By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Sunday, January 18, 2015

At first glance, Utawarerumono might seem like a fairly standard fantasy anime. The series aired in 2006 right before the game it was based on came out on Playstation 2, and the earlier PC version was a strategy RPG with eroge elements. It originally seemed as though this would be another generic anime where an amnesiac enters a fantasy world and ends up becoming a hero, but after only a few episodes Utawarerumono started to delve into political struggles, war, and some much darker topics than I had initially expected. This additional level of depth and likeable cast of characters made the series one that was genuinely enjoyable to watch, and while there were a few bumps in the road (particularly near the end), this one was worth sticking with.

The series begins with a man waking up in a barn in a village in the forest. He had been discovered by two girls who live nearby with their grandmother, and brought him there as he had been injured. The man has no memories whatsoever, and isn’t sure of who he is or what caused him to become injured, but he has a mask on his face that cannot be removed for some reason. After bonding with Eruru, the older sister who is training to be a healer, he is given the name Hakuoro and begins a new life in the quiet village. As one might expect from a fantasy anime, things don’t stay peaceful for terribly long and Hakuoro soon finds himself dragged into a conflict between the villagers and the emperor of the region. It’s a familiar tale of the rich taking advantage of the poor, and early on it seemed as though Utawarerumono might head into the stereotypical “outsider befriends villagers and becomes hero” direction.

But it doesn’t take long for the storyline to break free of this and offer some truly engaging battles and an engaging cast that only grows larger with each episode. After some tragic events occur, Hakuoro finds himself involved in a rebellion and ends up becoming the new emperor of the Tusukuru region. Despite being an amnesiac he has quite a bit of talent when it comes to strategizing and leading people into battle, but as emperor Hakuoro’s desire is to live peacefully. It doesn’t take too long for Tusukuru to be plunged into more conflict, and with each new challenge comes additional cast members. Utawarerumono’s origins as a strategy RPG as a video game is evident, as the series is structured like a game. There are several major arcs with slice of life episodes in between and hints at Hakuoro’s mysterious past, and the way that the story is split between large scale conflict and periods of calm reminded me quite a bit of Suikoden. With an emphasis on strategic military battles, diplomacy, and a decent amount of character development that focuses on how they live when not engaged in battle, there are a lot of similarities between Utawarerumono and the long running RPG series.

There were several reasons that this series stood out above many of the other fantasy/action anime I’ve watched over the years, the first of which being that there were real consequences to the battles. In quite a few anime in this genre, the hero characters face some challenges but ultimately triumph with little lasting consequences. In Utawarerumono each battle is met with real struggles, and in keeping with the game’s strategy RPG roots there is an emphasis on tactics and diplomacy. But even when Hakuoro and the rest of Tusukuru come up with the best plan they can, there are still heavy losses and certain events have permanent psychological effects on certain members of the cast. There’s also a bit more gore than I was expecting during some of the fighting, and the darker nature of these sequences mixed with some heavy drama makes the series have much more of an emotional impact than your typical fantasy fare.

Additionally, in between all of the fighting there is quite a bit of attention paid to the members of the cast. This isn’t one of those series where everything is serious and depressing all the time, as during the calm, peaceful periods Utawarerumono transitions over to more of a slice of life format. Initially the cast is fairly small, with the emphasis being on the daily interaction between Hakuoro, Eruru, and her younger sister Aruru. There’s a bit of a romance angle between Eruru and Hakuoro, though in typical anime hero fashion he remains too dense to realize it for much of the series. It doesn’t take long for the cast to expand significantly, and the episodes spend plenty of time focusing on each one. Viewers first meet the impulsive Oboro, who is often too quick to jump into battle without planning ahead, but he often does so for the sake of his sister Yuzuha who is bedridden with an unknown illness. After Hakuoro becomes emperor, Benawi and Kurou become main leaders of his military, and additional characters such as the super strong Karura and skilled warrior Touka come into the fold. There are also two members of the Onkamiyamukai, a tribe that attempts to negotiate peace between all of the regions, who live in Tusukuru. The cast is fairly large and diverse, and rather than simply highlighting their abilities in battle, they are also given specific episodes that provide some insight on their backstory as well as some comic relief. Karura and Touka in particular are featured in some very lighthearted moments, and the amount of additional depth provided to the supporting cast makes the series very engaging.

There are a few bumps in the road though, especially when the storyline goes through a major transition about three quarters of the way through. As a new conflict arises between Tusukuru and another region, Hakuoro’s mysterious past begins to become clearer and at this point the show shifts genres. I don’t want to spoil specifically what happens, but the setting the story takes place in ends up being completely different from what one might have predicted. The plot twists also end up feeling a bit rushed, as the earlier arcs and conflicts are spread out over quite a few episodes but the final reveal about who Hakuoro truly is happens very abruptly. Even with the little bits of foreshadowing that happen throughout the series, it felt like the amount of information revealed to the viewer went from 25% to 100% in the course of an episode or two and the rest of the cast seemed to just accept what happened without any reservations. While it wasn’t enough of an issue to keep me from truly enjoying the storyline, I think the sudden shift in both the setting of the series and the Hakuoro reveal might be a bit too much for some people. I found myself wondering if the game did a better job of explaining these elements and it was just an issue with the adaptation running short on episodes, but haven’t played the game yet to verify.

Oriental Light and Magic handled animation production, and chances are that you are familiar with some of the anime this studio has been in charge of. They not only handled some other Leaf adaptations (Leaf is the developer of the Utawarerumono game) such as Comic Party and To Heart, but have also been the main studio behind all of the Pokemon seasons and Berserk. With their expertise put into the production, they were able to bring each of the characters and the fantasy backdrops to life throughout each of the episodes. The animation looks great, and is able to seamlessly move between the lighthearted slice of life moments where there are plenty of exaggerated facial expressions and the dramatic moments that have a much grittier look. Even though the series is almost nine years old at this point the animation doesn’t look dated, with the one exception being the battle sequences. When the camera pans out and shows a lot of troops on-screen during the larger battles, traditional animation is replaced with CG and it looks really awkward. It’s jarring to go between the two, and pulls the viewer out of the experience. Thankfully these larger scenes aren’t the primary focus of the series and aren’t in every episode so it’s not a major issue, but it is a flaw worth noting.

Both the opening and ending themes are catchy, though the choice of opening song doesn’t seem to fully capture the darker direction that the story often heads in. The entire opening sequence has a very whimsical feel to it, and even though it shows some of the battles it gives off a very different overall vibe. I think this might make some of the tragic and grittier elements of Utawarerumono catch some viewers by surprise the first time through, but perhaps that’s what the producers were going for when they decided on this particular opening. The background music fares a bit better, as the choice of song fits the mood of a particular sequence and it is very easy to tell when a particular moment is going to be lighthearted and silly or very serious and dramatic. With such a large cast of characters there is a lot of voice talent, and there are some great performances throughout the cast of the series. I’m particularly fond of Rikiya Koyama’s (Bleach, Kamen no Maid Guy) performance as Hakuoro. Early on he is the typical calm, amnesiac hero who seems to just agree with everyone else and spring into action when needed. But as the series moves forward, Koyama’s able to deliver a versatile performance that moves between calm and over the top. Some of my favorite sections are during the lighthearted sections where Hakuoro gets himself into trouble with Eruru or one of the other cast members, as the vocal reactions are as over the top as you can get. The rest of the voice talent is able to mesh well with this combination of comedic and serious, and established anime fans will likely notice quite a few familiar voices.

The sudden twists may get a little shaky and turn some people off of the storyline in Utawarerumono, as the amount of foreshadowing doesn’t quite articulate just how drastic of a change is about to occur. But those that are willing to stick with it will discover a fantasy anime with a likeable cast and the right balance of warfare and slice of life scenes. I tend to watch anime in this genre only once in a while because there aren’t too many of them that give their cast proper character development, and this is part of what made this particular show so enjoyable to watch. It’ll tug at your heart strings one moment and make you laugh the next, and for me this is what makes a memorable anime. On a side note, Aquaplus and Chaos Project produced a three episode OVA in 2009 with slightly different animation and an increased emphasis on ecchi. It’s not a mandatory watch, especially if you’re not interested in seeing the female cast in that manner, but does provide a bit more insight into some of the minor characters and I did appreciate the chance to jump back into the world even if it was drastically different in tone from the main series.


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