Friday, November 4, 2011

Guardian of the Spirit (Moribito) by Nahoko Uehashi

Guardian Of The Spirit (Moribito)I read Guardian of the Spirit (Moribito) by Nahoko Uehashi (Scholastic) last March--right at the height of the news about the earthquake and following disasters in Japan, and right in the middle of the debates in children's blogging circles about reviews, and whether or not anyone who was interested in publishing, at all, ought to write "bad" reviews. (The scare quotes are because there really wasn't a single definition of bad, and some of the example reviews, well, I didn't think they were all that bad...) I ended up writing this, explaining my position, but I didn't want to post this review at the time. I felt bad for anyone with a direct connection to Japan, vaguely guilty that I kept buying travel guides to different countries and that they all had huge natural disasters right after I did so, uncomfortable because I love the IDEA of this book so much.

So, let me outline in brief why I didn't enjoy it, but why I still recommend it.

Guardian of the Spirit is the first in a series of popular Japanese books that have been (maybe are being) translated into English. They follow Balsa, an adult martial artist. She rescues Chagum, the son of the Mikado, and is then tasked with keeping him safe from the father who would have him murdered--as well as an ancient, mysterious monster that only shows up every hundred years.

On a personal level, I often struggle with books in translation; I often find them flat, or rough, or awkward. So it's maybe no surprise that I felt this way about Guardian of the Spirit; at the same time, I know that it is very difficult to translate from language to language, and I think most of the issues I had were rooted in the original. There's a lot of telling where I wished for showing, a lot of coincidental or sudden revelations without support in the text, for example, and I wished for more emotional connection to Balsa and Chagum. I also felt a little adrift, because the story has one adult and one child point of view, but I didn't feel like the story was really middle grade or adult, and that it also wasn't universal enough to be all-ages--a very silly complaint, and one that puts too much faith in marketing categories to encompass everything readable, I know, but I can't quite articulate why this didn't grab me there. Finally, this seemed to me to read like a novelization of anime (maybe manga); the pacing and conventions of anime are there, but they didn't seem to work on the page as compared to how they would have worked on the screen. I was missing the quirk of a mouth, the sparkle in the eye, the wind of chi that accompanies a visually stunning battle. The story is available as an animated series, and I suspect I'll like that more than the written version. Maybe it's unfair to not give more leeway for a different storytelling style, and I admit that, and maybe I'm too tied to my ideas of how things should work. I'm still thinking about this, months later, and I'll be thinking about it when this posts in November, when I'm halfway around the world.

But now I will tell you why I feel an affinity for Guardian of the Spirit anyway.
  • I love that this book is...chancy. Risky. It's not a marketing category fit; books aimed at/marketed to younger readers rarely have an adult heroine at the heart. Sometimes marketing categories fit, like any other classification system, and help us make decisions and generalizations, but I also like when things break the mold.
  • I like that this book exists at the same time as the animated series does; there's potential for fans of one or the other to cross over. Readers get to experience a particular style of storytelling, and watchers get to reinforce the story by reading it.
  • I really appreciate the care taken in packaging Guardian of the Spirit. There's beautiful art, beautiful chapter headings, and a hint at the visuals that would go with the story. It's "just" a paperback, so that didn't have to be done, but it was anyway.
  • It is always good to have more diversity in the books available--for all ages. I could give all sorts of additional thoughts there, but I think that I'll leave it at that today.
Despite my personal quibbles, I'd hand this to children age 8-12, probably, first, and I think this is a good read for people who like adventure stories. If I were working with middle grade or young adult readers, I'd have this in my library.

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