Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Apr 8th 2012
Episodes 1-25 streaming
Chihaya Ayase is a fiend for karuta, a traditional Japanese card game based on the 100 poets of classic Japanese literature. She learned the game in school, but a meeting with transfer student Arata Wataya introduced her to the joys of playing competitively, and now in her first year of high school, Chihaya is determined to start a competitive karuta club. A chance reunion with elementary school friend Taichi gets her started, and if the two can manage to get three other members, the school will both recognize and back their club. Can Chihaya's single-minded determination carry her through?
We're all aware of card game-based anime – Yu-Gi-Oh may be the best known, but it certainly isn't alone in its field. Those other, shonen oriented card game shows may initially prejudice viewers against Chihayafuru, and that would really be too bad, because between Yu-Gi-Oh and Chihayafuru yawns a great gulf. Yes, this is a story about a group of teenagers playing a competitive card game, but it is equally about the characters themselves, and those turned off by the premise would do well to look beyond it.
Clocking in at an unusual twenty-five episodes, Chihayafuru begins with Chihaya's first year in high school. Her older sister Chitose is a relatively famous model, and students are thrilled to be going to the same school as a purported beauty. Fairly quickly Chihaya is established as “beauty in vain” - a designation that may bother some viewers as it implies that beautiful girls should have some more traditional purpose. Chihaya flusters classmates by donning sweatpants under her skirt to hang up karuta club recruitment posters and is so single-minded that no one can quite figure out what to do with her. Neither can the audience, really, until a two and a half episode flashback to how she got into the game in the first place. While this seems a bit long for back story, the episodes do introduce us to both Taichi and Arata, two boys who will have great influence on our heroine (and whom she will affect in turn) and more importantly establish Chihaya's character. She is loveable, frustrating, and generally warm and delightful, making it easy to invest ourselves in the show's premise. If she were the heroine of a show about crab picking or vacuuming, it would still be worth watching.
It feels fair to say that character rather than plot drives Chihayafuru, making it a bit similar to another josei anime title, Princess Jellyfish. Chihaya is the most obviously important and likeable player, but the personalities of the other four members of her team are equally well defined, and in some cases just as charming. Taichi most notably begins as a fairly standard character type, but by midway through the story he has become one of the most sympathetic characters of all. Partly this is due to his truly unpleasant mother, who flat out tells him that he should only do things that he is good at, even if they aren't the things he enjoys. This sets Taichi up as an underdog in his home life as well as explaining some of his behavior, whereas most of the other main players have no such outside conflict driving them. Chihaya is charming, but Taichi has the most to overcome. Sadly the other main male character, karuta whiz Arata, barely moves beyond his initial image of “mysterious and inspiring figure,” despite some effort in that direction around episode five. While the episode does succeed in establishing that Arata is not a karuta playing automaton, it does not quite manage to give him the depth that even more minor characters like Desktomu-kun have. In fact, the fact that each member of the karuta club has his or her own motives for playing the game is one of Chihayafuru's strongest aspects. While they may not get as much screen time as Chihaya and Taichi, it is still clear that they are real people in their own rights, not just cardboard place holders. Kana Oe, the secondary female character, is particularly interesting as her fondness for karuta comes from a love of traditional Japanese tanka poetry. Her inclusion in the series is an especial boon to Western viewers who may not be familiar with the poems, although any poetry fan will appreciate the concise beauty of the lines even as they appear in fragmented form.
The animation runs between obvious computer assists with the cards and what looks like more traditional fare. While the cards can be a bit jarring at times, particularly when the characters are in traditional dress, it works overall to make something as seemingly dull as a specialized deck of playing cards more striking. Like in any sports anime, the camera lingers lovingly over beads of sweat working their way down someone's face, the lightning fast movement of a champion player, and the careful positioning of the competitors. This last has its odd moments when we see the players from underneath a transparent floor, which is presumably to show their postures and tension, but also gives us an assortment of crotch shots. Perhaps the best use of any animation technique in the show, however, is the spinning circle of Japanese letters that is used in most of the opening theme, the catchy-in-the-short-version “Youthful” performed by 99RadioService. With the emphasis on recognizing poems by their opening syllables, the letters feel very appropriate.
Based on the manga of the same title by Yuki Suetsugu, author of the licensed-and-dropped Flower of Eden, it is clear that Chihayafuru does not complete its story. The ending is open, once again begging a connection to Princess Jellyfish, but it does have hope. Nothing really gets resolved, either in terms of karuta goals or the floating romantic subplot, but one can imagine that life is going on for the characters even though we are not there to see it. It isn't the best way to end things in terms of viewer satisfaction, but it does work.
So who should watch a josei anime about a team of competitive poetry card playing high school students? Certainly those looking for something a little different or people who have an affection for tanka poetry. But Chihayafuru is also a show for people who enjoy a good story, want to feel attached to their characters, and just be taken away for half an hour. Chihayafuru is greater than the sum of its parts and absolutely worth your time.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Charming characters who all have their own motivations and personalities, beautiful poetry, and a strangely engrossing storyline that holds up to more action-oriented sports anime.
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