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
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.
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.
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).
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:
– Ariwara no Narihara
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.
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.
Inaba no yama no
Mine ni oruMatsu to shi kikaba
Ima kaeri kon
Though we are parted,
If on Mount Inaba’s peak
I should hear the soundOf the pine trees growing there,
I’ll come back again to you.
– Ariwara no Yukihara
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.
ED: “Singin’ My Lu” by SOUL’d OUT