Utawarerumono Vol. 1

Bold, loud, visually arresting anime are easy to review. You can always praise their technical details even if their stories stink. They make a visceral impact; they can be loved or hated, but not ignored. In recent weeks, I've seen Afro Samurai and the first volume of Coyote Ragtime Show (both of which I recommended). They feature larger-than-life characters, great sound effects, and tons of action, but most of all, they dazzle your eyeballs. It's not quite so easy to pinpoint what to do with a different kind of series like Utawarerumono. It has acceptable animation, average character designs, and a slower pace. It doesn't have the 'wow' factor built into many shows. But the five episodes of Utawarerumono found on the first volume drew me into a strange new world that intrigued me to no end. I'll come back for more dazzling explosions in Coyote Ragtime Show; I'll come back to Utawarerumono to understand its mysteries and dig deeper into its characters and world.

A man wakes from near death. He has no memories, no concept of who he is, only a lingering reminder of pain from an unknown source. Saved by the kind, elderly healer Tuskuru, he finds his face half-covered in a mask which simply will not come off. Her granddaughter Eluluu nurses him back to health as her shy younger sister Aruruu looks on. Given the name Hakuoru, he soon becomes a welcomed part of the village of Yamayura, particularly after he leads them through a deadly encounter with a legendary beast, Mutikapa, whom they consider to be a goddess.

Hakuoru helps Tuskuru with her visits to the surrounding countryside, where her medicines are coveted by many. They help the sickly child Yuzuha, whose reckless older brother Oboro leads a clan of his own that has some hidden past relationship to Yamayura and its citizens. But before long, tragedy strikes the village at the hand of Sasante, a local tyrant, and his son Nuwangi. Hakuoru cannot let the deadly actions stand; with the help of Teoro, a smart 40-something warrior the townsfolk look up to, he leads a bloody siege to stop the piggish despot. But when news of the attack reaches higher quarters in the government, the village becomes a target of those who would make an example out of them.

Utawarerumono Vol. 1 feels like an epic in miniature. It doesn't have the scale or scope to be Lord of the Rings, but it is setting up events that may (or may not) lead to a grand adventure. There are a number of mysteries to be resolved, not least of which is Hakuoru's identity. What does the mask represent? What was his former life? Will his relationship with Eluluu develop further? Will he become the leader of a revolt against a government oblivious to its people's needs? Frankly, it's very hard to tell from these first few episodes. They work slowly and methodically to set up a world that looks feudal but is really quite different. For one, the characters in the village aren't human in the exact sense; all have furry ears, and the women have tails! Are they beasts? Are they proto-humans? At this point, we just accept them; perhaps more will be explained as the show continues. Is all of it original? Not exactly, as there are a few typical anime clichés and moments along the way (especially the aforementioned autocrat), but I stayed intrigued regardless. The dub, while good, included a few unnecessary profanities that aren't all that appropriate for young teen audiences that would probably appreciate the show. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Utawarerumono works.

I really struggled with how strong a recommendation I could give Utawarerumono. It's impossible to pinpoint what kind of series this is...it's close to the fantasy genre, but except for a few battles, it's far from Lodoss Wars. It's too slow to be action, yet too intentionally different to be slice-of-life. But for me, I like Utawarerumono precisely because I don't know where it's going or what it will turn out to be. Meanwhile, as mentioned before, the animation is fine but quite average. The only high technical points it earns are for its score, a fine orchestral work, and its brilliantly haunting closing theme that I couldn't help but listen to each time as the credits rolled. But do you need to look stunning when you can captivate an audience without the fancy graphics?

In this case, I'm going to say no. Even though I was engrossed from the start, I became more and more involved with the story as I watched. It's not going to win any awards for meritorious animation, but its mysterious plot and increasing intrigue have me tracking down the second volume. I'm hooked, and I encourage you to at least check out the first volume to see if this strange new world might appeal to you as much as it appealed to me.

Utawarerumono -- violence, profanity (primarily in the dub) -- A-