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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.