Spoilers for Moribito
There is a time for rousing speeches, and a time for doing stuff; Moribito’s main characters are all about the latter. There are anime like Tank Police that advocate for gender equality by making the fight with a patriarchy a central conflict of the story; and others like Naruto that pretend to support gender equality by having a female character cut her hair, declare her independence, and then not do much else. Moribito‘s reckoning with gender equality is much more understated, and therein lies the strength of the series. The roles and characterization of main characters Balsa, Tanda, and Prince Chagum make gender equality seem natural, and therefore powerful, even if their story takes place in a patriarchal system. By allowing Balsa to be a kick-ass spearwoman, the medicine man Tanda to be her support, and Prince Chagum to accept that he can be both nurturing and a strong ruler, the series unspokenly invites the audience to consider alternatives to familiar genre rules and gender roles.
Based on the novel by Nahoko Uehashi, Moribito is a fantasy set in the fictional Shin Yago empire, modeled loosely after ancient Japan. Spearwoman Balsa is secretly enlisted by the queen to protect her son. Prince Chagum has the egg of the water spirit in him, which his father, the Mikado, falsely believes will cause a 100-year drought when it hatches—when in reality, it will prevent one. Note that while Balsa, a woman, is pitted against the Mikado, a man, and all the men that work for him, she is not explicitly challenging him based on patriarchy. She’s just trying to protect someone. The patriarchy will still be there even if she succeeds. The central conflict is focused on the environment, spirituality, and class, and yet the main characters subtly push for gender equality as they engage in the conflict outside their assigned gender roles. The setting serves to amplify this demonstration.
Though Moribito has magic, mythical creatures, and other fantastical elements, the naturalistic animation style and the subdued demeanor of many of the characters make the show feel grounded. The layers of realism in the scenery, character designs, dialogue, and atmosphere adds credibility to characters by making their gender-norm-defying actions feel possible, rather than something possible only because of an outlandish world. The impact of Balsa defying familiar, historical gender norms is greater because her world feels that much more real.
The patriarchy in the worldbuilding is implicit. No one says, “Men are better than women,” or “women can’t be warriors” (except one character who doesn’t mean it), yet the society’s sexism is never in doubt. Most of the warriors and people with influence are men, save for the queen, who nonetheless has to sneak around her husband (who has three wives by the way). Balsa and Tanda are clear outliers, and had to be mentored by people of the opposite gender (Balsa a man and Tanda a woman) in order to enter their gender-role-defying occupations.
In a work with a more explicit feminist focus, the story might begin with a female character lamenting her position in society and wanting one that normally only men are allowed to have. The story itself might be about her striving to break the glass ceiling to get it. But Balsa has long surpassed whatever barriers she had to face to become a spearwoman by the time the story begins. She is introduced as calm, and self-assured; fearsome in battle but aggressive instincts tempered with the experience and wisdom that come from being a veteran warrior.
Warrior woman Balsa is a novelty to the people of the Shin Yago empire, and early in the series, a few of them say so. The men facing her can’t gawk for long, though. If they are to defeat her they must adapt to the reality that a woman can fight and fight well. As four town watchmen learn this the hard way when they try to apprehend Balsa—only to get their asses handed to them. The men who fight Balsa are forced to respect her, and they do.
By no means is Balsa anime’s only strong heroine. Moribito stands out, however, from other anime that ultimately undermine their female warriors’ strength—for example by having her subservient to a male commander, defeated or sidelined during plot-relevant battles, or “softened” by a male protagonist. If all else fails there’s fan service, with the power of these characters often undermined by sexual camera angles or bikini armor. None of this applies to Balsa, who is drawn to be attractive but is framed respectfully. And while she has clients who pay for her dinners, their influence takes a back seat to her code of ethics.
On the flip side, Balsa isn’t two-dimensionally flat or perfect. She has flaws and regrets, all of which contributes to making her feel realistic and layered. Likewise, she is not an unstoppable badass: she still needs support from other characters, particularly Tanda.
In fantasy anime and JRPGs the “healer class” is typically occupied by women who support the male warrior from behind. Tanda reverses this setup. Whenever Balsa is at death’s door or otherwise injured, it is Tanda who stitches her back up. It is also Tanda who guides Balsa through spiritual and magical challenges throughout the show, and pushes her to rethink and refine her ethics.
Despite being primarily a support character, Tanda is well-rounded in his own right. Though he is not as strong as Balsa, he has his own unique set of strengths and is willing to throw himself into danger when the situation demands it. He’s also implied to have had a crush on Balsa since they were both young, but is willing to wait for her when she goes off on another adventure. These traits are commonly given to female characters but less often to men, and this emphasis that men can be nurturing and supportive is equally important to combating sexism.
The writers also resist giving their “supporting” male character a narrative advantage that would make Balsa’s physical skills unimportant and leave her ultimately reliant on him for the sake of the story. Tanda doesn’t control Balsa, and he’s not physically powerful. Ultimately, Tanda and Balsa depend on each other and while Tanda does occasionally complain about Balsa’s being uncooperative, both respect each other’s independence and work together to protect Chagum.
While Tanda and Balsa are both adults comfortable with their positions and accomplishments in life, Chagum is a child (twelve years old by the show’s last episodes), who is still figuring himself out, and doesn’t know whether he wants to follow Tanda or Balsa’s example. By his nature, he is a nurturing kid who grows up protecting helpless animals. At the same time, he can’t shake the feeling that he should be more masculine. This tension between traditionally masucline and feminine expectations manifests most strongly when it comes to the egg inside him, which he must take care of lest that 100-year drought kill the kingdom.
Much of the imagery surrounding Chagum and the egg implies and alludes to pregnancy. In the middle of every episode, there’s a scene of an embryo developing. The fact that it takes from summer to spring of the next year implies a nine month gestation period. The increasing anxiety Chagum feels as he gets closer to the due date, the fact that releasing the egg might kill him, and the fact that the spell Tanda uses to extract the egg looks like a c-section, all draw easy comparisons to pregnancy. Finally, there’s Chagum’s affection for the egg. As he lies sweaty and exhausted, wishing the egg well before the final leg of its journey to the ocean, he does look like a proud mother. What makes the scene particularly effective is that it is the culmination of his long inner battle between his nurturing side and his “masculine” side.
Prince Chagum’s “pregnancy” forces him to recognize his nurturing side, and little good comes of the moments where he tries to resist it. It is when Chagum takes care of things that he is narratively rewarded. That drunk he gives sweets to pulls himself together to become a dedicated agent in his service; the bird Chagum nurses back to health turns out to the be the same species that carries water spirit eggs to the ocean; and the egg that Chagum grows within him, the egg he considered getting himself torn apart for, saves the kingdom. None of this is to say that it’s wrong for men to want to be masculine. There are male side characters who are stereotypically masculine and go on to succeed in their endeavors. The show only asks its characters to be who they are instead of who society tells them to be.
Moribito‘s narrative rewards the main characters for their role-defying antics. Each of the three main characters achieve their goals and get a happy end: Prince Chagum is welcomed back into the royal court as a hero, Balsa finally succeeds in repaying the spiritual debt she held to the eight men who died to keep her alive, and Tanda is happy that he got Balsa to stop killing people. Granted, Chagum ends up getting all the credit for saving the kingdom, thanks to his father’s propaganda, but Balsa and Tanda never wanted that anyway.
There’s no climactic moment in which the patriarchal rule of the world is shaken up or taken apart… but that was also not what the characters, nor the story, wanted. The viewer is asked, instead, to consider that even in the strictest of patriarchies there will always be real-life Balsas, Tandas, and Chagums who managed to make it out of their prescribed roles. The series is not about gender inequality or gender roles, yet it challenges them all the way through with the understated, unspoken, powerful characterization of its three leads, who each defy their world’s expectations (and our expectations of fantasy tropes). Moribito does one very important job of telling us we can be who we are, demonstrating that strong, unspoken character writing can be just as much of a challenge to gendered roles as a text that explicitly reckons with them.