(26 episodes, 2007)
My previous exposure
Heartily recommended by this thread at least thrice.
What’s it about ?
This is set in the Yogo empire, a parallel version of pre-industrial Japan with a rich spiritual world bubbling under the surface. A good part of the plot revolves on the relatively recent Yogo empire having mostly erased the spiritual knowledge of the previous civilization for political purposes, and having it biting them in the ass.
Case in point : Chagum, the young second son of the Emperor, has become the host of a major water spirit ; the Emperor mistakes it for a demon (because that’s how the faked histories describe it), and engineers “subtle” attempts on his son’s life to get rid of the menace. Chagum’s mother isn’t too keen on that, and hires Balsa, a foreign female bodyguard reputed to be very good at her job, to try and save him. Cue chase scenes and all-too-brief respites in the countryside in between.
Also among the main cast are Shuga, the high priest/diviner (and Chagum’s tutor) who leaked the news about the spirit to the Emperor and really regrets it ; Tanda, Balsa’s not-boyfriend, a skilled herborist who’s really handy to cure her frequent wounds ; and Torogai, Tanda’s teacher in all things spiritual, a wise (and abrasive) old woman who’s one of the few characters with enough knowledge to understand the significance of Chagum’s possession…
Because what Chagum is really carrying inside him is the egg of a water spirit whose rebirth is essential to the cycle of life in the world ; on the other hand, all the data Torogai can gather seems to confirm that Chagum is going to die in the process…
What did I think of it ?
This is a gorgeous show, with tremendous attention to detail. We spend a lot of time with our main characters living quiet lives in the countryside, and all of it feels real and well-researched. The (relatively rare) fight scenes are also impressive, Balsa being the most badass depiction of a spear-carrier I’ve ever seen. I also like that Chagum’s character design slightly changes in the last few episodes to reflect Balsa’s training and growing maturity.
The only false note on the production side is the score ; not that it’s bad (it’s very adept at rendering the atmosphere of a slightly eerie countryside with barely-concealed danger lurking underneath), but because it’s so strongly similar to another Kenji Kawai score from the same time period ; as a result, I was often half-expecting a redhead with a billhook to jump in at any time. That was quite distracting indeed. It’s only within the last few episodes that the soundtrack really manages to rise above this.
The strength of this series is its deep grounding in verisimilitude : all of it feels real, even when the cast is battling giant crablike monsters or sliding into the spiritual world. The society looks real, the politics are depressingly familiar, the characters feel like actual people (even the one-dimensional evil Emperor is a somewhat believable jerkass), and the supernatural elements are carefully and methodically worked in progressively so that they don’t feel jarring. I also enjoyed Chagum’s characterization ; he doesn’t whine, and he’s smart and well-learned. Actually, most of the characters are quite smart, and see reason relatively easily once they get the right information.
And this may be the part that doesn’t quite click : a big part of the plot hinges on the Emperor being a ruthless asshole as the only explanation for why the more reasonable rest of the cast spends so much time blundering about and working at cross purposes. It feels a bit like forced conflict, with the heavy-handed Message that forgetting (or worse, erasing) old knowledge is Wrong.
Still, this is a very entertaining tale that tries very hard to hit a mythic vibe, and mostly succeeds. Not my favourite genre, but it’s so well-done it doesn’t matter.