Thinking Points (V) – Utakoi, Horrible Histories and The Potential for Animation in Literature

Recently, I discovered the surprisingly good series Uta Koi, a 2012 animated adaptation of the lives and works of a number of notable Japanese poets, framed with a dramatisation of the life of the man who compiled the anthology of these works. The premise seemed particularly interesting to me since it seemed like it would provide some kind of insight into historical Japanese literature – something I am not particularly familiar with but very interested in.

What surprised me about Uta Koi was how irreverant, modern and light-hearted it was. The historical context to the events it depicts is the creation of an anthology of 100 poems from a variety of renowned historical figures and great writers, but rather than be some piece of literary hagiography, elevating these poets, kings and generals to idolised figures, it takes a more comic line and shows them as humans – fallible, perhaps unlikeable people. The introductory narration to the series admits that many of the poems seem over-the-top and saccharine to modern audiences but also raises the question of why they have endured and what makes them appealing – while there is no real literary criticism element to the series and I cannot vouch for its accuracy in historical terms (it is ultimately still a bit of fun, with some good use of cartoon stylisation and the cliches of romantic comedy anime alongside traditional historical Japanese-inspired art) it does provide a good synoptic and entry-level introduction to a subject that makes me want to study it further.

I couldn’t help but compare Uta Koi to another comic historical series that takes an irreverant view of the past and its heroes – the immeasurably successful Horrible Histories. Beginning as a series of books providing sound historical facts alongside amusing trivia and jokes, the subsequent television adaptation ran with the concept, creating historically-themed parody songs and sketches that above all give a human element to history. The idea really does work; history and literature can be introduced to young people in a light-hearted way without compromising on content.

As a result, I’d love to see an English equivalent to Uta Koi – animated films or shorts about the British literary tradition. The literature of the British Isles has a huge heritage of narrative poetry to dip into which would be well suited to slightly comic, stylised animated treatments. There is even a similar anthology of notable works from the past in the form of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads – not to mention the other surviving medieval poems like Piers Plowman, the Pearl manuscript and the many dream- and other-world visions. A lot of this early poetry is hugely visual, and a common complaint is that the language is forbidding; and yet when it is read aloud, or “translated,” it becomes clear – at the most serious level this sort of project could be readings of the poems either in original form or translation with animations showing what is happening. However, having seen how Uta Koi uses the devices of recognisable pop culture from its own culture to show how universal the material it covers is, I’d love to see something similar for the medieval ballads – irreverant, liberal adaptations that take a Horrible Histories approach to the subject. It would certainly, in my mind, lead to increased awareness of the medieval poetic heritage (a subject dear to my heart!)

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