The Anthropological Fantasy of Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

 

Rain came down in a sudden torrent one day when I was staying in Osaka, Japan, a common occurrence during the rainy season. Lacking any other immediate options, I dashed to cover, where I planned to whittle away the following few hours in a bookstore cozily nestled inside a train station. As I perused the shelves, one title in particular drew me, a small paperback with a cover that had distinctive blue coloration and characters whose design seemed almost calligraphic. That book, which captured my gaze from the moment I saw it, was Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, and I spent the next two weeks doubled over a desk devouring it, trusty Japanese to English dictionary in hand. It was my first dip into the extensive world of female Japanese fantasy authors—from Uehashi I was lead to Kaoru Kurimoto’s long-running Guin Saga and Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms, though I always held a special fondness for the novel that first pulled me in.

Years later, I stumbled across the translation by Cathy Hirano in my local library (titled Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit in English). As I flipped through familiar passages, I was struck once more by the delicate balance between characters, the tension of societal change, and the power of historical intent. At the time I had no idea of Uehashi’s background as a professor of Ethnology, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Her characters come from separate countries and backgrounds, creating a menagerie of lifestyles and motivations. Each party, from the fierce spear wielder Balsa to the young Star Reader Shuga, sports distinctive predilections and biases that are lent genuine respect with Uehashi’s treatment. There is not a true evil in the book, despite the reader’s likely initial reactions to events, but instead an eventual understanding of differing perspectives and responsibilities. The spirits of the world, at first seeming to be malevolent forces, exist not in terms of good and evil, but in instinctual urges.

As I reread the novel, these were the aspects that struck me. Here is a fantasy novel, easily readable by both youths and adults, that doesn’t sport a White Witch or Necromancer, but instead puts forth historical revisionism as the most unpalatable concept in the novel. Strange to say for a novel involving unearthly spirits and shamanistic magic, but Guardian of the Spirit thrives on representation of issues that can arise as easily in the modern day as in Uehashi’sworld of the Nayoro Peninsula. The loss of traditional knowledge and stories among the Yakoo indigenous peoples is presented as a vague angst rather than widespread systemic oppression. The perversion of the original purpose of the Star Readers, the spiritual leaders of the Yogo Empire within the novel, is often reflected upon by the Master Star Reader in a showing of self-awareness rarely exhibited by antagonists of other fantasy novels. In this excellent interview by David Jacobson with Cathy Hirano, she pinpoints Ursula K. Le Guin as a primary inspiration for Uehashi—no surprise given Le Guin’s famously well-crafted characters.

In Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, one finds a carefully constructed world laden with well developed characters and relevant issues. It is an important work in that it defies many of the tropes of the fantasy genre while remaining accessible as a well-written and exciting story. It is an anthropological fantasy—a novel whose fantastic setting delivers a gentle exploration of human interaction and society. Many years after being enchanted on that rainy day, a Japanese and English version sit side by side on my bookshelf.

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