Chihayafuru – First Impressions

Chihayafuru is a curious anime which started off life as a manga (first published in 2007 and still ongoing). The story follows Chihaya Ayase, a high-school girl who has spent a large part of her life not doing very much and simply supporting her older sister who it has a modelling carrier (according to the story it appears as if her sister is relatively successful). This all changes when she meets a bay called Arata Wataya, a very talented Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (Karuta) player, who quite a lonely character throughout the series. Arata believes that Chihaya has the potential to become a great Karuta player, but of course they are separated for various reasons at a young age. The story is effectively about Chihayas high-school life and her continuing quest to become a great Karuta player in the hope of meeting her friends and particularly Arata again.

The basic idea of any Karuta game is to be able to quickly determine which card out of an array of cards is required and then to grab the card before it is grabbed by an opponent. There are various types of cards which can be used to play Karuta. It is also possible to play this game using two standard decks of playing cards. Karuta is often played by children at elementary school and junior high-school level during class, as an educational exercise. Although several kinds of Karuta games are described below, in reality any kind of information that can be represented in card form can be used including shapes, colors, words in English, small pictures and the like (More details can be found on Wikipedia etc). This is all explained within the series over a period of time, but it is a little complex.

This is a very sweet show and while the plot itself is relatively simplistic it manages to produce a very moving story about a traditional Japanese game that, similar to Go and Shogi has a competitive scene in Japan. More importantly it is a story about Chihayas continued search for friends through the medium of Karuta and how she interacts with other people and more importantly works towards her own goals rather than following her sister.

The first episode starts off with the viewers being introduced to Chihaya in high-school. She is an immensely beautiful girl, perhaps as beautiful, if not more so than her sister, however she is an eccentric, wearing track-suit bottoms under her skirt and attempting to get people to help her start up a Karuta club in the school. We are have several episodes of flashbacks, going back to her middle school life when she met Arata and fell in love with Karuta. These first episodes, while relatively slow help to create the setting for what is to come, and for a 25 episode series I feel that so far the pacing has been rather good.

The story is a curious one since it appears to be simply a slice-of-life high school drama about Chihaya’s attempt to become a grand master of Kurata. There is a romantic element in the show as well, with both Arata and Chihaya’s childhood friend Taichi both appearing to be in love with her, although her tomboy nature, general air-headedness and obsession with Kurata mean she apparently hasn’t noticed yet.

This show is also within the josei genre (basically women’s comics/literature), so the story is very much about Chihaya’s everyday experiences, not only in her high-school life, but also within the world of Kurata. Being a Josei story the relationships and romance are also likely to be far more realistic, rather than the idealized versions that you tend to get in shoujo or other such romance genres. And while I expect there to be some drama in this series, so far my experiences of the josei drama suggest that it may not be quite as overly dramatic or even melodramatic as the drama that you so often find in shoujo material.

This style also seems to feed into the artwork, having a far more retrained feel with pastel colors, and while there is some CG used it seems to be used in moderation with the majority of the art appearing to be hand drawn. I happen to love this art style, especially the way the characters are designed; again with a far more restrained feel, with less focus on a ‘moe’ style. It is a very stylish, stylized series, which differs from the other shows this season, not only in terms of setting, but also art.

The show is however all about the characters, with Chihaya being a wonderful person, and a shear joy to watch. As I mentioned she is a bit of an oddball character, being a massive tomboy who pretty much says whatever comes into her head. As I mentioned, in high school she is immensely beautiful, a far cry from the tomboyish, short haired person we see in the flashbacks, of course her personality does not match her looks.

Her classmates consider her to be a bit too weird and suggest that she is a ‘waste of a beauty’, or even a ‘tomboy trapped in a supermodels beauty.’ Chihaya is a great character though, bringing a smile to my face whenever she’s on screen and does something a little crazy. Her obsession with Karuta is also fascinating and I really enjoy watching her strive for something that is not her older sisters happiness.

So far we haven’t seen much of Taichi in high school, although he is also quite an interesting character. He is very intelligent and was able to pass the entrance exams for a prestigious school during the flashback episodes. He is also interested in Karuta, however the pressure from his family to achieve something seems to be weighting heavily on his mind, along with the idea of having to maintain a ‘cool’ persona while in high school.

When we first meet him he appears to have a girlfriend, however it is quite clear that he still harbors romantic feelings for Chihaya, something that she has yet to pick up on, partly because he hasn’t said anything, but mainly because Chihaya is a bit dim in this area.

The other main character is Arata, a Karuta prodigy who has played by himself for years, and for various reasons has to move back to his family home. He is an interesting and quite a complex character who is very clever as well, but seems to have a lot weighing on his mind and is unable to really interact with other people around him. His release is Karuta and he plays with such intensity that his room is full of marks where the Karuta cards have been buried in the walls and door. He also appears to have romantic feelings for Chihaya, but has similarly complicated reasons as to why he hasn’t said anything. At the point in the series we have not really seen much of him during the high school years but I hope and expect that his character will be developed further as the series progresses.

This type of series has been done before with shows such as Saki, where people aim to be a champion in a traditional game, and although saki s about Mahjong and is Shoujo-ai, the story is very similar. I did find some of the earlier episodes to be a little dull at times, and while the explanations of Karuta could be interesting, they could also drag on at times. I completely understand why there are such explanations since I don’t think many people actually know what Karuta even is, let alone know how to play the game. There is also an element of comedy within the show, which compliments the relatively serious elements surrounding Karuta.

I also found the story to be quite slow to start up with a significant amount of explanation within the flashbacks to set the scene for what we could consider the present day with Chihaya, Arata and Taichi all in high school. Despite this slow start I do however feel that the pacing of the show is very nice and fits a 25 episode show well.

There hasn’t been much drama as yet, but now that the series has switched to the present day with everyone in high school I am expecting some drama and of course romance between Chihaya, Arata and Tachi and potentially some other people who may come in later on. I would however like to see a little more about Chihaya’s family since during the flashbacks it is almost as if she is completely ignored by, not only her sister by her parents who fuss over her older sisters modelling carrier. This may not be entirely central to the story, but I find it interesting anyway.

Overall this has been a wonderful show to watch, and while I did find it a little slow at times I am honestly enjoying watching it. The artwork is nicely done, and quite restrained in places, and of course it is a joy to watch Chihaya’s single-minded goal to become a master Karuta player. This show being in the Josei genre means that it won’t be for everyone of course, but I do think its worth watching at the moment, especially since it’s a nice change of pace from shows like Guilty Crown and Last Exile, that while look wonderful seem to lack meaningful plot and character development, which Chihayafuru seems to have in spades.

About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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