Utawarerumono Vol. 2 & 3

Several weeks ago, I became enamored with a new show called Utawarerumono. Though not stellar in terms of its animation, it had an intriguing storyline, interesting characters, and a unique world. I wasn't sure where the journey begun in that first volume would lead, but I was ready for the adventure it promised.  Having seen the next nine episodes of this continuing epic, all I can really say is, "More, please." Frankly, Utawarerumono is turning out to be the best anime fantasy saga I've seen in ages, and it's going to feel like ages until the next volume comes out in July 2007. [Please note that this review may contain minor spoilers for the first half of the series, seeing as it discusses plot points begun during disc 1. Proceed with caution if you haven't watched the opening episodes.]

When we last saw Hakuoru and his followers, they were in the midst of a civil war against the evil despot Sasante and his son. As the program continues, Sasante proves no match against the populace that has risen up against his tyrannical dictatorship. Having proven his mettle as a leader, Hakuoru becomes the country's emperor. The characters we follow expand as emissaries and heroes from other parts of the world emerge throughout the second volume. Of course, Hakuoru's reign isn't without bloodshed; Shikeripechim, an agressive state ruled by the insane King Niwe, launches an unexpected assault that forces them all back into battle. When yet another nation claims to know of Hakuoru's true identity, Hakuoru must come to grips with his unknown past and uncertain future. With war on the horizon, Hakuoru's faithful companion Eluluu must also wrestle with her growing feelings for him and whether or not to tell him.

The last time around, I noted that Utawarerumono didn't have the greatest looking graphics, but that the other elements made up for those shortcomings. While still not exceedingly beautiful, per se, we finally get to see where the artistic budget went: the battle sequences. Seeing that the anime is based on a tactical role-playing game, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. While war is not constant throughout these nine episodes, it's the central theme, and I'm glad to say that the typical anime tricks to cut corners weren't used. While there are a few places where the CGI is a little too obvious -- in a couple of massive battle sequences that use CGI, the animation is actually too fluid (!) -- most of it looks like good old-fashioned animation. No speed lines, no waves of color, just swords and arrows and clubs and blood. Did I mention blood?  While it wasn't all that clear from the first volume, Utawarerumono is not shy about depicting battle realistically. While no worse than, say, Princess Mononoke, a few scattered limbs and sliced arteries make it on-screen. The violence is completely in context and not glorified, so I had no problems with it, but younger viewers might find it gorier than what they expected. On the whole, the battles are very nice indeed, and if anything, the animation on the whole has improved. Meanwhile, other elements such as the score are consistently superior.

I'll be brief about my only real complaint with the show: the players on the personality fringes are too stereotypical. Sasante and Niwe are not real characters at all; they are evil wackadoodles that exist to provide the show with antagonists to be hated and feared. By the time disc 3 concludes, we still know of no good reason why Niwe exists other than to be a pain in the butt for Hakuoru and his friends. On the other end of the spectrum are Eluluu's younger sister Aruruu and her companions. Whenever they show up, things get "precious." They're all too sweet to be realistic, and while they don't spoil the show, whenever they appear I start checking my blood sugar. Their presence is particularly jarring against the backdrop of war that has become Utawarerumono.

Perhaps I notice these failings because I like the rest of the characters a great deal. They aren't complicated; by the midway point, we've established the stereotypes of the smart and loyal general, the sexpot who's a killer fighter, the brash impetuous hero, and so forth. However, each has their own effect on Hakuoru, who continues to be about the best enigmatic anime character I've ever seen. He's brave and thoughtful, passionate and resourceful, a born leader...yet one filled with doubts as to who he is and who he was, unsure of why he has risen in power, and plagued by the realization that those he cares about most have no family ties to him...only ties of duty and honor and love. I want Hakuoru's story to end well, though I'm not sure it will. While the supporting cast may fit into easily defined roles, it is their differing connections and loyalties to Hakuoru that make me like each one individually. When it comes to Eluluu, while she's almost the definition of the shy "everygirl" who fears confessing her love, she projects a depth of character most anime heroines only dream of.

Beyond the character relationships, Utawarerumono knows how to keep a story moving. Although a couple of episodes give our crew a brief respite from constant battles, there is a continuing sense of urgency to the whole. There's wisdom to the show's planning that balances lighter moments with tragedy and character moments with broader story arcs. For example, just as I thought they were going to ignore Hakuoro's past completely, in comes a story arc that brings it right back to the forefront. As long-time readers know, I like the first volumes of many series enough to give them a reasonable grade, only to return to them much later (if at all). Many anime are good stories told well, but they are few so compelling that I have to see the rest. That's been the case for me with Utawarerumono. I found myself deeply frustrated when I couldn't watch more of it once I'd started back in, and I know I'll be impatiently waiting until the next volume is released.

If you liked the first volume of the series, then by all means, get back into the pond with these episodes. If you've been waiting to see if the quality keeps up, then I say absolutely try it out. Utawarerumono is a stellar mix of action, intrigue, and fantasy adventure you need to see. It isn't perfect, make no mistake, but I'm hard-pressed to recommend a better show to get hooked on this summer.

Utawarerumono Vol. 2 & 3 -- realistic graphic violence, mild profanity -- A-