On the surface, Chihayafuru doesn’t seem to be anything special. A card game? About poetry?! Who’d ever want to watch that? I’ve never been so wrong, or so glad that I was wrong.
Ever since she met Wataya Arata, a karuta prodigy and grandson to an Eternal Master, Ayase Chihaya has had a brilliant flame of passion for Karuta take over her life. Chihayafuru is the tale of the her journey to become the best in Japan, and thus, best in the world, a journey undertaken with countless interesting people and epic card battles.
One of Chihayafuru’s strong suits are the characters, as they drive the story and engage the audience in numerous ways. These strengths can be seen in the way they execute and explain the actions and motivations of the main character, Chihaya. The characters in any sports anime are the main highlight, as they emanate an intense aura of passion, one that leads them to strive to ever higher peaks, and as such, are typically similar to shounen protagonists. Chihaya is no different.
Chihaya is a character with quirks: She’s headstrong yet easily confused, at times the spirit of happiness itself, only to shift into utter despair the next second. It’s these conflicting traits that make Chihaya very memorable character, along with determination so strong, that you can’t help but root for her, creating a connection between Chihaya and the viewers. Her tears will become yours, and so will her happiness. That’s the true mark of a character that is truly a character, and not merely a placeholder, or a 2D piece of animated walking art. Definitely a plus for any anime.
This is a trait that isn’t limited to just Chihaya. The cast is wide and well rounded, ranging from the club president Mashima Taichi to the poetry lover Oe Kanade to the enigmatic plain silly Retro, represent all parts of the karuta playing spectrum and different motivations, while all being enjoyable to watch.They are great in their own distinct and memorable ways, being realistic personalities, and are given enough time to have pretty diverse motivations for playing Karuta, while also being strong enough to engage the audience by themselves. At times I felt like the other characters would have made decent main characters by themselves, because they were so fleshed out. That’s not something you can say about every show and it’s a trait that enables Chihayafuru to be so great and enjoyable.
Also, the character interactions between one another were engaging (except for the unused romance, which we’ll get to later) regardless of their affiliation. From the feeling of teamwork between the Mizusawa team to the intense rivalry against other teams, it’s all here, and it’s done neatly flawlessly.
They’re also growth catalysts, each providing a different asset that helps Chihaya, and the changes in her gameplay are clearly noticeable, as the show goes on. It’s things like this that make the characters in Chihayafuru stand out, and excel. One nice touch that I found great about the characters is that they are introduced in a ‘Captured’ episode, where each discovers a connection to Karuta. This form of introduction may feel a bit over the top, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
Arguably present in any anime, suspense and tension are nonetheless an important story-telling tool, which Chihayafuru uses to it’s maximum potential. Each game brings a different twist, a different antagonist with different skills and focus, and it’s never certain if our protagonists will win. This uncertainty drives the tension to a palpable high, and is definitely an important asset to many sports anime, and is done very well in Chihayafuru.
While the matches may take up to three episodes to end, they never feel long-winded. The wretched sense of “what’s gonna happen now?!” drives the anime along, and is done so well, it doesn’t feel bad, even though it gives you stomach butterflies.
The drama is kept at relatively high levels, but never feels out of place, instead serving as a supplement to the tension and suspense. It’s a little crazy sometimes, but it never becomes detrimental to the show.
Karuta is a very weird “sport”, and one that is certainly unique. Which other anime have you watched, that actually focuses on the game of Karuta? For a sports anime, this is pretty important, as sports anime that use the same sport tend to have a difficult time becoming unique.
Karuta sounds undeniably boring. It’s about poetry, and you need to memorize poems. A hundred of them, to be exact. But, you never feel boredom. In fact, this added layer of complexity and seriousness is entirely great, and set Chihayafuru apart from all other sports and card game anime. Chihayafuru manages to transform this boring trait into a strength, getting you interested in Karuta, because the dramatization and execution make the game that much more engaging. I recently bought a set from Amazon, and I’m currently trying to memorize all hundred poems. You can join in on the fun by checking out the first two poems!
Chihayafuru, being done by Madhouse, looks and sounds great. The animation when they’re playing Karuta is pretty fluid, not many problems there, and there’s rarely usage of CGI, which I appreciate. And again, Chihaya looks so damn fine you don’t have to care about anything else.
The character art is odd though: When looking at Chihaya, Wataya and Taichi, the art direction in Chihayafuru appears to be shoujo style, but somehow, a lot of the characters (especially the males in the club ) look so damn plain. Some don’t even have eyes, (*cough* budget *cough*) while others are extremely memorable, like the eccentric Shinobu with her Snowmaru shirts. What’s up with that? That being said, it never really gets in the way of the enjoyment of the show, so it’s pretty minor but should be mentioned nonetheless.
Another aspect of the presentation that was great was the voice acting: the Seiyuus all performed admirably, especially Seto Asami. It’s the little details that they excelled in, to the point that they even had actual Karuta readers! That’s amazing! Also, while we’re on the topic of the audio, I enjoyed all four of the OP and EDs: The OPs, done by 99radioservice, have really good animations, with words floating around the screen, lines from the poems, while the EDs Soshite Ima and Akanezora, by Seto Asami are great, both hitting that mellow yet strong vibe. The soundtrack isn’t very memorable, in comparison, besides that the main theme which is constantly played to the point that it keeps spinning around in my head. The soundtrack as a whole isn’t bad though, it just doesn’t stand out.
There’s slight romance in Chihayafuru, a love-triangle between Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi, which is mostly kept in the background. From what they’ve shown so far, it’s really unnecessary, especially since Chihaya seems to be virtually oblivious to anything besides Karuta. This is a sports anime, not a romance, even though the art may deceive you. Chihayafuru doesn’t suffer from having this teeny smidge of romance, but it’s pretty much irrelevant to the story at end of s2.
Note though, that at the end of s2, multiple things happen that lead to an exponential increase in the importance of the romance to the plot of Chihayafuru. This is referenced from the manga at the moment, as the anime does not cover this part yet.
Chihayafuru’s story doesn’t matter. As unfortunate as that sounds, it’s the same tried and true story of ‘I’m gonna be the Champ!’ we’ve all seen before. The strength of Chihayafuru doesn’t lie in the story, it’s in the characters and the experience. The main story doesn’t take precedence, and is mostly taken as an undercurrent more than anything. Again, it doesn’t drag the anime down, but isn’t anything to write home about. I don’t know if this is true of most sports anime, but it certainly is true of Chihayafuru.
This show is obsessed with Karuta, so much so that the pacing noticeably changes, especially between s1 and s2. Season 2 is noticeably slower, taking up a huge chunk of episodes and devoting it to the High School Nationals. If continuous matches of Karuta with barely any in between time for anything else isn’t for you, why would you watch this anyway?! In Season 2, There are barely any non-karuta focused episodes, be it practice or matches. And the 16th episode of each season is devoted to a totally unnecessary recap episode, though it does add some jokes based off of the 4-koma in the manga pertaining to the cast.
Chihayafuru is a sports anime that is done pretty well, and because of it, I’ve started to play Karuta! It’s a show that engages the audience, is full of great characters and is one that you should consider checking out. Here’s hopes that there’ll be a third season.....
Thanks to Krakken - Gipfel-san, and RookMunDush - Kevern-chan, who helped read and edit!
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Here’s a second opinion on Chihayafuru, from Xagor!
An article from Koda about sports anime in general!