Shelf Life
Chihayafuru Season 1

by Paul Jensen,

I started a new job this week. Considering that it's an entry-level part-time thing, the amount of paperwork and documentation required has been astounding. At one point, I'm pretty sure I had every form of official identification known to mankind collected in a single folder. I guess they figure if you can get through the hiring process with your sanity intact, then you'll be able to handle whatever the job throws at you. Speaking of things that I get paid to do, let's get this column started. Welcome to Shelf Life.

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Chihayafuru season 1

On Shelves This Week

Chihayafuru - Season 1 BD, DVD, Limited Edition
Sentai - 625 min - Hyb - MSRP $99.98|$79.98|$199.98
Currently cheapest at: $62.50 Amazon|$51.99 Right Stuf|$114.29 Amazon

Synopsis: Childhood friends Chihaya and Taichi start a competitive karuta club at their high school in the hopes of meeting their former teammate at a national tournament.

Extra: We have a review of this season from its original simulcast run, and you'll find a review of the standard edition set in this very column. You can stream the series on Crunchyroll and HIDIVE.

Tamako Love Story BD+DVD
Sentai - 85 min - Hyb - MSRP $39.98
Currently cheapest at: $22.89 Amazon

Synopsis: As their time in high school nears its end, Tamako and her friends deal with uncertain future plans and long-hidden feelings of affection.

Extra: You'll find my review of this movie from last week here. We also have a review of the TV series, and you can stream the series on HIDIVE.

Shelf Life Reviews

I'm taking a look at the first season of Chihayafuru this week. A card game about old poems might sound like the most boring thing on Earth, but stick with me on this one. It gets good, I promise.

Chihayafuru is an interesting little series. There are times when it absolutely feels like a sports anime, complete with tense showdowns between bitter rivals where every move counts. At other points, it feels more like a character drama, with the game simply acting as a common thread that ties the cast together. You could look at it as a sports anime for people who aren't necessarily fans of that genre, or perhaps as a josei title for people who are looking for a bit of action with their drama. Whatever you call it, it's surprisingly compelling for a show about a poetry-based card game.

The series follows Chihaya Ayase, a first-year high school student who wants to start a competitive karuta club at her school. Karuta is a speed-focused game where a reader calls out a line from a famous collection of poetry and players try to grab the card with the next line on it. Chihaya was introduced to the game in grade school, where she played it with her friends Taichi and Arata. Arata has moved away and dropped out of contact, but Taichi agrees to help Chihaya start the club in the hopes of finding Arata at a national tournament. Once the club hits the required number of members, they begin participating in both individual and team matches in order to move up in the competitive rankings.

While the ups and downs of each tournament do matter, it's obvious from the outset that Chihayafuru's main focus is on its characters. The show's early episodes are dedicated to a lengthy flashback, which helps explain why Chihaya is so fixated on playing karuta. As we get to know Taichi and the other club members, it becomes clear that everyone has their own motivations for competing and approaches to the game. Poetry enthusiast Kanada is more interested in the culture and history behind karuta, while bespectacled bookworm Tsutomu makes up for his inexperience by taking careful notes on every match he plays. This is an eclectic and likable group of kids, and the show uses their goals and backstories to set up some strong emotional moments.

One inherent advantage Chihayafuru has over more dedicated sports titles is that karuta is a mixed-gender activity. Outside of competing for the national titles of master and queen, most tournaments combine male and female players into a single block where a player can potentially face off against anyone. This allows the show's romantic subplots to tie directly into the tournaments, instead of being awkwardly quarantined to the time between competitions. It also allows for characters to vary widely in terms of both appearance and age, which in turn broadens the range of skill and experience levels that can be depicted. It's a small and perhaps coincidental quirk of the game, but Chihayafuru takes advantage of that open style of competition to cover ground that might be unavailable in a show about a more mainstream, gender-segregated sport.

Because there are so many separate tournaments instead of one single “win or go home” bracket, the main characters are also free to lose matches without derailing the plot. In fact, Chihaya and friends are just as likely to get their butts kicked as they are to win. This helps to amp up the tension in critical matches, as the threat of defeat feels more credible than it would if the narrative required the protagonists to win every time. The downside to this setup is that for all its dramatic peaks and character development, this season doesn't make much progress in the main story. Some of the club members don't decide on their personal goals until late in the season, and the last episode isn't what you'd call a satisfying conclusion. Even with a second season available, it would've been nice if this one had ended on a stronger note.

Chihayafuru is generally a good (or at least decent) looking show, and the formal outfits that the club members wear to some of their competitions feature some striking colors and patterns. The music matches the tone and subject matter quite well, and the opening and ending themes also feel like good fits for the series. I checked out the standard Blu-Ray set, which lacks all of the fancy physical extras of the limited edition. It does, however, include the English dub, which works much better than you'd expect in a series with such a heavy emphasis on poetry. The dub makes a smart decision by keeping the poetry lines in Japanese during the karuta matches, and most of the performances from the central cast are well matched to the characters. Chihayafuru is the kind of show that's arguably best watched in its native language, but the interactions between characters work just as well in English.

I'd normally expect a series with such obscure subject matter to appeal to a relatively small audience, but I can see Chihayafuru working for a variety of people. There's some interesting cultural content if you're into that, and it could also function as an introduction to sports anime for people who might otherwise find that genre tough to get into. It's also just a good show with compelling characters, and who doesn't enjoy that? Even if the whole “poetry card game” angle strikes you as a bit odd, give this one a try.

That wraps things up for this week. Thanks for reading!

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