I trust that some readers of this article will be familiar with the shoujo genre of anime: the series generally aimed at young-to-teenage girls. Think Sailor Moon, Fushigi Yugi, MY Love Story!!. To these readers: watch Chihayafuru. Those that take me up on my word won’t just find a series to love, but maybe even a whole world of entertainment to discover, as it did for me. This is because Chihayafuru is not only a great shoujo series, but a crowning example of sports anime. What’s more, the very things that make Chihayafuru stand out as the former are what make it so great as the latter.
What are these star qualities? Well:
Strong Character, Female
For as much as we get to peek into the inner lives of others in Chihayafuru, Chihaya Ayase is the leading lady. The show allows her to be without charm, even as it makes her admirable. Chihaya is flighty, socially dense, extraordinarily dedicated, driven as hell, and honest to a fault. Chaihaya’s uranium-grade density leads her to barrel towards whatever she wants done, with no regard to what just about anybody else thinks of it. Its gravitational pull draws both the audience and those around her like its own sort of charisma, so that she has surprising luck roping others into doing what she wants, even as her intensity turns scores away.
What she wants almost certainly has to do with karuta: an old Japanese game where one has to match the first line of a poem to one of 100 cards on the playing field, as it is read. Chihaya is completely obsessed with karuta, above all else. She gets a lot out of the sport: It’s something she’s really, truly good at, so much so that she has the potential to distinguish herself at an international level, clashing against similarly driven and talented players appeals deeply to her competitive nature, and it becomes the foundation for meaningful connections with those players, especially her teammates. To understand Chihaya as a character is to understand why she loves karuta. To understand why Chihaya loves karuta is to become invested in her matches.
A Love Triangle
A shoujo without a spot of romance isn’t just rare, it’s nearly unimaginable. That’s a little bit unfortunate, but it does make for good drama, and there’s no quicker way to dramatize that romance than with a dash of rivalry. Hence: the love triangle.
Chihayafuru is no exception to its prominence, but even as it leaves us biting our nails and pulling our hair, the series plays with the formula by making Chihaya oblivious to her romantic interests instead of merely indecisive—at least, when that interest isn’t karuta, of course.
There’s no one that Chihaya wants to play karuta with more than Arata Wataya, and there’s no one she does play karuta with more than Taichi Mashima. The former is the one that introduced her to the game and always the one to beat, while the latter is her training partner and club president (after she ropes him in). They are also her object of admiration from afar and a dependable childhood friend, respectively.
As opposed to Chihaya, both are aware of their own feelings, but put them on the back burner, either because Chihaya is paying all of her attention to karuta or because they themselves are focused on their own progress. The result is a cold war where one is always pushing themselves forward, not just for their own sake, but in case the other two are looking, secretly or not so secretly hoping to draw the attention to themselves.
Motivation, Motivation, Motivation
What makes the tug-of-war all the tenser is that all parties are deeply sympathetic, thanks to the time taken by the series to make their circumstances and drives known. What makes Chihayafuru special is that it knows every player has their own reasons to keep competing, and these reasons inform the games played. Taichi originally started playing to be closer to Chihaya and to compete with Arata, while to Arata, the game is the most important bond he still has to his deceased grandfather. Beyond the central trio, some play to bring glory to their school or teacher, others because they love the poems, or because the community finally gave them a place to fit in, and a thousand reasons in between.
The sensitivity to the inner lives of its characters marks Chihayafuru as great shoujo but also leads to a truly exciting viewing of its sport. It’s easy to become invested in the matches of karuta, despite never having heard it before watching the series, because we are already invested in the characters playing.
In making the matches interesting, Chihayafuru does not stop there. The personalities and motivations of the characters also inform how they play karuta, so that each match becomes a clash of strategies as well as a clash of wills. Chihaya, for example, has extraordinarily good hearing, so her impulsiveness becomes a strength more than a weakness. On the other hand, that honesty of hers means she has difficulty contesting cards when it isn’t clear who got to them first.
Chihayafuru, then, does not need to do much to make karuta fun to watch. It still does, of course. Players lunge, swipe, and claw at cards with blinding speed, sweat drips from brows that have been furrowed at cards for hours and hours, breathing becomes ragged, and the thump at the first or second syllable of a poem is both instant and constant. Sometimes, the shot focuses on a hand as it reaches out in slow motion—other times, the card as it goes flying, the hand too fast to see. Even more specific to karuta, someone obviously had a lot of fun matching the poems read during the match with character revelations. For example: a poem that starts with, “And though we shall meet again,” may be read while Chihaya is thinking of Arata, far away.
Beyond the direction, Chihayafuru has style to spare, making the most of its animated nature. Arata’s “cool” style of play is visualized as his opponent being immersed in water, the kanji of the poems scrolls past the characters in the opening, and characters acting impishly will wear devil horns that no one remarks upon. Shoujo may be known for that kind of artifice, but a sports series benefits every bit from that visual flair. Chihayafuru is a series where you are just as likely to see a beloved character surrounded by cherry blossom petals as you are to hear the crunch of bone as it breaks.
Like many nerds, geeks, or dweebs, I haven’t always cared much for watching sports. Shows like Chihayafuru, though, give us a peek what the jocks of the world feel when they root for their favorite team. It might even inspire you to join them, the next time the game’s on, animated or not.
You can watch all of Chihayafuru on Chrunchyroll (http://www.crunchyroll.com/chihayafuru).
(images via Madhouse)
Alexander Smit spent most of his philosophy major thinking about movies and food. You can find his writing on twitter.com/biod42.and his stream of consciousness on
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