Japanese Title: Chihayafuru
Related: Chihayafuru 2 (included in review)
Similar: Hikaru’s Go
Watched in: Japanese
Length: 25 episodes (season 1), 25 episodes (season 2)
- High energy, likeable protagonist.
- Natural friends dynamic.
- Unique sport presents strategic surprises.
- Slow to escalate.
- Karuta isn’t an infinitely rewatchable game.
Not to reveal all my nerd cred, but as the first Yu-Gi-Oh champion from my country over a decade ago, I felt compelled to pick a card game for my next sports anime. As it turns out, the card game Karuta in Chihayafuru is nothing like Yu-Gi-Oh. It’s nothing like what one would expect when they think of competitive card games. I can best describe it as Snap meets Memory – hit the matching card on the board faster than your opponent does. Chihayafuru doesn’t explain the rules early enough, so watch the video below for a great explanation and a Karuta champion in action (start at 20:33 for mobile users) – rewind to the start for the history of Karuta, if you wish.
What strikes me first about Chihayafuru isn’t the unusual game, but the protagonist. Chihaya has this infectious energy about her, that I can’t help feeling happy whenever she is on screen. I love how she speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to say what she needs. She’s a Karuta freak who seeks to establish a competitive team at her high school with the help of her friend Taichi. However, to qualify as a legitimate school club, she needs more members.
Before this, the story flashes back to primary school when another friend, Arata, first introduced her to the game and the circumstances that split him from Chihaya and Taichi. These three as kids are adorable – just wanna pinch their cheeks! Whoever wrote the scenes for these kids ought to be commended. The dialogue and interactions make the kids natural. Whether a good or bad thing, these episodes were my favourite and I would have like to see more of the primary school days.
As for the sport itself, Karuta is fascinating in its unusual nature. You truly won’t find a similar sport. It has a surprising amount of depth in swipe techniques, card layout, card prioritisation, mind games, and fortitude. That said, there are only so many possibilities in any given Karuta match. As a result, matches become increasingly less interesting that no amount of anime overdramatisation can fix.
To alleviate repetition, sports fiction uses character drama between and even inside matches to raise the stakes. You could be watching a match like any other, or you could be watching a kid trying to win the championship while he parents go through divorce. How much sweeter is the victory after countless struggles that came before, in and out of game?
Think of whichever sport you follow. How much more interesting are the matches with a story – the rematch, the underdogs, the return of an injured player, the player who defies her parents’ wishes, the political ramifications? The story behind a match makes all the difference. Chihayafuru doesn’t need to resort to something as heavy as politics for drama. Just something would be nice.
We get a glimpse of drama early on when Chihaya meets Arata all those years later. He now hates the sport, which he taught her with such passion, and lives as a recluse, owing to personal guilt for an action in his past. After this plot point resolves, nothing takes its place. It does hint at a love triangle in the main trio, but by the end of season two, it makes little progress, still promising something will come of it later on (you have to continue in the manga to verify this promise). What kills me is that I can see the writer knows what will make for a great love triangle. Instead, matches fill most airtime in season two.
Chihayafuru as a whole doesn’t escalate enough. It reaches a good level and gets comfortable, staying there without striving for higher. I had my fill with season one – season two was for the review’s sake. Chihaya made it a fun ride, though.
Art – High
Chihayafuru’s cute art and soft colouring reminds of Usagi Drop. The animation and mood lighting are good, but that overused bloom – Gondor calls for aid!
Sound – High
Good voice work, especially for the protagonist, whose enthusiasm bursts off the screen. Fine music.
Story – Medium
A girl seeks to establish a Karuta club in her school and win the championship. Happy, energetic and fun, but could do with more drama.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. Chihayafuru is certainly worth a look for this unusual sport and the energetic protagonist that leads the charge.
Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)