As happy and grateful as I am that Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi (a.k.a. Utakoi) was simulcast, I’m equally amazed it was picked up at all. The obvious guess as to the reason for its licensing would be the success of Chihayafuru a season or two prior, but I wonder how large the actual overlap of both shows’ audiences is. For all its bits of poetry, Chihayafuru focuses on an action-oriented game while offering up a healthy dose of character development and blossoming romance.
Poetry in and of itself, however, is pure, in-your-head melodrama. If you’ve ever read any translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, you’ll notice it’s (on the surface) dominated by emo: “I long for/love/miss you this much.” Thus Utakoi, with its main focus on the creation of the love poems of the same collection, features a lot of talking and calm, contemplative observations in addition to adamant seduction attempts ... which largely consist of a lot of talking and contemplative observations.
My favorite part of Utakoi is its formula for making the reveal of the illustrated poem(s) into each episode’s emotionally impactful climax. Despite how well and however liberally the stories depicted the poem’s backstory, what actually got to me was when the screen went blank or became watermarked into near obscurity in order to showcase the writing of the waka/tanka which was the basis of that particular tale. From a poet’s perspective, this is nothing short of miraculous in an age where poetry itself gets increasingly fewer mentions let alone a showcase or world stage.
Part of me feels guilty. Since Ani-Gamers started writing Impressions posts, the tack for this ship was to cover a group of episodes, as opposed to individual ones, to allow for observations and analyses of forming and overarching themes. Where Utakoi is concerned, however, there are but vignettes tied together with history. Each deserves a substantial write-up, and for a phenomenal blow-by-blow, I recommend checking out Random Curiosity, whose writer, Bakamochi, did a superb job of picking apart each episode as well as the poems therein and relaying the history to which they’re attached (and whose choice screenshots adorn this wirteup). Where was the resident poem appreciator of Ani-Gamers during Utakoi’s run? At his desk, stuffing his face with bon-bons, in front of Crunchyroll, within reach of a rapidly emptying box of tissues. Peggy Bundy, reporting for dereliction of duty!
Because the music, animation, voice acting, and storytelling formula stayed consistently impressive throughout this series, there is not much more to elaborate upon regarding the show’s execution that differs from what I mentioned in my initial Impressions post. The only disaster — perhaps created to shock a zoned-out audience into concentration (a la Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony), or at the most to distinguish the shift to Heian poets — was über-hyper parody episode 6 ("Uta Hen+"), and I’m not going to acknowledge that atrocity with anything more than spite for its interruptive nature despite its brilliant use of parody. After all, Utakoi should be remembered for bringing classic poems to life for current generations and new audiences. The show made the poems its focus and gave a springboard from which casual anime viewers might explore Japan’s rich literary history.
Utakoi is now streaming on Crunchyroll.