Review for Utawarerumono: Volume 5 - The Beast Within
Let's begin this with a social networking style status update. I'm watching Utawarerumono (which given the title of this review is probably the most redundant statement in existence), but I went with the Region 1 collection with artbox, which surprisingly was half the price of the UK individual discs, themselves permanent residents of the bargain basement. To further confuse matters, I went with the ADV releases, with the aforementioned artbox, because they have nifty booklets and on disc extras. I didn't go for the Funimation re-release, which cut the discs down to four, squeezed them into thinpacks, and stripped out all the goodies. Utawarerumono is a series full of politics, warfare and machinations, with an amnesiac main character that is looking for his past. It's a race of a show where the viewer has to keep running alongside just to keep up. This 5th volume is the penultimate disc, and if we use the long distance running analogy, this is usually where they round the final bend and sprint for the finish. I may collapse completely before volume 6.
Utawarerumono is a fantasy series set in a strange world. It's based on a PC game, but before you recoil in horror, it's one of those narrative adventure PC games that the Japanese are so fond of, barely interactive animated storybooks, with sex scenes. This anime ditches the sex to produce something a little more appropriate for a broader audience. This is a strange world, populated with dog-eared people, strange animals, very real deities, oppressive governments, and on the verge of war. It's in this world that a masked stranger awakes. Hakuoro has no memory of his past, but a mask is affixed to his face, impossible to remove. He wakes in the village of Yamayura, healed and nursed back to health by a young girl named Eluluu, and is taken to heart by the kindly village people. Against all the adversities and challenges this harsh world throws against the people of Yamayura, this noble, enigmatic man becomes a beacon of hope, and a source of strength. But this is just the first step for Hakuoro to take towards his destiny of changing the world.
The next four episodes are presented on this disc from ADV.
Previously on Utawarerumono, Karula had convinced Hakuoro, well, kidnapped Hakuoro and taken him along with her and the other women of the court to the land of Na Tuunk, where a slave uprising was under threat of being quenched by the heavy handed forces of the rulers. As the conflict continues, Hakuoro tries to help by coming up with a strategy to quickly end the war, but it's Karula who knows of a secret way into the castle. But the shocking reason behind the war is yet to be revealed.
20. First Battle
An intruder in the palace can only mean one thing; Kuuya of the Kunekamun wants to see Hakuoro again. Genjimaru's granddaughter Sakuya is the messenger and prospective bride for Hakuoro. At least Kuuya thinks that she will be a good match. When Kuuya proudly claims that Sakuya is good in bed, it causes shock all around, and even causes Eluluu to fall out of the tree from where she is spying. But such frivolous affairs of state are short-lived, as war is brewing in Kunekamun, as the neighbouring states look avariciously on the infidel nation. No one has told them that the Kunekamun have giant animated suits of armour that lay waste to all that oppose them. And when Kuuya takes her first kill on the battlefield, it changes everything.
21. The Great Seal
Kunekamun is running rampant, with no nation able to stand in their path. It doesn't help when there are various factions in the court vying for influence over Empress Kuuya. While Genjimaru may be a moderating influence, Hien advises rapid expansion, to safeguard Kunekamun by controlling all around them. Meanwhile, Hauenka is pretty much power mad, revelling in the violence, and he wants Kuuya to prosecute the war for the sake of achieving power. With that kind of counsel, Kuuya's hands are tied, and Kunekamun soon declares war… on everyone. First they attack their ideological enemies, the mediators, the Onkamiyamukai. Of course that means that Kuuya loses Hakuoro's trust. She decides to take that trust back by force if necessary.
22. Odius Pact
Word of the impending attack gets to Tuskuru, and facing odds of that magnitude, Hakuoro has no choice but to order an evacuation. His generals also 'order' him to evacuate as well, as the Kunekamun are coming for him specifically, and they stay behind to buy the citizens time and put up a defence. Against the giant biomechanoids of the Kunekamun, it isn't much of a defence. Hakuoro isn't all that keen to let people suffer in his stead, so it isn't surprising that he shows up anyway, telling the others to escape, and that he has a plan. Beyond leading the enemy away, it isn't much of a plan, and Hauenka is in the mood to play with his prey. But when Aruruu gets in the way, trying to save her 'father', the beast within Hakuoro is unleashed again, only this time there are some memories with it.
This being a Region 1 disc, Utawarerumono gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer of the NTSC variety. It means a slightly lower resolution than PAL discs, and a greater prevalence of aliasing, but it also means that the image is clear, sharp, and colourful, and the animation is smooth, and free of ghosting and judder. Utawarerumono is an interesting animation, period fantasy as it is, it reminds me somewhat of Inuyasha, with its simplicity of character designs, and wholesome bright, primary colours. That said, there is something of a more atmospheric aesthetic to the animation, it's much more detailed and vivid, and with the fantasy setting, there's something Ghibli-esque about it, reminiscent of films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. All in all, it's a very pleasant show to watch. That's with the exception of crowd and battle sequences. Where there are a lot of people on screen at any one time, and shown at a distance, the animators have used something akin to a 3D RTS graphics engine to render the crowds in CGI, and the graphics do tend to stick out like a sore thumb. Also when the camera gets a little too close, the uniformity of features becomes apparent.
Utawarerumono comes in DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese stereo, along with optional translated subtitles, and a signs only track. In a nice move, the episode titles get a subtitle translation, but in an unconventional font that very much suits the look of the show. The dialogue is clear in both versions, and the show gets some very earthy, folk style music, along with a couple of very pleasant theme songs. I was happy enough with the Japanese version, which had some memorable character voices. Not so much for the English dub, which is pretty run of the mill for anime, not exactly standing out, but not really all that awful either.
Utawarerumono gets the usual jacket picture and animated menu, and this being a Region 1 disc, it also autoplays with ads for Anime Network and the now dead Newtype USA magazine.
Inside the very shiny green Amaray style case, you can read an eight page booklet, which offers interviews with Miyuu Nakamura and Hijiri Anze, who worked on the show's music, Akira Tomisaka and Kaori Mizuhashi, the Japanese voice actors who performed Kuuya and Sakuya, and the voice of Eluluu, Ryoka Yuzuki.
On the disc you can find a nine-page glossary, explaining the terms used in the show, and detailing some of the characters that you'll encounter.
You get another dose of Omake Theater, which this time lasts 9 minutes. It's a comedy diversion in the Utawarerumono universe, and this time Hakuoro's in for trouble when he starts playing with dolls.
Utawarerumono: The Story So Far returns, with another 15 minute recap with voiceover from Hakuoro, Eluluu and Aruruu. In a fast paced show like this, it's nice to have a recap and character rundown, although there is also a fair bit of background to the story taken from other sources than the anime, which expands the story's focus a little.
The Extended Episode Previews are just that, and there are 2 minutes worth here for all four episodes. These previews, the Omake Theater, and the Story So Far featurette are in Japanese only.
There is a 30 second Character Art Gallery slideshow, as well as the textless credits.
Finally there are trailers for Kurau Phantom Memory, Air TV, Innocent Venus, Le Chevalier D'Eon, Best Student Council, and Red Garden.
This could be the best volume yet, or it could be the point where Utawarerumono spirals around the drain hole to oblivion. The thing is, that both responses are justified, and it really depends on how you as the viewer look at it. Utawarerumono has been a fast paced, 'dive into the deep end' of a show. It hasn't held back in its bullet-point storytelling style, and its enthusiasm for taking the story in wildly unexpected directions. If anything, this fifth volume gives us even more of that, and on the surface, it would appear to be a shark-jumping moment. After all, I wasn't expecting Utawarerumono to become a mecha show, nor was I expecting Hakuoro's memories to start flooding back in quite the way they did, revealing something surprisingly contemporary. But for me, this was more of Utawarerumono's trademark idiosyncrasies, more narrative that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go, and I have to admit that at this point, there's very little it can throw at me that wouldn't still have me enthralled.
I must admit that the mecha were a surprise, although in the context of Utawarerumono's period setting, describing them as giant walking robots would be a misnomer. I guess magically animated giant suits of bio-armour would be more appropriate, but in the end it's the same thing visually. The story behind the mecha is a lot more interesting, as it is the land of Kunekamun that is now going on the rampage, attacking all and sundry. Kuuya is the Empress of Kunekamun, and for the past few episodes, she has been visiting Hakuoro secretly, seeing something of a kindred spirit in him, a friend to confide in. She has also made clear Kunekamun's place in the world, a nation of people that worships a god that the other peoples of the world have shunned. It's left them somewhat isolated and ostracised, the ideological differences causing resentment on both sides. It's a message that can apply to a thousand real world conflicts, so there's something more poignant about the allegory.
Also what's interesting here is Kuuya's transformation from friend to foe. Affinity to Hakuoro aside, her nation's isolation has made her somewhat resentful and distrustful of others; she expects the worst from them, so that when her country is attacked, her people's response is exacerbated by that distrust. It's made worse by her advisors who have their own agendas, one is power mad, while another thinks that by ruling the world outright, only then will they be able to protect themselves. Kuuya at first fights to righteously defend her people, but is then pressured into continuing the war, despite her distaste at the violence, but then slowly but surely she becomes the head of an unstoppable bandwagon. It's downright interesting character development, and makes a change from the psychopathic villains that Hakuoro has faced thus far.
Of course we can't get away from the central theme of the amnesiac masked man for long, and as the volume comes to a close, we get the most detailed hints yet of Hakuoro's past and his true nature. It's a wholly unexpected detour, and for Utawarerumono that's saying something. Seeing this glimpse of Hakuoro's origins brings into question the whole nature of the world he is in, and how he got there. It also sheds interesting light on Eluluu's character, intimating that she knows more about Hakuoro than even he does, and that she's made something of a deal with the devil.
Your opinion may vary, but for me this fifth volume of Utawarerumono, despite, and maybe because of its wild flights of fancy and bizarre diversions, is easily the best instalment yet. It's thrilling, exciting, fast paced, with compelling characters, and best of all, it's completely unpredictable. I have no idea which way the story will turn next, and that's got me enthused about an anime in a way that I haven't been for quite some time. I can't wait for volume 6 to see just how these story threads will be tied up.