It goes without saying that Utakoi is an aesthetically pleasing series with the creative prowess to boot, but not just in part to the visuals and writing alone. The other half of this remarkable beauty and wealth of skill lies not within the production values of the animation, artwork, or studio hands, yet it lies within the idea of the aesthetics themselves, such ideas that are closely interwoven into Japanese society as whole. The two key components that attribute to the beauty and grace that the series evokes stem from the aesthetic philosophies of: Yūgen, the profound charm found in the mysterious and subtle and Iki, the sophistication found in the original and ephemeral. While these two principles seem closely related; they both compliment as well as contrast one another in order to create the interpretation Utakoi brings to the romanticized birth of the Hyakuninisshu anthology.
Before I get to ahead of myself, I will briefly explain a little on Iki and Yūgen, since the two might seem more inter-related than different. Similar to my older post on Wabi-Sabi and its minor echoes in productions from SHAFT studios , Iki and Yūgen are actually smaller pieces of that aesthetic, 2 of 7 principles that actualize this idea. Simply put, the idea from Iki (what is prized being elegant and ephemeral) can be Wabi-Sabi (that which is impermanent and incomplete), however, Iki things are not exactly always Wabi-Sabi. It is a contradiction, yet one that rings true for this idea in Zen Buddhism. Likewise, Yūgen that highlights the profound majesty in the delicate, also acts in relation to Wabi-Sabi in order to see the good and depth in that which can not be fully explained or might not seem whole. In addition, Yugen also acts important in describing the indescribable when it comes to critiquing waka poetry. These two principles alone contribute different advice, but together compliment and strengthen each other to represent a holistic view germane to the society of Japanese life and how these principles fit into everyday life. So how exactly do these two relate to Utakoi?
Thinking of Utakoi exactly as it is, an anime adaption that takes a inventive and broad-minded way to see the Hyakuninisshu poems fruition, it helps to remember that fair amount of it is covered in romanticized hyperbole and extravagance. For example: when Takaiko Fujiwara and Narihira Ariwara have their second encounter with each other than they have in years as secret lovers, and the famous poem Ariwara recites, the idea of Iki highlights the beauty on the surface of what Ariwara is referencing (the curtain), but by the magic of Yūgen, highlighting the depth of passion and time he spent with Fujiwara, they share a moment only they can; leaving all others just left in amazement to see the surface of his profound verse. This type of metaphysical conceit employed by poets in the west such as John Donne (one of my favorites) is akin to one example of how Iki and Yūgen can be seen, however, waka poetry seems to capture a charm and essences only it can. Likewise, a different function of the two principles can also exemplify their relationship, with the past years full of simplicity and unresistant (Iki) and the future years as refined, experienced, subtly, and cooled of lust (Yūgen). Due to the multiplicity of meanings that most Japanese aesthetics hold, one meaning can translate itself across many smaller ideas and hence, explain itself better with each individual meaning; and near close relation to the next. Many different poems of Waka such as: tanka (short poems), katauta (fragmented poems), and chōka (long-handed poems) behave in a similar manner with regards to the aesthetic principles.
“Even when the impassionate gods
Held sway in the ancient days,
The water in Tatsuta River
Has never been dyed
Such an autumn red”
-Ariwara no Narihira
However, as much as Utakoi touts love (for the namesake title) and the ideal interpretation of the Hyakuninisshu poems, it is also much about different forms of love and the overall expressive aim. In the case of Sadaakira Shinnō compared to that of his beloved mentor, Narihira Ariwara; his poem seemed to fall short in the artful approach to coney his feelings to Yasuko, but he was able to do it in a honest and straightforward manner like Narihira explained the purpose of poetry was. From his youthful and rambunctious days; not necessarily Iki in design, the older Sadaakira was able to find his Yūgen moment in the cluster of his younger years and from Yasuko’s own willingness to learn to love him.
“From Tsukuba’s peak
Falling waters have become
Mina’s still, full flow:
So my love has grown to be
Like the river’s quiet deeps”
Of course, while this is only one envisioning of the Hyakuninisshu, it is thus far an amazing one that peers into the romanticized world of courtly love and hopefully, will do the same as it covers the feelings of those from all walks of life.