Utakoi (Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi)
Number of Episodes: 13
Production Company: TYO Animations
Brief Overview: Based on a Josei manga, this is a "super-liberal" interpretation of the writings which make up the "Hundred Poems" anthology, which are famous for their role in the Karuta card game, and which focus on romance in ancient Japan.
Episode 1 Summary: This anthology series follows the romantic trysts of a group of Heian-era court officials and the poetry that their relationships inspired. The poems are curated by Fujiwara no Teika (Fujiwara no Sadaie), who introduces the stories.
The first half of the episode follows Fujiwara no Takaiko, a woman destined to marry the emperor, and her would-be suitor, the hopeless romantic (and rampant womanizer), Ariwara no Narihira. The two compose poetry back-and-forth to one-another, with Takaiko insistent on putting Narihira off, but eventually the two begin to engage in a romantic liaison and even make plans to elope. Eventually the two are foiled by logic and duty, but a meeting some years later may reignite the flame in their hearts.
The second half of the episode focuses on Ariwara no Yukihira, Narihira's older brother. Yukihira is much more dutiful and very in love with his wife, Hiroko. He goes to his brother, who seems to be suffering from lovesickness, but learns that his own way of life may not be the example that Narihira wishes to follow.
Thoughts: For those of us who enjoyed watching Chihayafuru, this series purports to explain a little bit of the history behind many of the poems that appeared as part of the Karuta game the characters played (the titular poem even appears in this first episode, near the end of the first half). While I have certain... issues with the way that the stories play themselves out, the first episode is overall pretty enjoyable and informative to boot.
What needs to be addressed before anything else is the fact that this series features a very different kind of romance than modern-day Westerners will be used to. Those who are familiar with Japanese history and historical literature of this kind will already be aware of the fact that interaction between the sexes in the Heian court was very controlled. There were a lot of rules pertaining to the freedom of women to move around and be seen; often times women were literally hidden from view behind screens (fun fact: in writings of the time, if it was written that a man "saw" a woman, it was pretty safe to say that they had sexual intercourse; that's how strict things were). Suffice it to say, dating wasn't exactly a thing which would have happened. The result is that the relationship depicted in the first half is extremely intense because it's so clandestine, and there's a forcefulness to the way that Narihira comes on to Takaiko. The way he uses reverse-psychology to entice Takaiko is manipulative and the way she succumbs makes it feel as if she's physically overpowered, which makes me uncomfortable.
I'm conflicted because despite these inherent problems with the text, which comes mostly as a result of the time and place in which it's set, I'm also very fascinated by this time in history and the ways in which these sorts of romances play out. I don't know how many people here are familiar with The Tale of Genji, but there was a noitaminA adaptation of it a few years ago in celebration of the novel's one-thousandth(!) anniversary, and I absolutely loved it. To provide a summary of the story, it is quite literally the tale of a Heian-era prince and his harem of women in the court. He has several love-affairs including one with his step-mother. On paper, the plot reads like one of the several crap-ola sex comedies that come out every season, yet there is just something about time and place that makes the story of an emo teenage boy and his sexcapades compelling and fresh (not something you'll hear me say very often). Utakoi seems to be hitting that same note, and despite being able to logically argue that there are major issues with the gender interactions, my heart keeps demanding that I watch more episodes. Stupid heart.
The visuals are made very sumptuous by the use of color and texture. One thing that characterizes Heian-era clothing (at least for the wealthy types of people depicted in this show) is the extreme impracticality of the robes and gowns worn primarily by the women. Their outfits feature layer upon layer of fabric in every color imaginable, and the production team does a very complete job of depicting this feature. Much of the outer clothing has that certain Gankutsuou touch to it, giving it a special layer of texture (albeit one which doesn't move in any way close to realistically). The homes of the wealthy characters are decorated by colorful, artistic screens, the most striking of which is one with crimson Autumn leaves that serves as inspiration for the iconic "Chihayafuru" poem. There's a distinct lack of animation in the show, but it doesn't really need it; the show gains all the visual interest it needs from its background artwork and costumes.
I feel a little bit guilty for essentially dismissing my own very valid criticisms; let me be clear that I'm not excusing this show for featuring archaic relationships side-by-side with more modern bits and pieces of characterization and exposition. When it's clear that something is meant to have contemporary appeal yet it fails to fully address its problematic historical elements, there's certainly a problem. That said, I'm still interested and I still really want to watch more.
Follow-up Episodes (2-5): The next few episodes continue in a similar manner, with poet Fujiwara providing pithy insights and historical fun-facts related to the real-life versions of the characters who appear in the show. The series introduces several new romantic entanglements for its characters, many of which seem doomed from the start.
I continued watching the series fully expecting to encounter more problems, and in that respect I wasn't disappointed. The show can't seem to decide whether it wants to focus on the progressive aspects of the characters' lives, or whether it wants to fully devote itself to the more sordid details of their various relationships and trysts. There are a couple of very inspired moments during which the mostly-cloistered women assert some form of independence. The woman who is to become the famed Ono no Komachi, one of Japan's "Thirty-Six immortal poets," puts a very harsh requirement on the men who hope to win her hand in marriage, yet when one fulfills the requirement, she refuses him because he won't allow her to pursue her ambitions. On the other hand, there are also bits of the story that are difficult to swallow; one storyline tells the tale of a man's short-lived stint as emperor and his marriage to a childhood acquaintance who he bullied. Her response is to continually smile, and work harder so that they might grow to love each-other. I'll admit that I find that to be a romantic idea, but in practice it sounds like a recipe for an abusive relationship. And don't get me started on the fact that Ono no Komachi nearly has an affair with a man she refers to as her "onii-sama."
There's also the issue of story continuity and keeping the order of events straight. While the first five episodes at least devote themselves to a fairly small group of characters, some of the stories are told out of order. We learn of the death of on character in particular, only to see him again an episode or two later on. For the most part, the characters don't seem to visually age much, so there are moments which are difficult to place chronologically until there's enough information to get one's bearings. There are also multiple narrators, which tends to get confusing at times.
But, and this is as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone else, I'm still really enjoying the show. Upon self-reflection, I think the reason for that has a great deal to do with my general interest in this time period, but there are certainly other factors at work. I'm fascinated by stories of women who are able to do great things in spite of oppression, because I think that the history we're taught in school tends to overlook these examples and paint women of most historical periods as an oppressed monolith. Komachi, like her contemporaries in the court, lives a life of being literally hidden from view, and yet her ambition and commitment to her dream of poetry allows her to become one of the most highly-regarded poets of her time period. There's an interesting scene in the fifth episode in which Komachi, Narihira and Yasuhide lament that fact that their life has been spent on poetry, leaving them too old to start families and enjoy that sort of life. The three eventually decide that the art they leave behind serves as a legacy just as memorable as the physical continuation of their family line. It's a message that strikes me as being very profound, as well as applicable to my own life.
I wouldn't fault anyone for finding this series too problematic, because it's rife with the type of issues that normally irritate the heck out of me. It has some very good points, though, that hit a nerve with me and I can't wait to finish off the series.
- Those who enjoy Chihayafuru will probably find some enjoyment in learning the background of the poems in the karuta game.
- The show has a sumptuous, textural visual style.
- There are some good examples of women who do great things in inherently oppressive situations.
- The romantic relationships have a lot of problematic elements, some of which border on non-consensual.
- This type of courtship and romance can be difficult to swallow when compared with what we consider the modern-day norm.
- Being self-sacrificing in the face of abuse is seen as a positive quality.
Recommended? This is a tough one, mainly because my enjoyment of the show is so utterly specific. This is one case where I feel like the first episode is definitely all the litmus test you'll need to determine whether the rest of the series will be tolerable, so I would certainly recommend at least that much of it.