Chihayafuru spends its first few episodes in the childhood of Chihaya, Mishima, and Arata – three unlikely friends who end up bound by the world of karuta. Karuta is essentially a card game based around poetry, and Arata is the grandson of a karuta master. He introduces a curious Chihaya to the game first, followed by Mishima, and the three of them begin to play at their local society. Eventually, life takes them in separate directions, leaving Chihaya to pursue her dream of becoming the best karuta player in Japan by herself. Stuck in class B for three years, Chihaya plans to advance to class A and then to the national tournament, so that she can reunite with Arata, who she hasn’t seen in years. Eventually, Chihaya convinces Mishima to begin a karuta club with her, and they slowly begin recruiting a small group of new members.
As much as I want to give a longer series synopsis, the way the plot develops in Chihayafuru is incredible to the point that giving away anything more would ruin the pacing and discoveries. What follows is a story about building relationships, becoming a team, and the hard realities of both life and competition.
For much of the series, Arata is like a ghost haunting Chihaya and Mishima’s thoughts. Until the fifth episode, we only see him in flashbacks, and even then his moments are few and far between. When he appears, he highlights how people – and lives – change (and sometimes don’t change) over time. Arata’s influence is important, but it is never the main focus of the series. He disappears and then reappears like old friends often do, and his strongest presence is in Chihaya’s memories as she pushes forward.
Once of my favourite things about this series is it actually didn’t feel like an underdog tale. As a child, Chihaya had to work hard to become good at karuta, and once she grows older, she is genuinely skilled and passionate. Similarly, Mishima acknowledges that he was not particularly skilled with karuta. Instead, it’s hard work that got him to where he is. The other members of the team have their weaknesses, but it didn’t feel like a rag-tag team desperately flailing to win, nor did it feel like the old “I’m doing this for the first time and am surprisingly naturally talented!” trope. It felt like watching a real team develop and grow together.
Every character has to figure out their own strategy and skill in order to be successful. They also have to constantly put in hard work. As Desktomu struggles with not being able to win a match, Oe spiritedly points out that the other players have developed calluses over the years from all their practice and experience. Winning isn’t just about being lucky, being born with talent, or determination – it’s also about hard work. Meanwhile, Chihaya is a strong player, but always questioning her abilities. Her occasional panic attacks felt all too real – in a strange way it’s almost empowering to see a strong, special character crumble a little under pressure, especially considering the reverse in anime seems to be the happy-go-lucky “I’m not great but don’t worry guys – we’ll make it anyway!” archetype. At times her imposter syndrome is a little too much, but it was still believable, especially if you’ve experienced something similar.
Another great aspect of the series is its ability to showcase karuta. Honestly, I had no idea what karuta was before watching Chihayafuru, and even if I did I might have been skeptical of an anime’s ability to bring fun, fresh excitement to it. It seems like a fascinating (and fun!) game, but it can still be hard to transfer the spirit of a game or sport into an animated series. Chihayafuru had me hooked from the start and eager to see how each character played and performed. Every match is showcased with the perfect intensity and just a touch of drama.
Set against well-matched music and filled with convincing voice actors, the Chihayafuru experience is pretty great. But where it really excelled with the technical aspects was aesthetics. There are anime out there that are visually stunning works of art, and I wouldn’t categorize this along with some of those (as I write this, I’m picturing the watercolour-esque eyegasm that was The Rolling Girls.) But as far as realistic series go, I think this was one of the most well done ones I’ve watched recently. The characters are detailed, and the backgrounds sometimes are unbelievably stunning. The animation and art were consistently strong and smooth. Chihayafuru doesn’t cut corners by keeping characters in the same outfits every day or giving them similar designs. Even background characters are fully-designed. The use of light is excellent as well – sunlight, overhead lights in rooms… more than once these are utilized perfectly in a scene’s colouring.
I suppose after that endorsement it’s a little expected, but I really liked the boxset’s design and colours. It’s pretty to look at and the tanabata theme is really enjoyable. This is definitely one I’ll be happy to place on my shelf and show off to people looking for new series.
Now, all that said… the special features on Chihayafuru are pretty ordinary and unexciting. You’ll find trailers and openings/endings – the usual that you’d expect on most boxsets. I’m pretty vocal about the benefits of tossing in something small and non-digital for fans who are still spending money on boxsets in the internet age, even though I definitely also understand the necessary cost. To be fair, there’s also a limited edition boxset listed for preorder online that contains a lot more and is absolutely beautiful. If you’ve got the money to spare, I’d recommend checking it out – it appears to have amazing art and lots of extras. But even on its own without fancy bells and whistles and art packed in, I think Chihayafuru is definitely a great series that’s worth watching.
NOTE: Sentai Filmworks provided us with a review copy of this set in exchange for our honest review.