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