This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted here.
For more information about the week, head over here.
Moribito is a best-selling fantasy series which has been adapted on screen, in manga form and on the radio. It is composed of twelve volumes but this review will only be about the first novel. The author, Nahoko Uehashi, is also teaching ethonology at a Japanese University.
Balsa is a spear woman and wandering warrior who tries to save people to atone for past mistakes. When she saves the life of Chagum, the Second Prince, she finds herself in the middle of old traditions and politics which will change her life. When it is suspected that the young prince's body is inhabited by a demon, the king sets to kill him. But Chagum's mother thwarts his plans by hiring Balsa to take Chagum far away from the palace and protect him. Because the knowledge has been lost in time, Chagum is falsely accused of having a demon in him. He was actually chosen to be the egg-bearer of a long forgotten god, in a journey which happens every hundred years. Chagum and Balsa have to face two deadly enemies: a mythical creature and the king's hunters.
Moribito is a lovely fantasy story which brings together fascinating characters and traditional myths. Balsa is a strong and impressive woman who was trained to be a warrior. She has an incomparable strength and set of skills which make her a deadly enemy. In a patriarchal society, she is different from most of the other women but she is highly respected. Torogai, an old woman who knows how to work magic, is also a strong female character and is stronger than several warriors. She also has a hilarious personality which helps diffuse the tension at times. Torogai's apprentice, Tanda (who is in love with Balsa), also helps protect Chagum.
The world Nahoko Uehashi builds is filled with mystery as different people live on the same land and have different cultures and beliefs. The forgotten belief of the Moribito is part of the world where there is a parallel realm of spirits called Nayugu. Even though Chagum is set in the real world, he protects an egg in Nayugu until it hatches. The creatures of Nayugu are fascinating (especially, Rarunga, the nasty egg-eater) and inspired from Japanese culture.
The interesting part of Moribito is how much it could be compared to the real world. In this land which has seen a civilization overtake another, the cultural traditions of the previous people have been forgotten or hidden under the new civilization's. No one can remember what happened when other children have become egg-bearers and the old languages and traditions have all been forgotten. History isn't a factual and objective account of what happened, it's only what the victor wants history to remember. It's quite interesting to read those ideas in a book for young audiences, especially when the reader roots for Balsa and Torogai, who want all point of views and all cultures to be represented equally in the society.
Chagum doesn't choose to be the Moribito, the Guardian of the Spirit, and he goes through an angry phase where he keeps wondering "Why me?" and thinking how unfair life is. Through her similar experience, Balsa shares some words of wisdom to Chagum and changes his perspective on things. Life is often unfair and there isn't much one can do except accept his or her circumstance and get on with things.
I have only read the first volume of this series and I am really looking forward reading the rest. It is a book which is not only an entertaining read for all ages, but also a book which illustrates brilliantly some ideas about tradition and how civilizations are created.