Utakoi: love and poetry in the Heian era

Perhaps the most emblematic poem of them all…at least for those of us that came across from Chihayafuru…

It’s probably incredibly strange that an anime like this even got green lighted. A lot of people put it down to the relative popularity of Chihayafuru, a sleeper hit that no anime/manga/game related company had wanted to sponsor, not even its manga publisher, Kodansha. The unexpected attention that Chihayafuru drew to the card game karuta, in turn drew attention to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu with which the game is traditionally played. Hence, Utakoi, which is adapted from a manga that looks at the stories behind the poems of this particular collection, compiled by Fujiwara no Teika.

One thing that amused me: most of the adults never ‘aged’. Teika was actually in his late 30s when he was supposedly liaising with Princess Shokushi, and ~70 when he finished compiling the Hyakunin Isshu!

Of course, as anyone who knows anything about anime production schedules would understand, Utakoi was probably proposed before the popularity of Chihayafuru was truly known – both of them might even be part of a wider push towards getting younger people interested in traditional Japanese culture once again.

Back to the actual topic, Utakoi is really just a taste of the culture and society of the Heian period, a taste that you can further sample in famous works such as The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji. Incidentally, the two authors of these novels also feature in the Ogura compilation: Sei Shonagon (poem #62) and Murasaki Shikibu (poem #57). The show doesn’t have an overarching storyline, although several of the authors are linked through friendship or familial bonds; if just focuses on the theme of love, love of all kinds. Loyal and long-lasting. Superficial, coy, passionate, arduous. Some were hidden, others clear as day; some were illicit, others noble and true. These kinds of love should still exist today – as long as humans exist, they should too – but I wonder if the coyness of those long and uncertain courtships has now disappeared. I wonder if anyone today would encode their feelings in poems as these courtiers did back in the day.

“Said night was young when the false rooster crowed, but the gates of Osaka remained shut.”

My personal favourite story was the one about Sei Shonagon and Fujiwara no Yukinari. I simply loved how they sparred with each other verbally, teasing and challenging each other through the years of their friendship, which made its final curtain all the more bittersweet when it fell. But as Shonagon herself said, there is something to take from it; rather than lamenting their loss, the memory of those happy times can give one strength to move on, to a future that we can be proud of.

The Casanova of the early Heian period…but he also had some useful advice…

p.s. I also liked the first two episodes, in which Ariwara no Narihira played a large part. The idea that poems allow you to express something that you would never say otherwise is just so quaint…and, dare I say, romantic. Oh, and I totally fell in love with Suwabe Jun’ichi’s voice there…

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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