“If you become the best player in Japan, you’ll be the best player in the world!” - Arata Wataya
This is a review of both seasons.
Living in Shiga Prefecture for almost a year now, I’d like to assure and affirm to everyone who is unfamiliar with the Ohmi area that karuta is a HUGE sport.
Everyone. Plays. Karuta.
This past February, all of the elementary schools in this area (roughly over 100 schools) held a karuta tournament. Having already seen Chihayafuru beforehand, I was aware that karuta tournaments are a commonplace thing throughout Japan—what was most fascinating was literally how incredibly fast even my second graders were (and they still have a hard time reading and writing hiragana as is!) Thus, imagine the excitement that was all over Ohmi when an anime specifically about karuta aired on television. My words alone cannot express the obsession and the passion of these players, with even greater reward than players of Scrabble or word games associated with English.
Hold onto your butts, and prepare for addiction. (96/100) Chihaya Ayase admires her sister, a rising star model and actress in Tokyo. Chihaya’s dream, as it seems, is to see her sister become number one—that is until she runs into Arata Wataya, a prodigious karuta player. She and her childhood friend Taichi (who obviously is secretly in love with her) join forces with Arata as her newfound passion to become the best karuta player in the world finds a special place in her heart.
The story has absolutely fantastic pacing and arrangement of scenes. This is a josei anime, yet the first few episodes are a smoothly transitioned flashback to provide critical backstory. We see the young Chihaya, naughy Taichi, and eternally weird Arata. The series continues up to them gathering their allies, albeit through force, manipulation, or other hilarious methods. They train meticulously, and progress through some major tournaments, all of which are aligned with perfectly mesmerizing cliffhangers and uncertainties. It is safe to say that watching Chihayafuru will be nearly impossible in small sprees.
There are plenty of likeable and unlikeable people in opposition to the Mizusawa High School Karuta Club, so the series steers clear of godmodding and needlessly overpowering characters. Along the way, we meet the ultimate antagonist (though not really all that antagonizing). A tiny, Kyoto woman. Be not deceived, for they are more dangerous than the Special Task Forces.
Or at least as it seems to be in this series.
Lastly, the story supports character growth by transitioning through their victories and defeats quickly, cramming as much screen time as it can to delve a little bit into their lives and emotions for each other. In summation, the plot devices and interexchange of scenes between the past and present, the limited recaps, and the unnoticeable transition into each successive chapter earns it an extremely high score from me.
Central characters are good to a fault; support characters are ideal. (74/100) I would argue passionately that Chihaya is a particularly excellent central protagonist. It is without a doubt that she is supposed to be stunningly gorgeous, but what is most fascinating is exactly how negative her self-image is. She kind of represents the feelings of a typical, Japanese teenager, albeit unconscious of her natural beauty and natural talent. I believe her appeal to women is precisely that lack of self-awareness while maintaining a gifted and persistent persona. In a sense, she supports women who feel that there is nothing special about them, encouraging them to believe that there must be something—however obscure or weird—that they have a talent at. In no particular scene is Chihaya ever sexualized or viewed as an object, which is a great turn. It’s a nice transition from a pissy tsundere, or one of the many ditzy eye candies that drive eroticism where it doesn’t need to be. Perhaps my only problem with her is the one-dimensional perspective we are given of her emotions towards others—it can be really difficult to be attracted to someone whom we can’t relate to, and Chihaya’s character consists of a complete and utter immersion into improving her karuta. I would have liked to have seen a few more elements of growth in her nature and her emotion towards other central characters to say in the least.
Taichi starts off like a pretty stock kind of guy, becomes forgettable, then ironically appreciable by the end of season two. As the characters improved, I felt the least bit of desire to see Taichi reach success despite having an earnest heartfelt for all of the characters in the show. His strengths are his whistle-blowing sort of appearance. As though it is scripted, his presence in every respective scene drew out the best quality of all the other characters.
What kills the character score for me is Arata. As a central character, he spends an awful lot of time not being central. Whenever he claws some screen time, he seduces us to all go “ooh” and “ahh” with his god-tier ability of playing karuta. Then, half a season later, we finally get another decent scene of him. Then in the next season, we get a nice long treat of him, after wondering why on Earth things needed to take this long. Literally, the best character development he gets comes in his rivalry with Taichi.
Where the hell is Arata? He’s like Waldo…
What rescued this character score the most is in fact the supporting characters: Nishida, Oe, Tsutomu, Tsukuba, and Sumire. All of them have a particular trait or purpose to help bring out story elements. Nishida is highly intelligent, but his corpulent appearance also makes him a running gag. Oe gives off the historian sidekick sort of character, Tsutomu is both the tactician and comic relief. Tsukuba and Sumire later reveal even more fascinating aspects of the game of karuta. The best thing is that they all in some way contribute to Chihaya’s compounding abilities at the game.
Nothing less than expected from Madhouse, but nothing more. (77/100) Having a deep respect for Morio Asaka (who also created my beloved Cardcaptor Sakura), I do for once have to be a little picky about some of the visual elements of the series. In particular, for a Madhouse anime, the story and characters are well developed, but the animation itself feels a little underdrawn and fuzzy. Even at 1080p the coloring is often drab, as are the movements and fine details.
Other than this, the perspectives and the choices of angles when depicting scenes are superb. The character designs themselves are gorgeous, with intricate details on the eyes and hair. The visual aspect can be really engaging when watching matches as well.
I am weary of 8 beat rock, and wish it would go away…but I do appreciate solid BGMs. (70/100) The opening theme sounds literally like the opening of a hundred other anime I’ve watched. I get it. This generation likes crap music, so I can’t really fairly judge against someone’s opinion. Still, I don’t care what my generation thinks here. Anime is art that should have artistic music, period. Since karuta is about a traditional Japanese game, why couldn’t the opening and ending be traditional Japanese folk? Perhaps like a biwa, or maybe some taiko? Either way, huge thumbs down from me.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack of the actual damn show uses exactly the kind of music that would be excellent for it! I don’t know any other works of the composer, Kousuke Yamashita, but I do know that any decent score would be minimalism. Soft keyboard chords going in seemingly endless repetitions, increasing in intensity as the matches grow more intense. The BGMs offered a great emotional component to the anime, which in turn rescued that score.
I should also mention that the seiyuu were also quite superb. In anime these days it’s rather difficult to find uninteresting seiyuu, but when compared to the bloodcurdling tsundere screech or yawning yandere mumble, I can feel excited for the enthusiasm and high energy in their speech.
It’s a sports anime, so duh it’ll be good. (100/100) I don’t like reviewing sports anime too much, because Japan has a real knack for sucking in attention with the sports genre. However, Chihayafuru just happens to be about a difficult, boring game to watch in real life and manages to keep one’s eyes glued to the screen. Considering how difficult attaining that feat must be, I pay homage to the creators for turning it into the masterpiece it has become.
I recommend it to everyone. Seriously, everyone. A drug-level addictive plot, memorable characters, decent animation, and catchy BGMs make this a great choice, even if it’s the first sports anime one watches. There are some cultural aspects to it that make it pretty difficult for a complete beginner in the world of anime, but I think the excitement would make up for any barriers.