Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi (streaming on Crunchyroll) offers animated stories loosely interpreted from poems found within the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, which was originally compiled by Fujiwara no Teika to decorate the screens of a residence in Ogura with one waka or tanka each from 100 poets. Though each poem comprises only 31 syllables, some of the phrases and names are meant to trigger historical or cultural associations for a Japanese audience. This lends to a story much more expansive than 31 syllables would hold to casual readers or listeners unfamiliar with such implications, and this is what allows Uta Koi to produce a roughly 10-minute story for each poem.
Each poem-based tale is introduced with a little bit of history and a lot of finesse by none other than a bishounen-ified Fujiwara no Teika, who favors dramatic turns towards the camera and hamming it up for the ladies by talking in a soft, flirtatious tone. This self-effacing tone is rather necessary for the show. The subject of all of the stories in this series is supposedly going to be love, which categorically comprises the majority of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, and harping on a single subject, no matter how much the theme or focus varies, can get tiresome. Also, the interlaced bits of humor helps diffuse any air of pompousness invoked by the dreaded word “poetry.”
Uta Koi, at least in the first two 2-part episodes, provides further history lessons by interweaving stories to expose a non-linear narrative that shows how some of the poets had known/influenced each other. The stories are illustrated as lovingly as they are written, with as much a focus on silence and expression between and of the characters as there is the anticipation for the reveal of the circumstance behind the poem itself. Characters' garments get the Gankutsuou treatment, with textures layered into digital animation. This does not distract from the background art, which is notably more subdued in tone and texture and features in select instances a thick-lined style evocative of woodblock cuts. The contrast between often minimalist background and dynamic character designs makes watching each scene like attending a stage play.
I can’t imagine this show will enamor everyone (or even most), but for those who enjoy love stories, for those whose ears were caught or eyes were wet by the poems in Chihayafuru, or for those who simply want a break from fictional hyperactivity to get a dose of words that have managed to transcend centuries and jump mediums...this is the series to watch this season.
Utakoi is now streaming on Crunchyroll.