June 09, 2016
Chihayafuru is based on the award-winning manga by Yuki Suetsugu. It begins with Chihaya Ayase (her name is coincidentally the same as the first line of an Ogura Hyakunin Isshu poem) hanging recruiting posters for the high school karuta club. (See my previous post on the subject.)
Since there isn't a high school karuta club, she needs five members to form an official one (an official club gets an advisor, a budget, and a room).
Her first recruit is Taichi Mashima, one of the kids she learned karuta with in elementary school. The story then flashes back to their childhoods. Arata Wataya, the new kid in their elementary school homeroom class, is a karuta wizard, having been taught by his grandfather, a grand champion.
Chihaya, Taichi and Arata venture to the community center to join the local karuta club. The club president, Dr. Harada, is overjoyed to find three new members on his doorstep. Taichi is better than Chihaya. Arata is in a league of his own. But Chihaya is undaunted in her quest to be the best.
After elementary school, the three of them go their separate ways. In Japan, kids in the same neighborhood will usually attend the same elementary school; starting with junior high, the school they attend depends more on their academic goals and abilities.
Taichi is accepted into a prestigious junior high. Arata returns with his family to far-flung Fukui when his grandfather falls ill and grows out of touch. When we next meet him as an older teen, he speaks with a strong Hokuriku accent.
Arata has also grown out of touch with karuta. The most poignant dramatic arc in the first season involves Chihaya's efforts to re-inspire the person who first inspired her.
Now in high school, Chihaya has reached A-level, the highest rank in competitive karuta. But she's far from the top. Taichi hasn't played since elementary school but gets dragged along by Chihaya's enthusiasm. With another classmate they once competed with and two rookies, the club is on.
Chihayafuru follows the basic structure of the high school anime sports series. A big difference is that karuta isn't exactly a spectator sport. At first, there's no way to replay an entire karuta game in real time and hold our interest.
As the players get better and we become more familiar with the game, the competitions get longer, and begin to approximate real time. Similar to The Big Windup, commentary comes in the form of inner monologues that reveal the strategies, strengths, and weaknesses of each player and team.
Character profiles of the players and their opponents—examining what drew them to such an obscure and difficult sport in the first place—are depicted in often surprisingly intense melodramatic vignettes (accompanied by lush orchestration).
Now, stories about melodramatic teens usually appeal to me as much as fingernails scraping across a blackboard. A big problem with otherwise compelling teen romances like Kimi ni Todoke is that, as Kate puts it, the characters have too much time to "sit and around and get angsty."
A job, a sport, a serious hobby helps to mitigate that. The nascent love triangle (usually another annoying dramatic device) in Chihayafuru stays mostly nascent, largely because Arata is on the other side of Japan. And Chihaya's monomaniacal focus on karuta precludes such distractions.
Neither is it resolved (I'll have to start reading the manga). But there is a pay-off in the penultimate episode of season two when Oe (the club medievalist) realizes the implications of a poem Chihaya wrote for a homework assignment and lectures Taichi to pick up his game (a cute scene).
So there's a lot more involved than the protagonist going from success to success. Common to anime sports series,the struggle, the hard work and effort, the growth and the team effort are what matter the most.
Oe insists they wear traditional hakama and learn what the poems mean (think of how well the average educated person understands Chaucer). The club nerd calculates "batting averages" based on card placement. Taichi and Nikuman-kun rise quickly to match Chihaya's abilities.
For Chihaya, being the biggest fish in her own small pond doesn't mean there is nothing more for her to learn right where she is. She's still got a long way to go to become the "queen" of karuta. But her unrelenting passion for a game based on medieval poetry will surely take her there.
Crunchyroll has both seasons of the anime (scroll down for season one). The two live-action movies aren't available in the U.S. There are two Japanese/English bilingual volumes of the manga (more in French, for some reason) and thirty-one so far in Japanese (over ten million copies in print).
The videos below are from the 2016 Queen (women) and Meijin (men) matches. (I mentioned hakama above, which the competitors are wearing.)
Granted, at first it'll make about as much sense as, well, Cricket (though it should be obvious when a "dead" card is read). But once you've watched a season of Chihayafuru, you'll know exactly what is going on, even if you don't understand a word of Japanese.