Delving further into animated fantasy: sci-fi twists, Scrapped Princess and a whole load of ranting about Utawarerumono

chibi-karura-blog.pngOn Monday, I looked at the state of classic fantasy in anime, and although it would have been enough to end it there and conclude that it was generally in a sorry state, I knew there was something more I had to write about- namely, fantasy with a sci-fi twist (like you couldn’t guess that from the title). To that end, I have decided to delve deeper into series- Scrapped Princess, which I enjoyed and Utawarerumono, which I could have enjoyed if not for its many flaws.

The sci-fi twist and collective groaning

Picture the scene- your elusive quest for the perfect fantasy series that satisfies all your needs and even sidesteps the usual clichés seems to have finally come to an end. The series you have identified has likable characters and a well grounded fantasy world filled with different factions, and then the writers go and put in an unwelcome twist- this entire world is just the far future of some contrived sci-fi Earth. Everything that made that fantasy world worthy is now pushed aside in the wake of a huge spiel of revelations about how the technologically advanced Earth came to be in this state, and how its future history is vitally important to the plot of the series.

I have to admit there are times when it can be interesting to see a less developed society’s perspective on a piece of modern technology is, but if we put this novelty aside, there isn’t much left to praise. No longer is the setting a well constructed alternate world, now it is just yet another future Earth, with technology providing a convenient deus ex machina and generally undermining the earlier setup of the story. If you want a sci-fi story, then make that plain from the start- don’t lead people on with the promise of a good fantasy, only to take it away shortly after.

Scrapped Princess, commonly regarded as good

Nonetheless, there is one case where the fantasy to sci-fi transition produced a good series- Scrapped Princess. Whilst far from being perfect or a top ten candidates, Scrapped Princess managed to produce an enjoyable series, perhaps because it introduced the sci-fi elements quite early on instead of saving them for the final arc, but most likely due to its pleasing designs and strong cast of characters. Yes, the plot was open to being parodied, with certain events playing out a little too conveniently, but overall the series was solid, entertaining and memorable.

Diverging for an “in hindsight” rant about Utawarerumono

On the opposite end of the scale, we have Utawarerumono, a series that always, in my mind, had great potential, but at various junctures along the way proceeded to throw it away. When I first saw the trailer for the anime, I knew I had to delve deeper into this wondrous fantasy world of various furries, but extended experience with both TV series and game left me in mourning for what could have been.

The reason why Utawarerumono’s world stands out in the first place is because, at first glance, it seems to be a well realised place. There are different tribes and clans, each with their own history, a world map with countries and alliance, religion, unique animals and a healthy dose of mysteries. In the right hands, who knows what complex stories could have been drawn from this backdrop, tales worthy enough to resemble the fantasy greats, or perhaps an empire-building game in the vein of the enjoyable Suikoden series. Instead, all we are given is one man’s quest to conquer the world, uncover his past and sleep with as many women as possible on the way.

To that end, instead of exploiting such a well-constructed setting, Utawarerumono opts for the easier route. As a lead character, Hakuoro is able to rally villagers to his cause, and within a matter of episodes he overthrows the evil ruling lords Sasante and Inkara (appropriately fat, ugly and self-serving minor villains) before taking his place as emperor of the country of Tusukuru. From then on, Hakuoro would go on to recruit more women to his cause even as he rallied against a procession of one-dimensional villains, from Niwe of the evil laugh to Kuuya, who wanted to bring peace through acts of unprovoked genocide.

All that, however, paled in comparison to what was to come in the final twist of the story. Everything about the world became suddenly insignificant in the face of the revelation that this was yet another future Earth where nuclear war caused mutation into furries, and Hakuoro had some hideously complex past as a frozen “Iceman” who turned out to be half of a sundered god. In this new phase, each revelation was more ridiculous than the last- the other half of the god somehow possessed Dii; Kamyu turned out to be the reincarnation of Iceman’s daughter Mutsumi and Eruruu was a descendant of “early furry” Mikoto who just happened to have the key to open an ancient lab where the scientists had been turned into immortal slimes. Even mecha got a look in in the form of the armoured Avu Kamuu, leaving both viewers and players so overwhelmed with rushed plot points that it would not be until much later that they could step back and realise how ridiculous it had been. None of the fantasy material seemed to matter anymore- even the mystery of the murderous Rak Shine was never satisfactorily answered (yes, Orikakan was tricked into thinking Hakuoro was Rak Shine, but who was the real one and where did he go?).

These revelations have left me in an odd possession with regards to Utawarerumono- even now I am drawn to it for what it could have been, but each exposure can only further highlight the disappointment. As I have said before, it is not so much that Uta was bad (since there are plenty of series that are worse than it), but that it could have been a lot more than it ultimately turned out to be.

Final Thoughts

Although Scrapped Princess proved to be the exception to the rule, turning fantasy worlds in post-technological age planet Earths is rarely a good move, with the end result usually squandering its early promise in favour of wild plot twists that ultimately create the disappointing endings they were presumably meant to avoid. Whilst it is clear that the fantasy genre in anime needs to evolve, it needs to remain separate and distinct from sci-fi if it is to make its mark.

5 thoughts on “Delving further into animated fantasy: sci-fi twists, Scrapped Princess and a whole load of ranting about Utawarerumono

  1. Murder Princess is the latest in the fantasy to sci-fi twist category and is 1 of the things that made it worse at it went along (the skeleton guy and Frankenstien’s Monster guy are robots or something and have lived for ages :S) , luckily only 6 eps long for those that are interested.

  2. Interesting post karura, I aggree with you. I was also drawn to utawarerumono probably by similar reasons to you. When I watched it I had no idea it was based on an H-Game at the time and was genuinely under the illusion that it was an utterly brilliant masterpiece. I still think it is :). Unfortunately, the plot took a wierd turn and had me reeling and very confused. Ok, I got there – from my persective it was a very wierd twist to a story. I was also slightly disappointed by its ending. However, having said that, it is better then turning the anime into an endless war between clans with no or little progress between episodes, characters not evolving, no plot etc (like western tv, they normally get confused and dont know where to take it). You are right in saying it was a bit disappointing – but Ive seen a good few series go bad (namely bleach and naruto). I kind of see it as a positive thing, a curtosey to the great anime that it is. What Im trying to say is, these slight flaws might not be a bad thing after all, dont be disappointed by it or let the disappointment get to you – its a great anime, keep it that way and enjoy it for what it is 😉

  3. Mmm. Couldn’t agree more. Good fantasy seems somewhat lacking in most media at the moment (novels aside – George RR Martin still being on form…), and anime is no exception. I watched and enjoyed both Scrapped Princess and Uta, but in both cases couldn’t help wishing that they had lived up to their potential. SP’s major flaw in my view, apart from slightly overly-convenient plotting, was the lack of engaging leads. Pacifica herself is just annoying perky, Racquel’s ditzy side is played far too strongly and Shannon comes across as “strong silent hero #1”. Uta is the exact opposite. Filled with interesting and fun characters (love for Karura), but with a plot structure that veers from ploddingly predictable to breakneck insanity. Perhaps one of these days we’ll find a fantasy anime that manages to combine character and plot. That’ll be a must-watch.

    Slightly OT – I rather enjoyed Murder Princess. Again, rather too predictable plodding, but solid entertainment. Not one of the greats, but not bad either.

  4. I thought there was potential in the Scrapped Princess leads beyond that of the normal set- Pacifica did at least question the fact that she needed people to protect her whilst she was in the back row of battle, so to speak, and Raquel could own people with powerful spells instead of being as useless as most female characters. Sadly, it wasn’t really carried through, though- one thing I would have loved to have seen was Pacifica actually trying to learn magic or swordsmanship so that she could stand up for herself.

    Uta- it’s hard to enjoy it for what it is when it contains so many issues- I still love certain characters and their designs (and the Utawarriors fighting game, that was fun), but overall it doesn’t even rank as something I want to buy on DVD, even when a thinpak comes out.

    I have to admit I couldn’t get past the second episode of Murder Princess, it just didn’t gel for me.

  5. Just finished playing Utawarerumono thanks to the English patch. I’d have to agree, Utawarerumono does fall a bit short (why was there an ero scene with Yuzuha? Why?) and the ero scene with Urtoriy just came out of nowhere, as did the later sci-fi arc, but I still like it. It’s a very good SRPG, if not for the fact that Eruruu can’t heal herself. The story has some holes, but it does make sense at first and you feel good along the way. Plus I feel a certain empathy with Hakuoro.

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