Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Aug 15th 2012
Chōyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
In the late Heian era, poet Fujiwara no Teika compiled the Hyakunin Isshun, a collection of 100 tanka poems by 100 poets from the entire Heian era. In Uta Koi, he explains the history and interpretations of some of the poems while showing the interactions of the poets themselves.
If you already have discovered the beauty of the tanka poem, which distills lyric poetry down to its most potent form, or if you're just a poetry and/or Heian era junky, you already are watching this show. But for those of you who dislike poetry or think that watching Chōyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi will be like that terrible poetry class you took in school, think again. While there is plenty here for us literature geeks, Uta Koi also provides beautiful and tragic love stories, humor, and weirdness enough to tempt anyone who is ready for something a little different this season.
The basic premise of Uta Koi is simple – Fujiwara no Teika is going to tell you a bit about the poems he selected for his anthology. Originally used to decorate screens in a relative's home, the 100 poems were each written by a different poet and chosen for their literary merit and beauty of imagery and phrase. As fans of Chihayafuru know, they later became the basis for the game of karuta, and in what is presumably a nod to that show's popularity, the first episode gives us the backstory of Chihaya's favorite poem. Written by Ariwara no Narihira, the man thought to be the inspiration for Hikaru Genji in Murasaki Shikibu's novel Genji Monogatari, the show would have us believe that it is a love song to his one true love Takaiko. For those who have only known the poem through Chihayafuru, this adds a depth to it, to say nothing of a subtext for both this show and Chihaya's. That is, perhaps, the greatest strength of Uta Koi – it breathes life into these ancient poems and makes us realize how human the people who wrote them were. In fact, many of the more tragic aspects of the show stem directly from the way the poems are presented.
The decision to start with Narihira and Takaiko's story would seem odd if not for the recent popularity of Chihayafuru because it takes place before the continuity presented in episodes 3 – 5. (Episode two is about Takaiko's son, Sadaahira and features an older Narihira.) Episode three takes us back before Narihira ever meets Takaiko and starts us following the adventures of Ono no Komachi, the only woman to be named among the six great poets of the period. In this case familiarity with Komachi's works will be helpful, as episodes three and five really give a context to her subject matter. Regardless, hers is a story that will make as much sense to the modern viewer as to the Heian reader, as she is forced (or feels that she is) to make a choice and isn't certain if she made the right one.
Despite the out-of-chronology presentation of episodes one and two, the oddball here is definitely episode six, which renames the show Uta Hen. Shown as if one were flipping channels, it features an ox cart Grand Prix, a talk show, and a card battle, all of which are, to put it bluntly, totally weird. On the one hand, it is a nice breather from the tears-in-your-throat feeling that the previous five episodes produce; on the other, surely there was a better way to transition from the early Heian period to the mid-Heian. (For context, mid-Heian is when Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki lived.) That this is what they are doing comes out when a character who has not yet appeared in the show is a guest on the talk show and is less than thrilled. Clever enough, yes, but it also breaks the mood Uta Koi has worked to establish.
Of course, this is not the only time that mood, so carefully constructed during the body of the episodes, is ruptured. Nearly every episode begins with Teika in some period-inappropriate outfit or place cheerfully telling the audience who we will be following this week, sometimes accompanied by another anthologist. Characters occasionally use contemporary slang and the ending theme is more rap than anything else, oftentimes feeling wholly inappropriate to the show that precedes it. While the opening theme is hardly Heian itself, it does a better job of meshing with the themes of the show, and careful viewers will spot most of the characters we've been following as they flash by. (Hopefully the red-haired woman will turn out to be Sei Shonagon.)
The animation in Uta Koi is nothing spectacular, but to be fair, Heian clothing does not allow for much movement. Some interesting artistic turns have been taken, such as the stylized way that rain and clouds are portrayed and the patterns on kimono, which are a less obtrusive version of the way they were done in Gankutsuo. Characters can really only be told apart by their hair and voices, but the acting is nicely done – Junichi Suwabe is positively delicious as Narihira, and Aya Endo gets a good amount of range out of Ono no Komachi.
Uta Koi is a must-watch for fans of tanka poetry, yes, but it is also a charming, sometimes melancholy, sometimes beautiful examination of the lives of people who lived a thousand years ago. What is remarkable about literature is the way that it can recreate lives long ago lost, and Uta Koi takes that task and does it well. Despite some anachronisms and strange turns, this is a treat for people looking for something a bit off the beaten path as it breathes life into a collection of poetry that many of us westerners know nothing about.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Beautiful interpretations of the poems, visions of the poets that make sense in context with their bodies of work. Some interesting stylistic choices.
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