Got to carry that weight
It has been 20 years since the first Utawarerumono.
In 2002, Leaf released a difficult-to-pronounce title for Windows that would come to define to destiny of the company. Leaf is one of the few big names left from the historical visual novel industry along with the likes of Key. It used to be that all visual novels as we knew them were not really a thing; instead there were glorified dating simulations and a whole lot of smut. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, the larger history of it all but visual novels – games of just words, pictures, sound, and branching choices – eventually grew into a storytelling medium all in itself and then quietly withered away again as RPGs overtook visual novels and adventure games as the story-heavy video games of choice and as the PC games market in Japan yielded almost entirely to consoles and mobile. Leaf itself played no small part in part in that shift and Utawarerumono was its vanguard.
It was an ambitious game for Leaf at the time. With a lineup dominated almost entirely by Japanese high school students, they had decided to now make a game based on a culture that was Japanese-adjacent at best – the Ainu (a sensitive subject in Japan still today, as aboriginal culture often is). In a further departure, it was a game about war, and to further that theme they embedded within their fully-fledged visual novel almost an entire (admittedly thin) tactical RPG. Sure, it still had the harem romance hijinks that visual novels alway seemed to turn back to but it was set against a backdrop of geopolitics, sacrifice, and spirituality. And Utawarerumono made clear which was more important, ultimately putting its plot first, tying off its story while leaving the romance deliberately unresolved as the only neat thing to do.
And then we didn’t hear more of Utawarerumono for more than a decade.
In 2015, Utawarerumono had transcended. A sequel game emerged in the form of Itsuwari no Kamen. It was developed with the assistance of Sting, most notable for videogames of disproportionately complex mechanics. It was published under the more ‘mainstream’ part of the brand, Aquaplus, was a Playstation exclusive, and was massive. It built on everything that came before it to expand its world and mythology further with only passing exposition of its prequel. It knew that it wanted to not just be a sequel but part of a trilogy and so shamelessly not just expected players to still be fully engaged with the events of the first game 13 years after the fact but also with what will come after, building upwards climax that will use every part of the franchise that would be nothing short of incredible.
Which leads us to this anime adaptation of Futari no Hakuoro, the third instalment. It has big shoes to fill and also some expectations to overcome. While the 2006 adaptation of the first game was great and actually managed to improve on the original in ways, the adaptation of Itsuwari no Kamen was unfortunately flawed. It was, to its deteriment, an adaptation that was produced even before its source game was released, never really understood its place in the trilogy, and meandered too long without overriding purpose. Our current adaptation though, is coming well after its source and appears to clearly know what it is building on. And, like its source, it has no time to tell you what it is if you don’t already know. It spares time only for the briefest of recaps and then launches straight into its own story as if it was right on the tail of Itsuwari no Kamen and its viewers are fully on board.
Perhaps Futari no Hakuoro understands that its preceding anime didn’t really manage to nail an emotional catharsis in its ending to to the same degree its source game was able. The game ended with a bang and was able to start its sequel on its own terms; the anime is instead a straight bridge. If it’s a deliberate choice I can’t really fault it; if your trilogy had a weak middle let’s plough right through it and show what it was building up to. It also makes clear why we’re starting with a double episode for Futari no Hakuoro. It is the second episode that is active, launching into war and conspiracy, instigating the plot. The first episode was reserved for being almost entirely a reactive one, showing characters responding to the events of Itsuwari no Kamen, giving them an opportunity to express grief, and allowing allowing our newly masked Haku to reflect on the burden he has now shouldered.
And what a burden it is. I have very high expectations for Futari no Hakuoro. It is the culimination of the best that visual novels can offer, spanning almost two decades. To put things into perspective, the Utawarerumono games have now been ported back to Steam. The franchise has gone through the death and resurrection of the PC games market in Japan and it is still here. There are staff who worked on these games who have died before this anime could be realised. And fittingly, Utawarerumono is in no small part about the weight of history, legend, and a cause greater than self. No pressure, White Fox, but this better be good.
OP: 「人なんだ」 (Hito nanda) by Suara
ED: 「百日草」 (Hyakunichisō) by Suara