Utawarerumono: Volume 1 review
No Masking This Fantasy
When it comes to grabbing the attention of the anime fan producers may take a variety of approaches. Will they appeal to the male demographic with fanservice by the truckload? What about fancy DVD artwork so glorious some will proclaim it as the new in style art direction? Of course, you could also try opting for a name so bizarre it will cause great problems just trying to pronounce it. ADV's daring move to maintain the original name is both surprising and welcome, but does the disc contents stand out as much as the name?
From the start you can easily see the magic fantasy themes prevalent. There is a lot of focus on the small villages out in the countryside, weapons hark back to the honourable times of swords and bows and everything is naturally what you might consider a lot more traditional. It's feudal Japan with a few magical twists, and the construction of this make-believe world is simply amazing. The kingdom we spend all our time in during these five episodes is built up of a good many communities, and while we only get to see a fraction of it this time you already get a feeling of life there.
As mentioned there are a few twists to the classic era this is set in. The most obvious one are the dog like traits inherent in everyone bar the main male lead. Everyone else possesses dog ears and a tail to their otherwise human forms. This early on these body traits hold no special meaning, although there are effectively used for some sequences. Ears visually perk up when hearing something and there's a rather amusing scene in the first episode when Hakuoro grabs Eluluu's tail, much to her surprise and his when she reacts to it.
At first the pacing of the show may feel quite brisk, and indeed it certainly does move along faster than most anime I'm used to. That said, every segment is still wonderfully developed and they flow into each other so well to build a united whole. The pace is probably just so they can reasonably fit everything into the 26 episodes that span the series, as in this disc alone there are probably what I'd consider three major events and a number of smaller occurrences. A lot happens here and it's a joy to see.
Hakuoro serves as the main male lead, and at first his circumstances come across as a little cliche. Injured in the forest and nursed back to health by Eluluu and her grandmother, Hakuoro possesses no memory of his past and a mask that he cannot remove. Little is explored about either element this early on, but a few brief flashes indicate greater meaning to be examined in later volumes. Hakuoro is shown to be a competent fighter and a faith-inspiring leader, as those he meets tend to turn to him in times of need and it is he that leads the villagers through the difficult times. It is very questionable just how quickly some of the others come to trust him, but I'm willing to look past that.
Eluluu and Aruruu form a great duo as sisters. Eluluu is a healer in training who helps Hakuoro to recover. Her reservedness and kind heart makes her a character any viewer should come to like very quickly, and she is shown to possess great courage as she tried to help others even in the face of great danger - a trait she demonstrates several times during these episodes. Aruruu is a lot more shy than her sister and is often playing around. Her energetic personality gives proceedings a sense of innocence that is most welcome.
Of course we also have the supporting cast to back them up, although nobody else really gets as well developed as the aforementioned main stars at this point. Oboro is a reckless short-tempered swordfighter who is quick to take action even if it will land him straight into trouble, especially when it comes to helping his sister. Tuskuru is the village elder and often determines the best course of action for the village. Teoro is the strongman with a big heart who can take things seriously when needed but is more often goofing about than anything. A bit more depth on these characters would have been nice, although this may be a consequence of events moving so quickly.
In terms of antagonists this really changes throughout. Nuwangi serves as a thorn in the side, and although he doesn't project much of a threat until perhaps the close of the fifth episode he is the one that sets certain things in motion; not least causing the goddess of the forest Mutikapa - in reality an oversized tiger immune to weapons - to seek revenge for the shrine he destroyed in a fit of rage. Mutikapa herself is an imposing enemy, and it's only through clever observation (one Hakruo almost died to get) and a well organised trap that the beast could be taken on in a battle. After that it falls to the local feudal lord, whose selfish arrogant ways ends in disaster and turns the people against him. Compared to Mutikapa he lacks presence, but his role does serve to fuel the battles that will come.
Visually the anime is of a grade high enough as you might expect from modern anime. The artwork is high quality, clear and colourful. There has been a good amount of effort put in here. Animation is handled very well, especially during battle sequences as swords, spears and various other bladed weapons are swung and thrust in conflict. Character bodies move around gracefully and the results are great. With that side, the shortcuts taken by the show can be a little more obvious than that of other anime. It's doesn't impact things much but you will notice them while watching.
The overall design is striking. The dog ears and tails could easily have gone off as a forgotten 'done for the hell of it' aspect, but visuals say otherwise as tails wag and ears perk up at various times. There is a variety of character designs in here too, with ones like the cute girls concepts like Eluluu or the cool indifferent Benawi. Impressive is the total lack of fanservice in the designs, with the charm of people relying more on more subtle characteristics.
I really like the music backing to the show. It moves so expertly between gentle backdrop and forceful empowering tracks that the experience is all the better for it. The opener is also a solid fantasy number, although I didn't consider the ending song to be particularly memorable.
The voice work is excellent. It's difficult for me to really pick out any select few voice actors here, although Kira Vincent-Davis' rendition of Eluluu is spot on in conveying this caring strong willed girl to the audience. Both vocal tracks for English and Japanese score highly too. The script also comes across very well, although purists may argue over a few changes that were made (inparticularly a few names were altered slightly, such as Eluluu being Eruruu in the sub) so all this is really going to be down to preference.
The menus on offer here are probably less impressive than those of other DVDs I've had. It's functional, but seeing a green field and the edge of the mask just isn't that interesting to look at. The same green field along with the full mask is used for the primary DVD cover, although the cover itself is reversible and considering the backside features a landscape picture of Eluluu and Aruruu washing clothes in a lake I find that colourful artwork to be more impressive.
The extras here are quite nice though. Of particular note is the Omake Theater, which is really just a short humourous side story mainly involving Hakuoro and Oboro. Without giving anything away it really is worth watching. The Gloosary of Terms helps flesh out the background information on the characters and aspects in the series. Then there is the mini booklet with interviews with the series planner and the Japanese voice actors for Oboro and Yuzuha. The Character Art Gallery is a little disappointing though as there's not much to it and it seems padded out by mini screenshots.
When it comes to magical classic fantasy this is a great choice to invest in. The various aspects have come together well and while there is still room for further development I found myself immersed in these early events and eager to see what happens next.
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