I’m not gonna lie – the reasons I watched Chihayafuru in the first place boiled down to having just finished up with Kaiji S2 and needing my sports/gambling/cards + MIND GAMES fix, and mistaking the maple leaves in the background of the image in the preview charts for marijuana (shut up I’m not an arborist). Ok, those weren’t the only reasons – it sounded interesting enough by itself, I have a thing for classical literature/, art looked nice, and it was produced by Madhouse – but yeah, my intentions and expectations going in were rather silly and I was all rather blasé about it.
As is usually the case, perspectives change from the preview, to the view, and then finally to the review. I make no secret of it here: it changed from a positive ‘sure, why not’ to an almost fanatical enthusiasm. Chihayafuru is an absolutely wonderful show.
Chihayafuru’s story centers on our heroine, Chihaya, and the traditional Japanese poetry and card game karuta. Karuta is a game in which a poem from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, or 100 Poems, an anthology of classical Japanese poems compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162 – 1241), is read, and then the two players must try and be the first to take the corresponding card from either theirs or the opponent’s side. What is chiefly shown in the series is a competitive variant – and it is fiercely so. Speed of memorization, recognition, decision and movement all play fundamentally huge parts in play, as do tactics and stamina, naturally.
The story is not unlike your standard sports series. We start in media res, before quickly delving into a few-episode long flashback where we discover where Chihaya’s passion for the sport began. Her attempts at forming a competitive karuta club at high school follow and from there we see her and her team’s practices and their performance in competitions.
It progresses in the way you’d expect a sports anime to, for the most part. They practice; they have great early victories but suffer bigger losses; rivals are formed and friends are made; and they all learn things about themselves, their playstyle and how they can improve. Towards the end a lot of expectations are subverted in such a way that it almost becomes a frustration to watch, but in the context of the longer story as told by the manga it simply leaves it open for a second series.
As somewhat generic as it sounds, it’s executed excellently. The matches themselves are often tense and exciting, with the thoughts of the characters often being given to the audience (with the expected imagery and music), and with a wonderful presentation. There are also changes in dynamics between different matches – not just because there’s a different opponent, but also because it could be they’re playing a 5v5 team match (or rather 5 1v1s with the team with the majority of victories winning), a game that’ll decide whether they rank up or not, or they may end up playing against another member of their 5-person club for a vital round. Along with the varied playstyles of differing opponents, this helps keeps the show varied and interesting.
But the strength of the series does not lie in its (admittedly excellent) sports side. No, the true joy in this series is in the characters and the way their relationships unfold. From the childhood bullying of Arata (and the tomboyish and too-innocently-nice-for-her-own-good Chihaya’s defense of him) by Taichi, through the high school club forming, getting to know each other and becoming fast friends, to the trials and tribulations of competition, and not forgetting the occasional romantic undercurrents, Chihayafuru is packed with well-developed, realistic and relatable characters that you will undoubtedly feel some emotional investment in – I remember getting misty-eyed at the end of the flashback arc, and that was only 3 episodes into the series!
Yes, the characters bring a lot to this series, each in their own way: Chihaya embodies a pure passion and love for the sport, an unbelievable raw talent that can nonetheless be sloppy and too easily swayed by her feelings in the moment; Taichi has amazing memorization and technical skills, but his pride and self-consciousness often work against him; Kanade brings her love for the literature and the formal wear and with that a deeper beauty and meaning to the events; Tsutomu brings stats and strategy to the field, as well as an enthusiasm for finally finding something so rewarding and fun; and Nishida is the sensible one, the very-good-but-no-exceptional-aspects, trains-hard, outside-view one who also gets teased a fair bit. But that’s only the ‘high school club five’ – if we consider the ‘childhood friends three’ of Chihaya, Taichi and Arata we see a different and compelling set of dynamics: Chihaya is the one who got into karuta by chance, with some natural skill and endless youthful enthusiasm she plays with all her heart; Arata is the supremely good one – the master – who both inspired Chihaya and drives Taichi, and quit for various reasons after losing contact with the others in childhood; Taichi is interested in Chihaya and tries get her attention, but Arata means more to her (in terms of the influence he had on her for the game) and is also better than him, so he sees Arata as a friend but also a rival. Of course that’s not all there is to all of them, and they all change and grown in small and significant manners throughout. And then there are the slew of unique secondary characters throughout the entire series, all interesting and enjoyable in their own ways.
As far as the art and animation of it goes – again, excellent. The animation is fluid and has plenty of subtleties, and is consistently high-quality throughout (but it’s Madhouse, what did you expect?). The art is gorgeous: backgrounds are detailed and gorgeous, character designs are, whilst admittedly very josei, suited perfectly and look beautiful, and there is plenty of stylization in the presentation, such as the rich natural imagery that often borders the frame or makes up the background. Yes, Chihayafuru is a visual treat.
Musically too – fantastic. The OP is high-energy but with a touch of sentimentality that suits Chihaya’s passion perfectly, the ED is a slower and gentler at first, but grows into something, again, more impassioned. Background music is great too, being able to catch the energy and tension of a match but also the elegance and meaning of the poetry.
Chihayafuru is an absolutely wonderful series, no matter whether you’re a fan of sports anime or not. It is simply excellently executed in every fashion. The only possible complaint I could muster is that Arata does somewhat neglected as a character early on, but that’s made up for by the end. Easily one of my new favourite series.