Utakoi tell a "super-liberal" version of the stories behind the inspiration for several of the One Hundred Poems of the Heian era, widely regarded as some of Japan's best and most quintessential literary output.
There are very few anime series that work as astoundingly well as companions as do Chihayafuru, already reviewed for this site courtesy of Carlos, and Utakoi, the sadly under-appreciated and little-known series that is the subject of this review. For although the two series are based on parent works by different authors, were animated by two different studios, and aired within the same year for no reason other than coincidence, Utakoi is nothing less than the perfect show for Chihayafuru's Kana and for anybody else who desires to hear more about composition of the poems actually featured in competitive karuta. Thus, one can have a great time exploring the athletic and competitive aspects of karuta with Chihayafuru (which I also highly, highly recommend) and then learn a bit more about the 100 Poems themselves with Utakoi: it's just about the perfect pairing.
If there's one reservation I have about recommending this show, it's that the author of the parent manga herself has openly said that her interpretation of the events leading up to the composition of each poem isn't intended to be absolutely historically accurate, and as such, this has the potential to turn purists away from the series, although I somehow doubt that relatively few of those happen to reading this site, right now. While I can't say that I'm especially knowledgable about either Japanese history or Japanese literature, and am probably therefore not qualified to comment on this, I'd actually say that Utakoi does a fabulous job balancing a story about the intricacies of the poems themselves with one that takes a fair amount of liberties with the personal histories of the poets and others involved. And, honestly, this doesn't do anything to hurt my opinion of the show: I'd imagine that there are quite a few gaps in regards to what we actually know about these people, given that the poems were written during the Heian period (which ended nearly a millennium ago, as of 2015), and liberties or no liberties, the "origin stories" fit the content of the poems quite well. If there's something that's truly amazing about Utakoi it's that it covers a very distinctly academic (and potentially esoteric) subject and never behaves patronizingly towards its viewers, and yet it is never, ever boring by any means. Utakoi works wonderfully for me as historical series in that its depiction of the Heian period is quite accurate, a few gag-related anachronisms aside, but as human drama, it's still quite relatable.
On a technical scale, Utakoi comes across as being a bit low-budget, but certainly not ugly by any means: to make one last Chihayafuru reference, Kana, if she ever saw this show, would probably be squealing and rolling over in glee at the variety of colorful, floral Heian traditional clothing patterns seen throughout. Like another series I'm rather fond of, NieA_7, the budget is evident throughout but the production staff know where to use the money they have, and director Kenichi Kasai's experience directing josei adaptations such as Honey and Clover shows (I'll also give a shout-out to Tomoko Konparu's script). When the characters' clothing moves, the patterns stay fixed, but this creates a sweeping effect (particularly during the OP) that suits the frequently nature-inspired character of the poems well, and the judicious use of SD art during humorous moments also saves the animators a bit of money while also making this show, dare I say it, rather cute when it wants to be. In fact, Utakoi straddles being cute and being rather pretty about as successfully as it does balancing serious and humorous content, which, as I'll expand on, it does rather well. The show's narrator, and the focus of the very last episode, is a rather adorable fictionalized version of Fujiwara no Teika who's an ever-smiling, blond bishounen, but given how influential a poet he was it's fitting that he ends up being the show's omniscient master of ceremonies, of sorts.
Speaking of bishonen, the character design is quite attractive on the whole, and given this show's origins as a josei manga it's no surprise that there's attractive male and female bodies aplenty, though the robes simultaneously keep the fanservice levels down (befitting the era, I suppose) and reduce the amount of necessary animation. The in-show music consists of oft-repeated but pleasant classical cues, and while the rap of the ending theme was a strange choice even for a show that professes itself to not be too beholden to historical purism (though it's catchy enough), the rock/folk hybrid opening theme, by the relatively unknown, mostly-female band Ecosystem, is pretty great; especially when combined with the scenes of Heian patterns and borderline erotic embraces between the characters, it sums up the show's nature as a work that's indebted to the Heian period but that uses anachronisms as something of a framing device for modern audiences.
Utakoi consists of fairly short arcs (usually between two and three episodes) centered around different poets, and I'll commend it for often using characters that appear in two different arcs, perhaps once as a main character and again as a side character, for transition; in tandem with Teika's wraparound explanations, this gives the show far more of an overarching feel than I expected, and it's welcome in a series that has enough individual arcs to make it worth keeping a notepad on hand to keep track of names, ranks, and relations (seriously, I'd suggest doing that, given that English-language info on this show is so scarce). For example, Ariwara no Narihira, accurately depicted as something of a womanizer but with something of the forlorn wryness of Spike Spiegel (Cowboy Bebop), has an episode centered around his becoming infatuated with Takaiko no Fujiwara, who is set to become an imperial consort, and becoming close to her son, the future emperor Sadaakiri even after their affair ends; Sadaakira then gets his own episode, later, and Narihira appears as a supporting character in several other arcs.
Aside from Teika, though, it's rather hard to talk about this show in terms of its characters, simply because there are so many of them (again, keep a pen and pencil and Wikipedia handy!), but I will say that one of Utakoi's best aspects is its focus on Japan's longstanding tradition of female poets, which is arguably one of the oldest and longest-enduring (at least among widely recognized outputs of poetry) bodies of female-penned poetry in the world. There's a pretty great episode centered on Murasaki Shikibu (known here as Kaoriko), author of The Tale of Genji, and her using a forced parting with one of her friends as inspiration for a new passage of the book centered on the strength of women. Actually, if there can be said to be a constant "theme" to Utakoi, it's that it often seems to say that while women were highly restricted in mobility during the Heian period, the agency they did still exhibit, including their output of poetry, is pretty damned remarkable. There's an especially funny episode in which Yasuko, better known as Ono No Komachi, manages to finally get outside of her birth city and travel to see Mt. Tsukaba, along with Narihara and Yasuhide, an unconfident poet who had previously stumbled into Yasuko's living quarters unwittingly but ended up moon-gazing with her; when she starts squealing over how good of inspiration the mountain will give to her poetry, the other two good-naturedly roll their eyes and say "fangirl!"
And indeed, Utakoi is often surprisingly funny, whether it be in little asides such as this, in Teika's anachronisms, such as devoting a third of the show's sixth episode to a bizarre Grand Prix race between the poets (using oxcarts), or in visual puns such as a character yelling "koI!?!?!?!" (love) and having the background suddenly change to a koi-fish print. There's something beautiful to me about this show in that while its subject matter may often be heavy, and death and sadness and unrequited love are standard throughout it, moments of levity and pleasant reflection occur throughout, coexisting with rather than jarring with the more serious moments. Even after five or so years of watching anime I'm still amazed by how rarely I find shows that pull this balance off, but when I do, it's especially gratifying given that I rather admire those rare writers who understand that the silly and the serious often exist right alongside each other and can capture that naturally rather than stick the jokes in as outside "comic relief." In that same vein, Utakoi is as much a celebration of the people who made these poems and the circumstances that did (or might've) produced them as it is of the poems themselves: when you do eventually hear the poems spoken aloud, usually near the end of a segment or episode (and those who can read Japanese have the benefit of seeing them written out in verse, as intended), it's almost like a reward for having invested in their lead-up. I don't think I'd exactly call Utakoi an explicitly "educational" show, and, again, it's being "super-liberal" in regards to its history might make it hard to use in a classroom, but it actually ignited my interest in these poems in a way that reading them in a book might not necessarily have done.
For those who might think that a show about the Heian Period and the 100 Poems would be boring, I'd say think again: Utakoi is a funny, well-written, and criminally under-appreciated series that's a lot of fun to watch even if you aren't a history or literature buff, and, I'd imagine, probably even more fun if you are, liberties aside. I don't think I've ever gotten this invested in poetry, before, and leave it to a fascinating, obscure little anime series like this one to do so. All the more power to it, I'd say.
I'd argue that as long as you can take a series being slow-paced, this is worth a watch: poetry has never been this much fun, in my opinion. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: All but the most patient kids might have a hard time with this series given that it can be very dialogue-heavy, but it's rather tame overall. A lot of the poems were inspired by affairs, however, and while the closest we get to outright fanservice is the erotic (but fully-clothed) poses seen during the OP sequence, that also might be enough to make this inappropriate for them.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Utakoi © 2012 Kei Sugita/MediaFactory, UTAKOI Project
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