Chouyaku Hyakuninisshu: Uta Koi – First Impressions

Chouyaku Hyakuninisshu: Uta Koi according to its description is a ‘super liberal’ interpretation of the Hyakuninisshu, a famous anthology of poems compiled during the Heian period (794-1185AD). It contains such one hundred poems composed by one hundred poets, including famous stories such as The Tale of Genji’s Murasaki Shikibu. Whenever you see a description suggesting that this is a super liberal interpretation it is quite clear what while the setting, characters and essential plot remain the same there will be significant differences. In this case it is clear that the language, along with certain plot points have been changed slightly, with the language un particular being modern Japanese rather than the much older Japanese that would have been used by courtiers during the Heian period. This is essential in fact since the majority of Japanese cannot entirely understand this old Japanese, much less read it. This is particularly shown during the national addresses that Emperor Akihito gives as he speaks in a far more traditional old Japanese that is still used within the Imperial Palace, but which has long since been replaced with the modern newer Japanese that we are familiar with in anime.

Of course such a change, while necessary does take away a certain amount of meaning from these poems and stories, or perhaps changes the meaning slightly depending on who is listening and how they interpret the use of language. However, this does not take away from the overall meanings of these poems, the majority of which are about love, and a greater knowledge of the Japanese language will only deepen ones understanding of the poems. Something that is pointed out during the introduction, but is also further demonstrated later on in the episode is that the poems in the Hyakuninisshu anthology were never originally meant to be read from a book. They were supposed to appear on decorated screens and doors around the houses of the nobility, demonstrating the occupant’s ability to compose, but also their culture and understanding of the Japanese language. These poems were therefore a way of establishing your status within the court, and the more that you could have on show the higher your status within the court.

The Hyakuninisshu is a fascinating collection of poems, and may be familiar to those who have watched Chihayafuru or are familiar with the game of kurata. What is particularly interesting about these poems is the insights that they can provide into the court life and the life of the Japanese nobility during the Heian period. In many ways the ability to compose Waka a classical style of Japanese poetry was immensely important as a noble in the Heian court. These poems that we have in the Hyakuninisshu anthology are simply a small collection of the thousands that nobles and their families composed during the period. They help to give us ideas and insights into the workings of the court, demonstrating that it was a highly cultured place, but also one of constant intrigue, infighting and a battle of supremacy with soft words and actions. Many of the love poems, and in particular The Honourable Ariwara no Narihara that is told during this first episode demonstrates how these poems could be used as a means for communication.

The Imperial Capital of Kyoto that is depicted in the Hyakuninisshu is a place of intrigue where families are all vying for position within the court in order to progress, gain power and get closer to the emperor. Fujiwara no Takaiko, the central female character of this first story is someone who will become the next empress, and yet she falls in love with Ariwara no Narihari. We see that his character is something of an ephemeral playboy, someone who seduces women with fine words, but is never satisfied. Takaiko catches his eye during a dance and so he decides to court her, and eventually make her fall in love with him. While this is a traditional tale of a love that cannot be, we have some wonderful comedy with Takaiko seemingly incapable of arguing with Narihari, regardless of her strong language and constantly turning down his advances. They meet again several years later when Takaiko is the emperor’s mother, and Narihari presents her with a poem that demonstrates his constant feelings of love and affection for her even now. These poems were used as a way of communication, and in the case of The Honourable Ariwara no Narihara it is the story of a love that could never be, but still remains regardless. A beautiful, and funny story in this first episode, but one that is perhaps tinged with a hint of regret and sadness at days that have long since gone by and evaporated like mist on a summer morning.

The second story is a tale of devotion to one another but also to your jobs and duties. It is a poem from a husband to his wife telling her that no matter where and when he will remain by her side and forever be true to her. But the poem suggests a deep connection to the ideas of duty to ones family and the emperor, with the writer having to go away in order to take up the role of governor of another province. His wife, having to remain true to her duty must stay back in the capital in order to attend to her husbands affairs there and maintain their families home and place within the court. As a poem it suggests true feelings of love while at the same time showing us the importance of a nobilities duty and how regardless of your personal feelings it is necessary to follow the emperors commands in order to advance further up the hierarchy. It also demonstrates a keen sense of duty on the part of the wife, along with a loyalty to her husband and his family.

This first episode was quite interesting with an awful lot to pick through if you wanted, but for those who are not particularly interested in literary criticism it was simply two tales of romance. It is clearly not a series with any underlying plot or story, but will instead be a series of episodes presenting us with particular interpretations of many of the poems within the Hyakuninisshu anthology. It is also a highly stylised series with deliberately thick black outlines around the characters and a delicate use of colour and brilliantly drawn costumes that appear to recreate the clothes worn by courtiers during the Heian period. While others may not like the way this series is presented, I am particularly fascinated by the poems and what they tell us about court life during this period of Japanese history.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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