The kind of episode that the Three Episode Rule is made for, and the one that turned yours truly from “hmm, this is such a well-crafted show, I can see why it’s so well-regarded…” into “HOLY HELL, THIS SHOW!!”
Seirei no Moribito had set up most of the narrative groundwork in its first couple of episodes, introducing us to the primary conflict that would drive the show. We’ve got acquainted with the two principals: Balsa, the no-nonsense spear-wielding bodyguard, and Chagum, the ‘cursed’ crown prince she’s tasked to protect at the behest of his mother. We’ve also got a good idea on the nature and tone of the show: a fantasy that bypassed the high drama of heroic adventure, flashy magic, and evil warlords in favor of a tale deep-rooted in folklore, spiritualism, and low key character relationship. Then, comes the third episode, where it really breaks through by providing the first major narrative flashpoint.
Balsa and Chagum were on the run from the King, who wants to have Chagum sacrificed for being the vessel of an evil water spirit (which leads to Chagum’s mother hiring Balsa and asking her to take the prince out of the palace). By the end of the second episode, the pair has been found by their first major obstacle: assassins (in a group of four, fittingly enough) tasked by the King to retrieve the Prince. This episode kicked into high gear right away, with the hunters drawing near our protagonists and the conveniently empty rice fields set to be the stage of an intense battle.
Terrific pair of shots here. The apprehension on Chagum’s face after being told by Balsa to run away says it all: is it right to leave this lady fight to the death for his sake? Then, the camera shifted to follow his perspective as he looks up to gaze at Balsa’s personage, a picture of reliability with her toned muscle, all tense and wired up like a coil ready to spring. These quick cuts really tell us a lot about those two and their current dynamics.
The sonic execution during this entire sequence warrants a special mention. The choice of background music is great, punctuated by a whistling sound from the leader of hunters, which somehow adds the sense of menace to the proceeding. Balsa’s V.A. Mabuki Andou (so superb throughout the whole series) turns in a great work as well, every single line spoken by the character dripping with authority and conviction in the face of severe adversity.
After Chagum retreats into temporary safety and Balsa makes the first contact by throwing a kunai, the fight commences in earnest. And my, what a fight it is. Here’s a glimpse:
Other shows may impress with dazzling display of flashy fireworks and exaggerated motions, but this here is the kind of animated fight/action scene that I truly adore. Fluid, grounded, and exhilarating while still being very easy to follow, it’s several pieces of outstanding animation that accomplishes a number of different things in just about three minutes. It emphasizes how Balsa’s spear is an integral part of her being, showing how potent it is as both offensive and defensive weapon, and how a skillful wielder like her could make a spear fight looks like a deadly balletic dance. There’s also a good eye for detail and continuity, spatial awareness of the surrounding terrain, and real stakes and consequences throughout the whole thing.
The fight sequence as a whole is a vehicle for important character building, communicating the combatants’ temperament and respective motivation through purposeful visual. We get to see Balsa exhibits not only dexterity and raw power, but also lightning quick thinking on her feet as she adapts admirably with every new adverse development. For their part, the hunters also display a refreshing lack of false bravado, refusing to partake in meaningless grandstanding and taunting like your typical cardboard villains from a lesser show. Each side goes about their business with minimal fuss, hell bent on achieving their respective objective and yet canny enough to eventually deduce important facts about their opposition; that the hunters are meant to take Chagum alive, and that Balsa fights in a manner that preserve the life of her opponents as best as she could (for reason beyond naive pacifism).
I love the eventual outcome of this confrontation. Instead of having Balsa be an invincible warrior who can kick everyone’s asses without breaking a sweat—a common temptation when portraying a main protagonist’s first fight scene—it really lives up to the episode title, showing Balsa naturally pushed to her limit by the combination of her being outnumbered and the self-imposed handicap. And yet, what she accomplishes is very remarkable considering the context; she doesn’t beat them all nor does she escapes unscathed, but she succeeds in ultimately securing the prince while still adhering to her code. Balsa wins the battle, no question about it.
“It’s sad… a bodyguard being worried over by the one she’s protecting,” Balsa said to Chagum, but as she lies face up on the ground with a real danger of bleeding to death, you can’t help but feel tremendous respect and appreciation for the lady.
After the frenzy of combat, there’s a couple of vital flashback sequences. The first is for Jin, one of the hunters tasked to watch over Chagum, captured in the aftermath of the initial battle. Once again, it’s a highlight of how the hunters aren’t your garden variety one-and- done mooks, with Jin reminiscing about the nice memory he shared with the prince a while back and how it conflicts with his honorbound duty. He would’ve gone against the order and kill Chagum so that the boy would be spared from being murdered by his own father, if not for the emerging Balsa, who knocks him out cold with the ferocity of a wounded beast trying to protect its child.
The second flashback occurs for Balsa near the end of the episode, more vague in nature but the sigificance thereof could be easily inferred. As Balsa’s consciousness fades away among the drizzle, she looks on to see the sight of two spear-wielding men locked in a mortal combat (showcasing another sterling spear fight choreography), as well as her younger self peering over the trees. It’s a scene that we’ll revisit later on, but at the moment it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what had shaped her into the woman she became.
Balsa isn’t the only who shines in this episode. Seirei no Moribito will eventually shape up to be Chagum’s coming of age story, and there’s some work done here to flesh out the crown prince. Even with his sheltered nature, the story avoids the ‘privileged brat got a rude awakening’ trope, and instead highlights the boy’s inherent thoughtfulness and resilience. Jin’s flashback effectively doubles as a glimpse of how generous Chagum is even at a very young age, and as he scales up the cliff and braves through the harsh terrain that he’s never known of, it’s plain to see he’s doing it out of his compassion for the wounded Balsa more than his own safety. It’s very easy to like the boy right off the bat, and to be convinced that he and Balsa could easily carry the show.
We also get to see Toya, Saya, and Tanda, key supporting characters who will do vital work in helping Balsa and Chagum out of their predicament. Finally, there’s a nice bit of world-building, with the sun of Nayug (the spiritual realm) lighting up the sky of Sagu (the name for the physical world in Moribito) creating the image of a double moon—perhaps foreshadowing the collision between the two different worlds in multiple ways.
The marvelous fight scene might be the obvious highlight, but there’s so much more going underneath that makes the whole episode ticks. Beautifully directed, storyboarded, and animated, it’s a strong boost of forward momentum that accentuates the show’s many strengths, most notably its sophisticated character work. It promises a lot of greatness, which the show will go on to fulfill by the end of its powerful conclusion.
(*I’ve only finished Moribito about half a year ago, and it should’ve earned itself a spot in My Favorites list way sooner if not for procrastination and general forgetfulness. This had finally been addressed properly.)