Chihayafuru – The Anime

What do you call a sports anime with no sports? A romance anime with no romancing? An anime about a family card game usually played only on New Years? Chihayafuru!!*

This is a gorgeous 25 episode series about a group of friends who bond in elementary school and stay emotionally close through high school. The framework is the Japanese card game Karuta (かるた). It’s a game only the Japanese could invent. You have 100 cards, each with a two-verse poem — one verse on the front, one on the back. Fifty of the cards are laid out face down in front of two players. A reader picks a card from another deck at random and reads the first verse. The players vie to pick up and discard the equivalent card, based on having memorized the first lines of each part of the poems. The winner is the first one with no cards. While there is a version of Karuta played by families on New Year’s Day, we are talking here about competitive Karuta. It involves memorizing 100 12th Century poems, then spending your days on your knees on a tatami mat, getting callouses on the tops of your feet and practicing your card-capturing swing. It has to be fast (faster than your opponent), wide-ranging (the card might be on your opponent’s side), precise (pinky on the corner counts), and decisive (blasting away four or five cards is fine, as long as you hit the right one). Think Rocky in a kimono. The Wikipedia entry is here, and this YouTube shows what a real game looks like. (UPDATE: and here’s a better one)

Got all that? Good. Now forget it. Chihayafuru isn’t about Karuta, much, even though it’s all about it. It’s really about the people who play it.

The first two episodes, roughly, set the stage by introducing, through flashbacks, the three main characters. Ayase Chihaya, a beautiful girl with enormous eyes and off-center irises who is the lead, Mashima Taichi her friend from early grade school, and Wataya Arata, the Karuta-loving transfer student from Fukui with whatever passes in Japanese for a southern drawl. Both boys are smitten by her, and there’s a certain amount of competition, but Arata is more into Karuta, and introduces Chihaya to the game, whereupon she becomes smitten by it. Here’s something she can win at, and become the best in the world.

The remaining episodes show the characters learning and growing and developing their personalities. We follow them through recruiting, training, and competing. At each competition we learn more about Karuta, and they learn more about themselves. Chihaya keeps winning through speed, and losing through strategy, or psychology, or failure to take her opponent seriously. They take on new members. Nishida Yūsei is a player from their grade school days, who quit when he realized he could never beat Arata, then came back because he loved the game. Ōe Kanade plays because she loves the poems themselves and the traditional dress. Komano Tsutomu is their data demon, analyzing everything about how they play. Arata leaves the group to return to Fukui to care for his grandfather, but remains a presence throughout. At every turn there’s the possibility that he will return, and there’s the continuing question of who will win Chihaya’s heart — Arata or Taichi. Chihaya, meanwhile, is totally oblivious to the competition.

Spoiler Warning
The ending is totally unexpected. Given the dynamic you’d expect a sports resolution: they go to the finals and Chihaya is crowned Queen — or a romantic resolution: Taichi or Arata confesses their love and there’s a shower of cherry blossoms. Neither one happens.

Instead, more realistically, they come to the end of the playing season. Chihaya has lost to the reigning Queen, who loses to the previous Queen. Arata is still down in Fukui, but back in the game. Taichi is still too unsure of himself to declare, with the unstated worry that she might really prefer Arata. What, then? There’s a lot more work to do. Chihaya learns from Tsutomu she has a talent she wasn’t aware of. Kanade declares her goal of becoming a Reader (which requires she become a Class A player first). The club finds that the high school band wants their building and that they must recruit five new members in order to keep it. Life goes on, and the series ends as it started, with Chihaya putting up recruiting posters.

The characters are all realistic. They all grow, even Chihaya (although not as much — she saves her emotional growth for competitions). As others have pointed out, there are no villans in the series, only opponents, who love the game as much as Chihaya does, and who have personalities of their own.

To set the Tatsuta River ablaze

It’s unlikely that this series will get a DVD release in the US (I watched it on Crunchyroll), which is too bad. Reviewers were positive about the series from the start, and tended towards the lyrical at the end, and it has sparked additional discussions of gender roles, the use of storyboards and the like. There are Region 2 copies available through Amazon, in Japanese and at typical Japanese prices of $70 or so for five episodes. It’s also unlikely that there will be a second season, even in Japan. The halfway-to-the-summit ending reflects that we are only halfway through an ongoing manga series, but it’s unlikely that will be followed up on, or that the manga will be translated for the US market (although scanlations are available on the web — piracy is an indicator of a market failure).

UPDATE: As of mid-June, a second season has been announce for Japan, and AnimeCollector has copies of Season 1, with English subs. If you use the FedEx option, it’s about four days from Penang to pretty much anywhere in the US (my copy made it to Spokane via Tennessee).

UPDATE: As of September 2017, there has been a second season, and Amazon has both on DVD. Anime Collector is out of business. There also seems to be a live-action movie.

For more of my anime reviews, click on the Anime tag below
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*Pronounced Chi.hai.ya.Fu.

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One Response to “Chihayafuru – The Anime”

  1. my anime blog Says:

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    […]Chihayafuru – The Anime « FoundOnWeb[…]…

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