First Impressions: Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi

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Uta Koi would probably be either the absolute favorite anime of Kana-chan from Chihayafuru, or her least favorite.  Given it’s romantic inclinations, I suspect it’d be the former – but it’s definitely not 100% traditional.

OP: “Love Letter from Nanika?” by ecosystem

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[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_00.42_[2012.07.03_14.08.39]Whatever percentage of anime and manga fans know anything of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu – or have even heart of them – surely do so in large part because of the influence of Chihayafuru.  Mind you that’s still likely a small percentage, but Chihayafuru developed a cult following in the West and spawned a bit of a Karuta boom in Japan, where the manga is extremely popular.  Karuta, of course, is the card game based on the 100 Poets, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu – the most famous of all Hyakunin isshu collections.  The game of Karuta is most often played by young children as an educational tool, but fans of Chihayafuru would tell you that it’s also much more than that.

[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_02.43_[2012.07.03_14.10.39]One of the characters in that series, Kanade, loves the game for the Ogura poems themselves – for what they say about Japanese history, and for the emotions embodied in them.  There’s a certain measure of interpretation on both counts, as the true meaning behind most of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu isn’t known with certainty – and into that breach stepped Sugita Kei, who authored a manga series featuring his own interpretations of the Ogura.  And that’s been brought to the screen by TYO Prductions, with the steady hand of respected director Kasai Kenichi (Bakuman, Honey & Clover, Major, Aoi Hana) at the helm.

[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_03.03_[2012.07.03_14.10.59]This is a series that I imagine is going to be somewhat divisive in terms of production.  The animation is stylish but very basic and frankly, cheap – not on the level of Thermae Romae’s basic flash animation, but still cheap.  There’s not a lot of fluidity or change of expression, though there is a bit of the ukiyo-e-in-motion effect that Nakamura Kenji used (more impressively, truth be told) in Mononoke.  That’s made up for, in part, by lovely and simple background illustrations that do a fine job setting the mood of the Ogura Hyakunin, and the OP is a stunner as well (the ED song, sadly, is rather ghastly). 

[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_04.03_[2012.07.03_14.12.00]Kenichi – and presumably Sugita-sensei – have imagined the 100 Poets as seen through the eyes of Fujiwara no Sadaie (Kaji Yuki, alas) the noble who assembled the collection in Ogura, Kyoto, in the early 13th-Century.  Sadaie is here seen as a romantic, and thus the collection is heavily weighted towards romantic poems.  The format of the series looks to be fairly straightforward – two poems per episode – but it will be interesting to see how the themes of the two are tied together, assuming that will be a weekly feature.  They certainly were this week, as the included poems were written by two half-brothers, opposite in personality yet both in love.  And there can be no question whatsoever that the choice of the first poem was not a coincidence:

Kamiyo mo kikazu
Kara kurenai ni
Mizu kukuru to wa

Even when the impassionate gods
Held sway in the ancient days,
I have never heard
That water gleamed with autumn red
As it does in Tatta’s stream

– Ariwara no Narihara

[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_04.13_[2012.07.03_14.12.10]Sound familiar?  What’s really interesting to me about the first episode is that it acts as a sort of meditation of the twin poles of love – the extreme opposites of romance as personified by the two very different brothers.  The first poem is seen as an ode to all that is illogical and passionate about love.  Nurihara (Suwabe Junichi) is a young noble seen (quite rightly) as a playboy by all in the court.  He turns his eye to Fujiwara no Takaiko (Hayami Saori) a young nobleman with a date with destiny – she’ll marry the Emperor when he comes of age.  As such, she’s completely off limits to all comers – but that doesn’t stop the caddish Nurihara from pursuing her and they begin a furtive, Quixotic and passionate affair that cannot possibly have a future.  Their relationship is all banter and boxing, verbal thrust and parry – but they do love each other, and Nurihara even steals away with Takaiko in the dark of night, a fool’s errand he knows is doomed to fail.  She does indeed go on to marry the Emperor, and they meet years later when Takaiko is the mother of the new Emperor and Nurihara a General.  None of the spitfire has gone out of their verbal sparring, and Nurihara composes the above poem in response to a challenge she issues him during an Imperial audience – and as a secret message to the woman he still loves.
[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_05.12_[2012.07.03_14.13.09]The second poem of the episode is all about a very different kind of love – supportive, dutiful, and full of sacrifice.  Here we meet Nurihara’s older by seven years half-brother Ariwara no Yukihara (Endou Daichi) and wife Hiroko (Kobayashi Sanae).  Where Nurihara is idle and irresponsible, Yukihara is dutiful and serious – and he’s just been appointed Governor of Inaba, an assignment that will force him to separate from Hiroko.  Yukihara frets over his brothers failings as a husband and as a noble (in a flashback to their youth, Yukihara is played by none other than Gon himself, Megumi Han).  As he readies to leave for Inaba, Hiroko and he allow the sadness of their lot to the surface, just a little.  Hiroko asks Yukihara to forgo the assignment, and he agrees, pulling her into their bed – but both of them know each is toying with the other, and that their first thought must be of their responsibility. 

Tachi wakare
Inaba no yama no
Mine ni oru
Matsu to shi kikaba
Ima kaeri kon

Though we are parted,
If on Mount Inaba’s peak
I should hear the sound
Of the pine trees growing there,
I’ll come back again to you.

– Ariwara no Yukihara

[CR] Utakoi - 01 [1280x720].mkv_snapshot_06.03_[2012.07.03_14.14.00]If there’s a message to this first episode, I think it’s that love takes many forms in life.  Sugita himself describes his manga as a “super-liberal” interpretation of the Hundred Poets, and I think it’s fair to say that some liberties have been taken to merge these two tales into a cohesive whole, opposite sides of the same coin.  But as a dramatic device it’s quite effective, and I can’t help reflect on Kana-chan’s passionate belief that the Ogura is something that teaches about the unchanging nature of human feelings, and helps us understand ourselves in the process.  I’m sure this series isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re looking for something thoughtful and reflective, it has a lot to offer.  It’s certainly going to add a lot of context to the experience of watching Chihayafuru’s second season as well, whenever that happens.  With a seasoned and skilled hand like Kasai-san in charge, Uta Koi has a good chance to be one of the more interesting series of the Summer.

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ED: “Singin’ My Lu” by SOUL’d OUT

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  1. S

    I agree with you that this will be one of the more interesting series this summer and I personally really do like the artwork because it reminds of Japanese block printing. As for the episode itself I do have my gripes and I am def on the 'hate it' side of things. For me personally the two stories don't really mesh and dont give any sort 'punch' to the other. I'm excited though to see how things do turn out for this series and where it can go considering the source material is a classic. ^_^

  2. d

    sigh. My pet-peeve in anime: period shows with overtly traditional vibe. I understand that it's "not 100% traditional" and I see there's some comedy elements in it, but but I cannot watch these type shows. Unless it's action-driven, I have no desire. I shudder~~. Anytime i watch such show, I'm in despair! hahaha I'm sure GE feels the similar sentiments towards Nisio Isin's shows.

    Speaking of despair, hey GE, how do you feel about "Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei"? You don't dislike Akiyuki Shinbo particularly, I understand. Now the show's gags get repetitive real fast , especially after 1st few episodes, let along 1st season, but I found some of the parodies quite funny. It's Nisio Isin-free, you know. Now I'd have never watched the show as it's another one of those that gives out "overtly traditional vibe" with wardrobes and all, but I happened to see a Zetsubou-Sensei neck-hanging sequence artwork clip somewhere by a chance and liked it, so… (yes, "hanging") Well, that show has been the only exception for me so far!!

  3. Doodle, too bad about your "trad allergy" you're missing some good stuff. You're right, I neither love not hate Shinbou generally – it all depends on the show. SZS is not a favorite of mine, but I don't dislike it – it has moments but generally isn't my cup of ocha.

    Sushi, for me these two scenes did mesh, because I felt they did a good job of presenting the two opposites of love, especially as they existed in Heian times. There were some pacing issues, but on balance I thought it worked fairly well.

  4. I

    I saw some of the comments for the raw on Goodanime and I was like I don't want to live on this planet anymore.

    I liked the simple short love stories, which were quite funny and a bit smutty. I think its telling when I drop Campione!, give Yuri Yuri five minutes to convince me and I drop it into and have put of watching Muv Luv to instead watch Arcana, Jinrui and Hyakunin.

    And I have a theory why. Someone like me who is obsessed with character and how consistent, realistic or funny they are would find anime meant for Otaku incredibly superficial (ironically if you think about what Otaku are like when it comes to the fairer sex), which is why I prefer watching Josei orientated animes cuz they don't have that problem. So I'm not a fujoshi. Just someone who likes the same sort of anime.

  5. Josei anime do tend to have the strongest focus on character, at least sometimes. Fujishi as a demographic tend to have tastes a little more niche than just josei, though.

    I'll assume you're pumped for Natsuyuki.

  6. I

    And Moyashimon, SAO and the Amagami look alike as well. Bimbogami and Kokoro Connect as well. There were a bunch of ecchi shows on my radar but those will have to pass harsh treatment if I am to continue them.

  7. e

    This was maybe my most anticipated anime this season (I am a sucker for character&culture-oriented period pieces, be them animated or otherwise), I was hoping to hear your first impression on it to brace myself before watching. It looks like my expectations were not far off the mark.
    In terms of looks I quite like those thick lines… ukyo-e notwithstanding, it's also one of the features I love the most when I do engravings :D… it's just in the DNA of traditional art prints.

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