Reviewby Bamboo Dong,
BD+DVD - Season 1 Premium Edition
Chihaya Ayase has one goal in life—to become the Queen of karuta, the title given to the best female karuta player in Japan. So when she enters high school, she's determined to start a karuta club to share her love of the fast-paced card-matching game, which requires memorizing 100 classical Japanese poems. After some cajoling, she manages to get four other students to join, including her childhood friend Taichi. Together, the five challenge themselves to become better players, squaring off against seasoned opponents and even national champions. Meanwhile, Chihaya's friend Arata, who originally sparked her interest in karuta, struggles to push aside personal issues to embrace the game once again and work toward his own dream of being a karuta master.
On paper, Chihayafuru would probably be considered a sports anime. The characters spend most of their time training for, talking about, and playing sports. And most of the action and tension revolve around the outcome of sporting events. But aside from these framing devices, the series doesn't really follow the usual sports anime formula. There are no defined tournament arcs, although matches can span multiple episodes, and there's no predetermined crescendo to one singular event. If anything, karuta serves more as a vehicle for the story and the characters' motivations than anything else, which makes it a good candidate for viewers who are looking for a strong character drama but may shy away from the machinations of stereotypical sports anime. With an overarching tale of love and longing, Chihayafuru is also a bittersweet high school romance for the ages, one that doesn't let the drama overtake the characters' lives but still manages to find a foothold in everything they do.
For those worried they might not connect to the featured sport, rest assured that the series is remarkably suspenseful, even for those who'd never heard of karuta before. The game has no Western analogy, except maybe speed Memory, only you're allowed to see all of the cards. Even in Japan, general interest in competitive karuta only spiked after Chihayafuru became popular. But just because it's niche doesn't mean it's not serious—just type "karuta queen match" into Youtube and you can see finals from previous years, in all their tense tatami-smacking glory.
What makes karuta such a rich target for storytelling is that each card has a corresponding poem, with a rich history, symbolism, and interpretation. For budding fans of classical Japanese literature, this is a special treat. There's a pivotal scene in Chihayafuru where the main protagonist Chihaya finally learns the meaning of “her” karuta card. It's the one that corresponds with the “Chihayafuru” poem, one that her heart and hand are automatically drawn to. The card had always reminded her of her childhood friend Arata, who introduced her to the sport and inspired her dream of becoming a karuta Queen. But it isn't until a conversation with club member and Japanese poetry fanatic Kanade that Chihaya learns the story behind the poem. It doesn't just refer to the autumn leaves floating on a river, but to a smoldering love that burns eternal even without resolution. In the context of the series, that love could very well be for either Arata or Taichi, both rivals for Chihaya's attention (although Arata is a more passive presence), or it could be simply Chihaya's dreams, ambitions, and her unwavering dedication to karuta.
As esoteric as the game of karuta can be, the series (and English localization) does a fantastic job of explaining it to newcomers. The rules are laid out early on in the series, but match strategy is slowly revealed throughout the episodes. Each revelation lends a glimpse into the characters' personalities: Kanade's deck placement speaks to her personal connection with the poetry; Taichi's cold, mathematical playing style reflects his belief that his hard work can substitute for his perceived lack in raw talent. More impressively, the series is able to dive deep into the minutiae of karuta without becoming boring or confusing. Exposition is largely delivered through the characters' thoughts, while the poetry on the cards is beautifully explained throughout the series with visuals and Kanade's annotations. It's no coincidence that the poems are representative of the main players and their lives; the symbolism in the series is delicately constructed, leaving plenty for fans to mull over.
Fortunately, it doesn't appear as though much is lost in translation through Sentai Filmworks' English dub, which had the unenviable task of also localizing classical literature. The actors do an admirable job, both when talking about nuanced karuta terms and poetry analysis, although some of the characters' punny nicknames don't work as well. Thankfully, the card readings are spliced in using the Japanese track, which match fairly well with the English cast. It makes for a smooth listening experience that doesn't detract from either the matches or the multitude of themes in the series.
Chief among those is the idea of family, and how the people we choose to spend our time with can make up for deficits in our actual home lives. "Your family is the people who make things better by being there," Tsutomu says when Chihaya expresses how much she misses her club mates during a classroom outing. Zooming out, we see how many of the characters' actions are driven by the pressures and problems within their homes. Chihaya feels neglected and underappreciated because of her family's focus on her sister, while Taichi is harangued by his judgmental mother. Arata is haunted with guilt over not being present for his grandfather during a crucial moment. Even side characters like former karuta Queen Yomin have familial baggage, with expectations that are amplified exponentially by pressure from her relatives. There is one beautiful moment of catharsis for all this in episode 12. After the team does well in a tournament, Chihaya is eager to share her news with her family, but gets ignored at every turn in favor of her sister. Without spoiling the event, what follows can unleash waterworks for even the most stoic of viewers. It's emotionally satisfying and validating on many levels, at the center of one the series standout episodes.
Altogether, the first season comes in at 25 episodes, with a narrative structure atypical of sports anime. Instead of following the swell of a “season” of karuta tournaments, it's book-ended by the beginning and end of a school year. This may be in part because the karuta world operates differently from many other sports. There are some school-only tournaments, but many are open to a wider pool of players of all ages. For our characters, it means facing off against more than just rival schools; for viewers, it means a season that's demarcated by the calendar year, rather than tournament schedules. By the end of the 25th episode, our leading characters' next biggest hurdle is not a subsequent match, but recruiting more club members.
Because of this, character growth is measured largely by individual progress. By the end of the season, some characters are a little closer to reaching their personal goals, but many of them are not. In a genre that tends to be dominated by the black and white tally of wins and losses, Chihayafuru focuses more on the day-to-day lives of the players. The series isn't afraid to allow the protagonists to lose, early and often. It seems like a small thing, but this choice accomplishes so much. It allows each match to stand alone as a unique event, it shows the viewers that the characters aren't invincible or unnaturally talented, and most importantly, it forces the characters to face their weaknesses and seek the strength to keep going even in the face of anger and frustration. If sports anime tend to follow the exploits of their Chosen Ones, Chihayafuru teaches that no one is special or just deserves to win, not even the stars of its own anime.
While fans may have to wait a little longer to own the second season, collectors who like to keep their anime series bundled into tidy box sets will be pleased to know that the Limited Edition of Chihayafuru does come with a box big enough to hold both seasons. It's a gorgeous box too, with a textured matte finish decorated with artwork from the manga. Inside, there's enough space for the DVD and BD release of season 1 (both included), a placeholder for the second season, and a parcel of physical extras. Included is a pair of metallic gold-printed karuta cards that include the "Chihayafuru" poem, a set of character cards corresponding to each of the karuta club members, a fold-out glossary of karuta terms, an episode booklet that includes translations of the poems featured in the first season, and two art cards. They're all simple items, but they're remarkably well done, and it helps make up for the fact that the discs themselves are scant on extras outside of clean opening and ending animations. By far the best feature is still the art box, although it may not be worth the price tag for some.
Ultimately, Chihayafuru is a show about the dogged pursuit of dreams, and the people who will push you along the way. It's a show that spends as much time wallowing in broken friendships, young love, and familial burdens as it does on a card game. Watching it almost assures that you'll cry at least once or twice, though they'll be tears of relief and happiness. And afterwards, with the series' wistful piano theme stuck in your head, you'll wonder if maybe you'd like to try your hand at karuta, too.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Strong character writing, succeeds as equal parts romantic dramedy and sports-driven story
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