Anime Reviews: Chihayafuru
While it revolves around an esoteric sport, Chihayafuru proves that sports anime are at their best when relatable, well-written characters are the chief focus.
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 25 episodes
Air Dates: 10/4/2011 to 3/27/2012
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language)
Summary: Chihaya Ayase is an energetic, frank tomboy whose life takes a dramatic turn one day when she defends a quiet transfer student from her classmates' teasing. The transfer student is a boy named Arata Wataya, who has no friends and spends most of his time playing karuta, a type of Japanese card game in which two opposing players memorize a series of poems to identify and remove the corresponding cards on the field in a test of memory and reflexes. Immediately enraptured by the game, Chihaya and Arata become fast friends, but Chihaya's childhood friend, Taichi Mashima, is dead-set against her hanging out with "that weird kid," so he tries to beat Arata at his own game via karuta. Though he loses, Taichi casts his attitude aside and joins the group, and the three of them resolve to become the best karuta players in Japan.
The Good: Wonderfully vibrant animation; top-tier soundtrack; engrossing characters; esoteric subject matter is made easy to understand and is treated realistically
The Bad: Occasionally takes itself too seriously; peaks early
The Ugly: Realizing that karuta is a real thing and that its inhuman requirements are met by real people
I was hesitant to check this series out at first. That was a mistake. Ever since this series started airing, I've been hearing nothing but nonstop praise for it, and because of its subject matter, I didn't think I'd be interested at all, but when I finally planted my butt in the seat and gave it a shot, it quickly dawned on me how wrong I was. I've gone on record about how much I love other sports anime like Hajime no Ippo and Princess Nine, and Chihayafuru easily measures up to their high quality. I could end the review right now and just tell you to go see it, but I feel a bit more elaboration is in order.
First of all, being a Studio Madhouse production of a popular manga, I don't think it'll come as a shock to anyone that Chihayafuru is freaking gorgeous. The artwork is bright and lively and very appealing, and the same is definitely true for the character designs. It takes a truly talented team of artists to take characters with no real unique physical characteristics and make them instantly recognizable, and there are a lot of named characters running around.
The animation is likewise impressive, maintaining almost film-level fluidity at all times whether the scene is calm and mundane or highly stylized and metaphysical. The use of CGI for the karuta cards is notably spectacular, as they blend into each shot seamlessly without being flashy or excessive. All in all, this is easily one of Studio Madhouse's most impressive outings when it comes to visuals, and considering that includes Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Redline, that's a hell of a compliment.
To follow that up, the series also employs a truly impressive soundtrack. "YOUTHFUL" by 99RadioService gets us started with an upbeat pop-rock tune with a driving riff and refreshingly unique vocals, setting the right mood for the series as a whole. Not to be outdone, ending theme "Soshite Ima" by Asami Seto is a powerfully melancholic ballad with a memorable chorus and expressive vocals, bringing to mind a lot of the wistfulness of youth and the passion you feel for the things (and people) you love. I'm terrible at describing music, but hopefully you know what I mean.
While the opening and ending themes kinda steal the show, the background themes are certainly no joke either. The main theme, in particular, is truly a masterwork of simple and memorable songwriting producing something grand and emotional at an almost primal level. Simply a beautiful tune. There's also the bouncy and refreshing "Karuta Biyori," the purposeful and determined-sounding "Takaburu Kimochi," the heartfelt and bittersweet "Himeta Omoi," the triumphant "Team Chihayafuru"...and that's just to name a few. The music was all done by Kousuke Yamashita, but so far this is the only big production he's done work for. Here's to hoping he makes it big and puts out more quality material.
That's all fine and good, but what really drew me into Chihayafuru was (say it with me, now) the characters. The simple brilliance behind these characters is that they don't necessarily start out as blank-slate archetypes and come into their own as time goes by as other great shows like to do; rather, they feel like real people the very moment we meet them, and from there they grow and develop. And for me, watching Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata interact and grow as people was the highlight of the series. The character-centric episodes are truly the stars of the show, not the karuta matches (though those are great, too).
Ah yes, there is also the issue of the sport itself. Walking into this series, you (like many, many others) would be asking yourself, "What the heck is this karuta thing anyway?" but there's no reason to fear, because Chihayafuru wastes no time in using Chihaya as our Audience Substitute to explain to us what the heck karuta is. Even if you don't get it at first, the characters do think to themselves what they're planning and what they're looking for during the match, so it's not hard at all to follow what's going on in this game you've probably never heard of beforehand. Better yet, the series never goes full retard with the game, as it prefers to keep things as realistic as possible. High-level karuta is shown as being crazy and ridiculous, but not outside the realm of possibility, either. All in all, the portrayal of karuta is mostly down-to-earth and realistic without going insane.
...Mostly. Naturally, later in the series as the matches become more difficult and intense, the series ratchets up the intensity to obscene levels. It almost forgets that its characters are having existential crises over a card game. At times, these matches can come across as extremely melodramatic, but you know what? When it's all over and the characters learn more about themselves through their victories (or their many, many losses), there are precious few moments in anime that are more satisfying. Just persevere through the occasional hammy dilemma and you'll find some great dramatic payoff.
One note about Chihayafuru that I must mention, even if it's unique to only me, is that this series peaks out at around Episode 3 with the end of the flashback sequence. It's easily one of the most powerful moments in the story thus far, and the same magic is almost never rekindled throughout the rest of the series. Now don't get me wrong, I was still heavily invested in the rest of the story and I give this series only the highest recommendation, but for me, those first three episodes were the best of the best.
Like I said, though, that's probably just me. And I hardly consider it a fault in the first place, as I'm basically saying, "Every episode is awesome, but the first few were slightly more awesome than the others." And with that said, every episode is awesome (even the recap!), so you have no excuse to not at least give Chihayafuru a shot. I was skeptical at first, myself, but I very quickly learned the error of my ways, and here's to hoping you don't hesitate to dive in like I did.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Surprisingly easy to follow despite its niche subject matter, Chihayafuru combines aesthetic brilliance and storytelling genius to make this series a must-watch for any anime fan.