There’s a period of Japanese history called the “Heian Era”, that runs from the years 794 to 1185. Scholars consider it a golden age for Japanese culture, the peak of treasured art, literature… and poetry.
However, many people today don’t really care much for this ancient history, similar to how many in western cultures sometimes have a hard time finding reasons to care about Shakespeare and other classics from the past. This is where Uta Koi steps in — which roughly translates as “A Song of Love”.
The full title of this anime (and the manga it’s based on) is Chōyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi, and it’s available subtitled (and FREE) online at Crunchyroll, a wonderful site devoted to free online anime. My wife came across this show first, and while I have to admit that I was skeptical at first, I’m glad I gave it a chance. This is a strange and charming show, and unlike anything else I’ve seen in recent memory.
The basic idea is that the show’s “host”, Fujiawara no Teika (a historical figure himself) is guiding the audience through the lives of the famous poets from that era, such as Ariwara no Narihira, infamous for his romantic exploits, and effectively this show’s protagonist, or Ono no Komachi, a woman renowned both for her poetry and her exquisite beauty, and many others besides. We learn about the dramas, politics, and tragedies that inspired these many famous poems, and the circumstances under which said poems were written.
I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds rather dry, and if done poorly, it could be boring as anything. But here’s where the show gets interesting. Uta Koi deliberately exaggerates these characters and their situation to playful and comedic effect, with the clear intent of making these ancient persons more accessible to a modern audience – and it works! The real brilliance, though, is that the show then manages to steer the story back to its roots in history and genuine heartfelt emotion, and when it comes time for the poem in question to take center stage, the audience has a perfect understanding of the context, emotion, and most common interpretation of the poetry presented to them.
It’s also noteworthy that this show is a visual delight. Aside from the handsome men, beautiful women, and the lush historical garb they all wear, the art direction of the show overall is a real feast for the eyes, with some clever ways of portraying the weather or certain historical settings. Pity that the show’s opening credits have a rather ear-cringing singer, but you can’t have everything.
If you’re looking for something different, Uta Koi is only thirteen episodes long, and never disappoints. It veers from ludicrous parody to intense drama, but smoothly and carefully to avoid overwhelming or confusing the audience. It makes a point of featuring as many women poets from the era as men, and indeed, is definitely drawn with an eye towards viewers of both genders. I’m not going to claim that Uta Koi is a perfect and brilliant work, but it certainly succeeded in introducing me to a form of poetry I’d never heard of before, and helping me to appreciate the artistry behind it, and having a little fun along the way. This is a wonderful Threat to your free time, although only six hours of it overall, and I recommend it eagerly.