Unpopular Opinion: Utawarerumono Franchise

There will be major spoilers ahead, if you have not watched both of the two seasons of Utawarerumono, please do not read this.  I do not like to make demands of my audience, but I highly recommend both of these shows and part of why I enjoyed the original so much was that I walked into it knowing nothing, and I would hate to rob any potential new viewers of the same experience.  So please consider watching the shows before reading this, you will likely be better off for it.  This is for people like me, those of us who have seen both seasons.  Now let it begin.

Utawarerumono and Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen have a number of major differences in their style of storytelling, differences which greatly influence all the other aspects of the shows.  But before I really dig into the differences, I want to talk a bit about why the setting the two shows share is so good.  For one thing the setting is handled beautifully in the original Utawarerumono.  At first glance it looks like any kind of generic medieval fantasy world, albeit with a more Japanese slant than the more stereotypical European settings such worlds employ.  The only thing that looks unique to the show at the outset is how everyone except the main guy has animal ears and/or tails, which honestly can be easily written off as just an anime thing, especially now, after the smashing success of Monster Musume.  It’s not until well into the original series that the show gives any hints that this might be more than just another fantasy world.  And then of course it spells everything out within the last few episodes, this world was a new one born from the destruction of the humanity, appearing to be a thing of the fantastical past while truly being the results of far future conflicts.  This duality in the setting is handled with great skill, I can remember when the Avu-Kamuu first showed up, these mech suits in a medieval world, and it somehow didn’t break my suspension of disbelief.  But the true reveal doesn’t come until even later as we learned about what the humans did and why they disappeared.  This is then built upon in Itsuwari no Kamen, when the Emperor explains in more detail what happened to humanity and how that related to him and the new main character Haku.  This particular style of setting is one of my favorites because it can have all the medieval fantasy stuff, but it can also have advanced tech, a combination which is fun and interesting.  It also lends itself rather nicely to a style of storytelling I have been going on and on about ever since I started blogging, realism.  A typical example is the whole “magic is just sufficiently advanced tech” dynamic, which when done well is just as interesting to me as straight up magic, possibly my favorite element of any sort of fiction ever.  It also highlights one of major differences between Utawarerumono and Itsuwari no Kamen, their use of realism or lack thereof.

The biggest difference that struck as I watched the shows, besides the obvious visual upgrade in Itsuwari no Kamen of course, was that Itsuwari no Kamen had a tendency to be more over the top whereas Utawarerumono tended to be more grounded.  A good example is the difference between Oboro and say Atui or Yakutowaruto.  In Utawarerumono, Oboro was a skilled fighter, the earliest the main characters recruited to their side.  Oboro was constantly present from episode 3 or so onward and his combat ability was a valuable asset to Hakuoro and Tuskuru.  However Oboro’s skill was never outside the realm of human ability, he wasn’t inhumanly fast or strong and his unusually acrobatic style of fighting didn’t turn him into some one man army.  By comparison Atui blows away giant bugs and enemy soldiers with every strike and Yakutowaruto leveled a fucking city block with his master technique.  This only gets stranger then, when towards the end of Itsuwari no Kamen, Atui and Yakutowaruto get fucking steamrolled by Kurou.  Kurou was on Oboro’s level for most Utawarerumono, though near the end it appeared as though Oboro had grown enough to challenge Kurou’s captain Benawi.  I admit I was a bit torn when Kurou showed up and kicked ass in Itsuwari no Kamen.  On the one hand I did love the more realistic combat of Utawarerumono, but seeing the characters I knew and loved get turned into unstoppable badasses in Itsuwari no Kamen was pretty satisfying as well.  Unfortunately there were other issues that I had with Itsuwari no Kamen’s relative lack of realism.

Before I get into the really big issues I want to obsess over a relatively small issue that has bugged me incessantly.  It’s even in the same vein as the problem I described in last paragraph.  So science is a big part of Utawarerumono-verse even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.  What that means is that most characters who do have superhuman abilities should operate in a logical fashion, this doesn’t really work out in Itsuwari no Kamen.  For now I’ll exclude the Eight Pillar Generals from any kind of analysis based on their masks, but that’s its own problem.  For now lets compare Nosuri and her brother to Karula and Delihourai.  Nosuri displays exceptional strength, not on the same level Karula did back in Utawarerumono, but nonetheless she consistently displays feats that prove her physical might, which makes her archery seem like the wrong fighting style for her but whatever.  Now I have no issues with Nosuri being unnaturally strong, Karula is the same way and I fucking love Karula,  my issue appears when you consider them relative to their siblings.  Karula and Delihourai both display super human strength, that’s just a  trait their race, the Giriyagina, has.  That makes sense from a scientific point of view, modifying a species to have X trait is logical.  Which brings us to Nosuri and her brother.  Unlike Nosuri, her brother displays normal strength but superhuman speed, this is just silly.  I get that what the creators intended was to create a strength vs speed dynamic between the two siblings, and under normal circumstances that would work, but given the setting it seems inconsistent.  It would be one thing if Nosuri and her brother had the same superhuman ability but Nosuri was a little stronger and her brother a little faster, that’s natural variety and that works, see how Karula is noticeably stronger than Delihourai even though both have super strength.  But with Nosuri and her brother the two of them display totally different superhuman abilities despite being from the same species/race.  This could conceivably work but it would take a lot of effort and explanation to make plausible and Itsuwari no Kamen puts in no such effort.  It gets even weirder if, as the wiki claims, Nosuri and her brother are in fact Evankulga like Touka.  Because Touka displays no superhuman abilities except maybe superhuman focus, which would explain what allows her race to be so renowned as warriors.  So not only would Nosuri and her brother not have super strength or super speed but their ears are even the wrong shape, because Touka’s look like miniature eagle wings while Norsui and her brother’s ears look totally different  While the little details in this specific instance do bug me, the point I’m making has much larger implications, in short Itsuwari no Kamen is willing to pay less attention to detail and show less care for internal consistency for the purpose of making an impact and getting its points across.

Now inherently there’s nothing wrong with that.  Bending the rules of the story’s universe to make a dramatic moment better can work fabulously if handled with the proper care, unfortunately it’s a bit more pervasive in Itsuwari no Kamen and it does have a net negative effect even it works out in some scenes, see my bit on Kurou above.   It can be hard to say exactly where this relative carelessness hurts Itsuwari no Kamen the most, though I find it most annoying when considering Nosuri, the generally more ridiculous abilities of the cast as a whole, and the Eight Pillar Generals and their masks.  The characters are surprisingly resilient to any sort of downgrade despite the loss of care and realism.  Utawarerumono’s characters were undeniably more complex and interesting, by and large, than of any of Itsuwari no Kamen’s, who tend to be a more one note or are stuck with some stupid quirk, like Kuon ending all her sentences in “ka na.”  However Itsuwari no Kamen’s characters are nothing to sneeze at, they still are good characters who I care about, I may not love them the same way I did Utawarerumono’s, but I can’t deny that Itsuwari no Kamen has assembled a large cast of characters who I mostly care about.  If anything these characters make me laugh and smile more than Utawarerumono’s did, what with all the fujoshi fangirling and other moments of fun loving idiocy.  If there was one great piece of praise to attach to Itsuwari no Kamen it would be that, it is definitely funnier than Utawarerumono was, whether or not the humor is appropriate to the show is up for debate but I salute quality nonetheless.  Obviously Itsuwari no Kamen’s visuals also are something to celebrate, though I found Utawarerumono’s artstyle to work just fine.  Unfortunately pretty artwork and good humor are not a great substitute for realism done right.

One of the main issues I have with the show is with the Emperor and masks he gave the Eight Pillar Generals.  The masks themselves are not a problem, offshoots of Hakuoro’s mask are nothing new, they had plenty in Utawarerumono.  These masks are exponentially more powerful and show none of the negative effects the offshoot masks had in Utawarerumono, well not until episodes 24 and 25.  That’s not a problem by itself, though I do question how they could be so much stronger without side effects when it seems like the side effects should be more pronounced to reflect the increase in power but never mind that, but I have a hard time buying into the idea that Emperor was able to make the masks at all.  Given how thoroughly human civilization wiped itself out between the satellite guns and pissing Hakuoro off, I find it hard to believe he could forge such powerful masks.  He would need access to all the relevant data, need the facilities and equipment to make the masks and the expertise to use said facilities and equipment.  There are several problems with this.  For starters, the project the Emperor was working to save humanity was totally unrelated to Hakuoro and project Iceman so it doesn’t seem likely he would have the expertise or data to make the masks.  The utter destruction of humanity means it would be unlikely for many facilities capable of making masks to to remain standing.  But given the Emperor’s longevity it’s not inconceivable that he could find facilities and acquire the expertise to use them over time.  But him getting the expertise requires him to need the data first and he doesn’t ever get the data.  The reason Yamato invades Tuskuru at all is to get into the facility where project Iceman took place and get the data.  So how the hell did the Emperor make his masks before he got the data?  Because I find it hard to believe he could make such powerful masks without access to Hakuoro’s data but he doesn’t have the data and there’s no way he could get it before the show started either, the facility is heavily guarded by Uritori’s people, is swarming the post-human blobs everyone calls curses, and requires a key only Eruuruu has to open the friggin door.  There is no logical, realistic way that the Emperor could have made the masks, they exist mainly to add to the drama and it mostly works, the major battles where the generals use the masks’ powers are cool as shit, it just bugs the hell out of me that the masks exist whenever there isn’t a battle going down, which is most of the show.

Anyway I think you guys get my problems with Itsuwari no Kamen’s relative lack of realism.  So let’s move on to a different but even more important topic, pacing.  Utawarerumono was an incredibly well paced anime, fuck I’d go on record as saying it is the most tightly paced anime I have ever seen and quite possible the most tightly paced anime of all time.  Yes Utawarerumono got 26 episodes, more than many other shows ever see, but look what it did with.  Utawarerumono starts as the tale of one guy with amnesia in some backwater village of an empire recovering from his wounds and protecting the villagers from a super tiger, and yet by show’s end, the show is about that same guy, all the allies he has acquired, the kingdom he has built, the aftermath of human history and a conflict between two aspects of a literal god monster.  Holy fucking shit… Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a story could expand so rapidly and seamlessly back when I started episode one of Utawarerumono.  In fact I can remember back when I first checked out episode one of Utawarerumono, I was ready the drop the episode without even watching it because I hadn’t heard of it before and the comments section was totally barren, I half-convinced myself it was some piece of shit forgotten by the wayside, hell I only found it thanks to some five second clip of the OP in some random AMV, before I even gave it a chance.  Now it’s my second favorite show of all time and will no doubt hold that position for as long as I live.  And the pacing is a huge part of that, because Utawarerumono was able to cram in so much narrative, character development, world building and action scenes, I truly felt like I got to know and love all the characters, to care about the lore, politics and history of the fictional story.  And while all of those things seem like obvious traits of all good shows, how many really fucking manage it?  I’ve watched a lot of anime, and a lot of good anime too, but rarely can I get so thoroughly invested in a work of fiction.  Sure there are tons of characters I love, there are plenty of narratives I find interesting, and there’s a number of anime worlds I find utterly fascinating, but only the tinniest percentage of the shows I’ve seen have all of the above.  Obviously that has a lot to do with good writing on the part of the creators, but I think Utawarerumono really the highlights the value of a great director.  Which brings us to Itsuwari no Kamen.

I want to preface the upcoming statement by saying this is just speculation, I have not researched it to confirm the following opinion.  I’m pretty sure Itsuwari no Kamen’s director is a totally different guy than Utawarerumono’s.   I mean it’s been ten years since Utawarerumono came out, and a new studio did Itsuwari no Kamen, it makes sense that most of the creative staff has changed.  The reason I say this is because I can’t fathom the idea that Utawarerumono’s director could have made the pacing problems prevalent in Itsuwari no Kamen.  This is not to say Itsuwari no Kamen is poorly paced, it still crams in a respectable amount of narrative, character development, world building and action scenes for it’s 25 episodes, it just pales in comparison to Utawarerumono.  Itsuwari no Kamen had far less world building to do than Utawarerumono, the worldbuilding it did was great but there wasn’t a lot of it because Utawarerumono did most of the leg work.  Itsuwari no Kamen does have the main guy amass a sizeable amount of allies, but as discussed above these characters are quite on Utawarerumono’s level.  More to the point Itsuwari no Kamen wastes a lot of time recruiting it’s cast.  It spends at least one episode per character, it took an entire cour of the double-cour show just to assemble the cast.  Now it got a lot character building during that cour, but the narrative basically went on cruise control.  Not that there’s no narrative progress, but it was much much slower than the narrative progress made during the second cour.  By comparison Utawarerumono had Hakuoro gaining new allies during/after major story developments or in slower episodes in between the major conflicts.  Unlike Itsuwari no Kamen where Haku runs into the next cast member mostly one at a time and spends the whole episode swaying them to his side, in Utawarerumono many of the notable characters were former enemies of Hakuoro who are swayed to his side after he has won the conflict they were involved in.  Rarely is it the case that Hakuoro just stumbles into a new ally, I think Karula is only one who fits that description, and characters like Kamyu and Uritori arrive of their own accord but don’t really become Hakuoro’s allies until after quite a few episodes hanging around in Tuskuru.  But I’m getting off course here.

The point is that Utawarerumono just got a lot more done despite the nearly identical episode counts, between it and Itsuwari no Kamen.  Itsuwari no Kamen consolidated a large cast, added to the world building, did some pretty good character development, covered two brief wars and had a flashy fight near the end which set up a much larger future conflict.  In contrast, Utawarerumono consolidated a large cast, did a lot of world building, had phenomenal character development for most of the cast, crammed in about five or six wars, all but one of which took longer to complete than the wars shown in Itsuwari no Kamen, and ended with a big flashy fight scene that concluded the overall narrative.  Now to reiterate, what we got in Itsuwari no Kamen was by no means bad, it was actually very good and it did not disappoint me despite my high expectations.  In fact I think it’s possible that had Itsuwari no Kamen mastered it’s pacing like Utawarerumono did, that it could have been just as good as Utawarerumono was.  Unfortunately it did not have the same level of pacing and it does hurt the show in comparison to it’s predecessor.  Which brings me to my final comparison Haku vs Hakuoro.

Let me be clear, Haku is a great character.  If he were the lead of brand new IP I would making a post about how he is a protagonist done right, and since he isn’t related to Hakuoro I can see this comparison being unnecessary.  However the two share too many character traits for me to not compare them.  For starters their stories begin in a similar way.  Haku and Hakuoro have no memories and are saved by a young woman who becomes their companion for the rest of the show.  Their first arc in the story revolves around fighting a vicious animal that is terrorizing the locals.  Both Haku and Hakuoro display exceptional levels of intelligence and show a distinct lack of animal ears.  They are both given names by one of their female companions, and they eventually become a leader in larger conflict, the biggest difference here is that it takes Haku the whole season to become said leader while Hakuoro does it in about four episodes.  Perhaps the most important similarity though is their charisma.  It’s demonstrated quite clearly in, episode four I think it was, that Haku can quickly win people over to his side, that was the entire point of Nekone’s introductory episode.  Hakuoro is made into the village leader by a similar point in the story, though he has plenty of moments which show his charisma sprinkled throughout the early episodes.  However the two have a very different kind of charisma, Haku basically becomes everyone’s bro, winning them over by being both clever and this totally laid back, down to earth kind of guy.  Hakuoro on the other hand is more magnetic, his decisive and intelligent leadership shines through almost immediately and he wins over allies by inspiring them, he throws his all into everything and doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harms way to protect those close to him.  Hakuoro is presented as and has all the traits of the kind of kings you get from legends, these almost inhumanly valiant and inspiring leaders that found nations from the total chaos that came before.  This is of course exactly what Hakuoro is, which might be why I find him so interesting.  Except Hakuoro never feels inhuman, instead he comes of as the best kind of human that we have to offer, the culmination of all our positive traits wrapped up in a single being.   Anyway I just found it kind of odd that Haku would be so similar to Hakuoro but be totally a different dude, in some ways I think that hurts Haku because it encourages comparison between him and Hakuoro, a comparison Haku has no real chance of winning I feel.  Seeing the parts of Haku that remind me of Hakuoro just makes me think of Hakuoro and how much more awesome he was, and by extension how much more awesome Utawarerumono was.  And with that I covered just about everything, let’s wrap this up.

Utawarerumono and Itsuwari no Kamen are both great shows.  The finale of Itsuwari no Kamen in particular sold me on the idea that the show could occasionally match up with Utawarerumono and that great stuff is still to come.  The use of colors to convey emotional damage in Kuon’s scenes, how the first few lines where communicated via text so that the first lines we here are when Haku (in disguise) drops the bombshell about Haku’s (faked) death lending more weight to those words and the following scenes of charcaters breaking down, all of that was awesome and it made for fantastic finale, even if I think it would have made more sense for everyone to flee to Tuskuru instead.  I know I spent most of this post bitching about Itsuwari no Kamen’s problems, but that was in the context of Utawarerumono.  Taken on it’s own Itsuwari no Kamen is a fantastic anime, far and away the best show of the winter season that’s rapidly coming to close.  The difference between the two is that Itsuwari no Kamen is a 9/10, it’s great and I loved it and I spend a lot of time thinking about it and I really hope we get more of it soon, but Utawarerumono was a 10/10.  Utawarerumono is the kind of show that sends chills done my spine and makes me tear up a bit whenever I think about it, the kind of show that constantly floors me with how good it is no matter how high I raise my expectations, it’s the kind of show that has so thoroughly engraved itself in my heart that I will never in a million years forget it or the feelings it inspires in me.  And with this post I hope I have shown what makes these shows different, why one is great while the other is my second favorite anime of all time.  And for those of you who ignored my plea at the beginning of this post, I hope I’ve shown you why you absolutely have to watch these shows and be blown away by them.  I hope you all enjoyed this and I will see you in the next one, ka na.

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