Utahime: the Songstress

Utahime: the Songstress by Aki ✦ Translated by Sachiko Sato ✦ Published by DMP, 2009 ✦ ISBN: 978-1-56970-044-0

Summary from publisher:

For centuries, a far-off kingdom has been protected by the nightly singing of the Utahime. This powerful voice is passed down from one female songstress to another within the Utahime’s bloodline. Then the impossible happens…a male songstress has been born. What follows then is a bitter-sweet and tragic tale revolving around this reluctant Utahime.

I love Aki’s linework more than I love her stories, if I’m going to be honest. Utahime is a simple fantasy tale, and there really isn’t that much to it. It begins in the “present,” moves into a lengthy flashback (which is summarized by one of the characters in the first chapter before the flashback begins, rather than having the flashback framed as one of the characters telling the story), then returns to the present. The only other Aki manga I have read, Olympos, is a prettier manga than Utahime, but Utahime has the more coherent story of the two.

The story starts out with a conflict between there being a male songstress and there being a female sovereign, a circumstance apparently as unheard of as the male songstress. What isn’t clear at the beginning, however, is there are many songstresses “protecting” the kingdom, which makes the fact of a single male one a bit less impactful (it’s not exactly the fate of the kingdom on the line if he is discovered). In fact, the fact of a male songstress existing turns out to be almost completely irrelevant to the story: the story’s real conflict is that Kain, the male songstress in question, believes his sister to be the true songstress and the tragedy that misunderstanding causes.

In the end, nothing really gets resolved. A problem is solved, but it’s not a problem that was really even remotely central to the conflict in the story. Even Kain seems baffled as to why that even came up.

Beyond the somewhat disjointed story, the worldbuilding is practically nonexistent. The setting is some sort of pseudo-European fantasy country, but the only information we are given is that there’s towers with songstresses that have villages near them, and that there’s a large capital city. What the songstresses are protecting the country from is unexplored, as is how their magic works. There are apparently other countries that have their own songstresses, the songstresses are strictly policed except when they’re not, and the heir to the throne being a woman is a shakeup except that it’s not.

The art in this manga is what really stands out. Aki’s lines are beautiful and delicate, and her characters are well-designed and expressive. She doesn’t use a lot of visual tricks or gimmicks, either, nor is there a lot of clutter by way of backgrounds or screentone.

This volume also includes a short one-shot called “Darika,” which tells the story of a young man tasked with making sure his kingdom’s top-secret experiment, a clone of a god, doesn’t discover its true nature. This short suffers from similar vague worldbuilding to Utahime, but is a little bit better executed in my opinion.

I’d recommend picking up this book for the art alone, and I’m sure there’s many people out there who would enjoy the story more than I personally did (or find it more coherent than I did). If you’ve read Olympos and liked that, definitely check out Utahime. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but there are plenty of copies available used from Amazon.

Review summary:

Story: 2/5; poorly established worldbuilding, contradictory plot
Art: 5/5; beautiful lines, clear expressions, no clutter

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