|Chihaya Ayase is a frank and ebullient girl who becomes fascinated by the obscure world of competitive Karuta, a card game based on Japanese poetry. Introduced to the aggressive style of the game by a quiet and thoughtful elementary school classmate named Arata Wataya, the two quickly become close friends. They start playing as a group with Taichi Mashima, Chihaya’s smart and athletic childhood friend, until they have to part ways during their middle school years due to several circumstances. As their high school life begins, they meet once again.|
The last time I watched an anime was Skip Beat! in July and August. Since it’s been a while, the second I had free time, I was desperately in need of seeing something new, something finished, and something spectacular. Somehow, from various accounts of anime that aired earlier this year, I stumbled upon Chihayafuru, which… I’ll admit, I partially checked out because I really liked saying the title.
As the series has been renewed for a second season, to begin airing January 2013, instead of dubbing this a series review or only talking about the first five or so episodes, I’m going to discuss the entire first season, twenty-five episodes. And… actually, I couldn’t stop watching once I hit episode four. (Spoilers are abound!)
Story: I was incredibly skeptical about Chihayafuru once I actually read the summary, or noticed the title artwork. I’ve never been a fan of anime that involves playing card games, or games and sports of any kind, so I didn’t think I would get past the first or second episode. However, to reduce Chihayafuru to a “card game anime” is unfair. Chihayafuru is more than Karuta, and Karuta is more than a card game. In fact, the best way to describe both of these things is “poetry in motion”, literally and figuratively.
Karuta, as they explain in the second episode, is a traditional Japanese card game, revolving around the poems of the Ogura One Hundred Poets. On each card, one poem is written, and in competitive Karuta, part of a poem is read, and the player who recognizes the card that completes the poem and locates or targets that card first scores. It involves memorization, auditory and reflex skill, and a ton of other talents I can’t even name (but when you see it in action, it’s incredibly impressive).
You wouldn’t know from simply hearing about it, but this anime is absolutely beautiful. Though Karuta is its basis, the story is actually about teenagers surviving high school, creating a team, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and striving towards their dreams. Oftentimes, the story in an anime like this gets lost within the competitions, but one of the strengths of Chihayafuru is that the story is told through its characters, their emotions, interactions, and their growth. On top of the Karuta backdrop is a story about friendship, loneliness, and goals, adolescence at its best and worst, and this is the heart of Chihayafuru.
Chihayafuru begins with Ayase Chihaya, who is a first year high school student, hoping to start a competitive Karuta club. She’s new to the school, so she doesn’t really know anyone else there, but people are hoping to befriend her because they recognize her as the younger sister of a beautiful model (and she, like her sister, is gorgeous). Unfortunately, Karuta isn’t very popular in Tokyo, so when people see her hanging up fliers in order to start a team to play this (rather lame, in their opinions) game, they think she’s ridiculous and that her beauty is wasted on such a (“lame”) girl. So people end up staying away from Chihaya, even though they’re still in awe of her looks, and no one joins her club at all. Eventually, she ends up thinking about her two friends in elementary school, who taught her how to play Karuta, the game that brought the three of them together. One of them, Wataya Arata, inspired her to improve her game and strive to be a Karuta Queen, the best female player in Japan, who is also, consequently, the best female player in the world.
|“As long as we have Karuta, as long as we keep playing, we’ll see each other again, right?”|
Eventually, Chihaya runs into one of her old friends, Mashima Taichi, who is also starting at this high school, and they meet different people with a love of ancient Japanese poetry or a talent in academics or memorization, convincing them to try Karuta and join their club. They practice, they train for competitions, they begin to understand each other on a level they couldn’t have before, and they forge friendships that will last them a lifetime. Moreover, they inspire each other, and this, more than anything, is what makes Chihayafuru worth watching.
Characters: Ayase Chihaya is an… interesting sort of girl, and one I’d probably love to be friends with in real life. People think she’s a little eccentric because she’s an incredibly beautiful girl, but she doesn’t carry herself like a beautiful girl would, and so they call her a “beauty in vain”, thinking she’s better off not speaking or moving because when she does, she destroys the perfectly gorgeous image she presents when people look at her.
Though this made me angry on Chihaya’s behalf, I love that she doesn’t care that people think she’s too beautiful for her hobbies. It’s a ridiculous notion that a pretty girl can’t have “eccentric” or “nerdy” interests, and it made me respect Chihaya immediately because she really couldn’t care less what anyone else thought. Karuta makes her happy, and regardless of anyone else’s opinion, that’s all that matters. I know too well what it’s like to have the one hobby no one else understands. So I’m glad, as the anime went on, Chihaya encountered people who loved Karuta as much as she did. When you find another person who appreciates your interests and shares them as well, it’s an amazing feeling, and Chihayafuru depicts these encounters and these emotions beautifully. Add in the fact that Chihaya voices her thoughts bluntly, and isn’t afraid to physically attack her guy friends when they’re being jerks or ridiculous, and you have one strong, compelling heroine.
While I love Chihaya, my favorite character is Mashima Taichi, who coincidentally is voiced by my favorite seiyuu of all time, Miyano Mamoru. (To be honest, I didn’t even realize Mamoru Miyano was in this anime until ten minutes into the first episode, and then I had to look it up to confirm.) Chihaya might be the title character, but Taichi is the character I felt the most for, the character who matured the most, and the character I remember the most when I think of Chihayafuru. The first time we truly meet Taichi, he’s a boy in elementary school, who (very obviously) has a crush on his friend Chihaya, who is one of those good-natured girls who gets along with everyone. He’s terrible at expressing his feelings, and they’re only kids, so instead of acting in a way that would endear him to Chihaya, when he notices her trying to befriend the strange transfer student, Wataya Arata, he reacts by teasing Arata and playing pranks on him. Taichi, however, eventually gets to know Arata and befriends him as well, and the three of them bond through Karuta up until the end of elementary school, when they’d all attend different schools and their paths would split. In the present, when Taichi enrolls in Chihaya’s high school, he’s this misunderstood academic genius, the rich boy who works too hard to score the top grades in his school, even though he has no dreams or passions of his own. He begins the year wanting nothing to do with Karuta because the game never meant as much to him as it did to Arata and Chihaya, and because he was never as good as Arata.
|“I could spend my entire youth on Karuta without ever becoming better than Arata.”|
However, he was once better than Chihaya, so it was jarring for him to see this girl, who loved a game but wasn’t exceptionally good at it, make her way to Class A, even after spending middle school away from Karuta. The way she spoke of the game, the sport that mattered to her more than anything, made him want to try to play again, and so he joined her quest to find three other people to join their club, so it could be recognized officially and they could compete at the national level. Taichi originally seems to want to play just for Chihaya, whom it’s obvious he still loves, even after all these years. Her happiness, even when she’s oblivious to everything but Karuta, is what matters to him most. Through the course of the first season, however, Taichi finds himself developing his own goals, wanting to play Karuta for himself, recognizing his own strengths and building upon them. As the president of their school’s Karuta club, he motivates the other members, he helps them whenever possible, he learns to handle losing and rejection, and he learns to cope with his own issues and grow from them. Of all the characters, Taichi’s the one who develops the most.
|“Sensei, I’m not so much focused on making Class A as I’m focused on becoming someone who doesn’t run away.”|
The other characters — Harada Sensei, Kanada Oe, Tsutomu Komano (Tsukue-kun/Desktomu-kun), and Yusei Nishida (Nikuman-kun/Meatbun-kun) — all contribute much to the anime and the game, however, the character that impressed me almost as much as Taichi and Chihaya did is the (sort of) antagonist, Wakamiya Shinobu, the reigning Karuta Queen. Her story is only explored in the second to last episode, but I enjoyed watching her past, and seeing the parallels between her and Chihaya. Both girls, aside from Karuta, have no talents, and both girls, because of this, are misunderstood and often lonely. Chihaya, however, is able to make friends, even if they don’t understand her passion. Shinobu spent years being taunted, and despite her achievement as the youngest top player in the country, she’s still lonely. The only thing that has ever made sense to her, the only thing that has ever accepted her, is Karuta. So of course, she’d be a natural. I hope to see more of Shinobu (which I imagine we will, since she holds the position Chihaya longs to hold) in the second season.
Romance: Chihayafuru isn’t centered on romance at all. Like Yumeiro Patissiere, in between the competitions and the lessons, there are hints of romance that never dominate an episode, but are still present. The romance in this anime is the beginning of a love triangle, but unlike most young adult fiction, it isn’t irritating, by any means.
In my experience, most anime with love triangles have a clear and obvious choice. In Hana Yori Dango, at a certain point, it was always going to be Domyouji and Makino. Yumeiro Patissiere established Kashino and Ichigo as canon early on. There’s not even a contest in Skip Beat! — everyone knows Kyoko and Ren belong together. What’s interesting, and a little frustrating, about Chihayafuru is that there is no clear winner (not in the anime, anyway) — I have no idea if Taichi/Chihaya or Arata/Chihaya will become canon.
Yet, in spite of this uncertainty, in spite of the fact that I’m rooting for Taichi because I want the boy to be happy and he’s loved her forever and they have so much chemistry and all of these moments… I don’t hate this love triangle. I don’t mind it at all. Most anime with love triangles, unlike young adult fiction, still encourage friendships between all the characters involved, and Chihayafuru is no different. Chihaya is unaware of Taichi’s feelings, but she idolizes Arata, her Karuta mentor, and she aspires to become someone who can stand a chance against Arata one day. So she mentions him a lot, and all of her Karuta goals relate to Arata. Arata matters to her because he’s the boy who first told her that she excelled at something, that she had a sense for this poetic game, that if she only practiced, she could hone this talent, even become Karuta Queen. Before she met him, her dream was to see her sister live out her dreams, a thought her parents encouraged by constantly praising her older sister’s growing modeling career. Chihaya had no dreams of her own, and no one ever cared to ask her before or recognize that she, who was average in just about everything (and below average in academics), might be good at something. He inspires her, and the memory of Arata’s words to her, the flawless way he played Karuta, stay with her forever, keeping her company when no one else would. This doesn’t mean that she loves Arata romantically, though it also doesn’t mean that the second season (and the manga) won’t take it to that level eventually. (We also have no idea how Arata feels toward Chihaya, if it’s romantic in any way.) However, Taichi sees something there, is often jealous of it, wishing she would think of him as much as she thinks of Arata. But he doesn’t let this come between them. He and Arata are friends as well, Arata is a bit of an inspiration to him too, and when Arata re-entered his and Chihaya’s lives, Taichi couldn’t help but be thrilled. He missed him too.
Although he means so much to both of them, Arata isn’t in many episodes, so we barely get to know him outside of Chihaya and Taichi’s thoughts. For this reason, it’s probably a little unfair of me at this point (I’ll have to re-evaluate after season two or after reading the manga), but I really really ship Taichi/Chihaya. Strongly. I don’t want to give it away, but they share so many moments together that it’s impossible for me not to ship them. He’s so thoughtful and caring, and he truly understands her and sees through her in a way no one else does. He’s the underdog in what he believes to be an unrequited love. I had to root for him. (But Chihaya’s so oblivious, she doesn’t even realize, even though Taichi’s feelings are so poorly concealed.)
|“Love is when… it isn’t fun even when you’re with that person. You get irritated. Nothing goes the way you want. You’re not having fun. And yet… you still want to be with her.”|
Theme Song: The music in this anime isn’t infectious, but it’s certainly memorable, and incredibly fitting. By the end of the first episode, I was in love with the soft, absolutely beautiful ending theme, “Soshite Ima”, and by the start of the third episode, I found myself singing along to Chihayafuru‘s opening theme, “YOUTHFUL”, which is sad, gorgeous, and inspiring, the perfect song to describe the series. I actually looked up the lyrics and translation midway through, only to discover that the song appropriately illustrated a childhood friendship and a diverging of paths, hoping to meet again and achieve their dreams (which is the basic plot of this entire anime). I’m actually hoping to get the anime’s original soundtrack soon because I hear the rest of the music is as phenomenal as these two themes.
Art: One of the main reasons why I pushed this anime to the very top of my viewing list is because of the art. Not only is the style incredibly distinctive, but it’s both soft and vibrant, extremely eye-catching. The whole effect is incredibly beautiful. The character design is also a little bit more realistic than I’m used to in anime. The eyes are a cross between actual eyes and anime eyes, as detailed and sometimes in the exact shape as a real eye, but still larger, though not as big or wide as anime eyes usually are. The shading, their movements, even hair strands blowing in the wind have an air of realism not found in most anime. Also, because poetry plays a role, illustrated metaphors sometimes come into play, like a bird taking flight to depict Chihaya’s breakthrough in a game, or water to describe how seamlessly and swiftly Arata’s Karuta style is. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this, and the anime executes it really well.
Chihayafuru gets its title from one of the Hundred Poems, meaning “Impassionate”. The entire verse reads, “Chihayaburu / Kamiyo mo kikazu / Tatsuta-gawa / Kara-kurenai ni/ Mizu kukur towa” (“Impassionate gods have never seen the red that is the Tatsuta River”). It’s the card in the series that Arata first points out as Chihaya’s namesake card, and it ends up being the card that her hand is immediately drawn to, the card she almost always wins.
I laughed so hard when this anime started and the main character was wearing track pants under her plaid uniform skirt, getting chastised by one of the school administrators for dressing like that. I attended an all girl’s private school 8th grade to senior year, and because we were required to wear a skirt (or, 9th grade onward, pants) all year ’round, we would wear sweatpants or pajama pants or anything under our skirts until the first bell rang for homeroom. Technically, it wouldn’t count as a uniform violation because school hadn’t even started yet, but that didn’t stop some of our older teachers from protesting and chastising us for being “partially out of uniform”. (The uniform pants were really stiff and weird, and they were never flattering. Ever. It was better to freeze to death in a skirt.)
I love everything about the life-altering moment when Arata first demonstrated how to play Karuta for Chihaya. It was adorable seeing this shy boy come out of his shell to do something he was truly passionate about, and I loved watching Chihaya’s eyes when she watched him play the game, just knowing that this game would one day – because of Arata – mean as much to her as it does to him. It’s amazing when a friend introduces you to a book or a game or a show or a fandom that completely ends up overtaking your life. You don’t know how it happens, or when it’s happening until you suddenly find yourself in love, obsessed, passionate about something you would never have known, if it weren’t for that one person or that one moment. And suddenly, it’s an enormous part of your life.
It might have seemed melodramatic to some people that the thought of attending middle school without her two closest friendsmade Chihaya cry, but my heart really went out to her, and I understood her. While it’s true that she generally gets along with everyone, these are the two people who understand her the most, her best friends, and playing Karuta with them is the only thing that makes her truly happy. Her life outside of this game involves going to school, where she doesn’t excel, or being home, where her sister’s achievements matter more than her own. And who really wants loneliness? For an elementary school child, that is terrifying and depressing. Of course she would cry!
I was a little worried when episode one flashbacked to a scene that never seemed to end. The flashback carried over into the next episode, and then another episode after that, but I ended up not hating when the real story started on episode four. And I was thankful for the background to their characters, and their history. It helped explain why Chihaya is the way she is now, and why she’s so hurt in the first episode.
“What? An OK sign? What is that supposed to mean?” “-AHHH. THAT’S THE CHOCOLATE SIGN!” “What? Chocolate sign?” “-
EYEBROWS EYELASHES*, RUN TO THE CONVENIENCE STORE AND BUY SOME CHOCOLATE. RIGHT NOW.” — This scene made me laugh. Man, I wish I had a chocolate sign. And someone who can see the signal and get me a box of chocolates. Because I do strenuous things too. Like… like… reading and tumblr. I require chocolate for strength! (*I was watching this subbed on Crunchyroll. They say “Eyebrows”, but the Chihayafuru community on tumblr convinced me it was a bad translation, especially since Taichi doesn’t have distinctive eyebrows. But he does have freakishly long, really pretty eyelashes (so jealous!), so this translation makes sense. And amuses me so much. Imagine being a really cool athletic guy who is also the smartest, most hardworking boy in school. And being nicknamed “Eyelashes”. I bet he’s as amused as I am. Haha, probably not.)
My sister spent half of this anime telling me how much Taichi looked like either Harry or Liam from One Direction. The more she said it, the more I saw it. I have no idea what to do with this information…
“What’s Oe-san like?” “-No idea. She’s always reading old books by herself. She was born in the wrong era.” — As a lover of the classics (Greek and Roman, as well as the ‘English classics’), I can understand this character too well. Which is weird because I hadn’t even met her when two other girls said this about her.
One of the things I’m really loving about this anime is the way Chihaya is so… receptive to passionate people. What I mean is that, when she meets someone who truly adores something, like Karuta in the case of Arata or classical literature in Kana’s case, it makes her incredibly happy just to witness these people in their element. She wants to learn everything about what it is that they love, hoping to discover more about them, and, if it’s relevant, more about Karuta. I also love the way Chihaya realizes different people see the game in different ways — that there are many ways to play and interpret the cards and the poetry, and it isn’t just rote memorization. And Chihaya, because she is determined to own this game, longs to attempt them all, and see which methods she can use to improve her own style.
There is a scene in which Taichi throws a desk into the air and smashes it onto the ground. I’m not going to give away the really awesome character-building moment this represents (and it really does — he’s pointing out to someone that Karuta might not be his game at all, but despite the fact that it’s difficult and he loses a lot, he still plays because it and his friends make him happy), but wow, was that… attractive.
“I heard that this was a class party… SO WHY AM I THE ONLY GUY HERE?” — I can’t believe this never happened to Taichi before. You would think he’d be used to scheming girls by now, haha.
“[Taichi,] you don’t have to push yourself so hard (in response to Taichi doing the Karuta reading entirely from memory, when you’re supposed to read them from the cards). Humans aren’t supposed to be perfect!” “-Oh. Did I make any mistakes?” “No! You were perfect!” — This scene was both hilarious and awesome. Taichi is brilliant. (*whistles* I am not biased at all.)
After listening to the poetry in Karuta for twenty five episodes, I found myself reading poetry (the poems featured in this anime, as well as English poems I’m familiar with) in the tone and rhythm the Karuta readers use in competitions. Some of the poems, like the opening poem, even got stuck in my head. I’m currently fighting the urge to look them all up, including the history behind each poem, which Kana briefly described in several episodes.
Season one ends terribly. It sets up the second season, but does little to conclude the story begun in its own season. We don’t know if Chihaya becomes queen; we don’t know if Taichi gets the girl. We only see them at the end of their first year, a little stronger, a little better than they were before, but not enough to attain their goals. It’s a risk the animators took, ending on a note that’s not even the least bit conclusive (seriously — this anime makes the endings of Fruits Basket and Ouran High School Host Club and maybe even Skip Beat! look fantastic). I would have cursed Chihayafuru forever if episode twenty-five truly was the final episode. Thankfully (and strangely, since none of the anime I watch, no matter how popular they are, ever get a second season), this anime has at least one more season, and another opportunity for a real, definitive ending.
Though it may seem a little different, Chihayafuru is a phenomenal anime that I recommend wholeheartedly. From the stories to the characters to the lovely poetry Karuta features, everything about this anime is absolutely beautiful. I can’t wait for the start of season two!