The Fall 2015 Anime Preview Guide
UTAWARERUMONO -Itsuwari no Kamen-
How would you rate episode 1 of
Utawarerumono: The False Faces ?
When an unexpected sequel to a forgotten franchise from almost a whole decade ago arrives out of the blue, there's just one big question to ask: does this show work if you haven't seen the first Utawarerumono?
Well, yes and no. This first episode of Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen makes complete sense on its own, even if you're a newcomer to the franchise, but it's hard to imagine being intrigued by this unassuming beginning. For the sake of the uninitiated, I'll pretend I wasn't one of those dorks that watched the series way back in 2006, just for one paragraph.
"Okay, a guy with amnesia wakes up in a snowy Japanese-ish fantasy mountain town. He's rescued from a centipede monster by a red glob called a "Curse," and then rescued from that creepy thing by a girl named Kuon with puma-ears and a puma-tail, and it looks like everyone in this world has animal ears and animal tails of some kind. The girl names her new pet human "Haku," which she says is a name of great history, and then she teaches him how to grind flour, make an old-timey burrito, and otherwise become a normal part of animal-person society. This isn't really important, but Kuon is also curious to see this human man naked, so she spies on him in the sauna and gets treated to the time-honored tradition of "helicocktering," which I was not expecting to see in a JRPG-themed low fantasy, but that was pretty funny. The show looks nice overall, but not gorgeous or anything. No idea where it will go from here, could be bad, could be good, all potential but not much has happened yet apart from lots of mild cuteness." That's basically the review!
If you are a prior fan of this franchise, this first episode is chock full of goodies, tantalizing questions, and loving callbacks, so of course I want to talk about them! I can give one last bit of spoiler-free insight to the uninitiated: good or bad, this show will get way larger and crazier in scope and imagery, if that's the kind of fantasy you're looking for. It's based on an RTS-style visual-novel-game-of-war notorious for its loony twists. Okay, spoilers for the first series ahead, this is your only warning.
So I can't tell if this is a prequel or a sequel to the first series, and I think that's intentional. It can be read both ways. I'm going to err on the side of guessing that it's a sequel just because culture has advanced from Ainu-influenced imagery to later-century-Japanese-influenced imagery, and "Haku" is named after "The One Who Was Sung," which should mean Hakuoro, who was given that name in the first series after Eluluu's dad and not before, when he was Witsalnamitea or Iceman or whatever. However, there could be another Hakuoro in this world's history, and the show could be playing us all for suckers by changing course to Prequeltown instead.
Either way, this show is not burying the lede about taking place in the future of Earth this time. Once that twist is out of the box, you can't really put it back, so our new protagonist "Haku" comes running out of a scientific-looking building into the snow while wearing hospital scrubs, all stuff that's wildly anachronistic for the rest of the show's world. The monster that comes after him is obviously one of Witsalnamitea's blobbified victims, so the fact that it recognizes "Haku" as a test subject of some kind isn't really a surprise. On the one hand, this presents a better mystery for the uninitiated, but on the other hand, so much of this episode is obviously tailored for prior fans, I wonder if this poor soul's recognition of him is supposed to be a bait-and-switch of some kind.
Needless to say, Kuon's adoption of Haku is an obvious callback to Eluluu's adoption of Hakuoro, so they probably have some dark destiny in common, and in the meantime there's sexual tension to be had with that accidental tail-rubbing scene. I overwhelmingly prefer the personalities of these two new leads to the perfectly boring Hakuoro and yamato nadeshiko Eluluu. Don't get me wrong, I liked those characters, but I liked them because they were sculpted to be sweet and lovable, not because they were interesting at all. Kuon and Haku are more mischievous and flawed, which makes their rapport more fun, so I'm glad the franchise isn't totally repeating itself. I'm curious to find out what the "false mask" means. Wasn't there only one mask? Isn't there only one god of this world, split into two parts that were both accounted for by the end of the original story?
I can't wait to find out all the answers, and for anyone else who hasn't forgotten this weird little JRPG relic, this episode will give you all the warm-fuzzies and promising mysteries you've been hoping for. More Utawarerumono! Who knew?
Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review: Back in 2006 the adaptation of the adult visual novel Utawarerumono aired on Japanese TV. (It was released on DVD in the States in 2007.) Now nine year later we get its sequel, which is based on a sequel to the original visual novel. However, based on the first episode, the only narrative connection between the two might be that the original story is in the distant past for this one – and even that is only tenuously implied so far. Hence no familiarity with the franchise is necessary or even recommended for following this one.
Those who have seen the original will notice many similarities, as the essential opening premise is almost identical: an amnesiac man wakes up in a world that is unfamiliar to him (in this case he's in a snowy mountainous area). He is helped by a short young woman, in this case a traveler named Suon, who knows some medicinal arts and takes responsibility for him. While he is fully human, though, she seems to be an animal hybrid, as she has a long cat tail and animal ears. When they finally get to a village, he discovers that he is the odd man out, as everyone he sees seems to have animal ears and/or tails. The young woman gives him a name – in this case Haku – and he winds up reluctantly helping around the village. Suon soon discovers that Haku is not cut out for physical labor of any type, but he is able to fix a broken mill, suggesting that he might be more suited to intellectual pursuits. There was also a matter of a giant bug attacking him on the mountainside, too, one which he was ultimately saved from by a bloblike creature that Suon calls a “curse.” Strangely, though, that curse formed a face (The Abyss-style) and spoke the word/name “Umakeke” at him. But what does that mean? And why way he wearing what looked like modern-day hospital clothes in a setting where they are completely out of character?
The storytelling actually doesn't do much here but set up the situation and define Haku and Suon's personalities. Both are, thankfully, very different from their personalities in the original: Haku is something of a slacker compared to his male counterpart, while Suon is a confident and enterprising young woman compared to her counterpart. A scene where Haku innocently grabs the young woman's tail, without realizing that it's considered indecent, is an almost exact replica of a scene from the first series, but entirely new is that Suon isn't above lewdly checking Haku out; one scene implies that she is investigating his crotch while he is asleep, while another outright shows her peeking in on him while he is implied to be doing naked calisthenics in a bath – and, in the episode's most amusing scene, she seems to be getting quite a thrill from it, based on her tail and ears.
The character design of this series is virtually identical to that of the original – no surprise, since it's the same character designer – and despite it being produced by a different director and studio, the artistry in general has an almost identical feel. Comparisons aside, the scenic mountain vistas are quite well-done, the characters are all appealing animal hybrids, and even the animation is pretty decent. Exterior building design is quite distinctive, although the interiors look like more traditional medieval Japanese buildings. Fan service is non-existent despite its source material, but the original had very little of it, either.
The one big question at this point is when the mask – which was present from the first scenes in the original series – is going to show up, as it is given in the series title and shown in promo visuals. What direction the series may ultimately go in is also unclear. Whether you are an established or new viewer of the franchise, though, this is starting out as an inoffensive, likable, and potentially involving fantasy tale which stands as a welcome contrast to the generic, fantasy-fueled school fare seen so far this season.
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