Utakoi–Anime Early Impressions

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Utakoi (Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi) (Crunchyroll) is a high-quality anime series that is lovely to look at. However it is probably a specialized taste since it is based on that most famous collection of medieval Japanese poetry: the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (Ogura Hundred Poets). If you liked Chihayafuru you will definitely want to check this out since the game of karuta featured in that series is based on the same collection.

Each episode is introduced by the host of the series: Fujiwara no Teika, the famous poet who selected the poems for the collection. He is depicted here as a cheerful playboy who selected the poems because each represents a love story. Each episode presents the story behind one of the poems.

It should be noted that “Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu” means “the Hundred Poets, freely interpreted.” Most of the actual poems do not appear to be love poems. Taken literally they describe the beauties of nature. However many of them are traditionally said to have been written by the poet as a tribute to a love interest, or as a memorial to a lost love. (Kanade in Chihayafuru often recounts these stories and uses them as a aid in memorizing the cards.)

So we have a series of love stories in one of history’s most romantic settings: the imperial capital of Kyoto during the Heian Period (794-1185). It was a world of elegant refined courtiers who wore gorgeous clothes, lived in beautiful houses and devoted themselves to fine art and political intrigue. But this was not a setting conductive to happily-ever-after endings. The stories are not generally tragic, but are poignant.

Though the stories are highly speculative the depiction of the time and place seems fairly accurate. This is not to be compared to one of those “historical” anime series where famous warlords are depicted as cute girls. For that matter it is not to be compared to your typical English-language historical novel about Japan. (These may seem more plausible than that kind of anime series but they are generally no more reliable.)

Among the courtiers of the Heien Period marriages were almost always arranged for political reasons. Furthermore aristocratic wives did not live with their husbands. Commonly a bride would remain in her father’s household and her husband would visit her when he found it convenient (though hopefully often enough to produce some heirs.)

The Emperor was mostly a ceremonial figurehead. The real power rested with the powerful Fujiwara clan who ensured their dominance of the court by marrying their daughters to the Emperors and overseeing the upbringing of the children.

All of this was not conductive to an intimate relationship between married couples. We see husbands and wives engaged in ironic banter with no obvious affection.

Thus “love” generally meant extra-marital affairs. These should have been difficult since the sexes were strictly segregated. A woman was only supposed to speak to a man from behind a screen. However if they were determined to behave improperly the screen could prove a flimsy barrier.

This all sounds pretty decadent but we should be careful about jumping to conclusions The word “decadence” suggests privileged but irresponsible people devoting themselves to the pursuit of empty frivolous pleasure. These characters are not like that. They generally have a strong sense of duty and don’t seem to feel that they are entitled to a happy life. They may be tempted to pursue personal happiness but they usually end up renouncing it because that seems to be the right thing to do.

The attitudes of the courtiers were eventually to be supplanted by the somewhat different outlook of the rising samurai class. The samurai were warriors from the provinces. (The first samurai were probably farmers who took up arms to defend their lands.) They were less playful and whimsical than the courtiers, and initially less refined. They valued honor and loyalty above all else.

In the countryside wives were not considered political game pieces. A wife was expected to live with her husband, manage his household, raise his children and safeguard his property when he was away. Samurai women were often trained in martial arts and were expected to fight to the death if their homes were attacked.

We can see this difference in viewpoint in the story of Sadaakira and Yasako in the second episode. Sadaakira became Emperor at the age of 9 (ruling under the name of Youzei.) His behavior became increasingly wild and violent, to the point that his councilors concluded that he was unfit to be Emperor. He was forced to retire at the age of 17 and as part of the political settlement was required to marry Minamoto no Yasuko, a young woman he considered quite annoying.

Now as I said, this is all highly fictionalized. The historical Yasuko was an imperial princess and his cousin. I am guessing that she is called “Minamoto” here to imply that she embodied samurai values. (The Minamotos were an ambitious samurai family who intermarried with the Fujiwaras and the imperial family.) Let’s just play along with the story without worrying too much about its historical accuracy.

The sullen Sadadkira has no interest in his bride and tells her that she should take a lover. This offends her sense of honor. Having been given a husband, even one that she did not like, she is determined to do her best to be a good wife for him.

The anime makes a romantic story out of this, suggesting that she won him over to her point of view, while conceding that this is not necessarily consistent with the way he is described in the historical texts. (The historical texts may in any case be biased or untrustworthy.) Ultimately the only evidence we have of the nature of their relationship is one poem that he wrote for her which survives as Poem #13 of the Hyakunin Isshu.

From Tsukuba’s peak,
Falling waters have become
Mina’s still, full flow:
So my love has grown to be;
Like the river’s quiet deeps.

UPDATE: Jason lays some serious hate on this show:

Uta Koi has pretty bad story (generically bad), animation (looks acceptable in 2008), pacing (worse than Jormungand), and dialogue. The dialogue is so sappy and so uninspired that it makes romance novels with Fabio on the cover seem like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, and Leaves of Grass combined into one.

Well, they definitely spent most of their animation budget on the costumes and scenery. That’s where the money belongs if you are doing a show set in the Heian Imperial Court.

The dialog and the behavior of the characters actually feel right to me. These people represent a culture that is totally alien to us and which even seems bizarre to modern Japanese. They shouldn’t sound like normal 21st century people. As I said, this is a show for specialized tastes. If you aren’t prepared to look at things from the characters’ point of view then you are likely to just be repulsed.