Reviewby Theron Martin,
Each of three episodes relates a story set during peaceful interludes in the later stages of the original Utawarerumono TV series. First up, a baby girl turns up at the palace, one who may be connected to feuding clans. Uratori takes to mothering the infant, and to the dismay of her peers may be getting a little too attached. In the second, Elulu is kidnapped by the well-meaning but also bumbling servants of a proprietress, as they believe that she seeks a youth potion in order to attract a certain dashing general. Inspired by the possibility of true love, she agrees to help them. In the third, a joking reference Hakuro makes to Touka about a monster fish in a river actually turns out to be true, resulting in a forest misadventure for Touka and Aruru where who is actually protecting who is in question.
The original Utawarerumono releases came with a few OVA shorts, but these three episodes are actually a separate set of full-length episodes released in Japan in 2009, a set complete with its own distinct opener and closer. This release from Sentai Filmworks marks the first time that they have been available in English, and doubtless its timing has something to do with the recent airing of The False Faces. So does it make a worthy addition to the franchise?
Well. . . yes and no. In a storytelling sense they have the feel of filler episodes or side stories; absolutely nothing actually important to the overall storyline happens in them. (While the first episode is purportedly based on game content, the other two are entirely original, which is likely the reason for that impression.) Exactly when they occur in the storyline is hard to pin down; the first episode seems to happen in the wake of the defeat of Niwe, while the latter two happen during some other peaceful ebb(s), presumably before Tusukuru has to go to war against the Kunnekamun. While this seems to be contradicted by images in the opener which show Kuuya already in her final state, I presume that we are supposed to ignore that for purposes of figuring the timeline. Either that or there was a deceptively calm interlude between Genjimaru's death and the final confrontation against Dii and Mutsumi, as nothing in those two episodes even suggests the presence of imminent threat or tension.
Judged on writing merits alone, the episodes fare pretty well. The first is a contemplative, mostly low-key story which focuses on Karula and Uratori, although it takes a dramatically dangerous turn towards the end; let's just say that a righteously riled-up Uratori could probably give even a certain giant god pause. That Uratori would get that obsessive seems a little out of character, but her interactions with Karula easily make up for that. The second episode is a much more comical story involving the daughter of the Emperor whom Hakuro usurped in forming the Empire of Tusukuru (that link is not made clear in the animation, but the episode would make more sense if it was), her buffoonish workers, and Elulu getting drawn in by a potential love story. It pretty much comes down to typical franchise hijinks. The third episode is more a mix of action and lightly comical content as the story focuses on Touka, who has always been somewhat of a comic relief character, and her travails involving a giant fish – only the one she catches isn't actually the mythical Lord of the River that Hakuro made up to tease her during a fishing break; that's an even bigger fish. While the first episode may be strictly better and have a bit more depth, the third is easily the most fun of the lot, as Touka gets to show off all her aspects: resolute warrior, hopeless subject of jokes, caring guardian, and even (mild) fan service bait.
The artistic aspect is where the series' merits become more questionable. The studio and production staff are almost entirely different from those for the main series, and that shows quite prominently in a negative sense. Especially in the first episode, the OVAs suffer from distorted character designs, rampant inconsistencies in staying on-model, and a generally rougher look, though it does make fitting choices on most of its shot selections and movements are relatively smooth. This improves some for the second and third episodes, but overall the artistry is a distinct visual step down. Also unlike the main series, these episodes do offer some fan service. Given the tame look of the TV series, the sudden influx of prominent nudity in the first two episodes, and milder fan service in the third episode, can be a little jarring; perhaps a nod to the franchise's ero game origins was intended?
Contrarily, the musical support is easily at its strongest in the first episode. Soothing numbers with a sound vaguely reminiscent of a mix of Arabic and European medieval influences back the more relaxed scenes, but the music capably shifts to a heavier and more dramatic sound for later scenes and finishes with a lovely, low-key insert song. Musical support for the later two episodes is decent, too, but less remarkable. So is opener “adamant faith,” while closer “Yume no Tsuzuki” captures at least some of the flavor of the TV series' opener. (Interestingly, it has a visual in it very similar to what's seen in the second closer for The False Faces.)
The original Japanese cast for the TV series returns in its entirety for the OVAs, and that is mostly true for the English dub as well – which would be a lot more impressive, given the much greater span of time between the dubs (more than eight years!) if the original cast hadn't been mostly composed of long-time ADV/Sentai regulars. The only significant change is that Genevieve Simmons takes over for Sofia Mendez as Touka (an unfortunately unavoidable one, since Mendez died in 2011), although Ms. Simmons does a good enough job of mimicking the original's tone and delivery that it is hard to tell the difference. A more minor change is Brittney Karbowski, who always voiced Dori, also taking over the role of Gura, but no one is likely to be able to tell the difference there. Amongst new roles, David Wald is wonderful as the caricaturish wizard Nopon and Maggie Flecknoe works well as Kamuchatari. Essentially, if you liked the English dub on the TV series then you should still like it here, too.
Sentai Filmworks is offering the release in both Blu-Ray and DVD versions, but the crisp visual quality on the former only makes the artistic flaws more evident. In addition to clean opener and closer, the release offers three “picture dramas” which average about a dozen minutes each. The first two expand on the relationship between Karula and Uratori, revealing that they have known each other since they were young adolescents (which helps immensely in establishing their connection in the first episode). Both of those are also dubbed. The more frivolous third installment, which involves Hakuro clumsily being looked after while sick, was not dubbed due to (according to an on-screen message) technical issues with the source material.
While the artistic aspect is a definite drag, the episodes are still fun enough to be worth the effort of established franchise fans to check out (especially with the picture dramas figured in). Familiarity with the first series characters is required for these episodes to make much sense, though, so it is not recommended for those only familiar with The False Faces.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : B
+ Some parts can be fun, good use of tone in the first episode, excellent English dub choices for new roles.
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