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Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. Nahoko Uehashi. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2008, hardcover, 272 pages, $17.99, ISBN: 978-0545005425. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2009, Paperback, 288 pages, $8.99, ISBN: 978-0545005432. Original in Japanese, Seirei no Moribito (精霊の守り人), 1996.

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Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness. Nahoko Uehashi. Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009, hardcover, 272 pages, $17.99, ISBN: 978-0545102957. Translation by Cathy Hirano. Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu. Original in Japanese, Yami no Moribito (闇の守り人), 1999.

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Reviewed by Daniel Baird


[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:1 (#330) in January 2010.]

When one thinks of the Japanese martial warrior, the image of the samurai and his curved, single edged sword comes to mind. Yet the sword did not become the predominant weapon until the peace that followed Japanese civil war, circa 1600. During the civil war the bow (on horseback) and the spear were also common, the former for nobility and the latter for the common solder. It is delightful, therefore to find that the protagonist of Moribito, Balsa, wields not a sword, but a short spear in her various jobs as bodyguard. As this novel begins, she finds herself being hired to protect a person rather different than the usual crowd for this time it is royalty—the second prince of the emperor (Mikado). As the book progresses we learn of Balsa’s history, who is trying to kill Prince Chagum, and are immersed in a rich fantasy world.

Uehashi’s series of ten books revolving around a set of characters and the fantastic world they inhabit have sold over 1.5 million copies and garnered a series of literary awards in Japan. The first volume also won the 2009 Batchelder Award. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is the first book in the series to be available in English. Uehashi writes for a juvenile audience and children will enjoy this book, but I think adults will also find the work has plenty of richness in its characterization and fantasy world.

The fantasy is loosely based on some myths of Japan and includes a wonderfully horrifying monster, an advisory group to the Mikado that is not unlike the old Daoist yinyang masters of early imperial Japan, and some interesting ideas on magic based on earth, water, and the stars.

The paperback version includes a glossary, a brief note by the author on her inspiration for the story, black and white illustrations, and an 11 page introduction to book two. Finally, in the words of the author: “I hope you enjoy the adventures of Balsa, the kind-hearted, spear wielding bodyguard, and the brave, honest boy she protects in this fantasy world that carries the scent of Japan.”

In this second installment of the series, the main character is still Balsa. We follow Balsa as she journeys through the mountains to her homeland, seeking to answer the questions about her past raised in the first novel. Why was she raised by Jiguro in a foreign land? What happened to her father? Why did assassins constantly show up to kill her and Jiguro?

In searching out the answers to these questions Balsa becomes involved in political scandal that threatens to destroy her entire home nation. Having grown to love Balsa with her fierce determination in book one, I am delighted to find that this story picks up right where the last one left off. By sending Balsa to her homeland, however, Uehashi gives us a new set of characters to interact and foil other aspects of Balsa’s character. We meet again some loveable, if not rascally children who, like in the first novel, prove pivotal to the story. What is extraordinary, though, is that with this new setting Uehashi gives a whole new set of mythology to enjoy. With Guardian of the Spirit we dealt with three distinct cultures and their competing myths. Now with Guardian of the Darkness we find a new mythology wholly unlike the earlier three. The myths of first book revolved around water and to some extent light—in this story it is the darkness deep under the earth that is explored. Although I can see certain elements of Japanese mythology, one does not need to be familiar with such to appreciate the book—just as one does not need to know the Nibelungenlied to appreciate Lord of the Rings. Balsa’s quest of the past, and the mythology of darkness draw the reader into a very fascinating book.

Like the earlier book, it is geared for children, but I found it an enjoyable, if quick read. Scholastic has done a marvelous job with the translation—avoiding typos and awkward sentences (a problem with other publishers of Japanese children’s fiction). The book includes the genealogy of two important clans (one of which is Balsa’s), a list of important characters, and a glossary of important Kanbalese terms (language of Balsa’s homeland). It is, however, missing the map found in the Japanese original. Check it out from your local library and enjoy!


Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. Nahoko Uehashi. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2008, hardcover, 272 pages, $17.99, ISBN: 978-0545005425. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2009, Paperback, 288 pages, $8.99, ISBN: 978-0545005432. Original in Japanese, Seirei no Moribito (精霊の守り人), 1996.

Buy Online

Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness. Nahoko Uehashi. Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009, hardcover, 272 pages, $17.99, ISBN: 978-0545102957. Translation by Cathy Hirano. Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu. Original in Japanese, Yami no Moribito (闇の守り人), 1999.

Buy Online