At last! I have done 100 of these anime reviews! And while I would like to make this a huge deal, there isn’t really anything format-wise that’s different about how I’ll go about this review, other than it just so happens to be the 100th.
Recently I have talked about shows with a focus on Community, Friends and Family, and Romance. And as I get ready to wrap up for the year, I find it best to tie everything together with something that has sentimental value to me, and under those same themes. But you’re probably not reading this for my sake (as it should be), so without further ado, I’d better get down to this. Because let’s face it, I really don’t like having writer’s anxiety!
Utakoi is an animated series that is not so much about telling a long, drawn-out story, but informing us about something that is integral to Japanese culture: the Hyakunin Isshu (literally Hundred Poets) anthology. The anthology is a compilation of 100 specific poems from the Heian period (794-1185 CE) that follow the tanka form. As the name suggests, each one is authored by a different poet of that time, many of whom were friends, lovers, rivals, and acquaintances of each other. Scholars today continue to analyze the anthology, and the poems themselves are used in one version of Karuta, which people often play as part of a New Year’s tradition. There’s even a broadcasted tournament over the New Year holiday where the best Karuta players will fight for the title of Meijin and Queen of Karuta, and the variation they use is that from Hyakunin Isshu.
Recently, the popular manga and anime Chihayafuru has featured elements of competitive Karuta, and as the title suggests, it is a pun of one of the poems in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology. Having aired about the same time as Chihayafuru, Utakoi also explains the background of the “Chihayaburu” poem.
Of all the poems in Hyakunin Isshu, 43 have been designated songs of love, which makes up the majority of the poems. And as its name suggests, Utakoi (literally “love song”) focuses on explaining a few of these love songs.
Even in the Heian period, love was a complex concept, and Hyakunin Isshu recognizes that there are many forms of it. Some of the featured explanations in this anime tell of subtle confessions, farewells, unrequited loves, and forced romances, to name a few.
The animation style that is presented is very similar to wood block printing, a popular form of mass producing such media in the Heian period. It shows that Utakoi is dedicated to telling the history of Hyakunin Isshu, but it combines that style with a more contemporary look for the characters. Trust me: if this was completely faithful to the aesthetics of the Heian period, the characters may be even less distinguishable from each other.
The series also breaks up the action with some humor, as the Hyakunin Isshu compiler Teika and his friends offer moments that are influenced by modern media.
This series is historical, and that means that there are plenty of limitations to how events are interpreted. Utakoi recognizes that by comparing the classic interpretations from the modern interpretations. According to this show, poetry is already nonsensical, as a normal person wouldn’t talk in verse the same way she or he does in prose. For each recited poem, the series offers a prose interpretation as well, in case you misunderstood the meaning the first time.
Poetry becomes somewhat of a game for a lot of the poets represented in this series, but when there are hidden meanings, there are also plenty of misinterpretations. Some of these are simply problems understanding the literal meaning of poems from their intentional meanings, but some of the misinterpretations are humorous.
One of the more known blunders in modern interpretation is that of Monk Henjo’s “Amatsu kaze” poem. He had written this poem for the woman who would become known as Ono no Komachi, when he had tried to prove his love for her over a period of 100 days. It is a poem of his commitment to that love, even though they would never become lovers. However, since the anthology includes this poem under a name he was given later, many today have jokingly misinterpreted him to be a perverted monk.
Hyakunin Isshu may be the most famous of Japanese writings that come from the Heian period, but it isn’t the only one that survived throughout the ages. Many of the poets represented in the anthology had favorite poets of their own, some whom were also included in Hyakunin Isshu. According to this series, Ono no Komachi was a fan of many such poets, and was even inspired by the Empress Jito’s “Haru sugite,” which is also included in the anthology.
Many of the poets in this period were also left out, seeing how there are only 100 of them. Hyakunin Isshu is an integral part of Japanese history for its time, but because it is limited, some figures from the time period were favored over others, which gets reflected in interpretations and dramatizations thereafter.
But aside from the argument over why some are included and others are not and what that entails in Japan’s recorded history, one thing I did enjoy about this anime is its emphasis on the strong female figures of the Heian period. While most of the poets represented in Hyakunin Isshu are men, the women writers and the subjects that men wrote about were just as influential to how we understand these love songs.
Ono no Komachi had taken a free-spirited approach to life, and always pursued her own happiness without any commitment to a man. But in her later years, she had come to regret this. Her poem “Hana no iro wa” speaks of that regret as she wasted away like a wilting flower. She had written many poems, but this one was included in Hyakunin Isshu.
Sei Shonagon may be the most intelligent woman of the Middle Heian period, serving in the imperial court and taking several lovers over time. While her “Yo wo komete” was also included in Hyakunin Isshu, she also wrote the Pillow Book, another anthology that chronicles the life of the Empress Consort Teishi. Sei Shonagon had devoted most of her life to serving Teishi, even after her untimely death.
Murasaki Shikibu (right) and her childhood friend Fujiko both challenged the role of women by taking part in typically male activities. Fujiko enjoyed rough sports while Shikibu (known in her childhood as Kaoriko) took up literature. While both of them moved on with their lives and married other men, it is assumed that Fujiko had given up on challenging her role while Shikibu continued to press forward.
Murasaki Shikibu’s “Meguri aite” is dedicated to her longing to reconnect with her childhood friend, and it is said that a part of her novel The Tale of Genji is dedicated to showing Fujiko’s true strength.
The Monk Teika’s “Konu hito wo” is also included in the anthology that he compiled. This poem served as a testament of his true feelings for a pretend lover Noriko. Through Noriko, he realized that poetry was more than just pithy words to express oneself in a different way, but an art that had the power to set people free.
It is difficult to find something that all the poems of Hyakunin Isshu have in common, other than that they are from the same time period that spans about four centuries. But by creating poetry, they had the power to free themselves from the things that bound them to the earth. Even though these poems had been written centuries ago, their words continue to express feelings that resonate with us to this day. Even though their interpretations may change over time, their relevance is timeless. This may not be the first animation to express these feelings, but it certainly will not be the last!
Just as poetry was a form of freedom to them, we can learn something from these past figures to express ourselves in a way that will free us. And on that note, there’s no better way to wrap up this review with a question for us all:
So if you like poetry or are interested in Japanese history and literature, check out Utakoi. And as I finish this 100th anime review and this year, I look forward to many new projects and experiences in the future.