumes. By this point some of the plot elements seem a bit repetitive, some purposefully so, but Fujisawa never fails to surprise me. He also found a way to end the series that works and I’m not sure that it could have been sustained for much longer. Onizuka is a great character, granted a bit of a lecherous bastard, but he’s honest with himself and others and forces others to be honest with themselves. He gets into all sorts of trouble in the process, but always manages to pull through for his students.

Loveless, Volumes 1-8 by Yun Kouga. This series goes to some really dark places and the characters are twisted and damaged, but I care immensely about them. The loneliness, betrayal, and rejection that they have to deal with is heartbreaking.There is a lot that is left to be explained and a lot that I don’t understand about the world-building, but at this point I don’t care, hoping all will eventually be revealed. It’s a complex story with great art and I want to see where Kouga goes. I really hope that Tokyopop or another publisher is able to bring over the rest of the series (it’s up to at least nine volumes in Japan) because I am completely engrossed in this manga.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Episodes 13-26 directed by Kenji Kamiyama. What a wonderful adaptation! I loved the original story and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this series, either. There were a few episodes that felt like filler to me, but for the most part the anime is marvelously done and the animation is beautiful. The second half of the series includes Balsa’s backstory which is just as tragic if not more so than Chagum’s. Chagum really grows throughout the series, from a spoiled child prince into a fine young man. It’s definitely a show that needs to be watched in order to get the full impact and you don’t want to skip any episodes, but it’s great.

My Week in Manga: November 1-November 7, 2010

My News and Reviews

I had a very busy week and wasn’t home much which means I didn’t get much manga reading in, either. However, I did manage to clean my room and completely reorganize my bookcases, getting all the manga that’s been accumulating in boxes onto actual shelves. (Except for Ranma 1/2—I’ve a box it fits in perfectly and being the longest series I own it takes up too much space otherwise.) Granted, they’re all stacked at least two deep but at least now they’re alphabetized and I know where everything is.

This past week featured October’s Bookshelf Overload, which I now know at least one other person enjoys, as well as a book review for Nahoko Uehashi fantasy novel Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. I really enjoyed the book, so I hope more people will check it and its sequel out. Maybe then Arthur A. Levine Books will publish the rest of the series!

I hit a bit of a technical snag while updating the Resources page and lost a bunch of links and my backup was a bit outdated. Fortunately, I think I’ve managed to recover most if not all of them. And now, like I’ve been promising, there’s a section for podcasts! I’ve only got eight so far—if you know of any others, specifically those manga related, please let me know. My post on podcasts will probably appear sometime next week. That’s the goal anyway.

Completely unrelated to manga, but I’m still excited about it—I was able to attend Jake Shimabukuro’s concert on Thursday night! It was a fantastic performance. Jake is an amazing musician and has a wonderful stage presence, too.

Quick Takes

Black-Winged Love by Tomoko Yamashita. I am in love with this collection. I had previously read Yamashita’s Dining Bar Akira and enjoyed it, but Black-Winged Love is even better. The manga collects seven boys’ love stories plus some fun bonus material. The stories are mostly serious in tone, but each also exhibit a quirky sense of humor. While there’s very little actual sex, the manga is still sexy and smart (I mean, we’ve got references to Yukio Mishima and others in here). I keep changing my mind about which story is my favorite; I liked them all and reread the book several times. I’m setting this manga aside to do a more in-depth review in the future.

Parasyte, Volumes 1-8 by Hitoshi Iwaaki. I spent most of my Saturday reading through this entire series, it’s that good and addicting of a story. It’s fascinating to not only see Izumi change and grow as a person through the series, but to see the Parasites develop and evolve as well. And his relationship with Migi—the Parasite that took over his right arm after failing to take over his brain—is simply great. The two of them must learn to work together and coexist in the same body, but they are definitely both individuals. There’s a lot in the manga that explores human nature, and sometimes it’s the Parasites with their straightforward logic that appear to be the more humane creatures.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Episodes 1-12 directed by Kenji Kamiyama. As I mentioned above, I recently read and adored the novel this anime series was based on, so I was very excited to watch it. The first few episodes follow the book very closely, but the middle section has been greatly expanded while still holding to the spirit of the original story. The attention to detail in the animation is wonderful, not only for the characters (the eyes in particular are gorgeous and expressive) and beautiful backgrounds, but even the clothing and weaponry. Occasionally though the CG used does feel a bit out of place. I look forward to watching the rest of the series.

Princess Mononoke written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Although I have enjoyed just about every Miyazaki film that I’ve seen, I think that Princess Mononoke is probably my favorite. And at over two hours, it is also one of the longest animated films ever made. I think the thing I love most about this anime is the complexity of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. There’s man versus nature, and man versus man, and it’s not always easy to pick a side and say who is right. With lovely animation and accompanying soundtrack, it is is a wonderful movie and has been adapted well for English speaking audiences.

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.