Written by Richard Brown
There have been two big trends in anime since the turn of the millennium. The first is the increasing number of painfully cute young girls in all things, including romance, but stopping juuuusssst short of the Lolita Complex. The second is the adaptation of that uniquely Japanese pastime, pornographic dating games, into serious and “work safe” anime. Utawarerumono has both, and while there have been worthwhile animes with just one of these (see Fate/Stay Night, or Hayate the Combat Butler), I can’t think of one series that handles both well. Is this anime the first? Read on.
The Basic Plot
Elulu, the granddaughter of the village elder, discovers an injured man in the forest. He has no memory of his past, and wears a mask which cannot be removed. Taking the name , he tries to adapt to life with Elulu, and her younger sister Aruru, but fate has other plans. A chance encounter with the local Lord spirals out of control into bloodshed, and Hakuoro finds himself leading a peasant uprising.
Who is this masked man?
Utawarerumono shows its heritage in many ways. The lead character is an anonymous individual with a mask, and dating games tend to avoid showing the faces of their player characters. He attracts a mixed dozen of girls, catering for every taste, though with a definite slant towards that type of innocent, quiet and immature girl known as “moé”. The first episode did little to convince me the anime might be anything else. Then the first of many surprises occurred, a monstrous feline beast, a popular rebellion, and Hakuorobecoming emperor with shocking speed. I paused, and realised that I had this series wrong from the start. Utawarerumono, despite the painful name, and the elements that scream “harem anime”, is actually a proper fantasy anime, dealing with international conf licts and small things like court affairs.Hakuoro is not another worthless male lead, a shonen teenager or a generic amenesiac. He’s a kind and surprisingly capable individual, not phrone to angst or emoutionally maladjusted. This characterisation is the series in a microcosm, a misleading outer layer, hiding something much more interesting.
He also fights with a steel fan of all things, which brings us to what the meat of the series actually is, namely combat. There is a definite similarity to long running martial arts animes like Kenshin or Bleach. The foes Hakuoro faces are either two dimensional stereotypes with low life expectancies, or join his entourage after loosing to him in a fight. While this does mean that the series lacks a memorable villain, but one of the things that makes Utawarerumono so good is that it does not follow the other conventions of that genre. There are no named attacks, and battle is fought with strategy. The anime does epic battle far better than any TV series I’ve seen recently, and this is a big thing. Comedy also pays its part, mostly of a subtle kind. Whereas the gender balance would make you think of fan service, the series (perhaps mercifully) resists for the most part, and sticks to character based humour. What all this adds up to is an enjoyable action series with a side order of romantic comedy and cute. However, its difficult to hold up any particular aspect as exceptional, save for the wonderful world created for the series. The fantasy genre is famous for reusing the same ideas, such as orcs and elves, ad nausea. The various dog-tailed and feather-eared races featured in Utawarerumono help raise it above the pack and the feel of things is very Japanese.
The series’ only real problem is one so common to anime; it suffers in the second half and ends poorly. Things seem to have been written with the assumption of a much larger episode count, in that there isn’t much of an on-going plot, instead presenting several multipart stories. Again, like a martial arts anime. While these prove to be entertaining, the result is a rush to wrap things up in the last four episodes. The sudden introduction of mecha, for example, is one of a spate of unpredictable turns that the anime makes, and never fully realises. The anime simply tries to do too much, and the ending is unsatisfying with some fairly big questions left unanswered. Actual character development is patchy, and a lot of the cast are two-dimensional. Some judicious editing, or possibly the dropping of a few characters would have helped a great deal with these problems. However, the charm of the series largely makes up for this. Utawarerumono is that rare beast, a fantasy world that is somewhat original, and well-handled .While there are flaws, they can be easily ignored.
I was surprised by Utawarerumono, I must admit. Animes inspired by games, especially hentai games, tend to have a patchy reputation, and cute does not appeal to me. The anime however proves to be an entertaining series, despite weaknesses in the long term storyline. Give it a try.