Genres: Sports, Drama, Josei, Slice-of-Life
Episodes: 25+25 (2 seasons)
When it comes to sports anime, there was one thing I always felt was lacking – characterization. While they are generally good at presenting a tense atmosphere that manages to hook the audience quite early on, I have trouble finding a character I truly like in this genre. The exception being, of course, Chihayafuru. While the sport depicted in this anime is not a conventional one, it definitely focuses more on the characters’ mentality than on being cool and ‘over-the-top’. Chihayafuru started off as a manga series and received an anime adaptation in 2011, and a second season in 2013. Let’s dig a bit into it and see how good it is.
The premise is a simple one: Ayase Chihaya, a freshman in high school, has spent the last 4 years of her life playing a game called Karuta, where cards with poems written in them are read and the player must touch them before the opponent. She spent her middle school years playing alone in the local Karuta Society, but intends to create a Karuta club so she can play in the National High school Karuta Tournament. As if willed by fate itself, she reunites with Mashima Taichi, a childhood friend of hers, with whom she played the game many years ago. From here on, we are told about Chihaya and Mashima’s past, and about the person who introduced Karuta to them – Wataya Arata. As the present story resumes, we see Chihaya’s efforts to gather five members on the school’s Karuta club, with the goal of reaching Omi Jingu, the place where the best Karuta players from each region gather and compete with each other. It’s a journey that will forever change all the characters involved with Chihaya, in a way or another.
The main selling point of Chihayafuru is its amazing characterization. While many anime can get this right, few can make you feel so attached to the characters at the same time. On one hand, we get a backstory and development for most characters that appear on the screen. That’s right – Chihayafuru has this “ability” of making almost all characters count. Whether it’s a member of Chihaya’s team or an opponent, you always feel like you end up learning a lot about each character, their motivation to play Karuta, their quirks, everything. And this knowledge you get about every character allows you to get attached to them quite easily. You’ll feel happy when they succeed, sad when they fail, amazed when they grow as people… it’s a remarkable experience. And when you reach the ending of what’s currently adapted, and look back at the characters, you can feel the development they had throughout the episodes, they didn’t remain the same at all, but grew as people. This is a common trait that I see being well used in many Josei manga adaptations, and Chihayafuru is definitely not an exception.
Besides its characterization, Chihayafuru also excels on the tension aspect. Some games can be quite long, and some tournaments can be as long as 5 games in one day, with very few minutes to rest inbetween them. And sometimes, a game can reach a point where every single card matters. Concepts such as ‘momentum’, ‘mental stability’, ‘overthinking’, among others, can heavily influence the outcome of a game. For instance, if a player knows how to intimidate an opponent by, say, winning several cards in a row, or taking their best cards, it will make them less confident, and thus slower. There’s also the fact that players can be distracted by all sorts of reasons which aren’t related to the game, like injuries or personal problems. All of these factors are considered in every game, so Karuta is not only a physical sport, but also a very psychological one. Strategies, different ways of trying to take a card, unique mentalities, whether the opponent is right or left handed, game sense, speed, ability to memorize where the cards are, there are SO many variables. And this creates an anime that excels at having a lot of tension in the atmosphere, especially when you consider how important some games can be, like being in the finals of a tournament.It’s very common for players to sweat, lose their focus, among other problems.
Despite everything I said so far, Chihayafuru also has a lot of comedy and lighthearted moments. It’s moments like this that allow the audience to see the characters outside of the Karuta environment, and this is extremely important because a good character is one that isn’t one-dimensional, so seeing how they act in different situations is a requirement to make one. They have many funny interactions and ‘interesting’ faces that are sure to make you smile or even laugh. There’s also an unorthodox love triangle going on throughout the series, as Chihaya pursues Arata, wanting to see him play again after all those years apart, whereas Taichi is trying his best to make Chihaya aware of his feelings through Karuta. And this love triangle is what makes some character interactions between the three really interesting. Taichi, for instance, has mixed feelings about Arata. He feels happy and relieved when he sees him well, but at the same time he doesn’t want to see him because he considers Arata an “enemy”, as Chihaya seems to only have eyes for him. The interesting aspect of these relationships between them is that Chihaya seems to be interested not in Arata, but in his Karuta, so it’s not like Taichi has no chance or anything like that. At the time the anime ended, no official pairs were confirmed either, so ship wars are doomed to continue.
It’s also necessary to talk about the remaining characters of Chihaya’s team, as they’re equally as important as the ‘main trio’, and they all have their own personal motivations. Oe Kanade was the first member to be recruited, and her attachment to Karuta comes not from the game itself, but from the poems. She’s someone who loves to wear traditional clothes and read ancient poetry, all of which are possible with Karuta tournaments. While she started off as someone who couldn’t win a single game, as she started to realize that her attachment to the poems is enough to make her game sense better, she started using strategies that take advantage of that. Komano Tsutomu is a guy who is obsessed with studying, as he believes he has no other talent, and is afraid of trying to change. As he realizes how much fun Karuta can be, he starts using his talents to the team’s advantage, whether it’s his amazing memorization skills, or his ability to collect and analyze data, it helped the team get past several hard games. His motivation is tested several times, and he grows with each ‘test’. Finally, Nishida Yuusei is a guy who lost to Arata in the past, and due to being unable to do anything against him, gave up on Karuta and ran away, hiding in the Tennis club, but never losing his love and passion for Karuta. When he is recruited, he starts to evaluate the aspects he lacks, and becomes a much better player thanks to that. Overall, the semi-main cast of Chihayafuru is extremely well portrayed and developed, and like the main trio, seeing how much they changed through being with the other members and playing Karuta together is extremely rewarding.
The production values for Chihayafuru are magnificent, as expected from Madhouse. While the Josei artwork can make some people turn away immediately, it’s something that’s easy to overcome, and by episode 10 or so, you won’t even be bothered by it anymore. The constant blushing can get a bit annoying though, so there’s that. The animation is fantastic, especially during the Karuta games, as are the backgrounds when the characters are thinking or trying to “hear” what the reader is saying. Speaking of the readers, they are also considered an integral part of the game, as a good reader can make the people listening imagine different scenarios, giving them either peace of mind or wrecking their concentration. The soundtrack lacks variety, as the main theme is repeated countless times, but assuming you enjoy it, you’ll never get tired of it, and there are many different versions of them that play throughout the two seasons. Both opening and ending themes are all very decent, though I have to say that the second ending theme, “Akanezora”, appealed to me the most, and I found myself never skipping it. The voice acting is remarkable as well – like I always say, hearing the characters voices, whether in dialogues or monologues, is an important aspect of the character, it lets you be that much closer to them, and improves emotional attachment as well, which Chihayafuru definitely relies on. The best part of this aspect is the readers’ voices. It’s very easy to tell, even with me having very little knowledge of the Japanese language, who the best readers in the show are. Their voices are simply beautiful, and I found myself being impressed with what they pulled off there.
Overall, Chihayafuru is a beautiful anime. It’s able to motivate people to chase after their dreams, as Chihaya chases after Arata, it’s able to portray the best aspects of humans, specifically our persistence in not giving up, and the execution of both its themes and characters is impressive. It doesn’t follow the same formula as its brethren, choosing to sacrifice the over-the-top aspect and introduce genuinely well written and earnest characters. In particular, Chihaya is a character that’s very easy to like, as long as you try to stray off the “shipping path” that so many people follow. She’s a simple character, and understanding what her ‘drive’ is easy, and so is sharing her emotions. I found myself being really happy when she won, really sad when she lost, and overall really impressed on how her character was dealt with. She’s a character that WILL grow on you throughout the series, that’s for sure. I recommend Chihayafuru to anyone who’s looking for an anime that has good characterization and themes, along with excellent execution of both these aspects, and can tolerate the slow(ish) pacing that the series is known for, plus the aspects related to the aesthetics like the blushing and the artwork. It’s indeed an experience that you won’t want to miss, and it’s something that might teach you a thing or two.
Thanks for reading!