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Utakata: The Complete Series
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Before you make a deal with a girl in a mirror, reflect seriously on the source of the offer. Ichika Tachibana fails to take this advice in order to retrieve a lost charm, and as a result suddenly ends up with the magical forces of a Djinn at her command.
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Well, the series did not focus heavily on eating disorders as I had hoped (in fact it's barely even mentioned), but instead I got a series offering something much deeper and more insightful, with eating disorders and other subject matter being merely symptomatic of a coming-of-age story in the form of a magic summer homework assignment our magical girl protagonists Ichika and Manatsu have to complete. Don't worry, there's still plenty of cheerfulness, or at least peacefulness, in this magical girl story, especially the first half, but there's a lot of heart and thought put into each scene, happy or tragic, and it develops Manatsu and especially Ichika into a believable and relatable human figure.
There's something that probably should be addressed right away, because it's the first and biggest barrier to entry and flaw for Uta~Kata... the underage fanservice. Yes, these fourteen-year-old girls who look and act like fourteen-year-old girls are subject to upskirt shots and butt closeups more than once, and I don't have any defense for these shots other than they are mercifully split-second short.
Surprisingly, however, this uncomfortable angle didn't bother me too much, especially not when compared to other underage exploits in anime such as Vividred Operation or anything Akiyuki Shinbo has directed, mainly because (a) they are short and sparse enough to keep the focus on the core story completely independent from the fanservice, but more importantly, (b) the girls otherwise are portrayed in a sincere, respectful, and relatable manner to a degree I do not often see in anime.
When I say Ichika and her friends act fourteen years old, I mean that their dialogue, behavior and personalities resemble those of some real girl you've probably met somewhere, instead of a cartoon imagination of a character personality. We all know the tomboy who is determined and skilled to take charge and keep a confident persona in both herself and her friends like Satsuki, in spite of her family issues. We all know the quiet girl like Michiru, who often states the facts when she doesn't know how to speak her mind comfortably around her more socially capable friends (I was that girl... except I didn't have good friends in middle school).
And like most real teenage girls, the drama that weighs on them the most, especially our main character Ichika, comes the smallest, seemingly insignificant actions. Being called a "stickler" one too many times by her classmates when the insult was a mere friendly tease, the shame she feels for for ever thinking she had any chance with a boy 6 years older than her after proudly admiring him from afar for a long time, the awkwardness and disenchantment of a meeting with her childhood friend for the first time in years without communication, are all handled very delicately and sincerely.
As you can imagine from the descriptions in the previous paragraph, there is very little action in the series even for a slice-of-life story, but it NOT necessarily boring to watch. Ichika does not "do" anything significant in the story as much as she "observes" everything, and all the drama and story direction comes from what she decides to make of what she sees, either through her own mortal eyes or through the eyes of the ever watchful Djinn. Her story, in that sense, is somewhat similar to Scrooge's in "A Christmas Carol," where the main character reacts and changes throughout the story although he makes no significant choices until the finale.
So where's all the magic in this magical girl series? I make it sound more like a slice-of-life anime the more I talk about, and that's because it mostly is. However, every episode features Ichika using the power which her mysterious friend Manatsu gave her and allows her to borrow the power of the 12 Djinn (nature spirits). The descriptions and depictions of Ichika's experiences with her powers do a great job at creating the effect of something otherworldly, yet somehow familiar (my favorite example is in the first episode where Ichika sees the her hometown from the Sun's point of view). Any magical girl series gets brownie points from me if it includes a new costume each episode, and the good news is that each Djinn give Ichika a different costume during each costume, and each costume was actually designed by a different artist, which makes each costume especially unique (though not always attractive). Also, this is one of the very few magical girl anime I've seen where the parents' acceptance of a stranger living with them without prior notice actually has a very good, believable reason.
The art and animation are outstanding! Even by anime standards, the animation looks cheap, and there is not much motion happening on screen, but I have never seen an anime take better advantage of its limited resources than Uta~Kata (Yes, I have seen Berserk's animation). Because the show is full of still shots, the little motion that does take place is almost always vivid and carefully detailed, the still shots themselves offer beautiful landscapes and varied character expressions, and it is consistent looking from start to finish. The backgrounds are gorgeously rendered, especially considering they are based on the real Japanese town of Kamakura.
The music and overall sound design is also rather pretty. Like the animation, it's simple, often consisting of Baroque-style piano-violin-flute trios or gentle synthesized celeste sounds. When the show becomes ominous or heavy, the ambient sound effects can create a simliar mood, my favorite example being this extemely quiet, low-frequency sound that persists inside the dark house of Ichika's next door neighbor.
The story is this strange combination of episodic escapades ("Let's go to the beach!" "Let's volunteer at the mental hospital!") which tangentially contribute to a singular main storyline ("What is really the point of Ichika's powers and trials?"). This method actually works really well, as the main storyline is a mercilessly vague mystery plot that doesn't let the viewer in on anything until the final episode (not including the sequel OVA). So with the episodic stories happening meanwhile, the viewer can still engage in Ichika's and Manatsu's adventures, and the vignettes themselves are still thoughtful and well-written. Some of them go to very dark, heavy places. Besides eating disorders, some of the characters have suffered suicidal tendencies, have been sexually assaulted (which IS heavily condemned and not fetishized), or have the misfortune to be mentally ill. Thankfully, the direction of the show never dwells on these matters after they are introduced, except for the mentally ill patient (which broke my heart the most), and part of the point of these tragedies is to show how well these characters have been able to move on and live relatively normal lives.
Since Ichika and her friends are teenagers, they are just entering that harsh and confusing initial stage into adulthood, where youthful innocence is quickly diminished in various ways, and that lost innocence affects Ichika's powers drastically, and in exchange, her visions granted by the Djinn's borrowed powers affect her drastically. One line commonly used in the series in response to Ichika's volatile usage of her not entirely controlled powers is "What happened wasn't your fault," signifying all of Ichika's angst and negative emotions throughout her puberty to be part of every person's life that simply cannot be avoided. Even if a "good girl" like Ichika makes a successful active effort always to do the right thing, her passive train of thought, her observations, are still doomed to be corrupted in some way or another as she moves past her childhood. As dark and depressing as that idea may sound, all of Ichika's positive influences (which is basically her entire community), as well as her own positive efforts still allow the show to make room for uplifting scenes and plays a role a hopeful and downright inspiring finale (a finale with some viewer discretion advised. It gets pretty violent).
There's also a sequel OVA episode, which seemed really strange to me since the plot of the TV series was extremely self-contained and didn't seem to have any room for a sequel. But surprisingly, it's pretty good and just as beautiful looking. It's more like an extension or epilogue of the TV series, and has all the delicate pacing and dialogue that the TV series had. The show didn't need this extension, but I'm so glad the staff made it anyway.
This DVD release contains all 13 episodes including the OVA, and for once in a Sentai release, it has actual extras (as in, more than previews and a clean opener/closer). There are two documentaries of the two starring actresses touring Kamakura and all the sites where the series was set. It's neat to see these sites, but the actresses' transparently fake demeanor is pretty tacky and obnoxious. I guess the second documentary is better, at least it's less annoying. Still, you get a little bit of insight into the series and some Japanese history, so that's nice to have. It's not a good extra, but it's an extra with some effort and intrigue, and that's all I'm asking from Sentai releases at this point.
So, this show really is not for everyone, and do not assume that this is for kids solely because it's a magical girl anime. Besides the fanservice, which might understandably disturb viewers, it is slow, tranquil, and some scenes require careful attention in order to understand why characters behave a certain way. Like many "iyashikei" anime, it's not made to be exciting but rather soothing and comforting, even when it does get intense. Still, I think the fanservice is the only thing that keeps me from calling it a fantastic series, and I highly recommend this title to someone who wants to see a good coming-of-age story. If Amazon would allow me, I'd give this show 4.5 out of 5 stars, so for the time being, I'll round up and give it the 5 out of 5 score. It ties with Saint Tail as my favorite magical girl anime, although I love both for completely different reasons, and is one of my favorite anime of all time.
Uta~Kata is currently licensed in R1 region by Sentai Filmworks, available on DVD and Hulu's streaming services. Please support the creators and distributors.
The anime begins somewhat as a slice-of-life drama, and one may get the impression in the first few episodes that this is one of those "magical girl" shows. However, later episodes reveal the dark nature of the "magic" the protagonist Ichika has in her possession; it's essentially a coming-of-age story if a supernatural being critical of mankind were the story writer. The story takes some dramatic, and at times, emotionally graphic turns, so this definitely isn't for the youngest of viewers, but it's not as visually graphic as, say, Bleach or "character-abusive" as Evangelion-- I'd say that most of the anime is probably PG-13 and the last episode is R, going by MPAA standards. To reiterate: It looks cutesy, but don't let that fool you into thinking it's a kid's anime.
The anime was released back in 2004, so some of the animation may seem dated or possibly low-quality, but viewers who are interested in the visual art should take notice of the different costumes/"gods" that appear in each episode, as they are designed by various and well-known manga artists, including Ken Akamatsu of Negima! fame. The age of the series also means that the aspect ratio remains 4:3, so those of you with HDTVs should keep that in mind.
Another point I'd like to call attention to is the theme songs-- written and performed by a singer/songwriter duo called savage genius, these two songs was their breakout single in Japan, and they are still on my regular playlist. While not as well-known in the anime scene as Nana Mizuki or Aya Hirano, the unique vocal cadence of the singer in two very different tempos conveys the upbeat hopefulness of looking forward and the wistful melancholy of looking back-- in my opinion, a perfect match for this series.
One beef I do have with this product, though, is the price. I think any price above $40 is asking a bit much for 13-episode series, unless the collection comes with all of the extras that the Japanese DVD releases included. From what I've read elsewhere, this set does contain a fair amount of extras, but probably not as many as the original release, because there are only 2 discs (it's still more than some collected releases of other series have offered, however). Also, you're not going to find an English track on this series, so that's a possible minus for those who enjoy dubs. Still, the strength of the story and character designs, as well as the good soundtrack, are well worth the viewing.
I've finally finished this anime and i really enjoyed it a lot. The animation was good and for those of you that are true anime fans this is perfect because it has English subtitles. The voice acting is great and the special features let you go visit the town the anime is based in. The English subtitles are great and well done, easy to read and understand. Granted the story itself has loop holes its still a good watch. My one issue is that the price could be lowered a bit.