Premise: Chihaya Ayase is a frank and ebullient girl who becomes fascinated by the obscure world of competitive karuta, a card game based on Japanese poetry. Introduced to the aggressive style of the game by a quiet and thoughtful elementary school classmate named Arata Wataya, the two quickly become close friends. They start playing as a group with Taichi Mashima, Chihaya's smart and athletic childhood friend, until they have to part ways during their middle school years due to several circumstances. As their high school life begins, they meet once again.
Chihayafuru has a lot of genre blending in it, but at its heart is a sports anime. There is a small shoujo romance subplot, some minor drama, some slice of life (arguably. Depends on how you define the genre), and some laugh out loud comedy as well. Despite this, the show never drifts too far out from its sports genre core. I'll admit, I was quite skeptical of Chihayafuru when I first saw it, and even now I have some doubts. However, the more I watched, the more I began to see what the show was all about. It managed to make me involved with the events on screen, and that's a rather big accomplishment. I'm not a huge sports fan, be it fictional (anime) or real life sports. I'm not particularly good at sports, nor can I really get into the underlying concepts. While I'm not about to start going over everything I dislike about sports, I do feel that this information is particularly helpful for my review. I, someone who if anything, dislikes sports, was captured by a predominately sports anime. And that's where the blend of genres comes into play. But I'll get into that later; for now, let's get technical. (Oh, and a note. When I talk about a "typical" sports anime, I'm just talking the other series I've encountered. So don't take it as too encompassing.)
The visuals in Chiyahafuru are really quite striking, in a surprising way. The character designs are quite nice (even the people without big anime eyes look good), as do the backgrounds and general art. But the real winner of the visuals here is the game of Karuta itself. The game is just played in such a visually striking way. Body motion and movement are presented realistically, but are also so attention grabbing. Cards are captured so suddenly and with such eye-drawing over swings that one
|Those lips, that nose|
Another attention grabber in Chihayafuru is the sound. The auditory aspects of Karuta are full of contrasts, just like the visuals. There is usually silence (or a character's thought process) before cards are read, then there's a veritable cacophony of noise when the players take the cards. What these sound and visual contrasts add up to is a very intense atmosphere. The stillness/silence followed by the swift movements and loud sounds really make you pay attention and get involved in the matches. I'll talk about why that is important in a bit, but for now, on to the rest of the sound. The music and the voice acting in Chihayafuru are also strong. The music isn't anything I would listen to on its own, but I was continually surprised at how well it fit the scenes and situations. As for voice acting, this area is sort of like graphics in games for me. I'm not a real voice acting connoisseur, so I don't know the subtle differences between what makes it "great" as opposed to just "good." Still, I can say with confidence that even if I'm unsure whether or not it is great, the voice acting in this series is quite good. There aren't any characters who have unfitting voice actors, and line delivery provides nothing to complain about. Good sound, on every level.
I guess the next thing to talk about is the characters. I'm actually quite fond of the characters in Chihayafuru. It's a sports anime. As far as I know, they're all about characters growing, developing, and so forth, and this series is no exception. The big difference (from your typical sports anime) is that the characters are all likeable, with the emphasis on "all." Of course, there are always a few characters in every cast that different viewers have trouble connecting with or liking, but Chihayafuru is devoid of characters that everybody will dislike (Like Ouma Shu, from what I've heard). The most important characters, the five Karuta club members, embody this quite well just by themselves. In many sports anime (to clarify further, this generalization comes solely from my own admittedly limited experience), you end up with a team usually composed of a lone wolf, a main character, a comic relief dope, a team player, and usually another player who's good for one of any number of reasons. That kind of thing, where everyone is either an underdog or has some kind of "special ability." In Chihayafuru, however, no members of the team overshadow the others. Sure, some of the players are better than the others, but no one gets neglected or made unimportant because of Chihaya or Taichi. Each one is a good, and furthermore a unique, character on their own, and that's really all one could ask for. The other characters like their Karuta teacher, Wataya, and Chihaya's sister are all well made too. Overall, great characters.
The next thing I'll talk about is the story. This is actually the weakest area of the show so far, which honestly isn't saying much because everything I've covered so far is great. The story in Chihayafuru isn't bad, by any means; it's just fairly...average, where most everything else is well above average. The plot is pretty formulaic: Creation of the Karuta Club, followed by getting more members, followed by going to tournaments, followed by...going to more tournaments, and so on. Really, it's quite standard fare for a sports anime. That's not a bad thing. Formulas exist for a reason, and Chihayafuru deals with the content in a way that even people who bemoan "stereotypical sports anime" may not even notice. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Chihayafuru explains Karuta very well. For anyone who has watched a sports show without knowing the rules of the sport beforehand, the feeling of not really knowing what's going on or why that last action was so important should hardly be unfamiliar. Sports anime often leave their audiences behind in order behind to make games and plays important, and the result is confusion in the viewers. Chihayafuru doesn't really have this problem. I mean, I still don't understand a number of the rules for Karuta, nor did watching the show really allow me to pick up the nuances of the game. But after the first few episodes, I never really felt confused about what was going on. The show had successfully taught me the most basic rules of Karuta. And that highlights one of the greatest advantages this show has in its favor: knowing the sport isn't vital to your enjoyment of the series. The other thing that Chihayafuru really nailed down is having more draws than just the sport. I only started watching this because I heard it was good and I wanted a good character story. And that was what I got. Like I said, I didn't really understand the sport for the first few episodes, and that was okay. Why? Because I had a well done,
Overall: Chihayafuru is a wonderful success of a series. It's excellent as a sports show, good as a shoujo/comedy show, is extremely competent on a production level, and is all around a great viewing experience. I'm not going to attach a rating to this, because as I mentioned this is based off a single viewing. That said, if you like sports and/or comedy, I strongly recommend this series. While comparatively light on the shoujo/romance/drama side of things, there are still enough of those elements to keep you entertained throughout. This show is definitely one of the Fall/Winter 2011 seasons highlights.
Any suggestions/requests for my next reviews? Post a comment!
Ephemeral Dreamer also made a great post about sound and the functions of readers in Karuta: