Utawarerumono Vol. 4-6
At a certain point when I'm watching a long series, either I give in to the conceit and ride with whatever the show has in store for me...or I don't. It doesn't mean I have to love every choice the creators have made; it doesn't even mean that I'll like the end result. But at this point of no return, I have enough faith to continue onward. There are some shows that I've stopped watching after a half-dozen episodes, like s-CRY-ed and IGPX, because it was clear they weren't going to go anywhere interesting no matter what they did. Others, like Wolf's Rain, are worth the journey even if the ending isn't great and pieces along the way didn't work.
Utawarerumono falls into this category. It's hampered by being too short and having too little time to develop its characters. Its ending, though totally unexpected and highly intriguing, is incomplete and needs an explanation via Wikipedia to make total sense. It is so consumed with ongoing battles that there's a little combat fatigue. But all of these issues don't wind up spoiling Utawarerumono because it's solid at its core. During this latter half, it reminds us who the two true leads of the show are, and their story is compelling. Its central mysteries do eventually make sense. And perhaps most importantly of all, the show made me care for its cast. While my head nitpicks some of the readily apparent issues, my heart has set this on the shelf next to the Lodoss Wars OVAs as some of the best fantasy work in anime.
[Please note that this is my third review of the series and as such may contain some significant spoilers; those who want an completely unspoiled experience may want to jump to the end. You can read the review of the first volume here, and the review of the second and third volumes here.]
As the second half of Utawarerumono unfolds, Hakuoro and his companions continue to conquer new lands in an attempt to bring peace to their world. While Hakuoro is not interested in being an eternal warrior, it seems the battle keeps being brought to him. When warfare finally comes to a lull, Hakuoro befriends a young ruler named Kuuya. While Kuuya seems to want to be a caring and just leader, the advice she receives from her underlings leads her into bloodshed which eventually envelopes Hakuoro's kingdom. What's more, as Hakuoro's memories begin to awaken, he must come to terms with his hidden identity and his growing relationship with Eluluu, the young woman who has come to love him. As Hakuoro leads his people against a brutal foe that seems unstoppable, he will learn that he is indelibly tied to his world in a way no one has foreseen.
While this description is pretty light on details, there is a central detail, some might say a spoiler, that most viewers who are skeptical need to know and may have figured out from the screenshot: here be mecha. Until the fifth volume, the show plays out like an epic fantasy, albeit light on magical elements and heavy on warfare. But as the show heads towards its conclusion, we get a wild left turn that brings in science fiction elements aplenty. Personally, I loved it. I did not see it coming, and though I had been warned about the show "going off the rails" near the end with Hakuoro's identity revealed, what I had been told was distorted to the point of being just plain wrong.
The truth is, the ending can be significantly misinterpreted, and this could be regarded as a failing. When we start looking at back at Hakuoro's former self, one might mistake who he is or where he's from -- or, most importantly, when he's from. I've heard it said that Hakuoro is actually an alien. This is untrue. While the sci-fi elements do add a strange new level to Utawarerumono, when one rewatches the opening and closing animation, elements from the ending can clearly be seen. Make no mistake: the creators of this show knew where they were going from the very beginning, and I like the ending. However, one reasonable complaint is that the show doesn't give us enough information to put together the puzzle pieces. To some extent, this is dead on. Perhaps in keeping with the Japanese tradition of obfuscation and ambiguity in storytelling, Hakuoro's backstory is told both messily and indirectly, enough that one could misread what is actually going on. Even the most clearheaded and intuitive viewer will still wind up checking a website or two just to make sure they fully understand. Even if they do, the show did not need to be so confusing...but perhaps that was part of another issue: time.
If there is a true fault with Utawarerumono, it's that time isn't always used in the best way possible. Some secondary characters get a moment in the sun while others barely are recognized at all. The supporting cast is too big for the time limits of a 26-episode series. We barely have time to breathe between battles to the point that they almost get tiresome. Thankfully, we do have a truly multi-dimensional villain, which does appear in the form of Kuuya. Sadly, she does have a maniacal henchmen who fulfills the "insane bad guy" stereotype, but by the ending the show has gone beyond the standard loser villains who have nothing better to do than cackle in their soup. But what could this show have been with even five more episodes? There are times when the standard season length just doesn't cut it. With a little more time, the smaller players would have become more important to the whole.
Those quibbles aside, Utawarerumono is (in the best sense of the word) a mature fantasy epic that is far closer to Lord of the Rings than to Naruto. As my friend Stig Høgset over at THEM Anime Reviews has noted, Hakuoro is a fully-functioning adult. He may not have his memories, but he is a shrewd decision-maker who stands behind his actions and becomes a true leader over the course of the show. Yet he is also kind and thoughtful, truly concerned about his people. He is a rarity in anime -- the wise, mature, adult lead. Other elements are also more geared to those with more patience than the average young teenager. The love story that develops is not a central feature, but a recurring one that builds naturally. The ending is a strong mix of melancholy and hope, and if you have the ability to see past the sci-fi trappings, it is even moving. Ultimately, Hakuoro's journey is one that captivated me, and I am sorry to see it end.
Seen as a whole, Utawarerumono has fought an uphill battle quite successfully. It's been hampered by a virtually unpronounceable name to most Americans and visuals that aren't often very impressive. It doesn't have the inherent appeal of many A-level titles. Yet for me, Utawarerumono has been a unique expedition I'm glad to have taken. I will miss the world of Tuskuru, of Hakuoro and Eluluu and their companions. While it may not be among the best anime I've seen, it is certainly worth the time to explore the mysteries of this feudal world and its denizens.
Bottom line: my head admits the criticisms have some merit. My heart says don't miss it.
Utawarerumono (complete series) -- A-