This series focuses on competitive karuta. I didn't really understand what that was at first. If you're not sure either, here's a quickie explanation (if I get any of this wrong, feel free to correct me in a comment – everything I know, I learned from watching the anime and reading a bit here and there on Wikipedia, and it's quite possible I missed or misunderstood some things): A karuta deck is composed of 100 cards, each of which has a portion of one of the One Hundred Poems written on it. The two players each get 25 of those cards (according to what I read on Wikipedia, 50 cards aren't in play) and arrange those cards on their side of the playing field. A third person, the reader, reads one of the poems, and the first player to touch the card that corresponds to that poem gets to have that card. The goal is to reduce the cards on one's side to zero. If a player takes a card from their opponent's side, he or she may move a card from his or her own side over to the other player's side.
When she was in elementary school, Chihaya was introduced to competitive karuta by Arata, a transfer student. She became fascinated by the energy and intensity of the game. Taichi, her best friend, started learning to play along with her, at first mainly because he was jealous of the attention Chihaya gave Arata. The threesome was later separated, however. Chihaya continued to study and play karuta, Arata abandoned it after his beloved grandfather's death, and Taichi abandoned it due to his mother's insistence that he only concentrate on those things he could excel at and that would help his future. (My understanding is that, while there are Master and Queen levels in karuta, it's not possible to play karuta for a living, the way one can Go.)
When she enters high school, Chihaya wants to start a karuta club and is convinced that Taichi will, of course, be part of that club. Taichi is reluctant at first, but eventually joins, in part because he's still nursing a crush on Chihaya. Three other students are later convinced to join: Kana, a quiet girl who loves the One Hundred Poems upon which karuta is based and whose family owns a traditional clothing store; a boy nicknamed Nikuman-kun ("Porky"), a karuta player Chihaya and Taichi faced when they were children; and a boy nicknamed Desktomu-kun, whose greatest gift is his ability to study.
The more experienced members of the club work towards their goal of becoming good enough to compete in the Master and Queen tournaments, while the less experienced members learn the rules and do their best to rise in rank. The whole team also occasionally competes in team tournaments, learning to play as a group. Meanwhile, the subplot involving Arata and Taichi's interest in Chihaya continues, with Chihaya still completely oblivious to everything but karuta.
I'm so glad this show was recommended to me and that I listened and started watching it – of all the shows I've been watching in the past few months, this is one of the best. I thought, going into it, that I had some idea of what karuta was, but I definitely wasn't expecting what I saw. Although I couldn't follow along with some of the finer points of the game, the matches were still incredibly exciting to watch.
The show starts off with Chihaya in high school, meeting Taichi again for the first time in a while and assuming that he's still as interested in karuta as she is. Then the series takes a brief trip back in time, to Chihaya's elementary school days, when she first met Arata, when her love of karuta began, and when Arata and Taichi's rivalry and friendship began. After the threesome's relationship is established, the series moves forward in time again. Chihaya remains oblivious to Taichi's interest in her and, from what I could tell, genuinely wanted Arata to play karuta again because of her love for the game and her belief that he loved it too. It's possible she had some sort of unrecognized crush on Arata, but she was so focused on and passionate about karuta that it was kind of hard to tell.
One of the things I love about this show is that it's not just about karuta and characters' style of playing – the series takes the time to show a little of the pasts and/or motivations of many of the characters. Part of Chihaya's motivation for playing karuta was her feeling that she had no ambitions of her own. She and her parents only ever rooted for her sister's success in modeling. Even after Chihaya began playing karuta, she still felt that her karuta playing wasn't seen as being as important as her sister's modeling. I cried during the bit where it was revealed that her parents noticed and cared about her karuta matches, too, even if they weren't as vocal about it as they were about her sister's modeling.
Taichi and Arata also got quite a bit of motivation screen time, even though Arata wasn't part of the main group for most of the series (a minor complaint: if this series is only ever one season long, then high school-aged Arata was little more than filler – he didn't do much, other than serve as Taichi's rival). The bits about Arata focused on his grandfather's death, how that caused him to quit playing karuta, and his efforts to get back in the swing of things when Chihaya convinced him to start playing again. With Taichi, the focus was on his hidden crush on Chihaya and his home life. For him, playing karuta meant going against his overbearing mother for the first time ever and doing something that he wanted to do, something for which there was no guarantee he'd ever become the best.
Even the pasts and motivations of several more minor characters got some screen time. I enjoyed Kana's love of the One Hundred Poems, and, if there are ever any more seasons aired, I hope I get to see her realize her karuta ambition, no matter how difficult it may be (I think she might actually have a harder time of it than Chihaya, Taichi, or Arata, who are all aiming for Queen/Master level!). I found the current and former Queens to be fascinating, as well. I might not have liked the karuta that Yumin, the former Queen, played, but I still felt sympathy for her as she battled her belief that she couldn't live up to her karuta teacher's expectations. I would have loved to have seen more of Shinobu, the current Queen, who, like some other characters, seems to feel a connection to the karuta cards. I still feel that she and Chihaya would probably make wonderful friends, if they ever got a chance to meet each other outside of karuta matches. They're both intensely focused on karuta, and both are amusingly fascinated with cartoon characters they think are cute but which others think are ugly/embarrassing.
My main complaint about this show is that it ended when it did. I wanted to watch Chihaya play in a Queen tournament, I wanted to see her play Shinobu again (and win!), and I wanted to see if she would ever figure out that Arata and Taichi liked her. Although I can't honestly imagine her choosing between them, I think Taichi would have been the best choice for her. Arata was more an image she'd built up in her head, someone she put on a karuta-playing pedestal. Taichi was the guy she actually knew best, and who understood her and put up with her occasional weird and ditsy moments. I didn't really get a good feel for why high school-aged Arata still had a crush on Chihaya, beyond the memories he had of her when they were children and, maybe, her beauty.
As I've already said, I also wanted to see Kana get further in her own personal karuta ambition. Desktomu seemed a little dejected near the end of the series, likely unable to see how he could ever become even a fraction as good as players like Chihaya and Suo (the current Master). Although Desktomu doesn't have the natural karuta talent that some of the other characters do, it's not inconceivable that he could become an A class player (there are five levels, A through E, with A being best – I can't remember if Desktomu is still E class by the end of the series, or if he made it to D class). What I can really see him doing in the future, though, is becoming a karuta teacher. I think he'd be awesome at teaching others to play and helping players figure out and overcome their weaknesses and the weaknesses of their opponents. Sadly, Nikuman-kun's future doesn't really excite me all that much at this point – there's nothing about him that makes him stand out for me as much as some of the other characters.
The artwork in this series was gorgeous. I'm a sucker visuals that include lovely anime hair or flower petals blowing in the wind (whether that wind is real or just a way for the animators to emphasize an important moment), and this series had quite a few moments of that sort. Characters' eyes were large and lovely, to the point that it was almost hard for me to watch the show at first, until I got used to it. Taichi, Arata, Chihaya, and Shinobu were all so nice to look at that I could have watched them playing for ages, especially when they wore hakama.
This series had me at the edge of my seat, heart pounding with excitement, so many times. I loved the characters, the matches, and the smidgen of romance. My personal grade for this series is an A- - I'd probably have given it an A if it hadn't ended when it did. I want to see more of the characters I've gotten to know, and the final episode made me want to see more of Suo, the current Master, who I imagine is just as interesting as all the other characters. Plus, I'm dying to know why Shinobu hates him so much. I love the series as is, but I'll put in one more request for another season or two. I want to see more, please!
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Hikaru no Go (manga) story by Yumi Hotta, art by Takeshi Obata; Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - If you don't mind not having a romantic subplot, this may be a great series to try. The main character, Hikaru, has no interest in the board game Go, until he is possessed by Sai, the spirit of a Go player/instructor who committed suicide after he was falsely accused of cheating. Sai wants to continue playing Go through Hikaru, and Hikaru goes along with this at first, until he starts to develop an interest in the game himself. This is another series that makes exciting a game that is probably foreign to many Western viewers/readers. This series deals somewhat less with characters' pasts and motivations than Chihayafuru, but the rivalry between Hikaru and Akira, a Go prodigy, makes up for that, in my opinion. I have written about volume 12 of the manga.
- Hanasaku Iroha (anime TV series) - I haven't actually seen this series yet, although it's on my To Be Watched list. If you liked Chihayafuru's traditional aesthetic, beautiful artwork, and focus on its characters, you might want to try this series, about a girl who is set to work at her grandmother's Taisho-era (1920s) hot springs inn after her mother abandons her for her latest boyfriend.
- Sand Chronicles (manga) by Hinako Ashihara - The earlier bits in Chihayafuru dealing with Chihaya's relationship with Taichi and Arata, in particular, made me think of this series, which I think might be overall more dramatic and serious than Chihayafuru. However, those who liked the romance and character relationship aspects of Chihayafuru might want to check this one out.