Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD 1 - Mask of a Stranger
A man awakens in an unfamiliar village with no memory of his past or identity. The only clue: a devil-horned mask which conceals the upper half of his face but cannot be removed. Still recovering from the bad wounds he had when he was found and without any clear direction, the man settles in to village life and soon becomes not only a valued and respected member, but effectively a member of the family of healers – old Tsukuru, young Eluluu, and even younger Aruruu – who helped him recover, even taking on the name Hakuoro, which belonged to the long-dead father of the girls. Trouble won't leave the village alone, however, as a discontented former villager tries to exploit their resources, a tiger-like forest god threatens to rampage, and an unfortunate series of events leads to unintended rebellion. Throughout it all Hakuoro stands as a stoic source of inspiration even though he is deeply troubled by haunting images of his past.
I can imagine a conversation somewhere going something like this:
“Hey, have you heard of that new fantasy series ADV has licensed and is releasing starting in mid-January?”
“No! What's it called?”
“Utaweraruraru. . . no, wait, Utawarumon. . . ah, heck, it starts with a 'U.'”
The merits of ADV's decision to carry over intact such a hard-to-pronounce name are debatable, but it's an interesting marketing ploy guaranteed to help draw attention to the title. A holofoil cover that would stand out from across the room (given the right lighting) also doesn't hurt. But is the series itself worthy of attention?
Based on a bishoujo computer game, Utawarerumono is a fantasy tale whose tone, temperament, and style are more in line with the historical fantasy of Twelve Kingdoms than the swords-and-sorcery style of a Fullmetal Alchemist, Scrapped Princess, or Record of Lodoss War. It lacks the fascination with meticulous world-building so prominent in Twelve Kingdoms, however; in fact, it offers nothing at all to explain its world, people, or setting. That might be forgivable if the majority of its characters didn't belong to an alternate humanoid race, but as is it stands as the most glaring deficiency in the first five episodes.
The series sticks closely to its original format in its plotting, with the story unfolding in a manner strongly reminiscent of playing an interactive game from the viewpoint of Hakuoro. Knowing that it was originally a computer game does help explain the improbable quickness with which Hakuoro gains everyone's absolute trust and comes to lead the village, as any other explanation would strain credibility. It may also explain why the narrative flow suffers a bit. To be sure, some good story content is present here, as the battle against the forest goddess Mutikapa is suitably thrilling and the way Hakuoro gradually becomes trapped into leading a Braveheart-style rebellion offers some juicy plot developments to chew on, but the storytelling as a whole doesn't sufficiently gel for this to be considered top-rate work. It's not at all bad, but it doesn't feel like it achieved its full potential, either.
Some of the blame goes on the character development. Of all the main characters, Eluluu is the only one who gets developed beyond a one-dimensional representation; although basically the kind and gentle love interest, she has just a bit more spunk and character. By comparison, Hakuoro is outright boring. Though he does show the ability to be ruthless when necessary, he's just too goody-goody to be particularly interesting. Other characters fall into common stereotypes: the reckless hot-head, the good-natured man with the no-nonsense wife, the wise old woman, the former village boy gone bad who's angry about his bucolic origins, the sensible general, the cute, warm-hearted invalid, and so forth. The level of cuteness present is remarkably high for such a serious storyline, but that actually isn't a problem. Numerous past series and movies have proven that animation can be cute while still being serious, and in that Utawarerumono fares quite well.
The storytelling quibbles the series has do not affect its look. Background art and detail is, at worst, reasonably good, and the quite respectable animation used few shortcuts in portraying its battle scenes, with CG enhancements only obviously used in depicting fires. The series' greatest strength lies in its costuming and character designs, though. All of the characters that are not supposed to be ugly are visually appealing, and the costuming gives the project a sensible historical/fantasy feel. The alternate humanoid race's only distinguishing feature is pointed or floppy animal-like ears placed where human ears would normally be, with a few characters also having animal tails. Although these features give off a vaguely catgirl feel, this is not a parade of catgirls, and the way the animal ears sometimes twitch is a nice visual touch. Perhaps most importantly, the key bishojo characters are very appealingly cute, especially Eluluu and, to a lesser extent, the blind invalid Yuzuha. (Eluluu's charm becomes most apparent in an early scene where Hakuoro, while walking with her, notices her tail and curiously decides to stroke it. This is apparently a more intimate gesture than he realized, and if Eluluu's reaction to it doesn't endear her to you then there may be no hope for you.) Mutikapa and her cub Mukkuru, who look like Siberian tigers, are also superbly well-drawn. The action in a couple of places gets bloodier than the TV-PG rating might suggest, but overall the graphic content is low and fan service is non-existent.
The soundtrack is generally good at maintaining mood and pacing, although it tends to be overwrought at times. Neither the opener nor the closer is particularly interesting or remarkable. The sound quality on the Japanese language track seems to be higher than normal, and although a seiyuu is credited for “voicing” Mutikapa, if that really is a human doing those tiger growls then it's the best animal imitation I have ever heard. The cub Mukkuru, contrarily, sounds pathetically fake in both languages. English voices are generally good matches for the originals and competently performed in most cases, although purists are likely to quibble over some of the name pronunciations (especially “Tuskuru”). English scripting varies some but not enough to be a problem, contributing to a dub solid enough to satisfy any dub fan but unlikely to win sub fans over.
As with many recent ADV releases, both 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks are available. In addition to the aforementioned foil cover and five episodes, the first volume is well-stocked with extras. An eight-page booklet includes two pages each of interviews with the Japanese series planner, the seiyuu for Oboro and Yuzuha, and John Gremilion, the English VA for Hakuoro. On-disc Extras include extended episode previews, a character art gallery, and a Glossary of Terms, which only reviews people and places which have already been more or less explained within the episodes. The highlight feature is the six-minute Omake Theater short, which is set sometime after episode 5. Its content is best not elaborated upon lest it “spoils” the fun, but it is most definitely amusing.
In any comparison between Utawarerumono and Twelve Kingdoms, its closest anime cousin, the former will be found wanting, but despite some writing flaws its first volume offers a good enough look, value, and story to be worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Character and costume design, extras.
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