Fantasy and sci-fi are not genres I gravitate towards often because there’s usually a lot of (sometimes complicated) world-building going on that tends to be too much for my limited brains. But spirits and such are okay, and it was a good opportunity to see if I could finally watch Ayase Haruka after her previous horrific drama. Fortunately, the stars aligned in my favour.
Balsa (Ayase Haruka) is a wandering, spear-wielding bodyguard who has promised her mentor Jiguro (Kikkawa Koji) to save eight lives in order to atone for eight previous deaths. On her journeys, she saves Prince Chagum of New Yogo Country and is tasked to become his bodyguard. As Balsa and her friends work to figure out Chagum’s connection to a legendary water spirit which could destroy the kingdom, her own complicated past begins to come to the fore…
Truth be told, I was unable to watch anything by Ayase Haruka after Kyou wa Kaisha Yasumimasu and so held off Watashi wo Hanasanaide. It didn’t help that soon after Kaisha, she had a film along the lines of “ordinary OL who imagines too much”, which was right up the Hotaru and Hanae alleys, and for a moment I wondered if she was going to be typecast. So it was with much relief that Seirei no Moribito came along and looks to be a long-running production – the original work is a 12-volume series of fantasy novels by Uehashi Naoko, and has spawned radio, manga and anime adaptations. Season 1 has four episodes and covers the first story.
Ayase looks nothing like a bodyguard, but she’s a hardworking actress and I liked that she threw herself whole-heartedly into the role. Initially she seemed fairly awkward, especially when Balsa tried to sound tough in front of her imperial captors, but by the end of the first episode, she was pretty comfortable being Balsa and I enjoyed seeing her kick ass. I don’t know how much of the fighting was personally done by Ayase, but what was shown was pretty solid and realistic – she handled the spear decently and fight choreography was well done. She also had a nice rapport with Kobayashi Kai, the young actor who played Prince Chagum. Initially, Chagum was a bit of a sullen brat as he struggled to come to terms with what was happening to him and Balsa had to use a lot of tough love on him, but once he began to wise up, he was actually really sweet to Balsa. By the end of season 1, I almost wanted Chagum to abandon his princely status and travel the world with Balsa – he’d grown emotionally attached to her and the farewell scene was tear-inducing – but it seems he will feature in the other stories as well, so hopefully we’ll get to see more of that heartwarming relationship (assuming the rest of the 12 volumes are adapted).
Ayase and Higashide Masahiro didn’t have much chemistry, however. He plays Tanda, a herbalist and shaman apprentice who is also Balsa’s long-time friend and carries a torch for her. Tanda doesn’t seem to be particularly useful at this point in time, but he does add a bit of levity and sunniness to the otherwise doom and gloom of the rest of the kingdom labouring under a supposed curse/drought, so there’s that. Tanda’s shaman teacher Madam Torogai, however, is a riot – I was particularly impressed by Takashima Reiko’s portrayal of the feisty wizened crone, who is surely twice the actress’ age! Among the other characters, Kimura Fumino was decent as Chagum’s mother, the Second Empress; Fujiwara Tatsuya trod a fine line between sinister and delusional as the Emperor; and Hayashi Kento was appropriately bright-eyed as star diviner Shuga. I particularly liked Kikkawa Koji’s turn as the stoic and wise Jiguro, and was sorry not to see much of him in season 1 except through Balsa’s flashbacks of her time with him. Also, colour me impressed, but Kikkawa is actually a famous musician in his own right and the original singer of Monica (Cantopop fans might be familiar with this song).
Cinematography (whether helped by CGI or not) was excellent and I really enjoyed seeing lots of mountains, valleys and snow as Balsa and Chagum journeyed across the country. The colour palette was pleasing and I liked the vibrant greens and dusty browns, with the occasional misty glaze-over for a more dreamlike feel. The world-building was solid for most parts and interestingly for a fantasy series, there was also a sense of grounded-ness about the story. I appreciated that the combat scenes were realistic, flashbacks were kept relevant and at an appropriate amount, and CGI was not excessive. Neither was there an overdose of fantasy elements or an entirely new world of new beings (à la Lord of the Rings) that would probably have taken me out of the story entirely. Costumes were fine, though I wish Fujiwara tied up his hair and got to wear something else other than stifling curtains and a silly fern tall hat. The opening theme music rocked and had an air of majesty and mystery about it – I was vaguely reminded of a similar opening theme in Taira no Kiyomori, but since this is NHK, it could be a taiga-ish thing.
So far so good, despite the majority of the cast sporting fake tans (what’s with that?). Onward to season 2!