Anime has a history of taking mundane or niche topics and spinning them into good or even great shows. The Great Passage is about making a dictionary, Barakamon is (in part) about calligraphy, Welcome to the Ballroom is about ballroom dancing, and Ping Pong is about — you guessed it — tolerating a bad artstyle (I’m going to get so much hate for that one.) Of those four, in premise today’s Chihayafuru falls closest to Welcome to the Ballroom. Both take a competitive activity that the average person probably never thinks about, and crafts an entire sports anime experience around them. I already mentioned that Ballroom is (as you’d expect) ballroom dancing, but Chihayafuru, rather than being something you don’t think about it, I’d wager if it weren’t for this show, it’s something you haven’t even heard of it: karuta.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Karuta is a traditional Japanese card game, one that tests skills of deduction, memorization, and reaction time. At its simplest, the game is a one-on-one match. Each player receives 25 cards that they arrange in front of them in 3 rows. They are then given 15 minutes to memorize the placement of all cards on the field, and written on every card is a snippet of a poem. Once the game begins, a third-party reader will dictate these poems at random, and the players — as soon as they recognize the poem — race to reach out and touch the corresponding card. This card is then removed from play, and if the winning player took a card from their opponent’s side, they give up one of their own to replace it. This repeats dozens of times, and the first player to have no cards remaining is the winner.
Karuta is thus conceptually easy to learn, but physically difficult to master, which is extremely well-suited for a drama such as this. The rules are simple enough that any audience can immediately grasp the basics, but then still be wowed by high-level play, because while among friends, it can be a casual easygoing game, competitive karuta is a tense battlefield of split-second decisions.
But at this point, I feel I should shift gears, as shows like this are never so much about the sport as they are the characters that play it. In fact, karuta is only an ancillary topic for most of the show’s first episode.
The initial structure of Chihayafuru is kind of unique, because whereas most shows would push us straight into the action, Chihayafuru takes the time to really set up the cast before it dives into the meat of its material. By which I mean, the first three episodes nearly in full follow the main characters, not as high school students like they will be for the rest of the series, but as elementary schoolers. It’s interesting that it takes this approach, directly exploring the foundations of the story rather than telling it piecemeal later through flashback and conversation, and in this case I don’t think it was a terrible decision to make. This is a show where the character dynamics are a critical piece of the puzzle, so it’s important to give you as precise a feel as possible for where they’re all coming from.
In short, we have three kids named Chihaya, Taichi and Arata, who overcome issues of bullying and miscommunication to become close friends embroiled in the art of karuta — but this is abruptly cut short when Arata moves away. The present-day plot deals with Chihaya and Taichi’s further pursuit of karuta, and the eventual tumultuous rekindling of the relationship with their former friend. All three of ‘em are just good characters. I’m not going to wrap it up in fancy phrasing, they’re good characters with believable conflicts and entertaining chemistry.
Let’s start off with the titular Chihaya, who I really liked. She’s fun, she knows what she wants, she doesn’t give up, and she’s *cough* pretty attractive. She’s not without her struggles — she can buckle under pressure, she at times feels underappreciated by her family — but she always comes through with boundless passion and optimism. It’s a breath of fresh air for the entertaining girl to be the actual main character of a show like this, rather than some comparatively boring guy who’s just along for the ride (granted that’s more of a shounen trope, which this series is not). Nonetheless, it’s just great to have a female lead who isn’t the type to let the shy girl run off, but instead chases and tackles her. Chihaya’s idealistic and yes, even dumb, so she’s not a revolutionary sports anime protagonist, but her energy is a lot of fun. In fact, the entire show has a playful attitude that reminded me of something like Nana (at its happiest). It doesn’t just lean into grating anime comedy tropes, but instead carves out its own whimsical identity.
Which brings us to the story’s deuteragonist, Taichi. To be completely honest, at the start I hated Taichi, ‘cause he was a brat! He was a bully who’d throw a fit whenever things didn’t go his way — but you have to remember, the show also began when they were all little kids. After the timeskip, Taichi becomes a clear-cut display of the natural maturity that comes with age. As a kid, he would do stupid things out of jealousy or just to fit in. Burdened by the impossible expectations of his parents, he refused to ever show weakness, refused to admit someone could be better than him, but time (and his interactions with Arata) broke down that wall.
By the time he’s a teenager, Taichi freely admits almost immediately that he’ll never be as good at karuta as Arata, but he still keeps playing and strives to improve anyway. Teenage Taichi is actually a really likable guy: calm and cool headed, passionate about karuta, and genuinely cares for Chihaya. At this point, where I’ve been stewing on it for months since watching the series, he might very well be my favorite character of the show, an opinion which is certainly strengthened by a fantastic portrayal from Mamoru Miyano. Miyano grabs a lot of attention for his bombastic, flashy characters like Death Note’s Light and Steins;Gate’s Okabe, but understated roles like this prove to me that he actually is a very good actor. Flamboyance is just one of the many tools in his arsenal.
Anyway, the pairing of Chihaya and Taichi is a strong one, established from the very first episode, and rarely is one seen without the other in close proximity. Along with their generally endearing chemistry, the two make a great team and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Taichi’s level-headedness blunts Chihaya’s recklessness, and her stubbornness makes up for his tendency-to-give-in-ness.
But you’re probably wondering by now — it had been a trio, so where does Arata come in? Well as you know I like to keep my videos spoiler-free, but Arata fills a different role in the story. After moving away, and even after the timeskip, his total screentime is far lesser than that of Chihaya and Taichi. He certainly has his own character struggles and developments, but he mostly represents a goal to attain, a level for Chihaya and Taichi to strive for, rather than an active character in the immediate proceedings.
As a matter of fact, the plot itself in Chihayafuru is nothing to particularly write home about. It’s, despite any first impressions to the contrary, a sports anime, so the narrative is mostly concerned with building a club then training and playing in tournaments — which gives me an excuse to turn right back into talking about the characters. The early episodes are tied up in the usual “we need club members” schtick, but the new characters introduced as a result of this are far from boilerplate archetypes. In fact, it outright impressed me how original these characters were, in their personalities, backgrounds and even designs. You have the plump former karuta star Nishida, who fell away from the sport but is reluctantly pulled back in, slowly rediscovering his passion and drive, the bookish and anti-social Tsutomu, whose only initial sense of self-worth comes from his grades and schoolwork, and the quiet, traditional Kana, who holds a deep love and respect for the poetry itself rather than the game as a whole.
A commonality between all three of these characters is the slow build of their love for karuta, which is an arc of growth handled fairly deftly. It’s not an instantaneous transition, where once a club member joins, they’re all in on karuta. Some warm up to it pretty fast, but others — especially Tsutomu — must weather legitimate challenges and come to question their role in the club, taking the time to really think about what they’re doing before honing in and pressing on.
Then the second season adds even more club members, who frankly don’t give off the best first impressions, feeling much more shallow and annoying than the originals, but they do get way way better over time. Unfortunately, many of the other side characters lack the same degree of depth or nuance. Most of the cast outside our main group and some very particular recurring individuals tend to feel much more one-note, and even cartoony, though this is certainly more prevalent in the first season, as the second attempts an almost Hajime no Ippo-esque style, in that it takes the time to try and flesh out the competition before a match.
Having now exhausted my thoughts on the characters, I can come back around to karuta itself. I very much appreciated the show’s handling of the game. Sports anime rarely acknowledge the broader impression of a sport among the public, and push this image that it’s the most important thing ever, but the fact that no one cares about karuta is a steady presence and obstacle whenever they’re not at matches. The club has a real hard time recruiting, their advisor doesn’t care and doesn’t seem to think of karuta as a legitimate sport, and when they go to nationals, their school doesn’t even bother to hang up a banner. Obviously some of that changes over time as the club’s reputation grows, but the fact that early on they persisted in spite of that underlines the characters’ passion for karuta itself, regardless of any glory or lack thereof.
Chihayafuru is also nicely detailed and fairly realistic in its portrayal of the karuta matches. It establishes each of the main characters with their own unique playstyle, tailored to their attitudes and personality. Taichi is logical and calculating, keeping track of each card in play, counting which cards have already been called, and gauging by probability what’s most likely to be drawn next whereas Chihaya is the exact opposite, relying almost entirely on feeling and instinct, to the point where she runs into slight problems with even basic memorization. What was nice about this is that, where many series would deride the logical playstyle and push the emotional one, Chihayafuru frames each with its own clear strengths and weaknesses, painting a “perfect” playstyle as actually a balance between the two extremes. Once the show starts introducing a power ceiling, champions with countless wins under their belts, things do veer slightly off of realism and into anime territory (for instance, “hearing” and “feeling” the next syllable before it’s actually read) but in general this is subtle enough not to break the overall immersion.
The nature of karuta also means that the games go fast, which mostly keeps the pacing snappy. Karuta doesn’t lend itself to ludicrously extended multi-episode matches, so the series usually prefers to wrap things up and move on after only an episode or two, which was quite nice. Likewise I also found the series rather unpredictable for a sports anime. Losses are frequent, and come out of nowhere. Chihaya and the rest rarely get free passes to victory just because they’re the protagonists, which I’m all for.
And now as usual, as we near the end we’ve hit the sound and animation part of the program — I really need to start being more creative about tying this in. Chihayafuru’s soundtrack is typically light and airy, comprised of flutes, piano and other such classical instrumentation — befitting, I suppose, of the traditional nature of karuta. It can be hard to describe, but there’s a lot of emotion packed into each piece, and the soundtrack is in my opinion hugely responsible for elevating the series’ best moments above what would otherwise be generic sports anime material. The music swells to fill the big turns of a match, exponentially increasing the dramatic oomph, while the subtle somber notes backing an emotional moment truly deepen the impact. It’s just a beautifully composed and implemented piece of work, including the openings and endings. Chihayafuru is blessed with stellar music.
And mostly great production values too. It’s a quintessential Madhouse anime: well-made with mature-looking, reasonably-proportioned characters. It’s a little up and down, as anime goes — some shots’ll take your breath away, some very much won’t, with most falling somewhere in between — but it overall certainly looks good. It’s hardly the kind of show that I would put on a pedestal as a showcase of what pure animation can do, but the visuals always add to, and never detract from, the experience.
When I sat down to begin writing this review, I honestly expected to struggle with it, because on the surface I have a hard time saying much about series that are just generally proficient in all respects — which is exactly how I would describe Chihayafuru. There’s really no particular place where it stumbles. It’s a well-constructed, well-produced drama with strong characters and engaging karuta matches. What more could you want?
So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… Chihayafuru is without doubt an A. The show is just too well-made for me to justify any less. I realize I didn’t give voice to many complaints, so some may question why I didn’t go for an S, and the best way I can put it is that… it’s me, not it. While I thought the series did everything very well, it lacked a certain spark to become truly exceptional in my eyes. It was a show I would watch and appreciate moreso than find personally engrossing.
Regardless I would highly recommend giving it a shot if its piques your interest, and luckily the series is currently available on both Crunchyroll and HiDive, though HiDive seems to be only the first season — maybe because at the moment that’s the only season to be dubbed.