Chihayafuru Review

Chihayafuru Review
"If I can be the best in the world at something, I think it's worth a shot."
Sports anime. I have never really liked sports anime. Probably because how the main character always seems to have a natural born talent and all the techniques are so exaggerated to the point that the whole game just becomes ridiculous. I'm all up for some intense game experience but when they posses superhuman abilities, I can't tolerate it for a second.
So, I always think twice whenever someone asks me to watch a sports anime.

Now, I've never been one to sit down and cheer for my favourite basketball or football team, but I have played sports, both indoor (Chess) and outdoor (Cricket, Soccer; I also weight train and learned Taekwondo in 6th grade). So I can relate to the excitement one has when watching some testosterone fuelled men running around a field pouring their every ounce of energy into every second of the game to win. And I also know how nerve wreaking a seemingly calm and silent game of chess can be. If I were to say something about Karuta, I'd say it is sort of a combination of both. Mind you, I've never played Karuta in my life but after watching Chihayafuru, I have a pretty good idea of how intense it can be.

On the outside, Karuta looks like a mundane and boring card game. When I first read about it in the synopsis of the anime, I thought the same too. I knew nothing about the sport, and the whole setup of the game and how it involved centuries old poems just didn't give me any sense of an intense adrenaline pumping game. But oh! How wrong I was. "Don't judge a book by it's cover", that's what they say. Chihayafuru is not a mere sports anime about Karuta, it is much more than that.

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With two 25 episodes long seasons aired so far, Chihayafuru is the story about a girl named Ayase Chihaya, who wants to be the best female Karuta player in Japan and earn the title of 'Queen'. While in grade school, she meets a transfer student named Wataya Arata, an amazing Karuta player, who sparks the passion in her heart to play Karuta and to become the best in Japan. Along with her childhood friend Taichi, the three have fun together playing Karuta. But soon afterwards, they are separated and everyone goes their own way. The story follows Chihaya as she enters a new school in her high-school year only to meet her friend Taichi again. She decides to make a Karuta club at school with him while she pursues her dream to become the Queen so she can meet Arata again someday.

The story is something we have seen quite a lot of times - the main character wants to be the best and we follow him/her along their journey as they go about achieving their dream. He/she joins/makes a team and goes into tournaments. In short, a usual sports anime plot. Chihayafuru is no different in terms of the story. But it is the way they have presented and executed the whole plot, is what makes this show so amazing. The show is carried at a pace which isn't horrifyingly fast or painfully slow, instead it just flows nicely like a river cutting through the forest with it's twists and turns. Just when you think that the pace has settled down and everything seems to go a little too slow, something comes up and you are thrown in an intense situation which just captivates your attention and you are absorbed in the circumstance. Don't get me wrong, these changes in pacing come about in a very subtle way and don't throw you off. Not only that, for someone who had never heard of Karuta, I got my head around all the concepts pretty quickly. That is to say that the anime does an excellent job at introducing the game to the viewer. (That's why I haven't done it in this review) So, you don't really have to worry about having to look up the rules on the internet or anything. (Moreover, the rules aren't complicated either)

Something that really stood out to me about Chihayafuru was how Karuta is not constrained by gender, age, mental ability or to an extent, even talent. Yes there are factors that do impact the outcome of the game. But for the most part, the amount of freedom the game offers is just marvellous. There are a lot of ways someone can come of top even if they don't have the game sense (talent). As a result, you get to behold a wide variety of strong opponents and their varying play-styles which keeps the experience fresh till the very end. It is this provocative, exhilarating yet liberating nature of this game which kept me hooked until the very end.

And since it is not totally dependent on physical or mental ability, we are presented with a wide variety of game strategies utilised by different opponents. These strategies are well thought out and explained thoroughly instead of the usual "I'm going to win this now." And it is quite remarkable that the anime actually takes its time to give us an insight into the player's mind while they are in-game which actually makes their victory/defeat more realistic, engaging and enhances the overall experience. As a result of this, even the opponents become relatable characters and you might even find yourself rooting for them. Since, our main cast starts off as beginners in season one, as the anime moves forward and enters season two, the games tend to get more and more exciting and intense with the players amassing more and more experience, tactics and strategies from all their previous matches.

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Speaking of characters, they are quite diverse in nature, in how they play the game and their love for Karuta. All three of the main characters are, in fact, quite stereotypical at the beginning. We have the tomboyish, airhead, and passionate Chihaya who is running after the quite, calm prodigy Arata who is resented by the good looking, popular and intelligent Taichi who has a crush on Chihaya. But over the course of the two seasons, they evolve as several layers are added to their character as they go about experiencing more and more games and deal with the challenges that come up.

I really like Chihaya, how she plays, how much she loves Karuta and how she is not so anally retentive about winning. She is cute, beautiful, can't really keep her feelings hidden, shouts her heart out but is an airhead and acts really stupid at times. She is dedicated, determined, has ridiculous levels of persistence and has an incredible work ethic. (I can relate to that) Watching her play and get better by learning from her opponents is heartening and quite exciting. Majority of the show's enjoyment comes from her.

Next in line, we have Mishima Taichi. He does not have the game sense (or talent) as either Chihaya or Arata, but he compensates it with his hard work and intelligence. His character is quite inspiring that way. But he is a real coward when it comes to his feelings for Chihaya. He always wants her to notice him by trying his best at the game but never could express them to her. He always wimps out whenever he has the chance to say it to her. Out of all the characters, he gets the most development throughout.

And last one in the list is our glasses wearing genius Wataya Arata. He is the most talented of the three and was already a champion in grade school. For a main character, he gets very little amount of screen time. So, at times his developments feels a little umbrageous and forced by the plot. Even for someone like me who does not speak Japanese, his Fukui dialect stood out and was quite entertaining. I commend the voice actor for bringing this diversity in the language. You don't get to hear accents in anime too often.

There is a romance triangle between the three cast members but it isn't catered as much as you'd want it to. The anime's primary focus is Karuta and not romance. It merely uses romance as a tool, as a part of the characters' motivations and to explain the intricate relationships they have with people around them. So, I'd say don't get your hopes too high and don't start sailing ships.As for the side characters, they develop just as much as the main characters. They do their role in helping the main characters grow and successfully manage to leave a lasting impression as well. They are quite relatable and realistic in their nature and bring variety to the show by their unique characteristics.

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It is quite mesmerizing how beautifully animated this show is. Well, it is expected when you have a giant animation studio like Madhouse handling the business. The animation style resorts to overly dramatise and sometimes even exaggerate the gameplay with it's astonishingly beautiful and breathtaking visuals. But hey, games like Karuta on the outside can look quite boring and mundane. I mean the hundred poems remain the same throughout. So, the animation style actually keeps the whole thing refreshing with every match even though it is basically the same thing over and over again. It brings those simple characters written on a few cards to life and paints a beautiful scenery for the viewer to behold. The same goes for the sound, they use a variety of sounds (like rings) during the games to give it a more dramatic and artistic feel. On top of that, the soundtrack is quite amazing on its own with the fisrt opening 'Youthful' now in one of my favourite openings. Some of the tracks are used multiple times but they always bring a new feel to the situation and almost every single tracks manages to capture the moment just fine. It really adds to the overall experience of the show and really motivates you to at least try playing Karuta for once. (At least it made me want to try it. I know I'll suck though)

Overall, this anime is a tour de force and it is just amazing how it intermingles it's characters and the story with Karuta and brings together an inspiring and prodigious picture. For someone who never liked sports anime in general, I was blown away by this. I know I might be setting the bar up too high for your expectations, but trust me, this is an amazing anime.P.S. The anime needs a third season (and probably a couple more) as the story is still unfinished. Hopefully, Madhouse will pick this up and maybe by some miracle we might get S3 this winter (though it's highly unlikely).
Chihayafuru Rating

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