Deep Dive into Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi – Episode 4

What is the purpose of poetry?

Let’s ask a harder question. What is the purpose of art?

If you asked this question to Oscar Wilde, he would tell you that it was useless. He didn’t mean it in a negative way. For him, art was beautiful because it was useless. Everything we do as a human being has some quantitative benefit to it. When it came to dabbling in creative mediums, we exercised those parts of the human brain that were not part of extensive formula called survival.

Art was the only way to realized utopia. It is free from the trapping of standard humanity. In the world of art there is no hunger, time, decay, or death. Everyone is placed at an equivalent plane. A place where everyone is equal is the foundation for the creation of paradise. According to Oscar Wilde at least.

While this is a tantalizing notion, Uta Koi proposes the converse argument. Art very much has a purpose, regardless of it being an idealized conception of reality. The creative medium is a window into our souls, that speaks of very real things going on in their lives. It allows us to make sense of the chaos in our everyday ongoings.

The fourth episode poses an interesting philosophy: poetry is a conduit to freedom. On the surface it seems to dabble with concepts such as liberation from societal norms. Yasuhide can compete as intellectual when it comes to composing verses and Narihira can be as passionate (read wanton) as he likes.

During the middle Heien period poetry was mostly considered an intellectual sport for the noble class. Considering that Uta Koi is billed as a ‘super-liberal’ interpretation of that time, I think the series as a whole is trying to shed light to the fact it was more than that to the poets in question. This all stems from the dual uses of the tanka, one as a description of nature, the other as a window into domestic issues. During the middle Heien period we see the use of the latter fall out of favor as it created political issues for many nobles. For poetry buffs like myself the show takes the stance: What if these were just not descriptions of nature? What if they were to describe the tumult of living life, and creating a tool to deal with the confusion. Just look at the very strict structure of the tanka form: 5-7-5-7-7. Thoughts are distilled into their most concise form, shedding their extraneous trappings to form order.

But it’s through this structure that these nobles rebel. Hidden from the political eye in innocuous verse, they vent their thoughts. Without having to deal with the suspicions of their peers they could truly be themselves. When Yasuhide and Narihira say they are free, they are saying they can live in a world where promotions come to those that deserve it, emperor’s wives are free pickings and that the moon isn’t just a glowing orb in the sky. These are not fantasies of utopias, but descriptions of reality. A hidden world where desires can run free and take on lives of their own. These are the backroom deals that take place behind exchanged glances.

If art had a purpose… it would be to give freedom utility.

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