Friday, August 31, 2012

[Anime Survivor 2] 5th Place - Uta Koi

Vanilla. Mayonaisse. A one-dollar bill. A named background character in a Rumiko Takahashi manga. You're the Nami Hitô of anime.

This feeling of "normal"—this is sadly the feeling I had last season when I had gotten to the midway point of this whole "contest". By getting to the peak of the anime season, you've gotten past the indigestible curd, but you still have a ways to go before dessert is served. I have that exact feeling right now; I haven't the energy to scowl at the middle of the pack, but there's really nothing to praise about the work.

Considering Medaka Box, Mysterious Girlfriend X, and Folktales from Japan parked their Hyundais in a lot full of shiny sports cars and broken-down Edsels, I'm expecting mediocrity at this point. We got it with Moyashimon Returns, and it's likely we'll get it with our fifth place show, Chôyaku Hyakunin Isshû: Uta Koi.

Watching the Moon Rise: I'll be honest—the best thing Uta Koi has going for it is the atmosphere. For a show that is based on Heian-era poetry featured on karuta cards, I was expecting either the tryptophan-induced coma that comes with poetry or the opposite direction that people seem to like with their history lately, the restless ridiculousness of harem slapstick.

I'm actually quite satisfied with the direction that creator Kei Sugita took this josei manga. We do get the mild seasonal tones and dramatic royal processions of the Heian era, but every now and then we get a burst of childish comedy between characters or a temporal displacement that allows poets to be dressed up as Tokyo Tower. Not exactly side-splitting hilarity, but also not over-the-top hijinks.

To continue this trend of atmosphere, the art itself has a different feeling, presenting itself with just a little bit of flair. Rain falls with the droplets striking a pattern in the background. Waves resemble brighter patterns you'd expect in a kids' book, not a Hokusai painting. The only hiccup might be that annoying tendency for patterns on a kimono to stand still while its wearer moves, but coupled with the thick-lined art style, that's not exactly a bad thing.

Different is good. I just wish that the different direction made the show distinguishable.

Watching Paint Dry: As far as the plot for Uta Koi goes, fans of any collection of Japanese poetry and The Tale of Genji will like where things go from here, but not those who are used to the fiction we see in anime form. While the show is sensitive to the attention span of modern readers, explaining each poem in layman Japanese, it's still poetry. If you're not used to the "flirt-sex-sleep-cry-poem" cycle that Heian fantasy is entrenched in, you're bound to lose patience.

More importantly, since the show focuses a lot on the poems and the threadbare comedy, the characters tend to be difficult to discern. Narihira and Yukihira get easily confused, and we get flooded by all of the Fujiwara no [Random] names. The only character that appears to be having fun is our guide, Fujiwara no Teika, but even he gets bogged down by a rather bland Heian parody of Yu-Gi-Oh! by Episode 6.

Watching Something Else: As I had expected, Uta Koi deserves to be right there in the middle of the pack. The art fascinates me at times, although the animation falls flat. The atmosphere is light-hearted, but lacks memorabilia. The characters are witty and verbose, but not unique enough to stand alone. It's exactly the feeling I got by reading classical Japanese poetry and prose; it's artistic and serene, but I don't think I could find myself entertained by it on a weekly basis.

And so Uta Koi belongs exactly where it does. It's hardly something you can lump in with the other feeble attempts at loveless sexual tension this season, but its episodes aren't even episodic, lacking an overall objective. It's a little disheartening, as being "normal" this season would put you low on the totem in spring or fall, but then again maybe the lack of an iron-clad leader this season is enough to get it noticed. I think I could sum it up in a 5-7-5-7-7 renka poem.

Summer poetry / Charming in animation / But forgotten fast / Guaranteed to make fans ask / "Where's my dakimakura?"

Next time: the 4th-place medal goes to...!


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