Anime Review: Chihayafuru Season 1 (2011)

TL;DR – a friendship triangle turns somewhat into a love triangle and examines three childhood friends who enter high school connected by a card game called karuta. This is one to watch.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Quick history lesson. Playing cards were first introduced into Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. The first incarnation of karuta was at the end of that century and since then there have been various transformations and versions of the game.

The version that is central to this anime, I believe, is called ‘Uta-garuta’ and involves two decks of one hundred cards each. One deck (known as the ‘reading cards’) depicts a person, their name and a complete poem. The second deck (known as the ‘grabbing cards’) only have the finishing phrase of the poem on it.

The basic way to play involves two people facing each other, who shuffle and lay out the grabbing cards face up in front of them. A third person uses the reading cards and starts reading out loud the poem. The two competitors attempt to locate the card that matches the poem being read out loud as quickly as possible and grabs it (they only need to touch the card first even if it is only with their fingernail). The player that removes all the cards on their side first wins. There are other rules involved such as if you manage to take a card from your opponent’s side, you can then give one of your cards to them on your side (thus reducing the number you need to clear on your side).

The main protagonist is Chihaya Ayase, an athletic, pretty high school student seeking to form a karuta club. She is a bit ditzy, still charming, who has a karuta obsession. Her obsession came about when she met Arata Wataya in elementary school and discovered the shy boy is an expert at playing karuta and dreams of one day becoming a grandmaster. The third main character in this triangle is Taichi Mashima, a talented, smart, and good-looking boy who also knows Chihaya since elementary school. Events transpire during the elementary school years that places friendships in jeopardy and Taichi on the outside looking in at the bond Chihaya develops with Arata. This spurs him into becoming good at karuta also.

Season one surrounds Chihaya’s goal to form a karuta club and the connection between her, Arata and Taichi. Having never heard of karuta prior to watching this anime, I was surprised at how exciting, tense, and beautiful the game is. Initially, I expected it to be like chess. A mental sport requiring each player to think ahead and achieve checkmate. But karuta requires elements of physical skill and speed that needs to be seen in order to fully appreciate. The anime is accurate in its depictions of how competitive karuta is played in real life, and the methods and movements to secure cards as quickly as possible is spot on. The fact the game also centres on the reading out of poetry and understanding the various inflections of words and memorising as well as hearing those inflections in order to get an advantage over your opponent raises the game’s intensity. Understanding card placement (and memorising that placement) is one skill, listening for the syllables to keywords in the poem is another skill, and then combining them to have the ability to swipe your hand first over the correct card is far more gripping than a lot of other sports I have watched (yes, cricket I’m looking at you).

The anime is interesting enough around the game, but it is elevated due to the characters and their relationships with each other. It is clear early on that Taichi’s feelings for Chihaya is more than friendship, and his actions initially to push Arata away from Chihaya backfires and makes him realise he is being a coward. He then spends much of his time trying to do the right thing and even sacrificing his own emotions to make Chihaya happy.

Arata also goes through changes and struggles, even at one point wanting to sever any friendship he has with Chihaya and Taichi because he gives up on his dream and stops playing karuta.

It is Chihaya and their love for karuta that brings them together.

Season one of Chihayafuru is fascinating slice-of-life/sports hybrid that I devoured in record time. Creator Yuki Suetsugu has done something special here. You will not regret putting this at the top of your anime to watch list.

9 out of 10

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