Tag Archives: Moribito

Spirit guardian

Japanese series Moribito is heading into its third and final season. Producer Kiyoshi Umibe pulls back the curtain on this stunning drama to reveal how visual effects and a stellar cast combine to bring the epic fantasy to life.

If Japanese drama is best known for recreating historical and often fantastical worlds, Moribito might be the most dazzling example yet.

The visually striking show is based on a hugely popular fantasy novel series and uses every frame of its 4K production to tell the story of heroine Balsa (played by Haruka Ayase), a skilled bodyguard and master spear-wielder who embarks on a perilous journey to protect a prince from assassination on orders of his father, the king.

Combining stunning visual effects and action sequences, Moribito brings to the screen dense forests, spectacular palaces, spirits and demons as the story plays out in an imaginary land resembling ancient Asia, where the worlds of humans and spirits combine in mysterious ways.

Season one of the series was titled Guardian of the Spirit (debuting in March 2016) and was followed by a second season called The Anguish of the Destroyers (January 2017). Due next year, third and final season Balsa’s Fate tees up a final clash between the two worlds and Balsa’s own battle with her demons.

Kiyoshi Umibe, executive producer of the show, tells DQ about making the series for Japanese broadcaster NHK and distributor NHK Enterprises.

Moribito stars Haruka Ayase as bodyguard Balsa

How have you used the source material through the series? Is it a faithful adaptation or have you added original storylines?
The original Moribito is big. There are 10 volumes of the main story plus two volumes of supplementary short stories. Season one corresponds to volume one and is more or less faithful to the original. That said, we changed the personality of the mikado [king]. In the original, he never shows his emotions, but in the drama we portray him as openly showing his hate towards disgrace and his concern about the power of Chagum [the prince]. We made this change for two reasons: to create the right tempo in the drama and to make the story easy to understand for viewers outside Japan.
For the overall project, including seasons two and three, we dramatised the story considerably. This is because we had decided at the outset, for reasons of budget and schedule, to make 22 episodes across three seasons, so we needed to significantly abridge the story. We were thus able to create an exciting drama series without losing anything that’s great about the original.

Why do you think the series has proven so popular with Japanese viewers?
The original story is superbly entertaining and all the characters – not just the main characters, Balsa and Chagum – are very appealing. Another reason is that the story and the setting have an Asian background that makes them easy to visualise. Japanese people also have a reverence for living creatures and have a cultural background in which rocks, rivers and other parts of the natural environment have been objects of religious faith. The idea of people coexisting with spirits is easy for them to accept.
Another factor is that Japan has many period dramas that have travelled internationally, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and TV drama series Kozure Okami, known in English as Lone Wolf & Cub, in which bodyguards are the protagonists. The idea of a person standing alone against power and violence resonates with people in Japan and overseas.

The show is based on books by Nahoko Uehashi

How would you describe the writing process for the series?
The process began with deciding what would go in each season. We knew in the beginning that this would be aired over a three-year period. We decided that season one would have four episodes and that seasons two and three would each have nine episodes. We decided which parts of the original to cover in each episode of each season.
Screenwriter Sumio Omori and the books’ author, Nahoko Uehashi, both took part in this process. One reason for involving Uehashi was that, towards the latter half of the original, the crown prince Chagum becomes central to the story, with Balsa taking a step back into a supporting role. We needed ideas from the original author in order to keep Balsa prominent right up to the end. Uehashi’s suggestion was to combine Yami No Moribito [Guardian of the Darkness], in which Balsa returns to the country where she was born and faces her past, and the Kambal portion of Ten To Chi No Moribito [Guardian of Heaven and Earth], in which Chagum seeks an alliance with the neighboruing country in order to protect his own country against invasion.
Making changes to Yami No Moribito, which is one of the most popular parts of the book series, took some courage. I don’t think we could have done it without the author’s advice. The resulting structure showed us how to start season three and, by extension, what to include in season two.
Once the structure of the series was settled, we had Omori write the first draft. We all exchanged opinions on that and made revisions.
Omori has written for the kind of NHK family-oriented drama serials that have 150 episodes and air almost daily for six months, as well as high-profile period costume dramas that have 50 episodes aired weekly throughout the year – so I had absolute faith in his ability to structure and write the story.
It was Omori’s idea to insert stories about Balsa’s upbringing and her past into a present-day story. This approach has the shortcoming of making the timeline hard to follow, but it has the merit of making the protagonist’s emotions and motivations easy to grasp. It was ambitious. I’m confident we succeeded.

How would you describe the visual style of the show?
Given that the series is shot in 4K, we paid particular attention to the colours of costumes. The common people wear earth tones such as dark green or light brown, while royals wear different colours depending on their position. The costumes themselves differ from one kingdom to another.

Moribito’s third and final season will hit screens next year

Did you have to find ways to make each of the story’s kingdoms unique?
Uehashi is an ethnologist and the kingdoms in the novels reflect knowledge she gained through fieldwork. We took inspiration for the countries and regions from the detailed depictions in the novels and made changes to ensure they were not the same as any countries that actually exist. We envisioned each kingdom as encompassing a vast area with many ethnic groups. Specifically, we envisioned Shin-Yogo as being something like East Asia, Kambal as being like the mountainous nations in and around the Himalayas, Sangal as being similar to the maritime nations in Southeast Asia, Rota as being like the prairie countries of Central Asia and Talsh as resembling the Roman or Ottoman empires.
Shin-Yogo is a mixture of the natural environment of Japan and the cultures of the Korean Peninsula and China.

What does Haruka Ayase bring to the series and how has it challenged her as an actor?
Haruka is one of Japan’s most popular actresses and has played many comical parts. For our series, she turned into a cool bodyguard and performed in hard action scenes. This transformation surprised viewers. She is physically very capable, performing most of her action scenes without using a stunt double. I think the intensity brought out a real toughness in her. Also, shooting three seasons over three years brought out a depth in the portrayal of five years in the lives of Balsa and Chagum.

What are the challenges of making a fantasy drama? Are these unique to the genre?
When it comes to fantasy, Japanese viewers are familiar with European and American productions – especially Hollywood movies – and are comfortable watching productions where Europeans or Americans play characters from the spirit world. However, they’re not used to watching Japanese actors play characters with non-Japanese names in Japanese-language stories about the spirit world. Partly for this reason, we made sure to give the series an Asian taste, as opposed to a narrowly Japanese identity, but at the same time we had to make sure it was something different from existing Asian countries. This meant we had the hard task of creating a new culture, including modes of behaviour, from scratch, and it was difficult. Notably, the Japanese have a habit of bowing when they greet people – getting the extras to stop bowing took some time.

The Japanese drama takes place in a world occupied by both humans and spirits

What has been the biggest challenge filming this series?
One of the goals of this production was to take a new look at Asia from the perspective of fantasy. The biggest challenge was to create an Asia, and create a new culture, that nobody had ever seen before. We needed advanced VFX to give the series the same sense of scale as the original. Making a fantasy drama in 4K was ambitious in the first place, but HDR became the trend in 4K while we were shooting. So we had to decide on a big change of technical direction. Getting to grips with a new technology on the fly was hard, but 4K HDR made the series more attractive in terms of colouring. We’re very pleased with the results.

Where is the series filmed and how do you use real locations in the show?
We shot about 30% on location and about 70% on set. We shot many scenes in a studio, while some town scenes were shot on an open-air set. Most town scenes were filmed on a set we built in a studio. For forest scenes, we wanted virgin forest, so we shot in various places across Japan.

Why is this the concluding part of the Moribito series? Could you continue for longer?
<SPOILER ALERT> We are being faithful to the original by showing Balsa, who has lived her life as a fighter, until she lays down her spear. In other words, the story of Balsa the bodyguard is complete. There are parts of the book series that we left out of the drama but, now that Balsa is free of her duty as a bodyguard, any dramatisation of them would be a spin-off.

The show airs on NHK in Japan

How would you describe the state of Japanese drama? What new stories are being told?
For a while nearly all Japanese dramas were adapted dramas based on written stories, but now we’re seeing more and more original creations. Also, some appealing dramas are being made with contemporary themes. In Japan, manga (along with novels) is a deeply rooted form of culture. Manga stories with surprising settings are being created almost daily. Uehashi is among these manga writers. She is working on themes such as gene manipulation and viruses, and I think there is still great potential for stories and dramas.

There are lots of strong female characters leading series around the world. Is this the same in Japan, with Moribito as one example?
In Japan, too, there are many dramas with female protagonists. Dramas in which strong women are the protagonists are very popular. This may be because women are a big proportion of TV viewers who watch dramas. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is watched by men and women of all ages.

What trends are there in Japanese drama now?
Detective stories and suspense series remain popular. Also popular are family-oriented dramas that NHK makes about the successes of modern women.

What are you working on next?
A big project such as Moribito is the kind of challenge that only comes along once in 10 years, so we were excited to be able to work on this project. We are also thrilled that this series has been nominated for an International Emmy for Best Drama Series. Now that the show is coming to its finale, the staff, including me, will return to our routines in our respective fields of expertise. I will be making a drama aimed at children, others on artistic dramas, family-oriented dramas, historical dramas and so on.

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Japanese and Polish dramas make headlines

Operation Love is heading for web platform Tencent
Operation Love is heading for web platform Tencent

Declining ad revenues mean Japanese broadcasters are increasingly looking to the international market to make money. And one of the areas they are keen to build on is drama exports.

One example of this is NHK’s fantasy adventure Moribito, created with the international market in mind, while Nippon TV’s recent sale of format Mother to Turkey – a first for Japanese drama – is another. Also significant is Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group (SMG).

Under the terms of the latter partnership, SMG is adapting a total of five Fuji dramas for the Chinese market. The second of these, Operation Love, began filming in Guangzhou this month with a view to airing on online platform Tencent from Spring 2017.

A light-hearted love story, Operation Love first aired in Japan in 2007 and has also been remade in South Korea as Operation Proposal. It follows an earlier remake of Dating: What’s it Like to be in Love?, which will air on SMG’s channels in 2017.

Another interesting drama story this week is the news that HBO Europe has commissioned a six-part Warsaw-set drama about a cocaine dealer planning a holiday in Argentina. Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, said of the show: “We believe Blinded by the Lights, a story set in Warsaw’s demi-monde and showing off the city in a wholly new way, will not only appeal to Polish audiences but also to our subscribers all around the HBO Europe region. We are confident it will equally excite audiences internationally.”

Wataha (The Pack)
Wataha (The Pack) has been given a second series on HBO Europe

The show is part of a growing slate of original HBO Europe series that kicked off a few years ago with Burning Bush and was followed by Pustina. In addition to Blinded by the Lights, HBO Europe also announced a second series of Wataha (The Pack). This show tells the story of a border guard unit based in the remote Bieszczady Mountains on Poland’s border with Ukraine. “The Pack/Wataha proved its appeal to viewers having achieved huge ratings in Poland for its first season,” Root said. “It also played extremely successfully in the other HBO Europe territories and has sold in foreign markets. We are very excited by this new chapter and the way the writers explore the challenges now faced on Europe’s longest border.”

Also this week, Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG announced it had renewed its first-look deal with indie producer Three River Fiction for a further two years. Three River has 15 to 20 projects in active development, including several adaptations. Its largest acquisition to date is a 15-book estate of Golden Age crime fiction, written in the 1930s by John Bude. Colin Bateman (Murphy’s Law, The Journey) is attached and has written a pilot script based on the crime franchise.

Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

According to DRG, there are two further projects in development, including a dark re-imagining of the Robin Hood story. With Mark Skeet and Matthew Faulk (Titanic: Blood and Steel, Vanity Fair) attached to write, the series will be “a vibrant, venal and complex post-watershed saga set in a bloodstained 12th century England,” said the distributor. The other is a sci-fi series, created and written by Richard Smith (Trauma,) exploring how an isolated community is torn apart by secrets and lies following the crash landing of a UFO.

On the distribution front, Netflix has acquired rights to Renaissance period drama Medici: Masters of Florence for a select number of territories. The Rai-backed drama, which is distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will air on Netflix in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada and India from December 9. It has already been picked up by broadcasters and streamers in France, Germany, Australia and Japan. The fact Netflix has done a deal for a limited number of territories is interesting, because it suggests the international drama market may be moving away from a model where Netflix attempts to secure the rights to series on a worldwide basis.

Also this week, Deadline is reporting that Amazon has struck an exclusive SVoD deal for USA Network’s new supernatural thriller Falling Water. The show, which tells the story of three unrelated people who discover they are dreaming separate parts of a single common dream, hasn’t rated that well on USA. But Amazon’s involvement will make it easier for the network to back a second series – an increasingly common scenario in the US TV business.

Falling Water looks to be on its way to Amazon
Falling Water looks to be on its way to Amazon

This week has also seen some interesting strategic insights from Eurodata TV Worldwide as part of its Scripted Series Report 2016. Based on feedback from 103 channels, Eurodata found that networks, on average, devoted 32% of primetime to series.

Within this total, local series are the biggest hits. “They represent no less than 84% of the primetime top 15,” said Eurodata. “Imports, and consequently international hits, appear less often in rankings of the top programmes. Despite this, broadcasting these imports remains a winning strategy for smaller channels. As an example, The X-Files succeeded in placing among the top shows for M6 (France), Pro7 (Germany), TV3 (Sweden) and Channel 5 (the UK). US imports are challenged by series imported from countries geographically closer to the channel. The latter occupy a minor place in schedules: 15% of the channels studied broadcast a significant amount of these imports in primetime. Most of all, they are an alternative for small markets and smaller channels.”

There is also a trend towards greater exposure, Eurodata added. “In addition to longer availability thanks to catch-up opportunities, a series is now more available over various platforms in a single country. Traditional players and OTT platforms play with the various windows possible for their content. The multiplatform strategy is often a winning one. For example, Zwarte Tulp (NL Film), a new show in the 2015-16 season for RTL4, is a hit in the Netherlands. Five months before its launch on the RTL Group’s first channel, the series had been streamed on Videoland, the group’s SVoD platform. The series Black Widows (DRG) was broadcast simultaneously on the TV3 channels of the MTG group in Sweden and Denmark, and also on the group’s SVoD platform. It is among the channel’s top three shows in both countries.”

Black Widows
Black Widows, distributed by DRG, is a top show in both Sweden and Denmark

According to Eurodata, examples of collaboration between TV and SVoD services are on the rise. “Whether to reduce production costs, grow a viewer base or [increase] international visibility for their content, or fill their schedules and catalogues, players from the various groups are working together in production and distribution. One example, the series Narcos, was recently broadcast on Univision in the US after its distribution on Netflix. In the future, El Chapo will be coproduced by Netflix and Univision and Britannia (Sky Vision) will be a Sky/Amazon coproduction.”

Other trends include a shift towards short formats and adaptations. Eurodata explained: “Short formats have proven popular. They are often conducive to quality series, as they encourage participation by well-known actors, screenwriters and directors. The Night Manager (WME/IMG, The Ink Factory), adapted from John Le Carré’s eponymous novel, immediately earned fourth among series in the UK and fifth in Denmark. Adaptations, meanwhile, allow inspiring characters and stories to reverberate further. Many of the season’s hits are adaptations of series that exist in other countries. Among the European countries covered in the report, the proportion of local adaptations launched has doubled with respect to those in the 2014-15 season. Some channels particularly count on these to appeal to their viewers. This is the case with the Dutch channel SBS6, whose top three series are exclusively local adaptations of foreign formats.”

Avril Blondelot, international research manager at Eurodata TV Worldwide, said: “True international hits are appearing less and less in the national top rankings.”

However, the international stage is playing a growing role in the development of local series. “More and more new series have been adapted from foreign formats,” commented Eurodata media consultant Léa Besson.

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