In our recent podcast featuring a member of our community (BTAG), I mentioned that I was planning on watching a certain show for review purposes. Given that I currently have an abundance of free time, I figured it would be prudent to dust off the old writing habits, and the best way to start was with a review. However, the show I wound up deciding to review is slightly different than the one I promised. Rest assured more reviews are to come, but the Girls und Panzer OVA turned out to be a lot shorter than I expected. If you listened to the podcast you know that I am speaking of…
Director: Morio Asaka
Aired: Oct 25, 2011 – Mar 28, 2012 / Jan 12, 2013 – Jun 29, 2013
Episode Count: 50
Languages: Japanese with English subtitles / Dub coming soon!
Genre(s): Sports, Drama, Josei
Price: $129.99 (Premium Edition) / $64.99 (Blu-ray) / $51.99 (DVD)
Studio Madhouse first brought this show to life in the Fall 2011 season, and it continued with the second season in the Winter of 2013. Morio Asaka, the director responsible for Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits, was entrusted with this manga adaptation anime. Going into the show my expectations were only colored by Brandon’s constant praise for the show, so I was a bit skeptical as to whether it was as spectacular as he claimed. After 50 episodes and two seasons of competitive karuta, I am confident that this is one show that both Madhouse and Mr. Asaka can be incredibly proud of.
We open the story of Chihayafuru by meeting our core three characters (Chihaya Ayase, Taichi Mishima, and Arata Wataya), and immediately spend 3 episodes learning their backstory. As children, these three became engrossed in karuta, a card game based on the memorization and matching of 100 ancient poems. Karuta requires brains and speed to be able to accurately hear a poem, find its match on the playing field, and strike the card to claim it. At a young age, Arata shows great proficiency in this sport, and Chihaya finds in him a dream to step out of her older sister’s shadow by becoming Queen of competitive karuta. Taichi only joins the trio to further his interest in Chihaya, but soon finds himself equally invested in the game. After a year of friendship, the three separate to different middle schools, and we rejoin Chihaya and Taichi in their first year of high school.
At this point in the story, Chihaya convinces Taichi to help her form a karuta club at their school, and they manage to convince two complete novices (Kanade / Tsutomu) and a former karuta player (Nishida) to join. Through their trials as a club, this group of misfits find answers to their individual issues and learn to prop each other up as a team. While Chihaya and her team are constantly fighting in team and individual karuta, we slowly watch an older Arata work out his own issues with the game. Eventually, their paths converge at the karuta national championship, but each time Chihaya gets close to a reunion with Arata something gets in the way. It is a constant point of frustration for her and the viewer, as she constantly searches for the boy who introduced her to the sport she loves.
[Minor Spoilers] The plot comes to a head a couple of times during the national championship. Over the course of 2 seasons, we witness Chihaya’s team make it to nationals twice. These appearances are the culmination of every character’s struggles as players and as teammates. Even the weakest player on the team is given significant development in these tournaments, and we see them grow as players and as young adults. It can be frustrating at times to watch your favorite characters stumble, but the national tournaments make all the frustration worth it. The characters retain the lessons learned from the rest of the season, and you experience all the emotions of victory and defeat with them as they put what they’ve learned to the test. In terms of climactic moments, Chihayafuru has some of the best in sports anime.
As far as the cast is concerned, I was pleasantly surprised by the uniqueness of each character. Every one of them comes to karuta for different reasons, and with different mentalities. The production staff from Madhouse excellently portrayed how these multi-faceted characters strengthened one another, and managed to change their sometimes flawed outlook on the game and life in general. At times it can seem like Chihaya and Taichi get a disproportionate amount of screen time, but this is mostly during matches as they usually have the most at stake. It was nice to see that the other characters took center stage in other areas of the show, and didn’t simply become background noise for the main characters to respond to periodically.
One of the complaints I can see being made against the main cast of Chihyafuru is the failure to deliver on the ever teased at romance. It’s fairly clear throughout the show that Taichi is in love with Chihaya, and that if nothing else Arata is interested in her as well. Chihaya for her part has small moments of wonder at Arata, so it’s largely implied that feelings exist between the three. For my part, I am glad nothing happened between them, as it is fairly obvious that Chihaya and Arata are so tunnel-visioned on their karuta goals that a relationship would only hinder them. This lack of meaningful romance instead opened the gates for the other characters to grow on screen, and for the audience to experience their joys and sorrows more thoroughly due to their increased presence.
Visuals and Music
On the illustration front, Chihayafuru is one of the best looking sports anime I’ve ever seen. The characters are different enough to not be confused with one another, and the colors in the character designs are vibrant. It’s pretty clear that the artists spent more time on some characters than others, but the animation discrepancy only serves to underline the significance of Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata. Where the visuals really shine in this show is during the parts of karuta games where the viewer is given a glimpse into the mind of the character playing. The visual effect sequences that show the way the main characters perceive their opponent and the game as a whole are stunning to behold. They aptly serve to underline the intensity that goes on in the mind of the player, and seamlessly transition into the physical aspect of karuta as well.
Furthering the fantastic visuals are the sound effects that come in the competition sequences. Each sequence that displays the mental state of the player is accompanied by excellent sounds that place you in their mind. For example, when Chihaya watches Arata play she sees him encompassed in water (presumably due to the fluidity of his gameplay), and with these visuals come amazing water sound effects that place the viewer underwater with Chihaya. Furthering the excellent sounds of Chihayafuru are the four fantastic opening and ending themes between the two seasons. Personally, I prefer the opening and ending themes from the first season, but the ones from the second season brought a similar feel to them. If you’re a collector of anime music like me, you should check out these themes!
Chihayafuru might just be the show to change my opinion on sports anime. It brings all the training, life lessons, thrill of victory, and pain of defeat that I’m used to seeing in western sports stories without getting too ridiculous with supernatural abilities. It is beautiful in its visuals, sounds, and story even if some of its story elements don’t pan out. The only real knocks I had on this show were the fact that it only has two seasons, ends on a small cliffhanger, and shows no signs of coming back. Still, it would be remiss of me to not give this show a recommendation based on those reasons alone. To those reading this review to gauge whether or not to watch Chihayafuru I would say that it is definitely worth the watch. I was only able to scratch the surface of the story with the three paragraphs I gave it above, and my paltry words can’t possibly do justice to the intensity and beauty of the match sequences. If you are letting Chihayafuru languish in your queue, you are doing yourself a massive disservice.
TR;DR: Chihayafuru is an unusual, yet exceptional sports anime. It boasts a diverse cast, amazing visuals, excellent supporting sound effects, and intensity you wouldn’t expect from a competitive poetry card game. It can be frustrating to watch in a good way, as the characters work through issues in and out of the game. However, the tournaments at the end of each season make it all worth while, as the characters use the lessons they’ve learned to advance as people and as players. If you’re here to ask, “Should I watch Chihayafuru?” then my answer is a resounding, “YES”!
Recommended Audiences: Fans of sports, drama, and minor romance will find a home in Chihayafuru. Due to the nature of karuta, and the heavy cultural references this probably isn’t a great starter anime for sports fans or children. Anime fans mid-teen and above with some experience in anime are probably the best to recommend this anime to. Cheers!
Chihayafuru plays an exciting karuta match, and passes out on the tatami for 4.5/5 HP!