Anime’s favorite thing to do is take really boring concepts and ideas and turn them into a masterpiece. OK, so maybe Chihayafuru (Chihayafull; ちはやふる) is actually based on the real sport of karuta, but you can’t blame me for feeling that way about a show that is essentially about competitive poetry battles. To an outsider, the premise of karuta almost sounds outrageous, but it turns out it’s actually pretty exciting to watch (or at least an anime based on karuta is exciting to watch). Spoilers ahead.
The karuta played in Chihayafuru is actually a specific version of karuta known as Uta-garuta, meaning “Poetry karuta.” You can click that link for detailed information, but essentially, the game is comprised of 100 poems. There is a reader who has cards for the first half of each poem, and the two players have the second half of the poem on the playing field in front of them (assuming it’s not a dead card since not all 100 poems are on the field at once). Once the first half of the poem is read, one of the players must quickly select and remove the second half from play, either by touching it or slapping it off the field. First player to do so and remove all cards from their own side of the field wins (there are more rules about card movement and such, but it would be boring to simply list all of that stuff here, so go read it for yourself).
The main protagonist for this series is a girl named Chihaya Ayase. As a young girl, Chihaya had no true aspirations for herself; she was content to simply live in the shadow of her fashion model sister until she meets Arata Wataya. Arata was being bullied, and Chihaya chose to step in and befriend him. In return, Arata introduces Chihaya to his passion for karuta. During their first game, it becomes clear to Chihaya that Arata sees karuta as more than just a hobby; he’s hyper competitive and really fast, able to take most of the cards on the first or second syllable being read. This lights a fire in Chihaya and she begins training, hoping one day to beat Arata.
Flash forward, and now Chihaya is in high school, trying her hardest to start a karuta club. She needs to train if she’s ever going to meet Arata, who has long since moved away, in competition. But she has aspirations beyond simply meeting Arata in a competition. The highest ranked female karuta player earns the title of “Queen,” and Chihaya has made that her goal.
Four students are recruited, each bringing with them a separate passion for playing. Those passions range from a desire to improve their memory skills to their love for the ancient poems and traditions. Chihaya gets her karuta club established and the long road of training and competition begins.
There is a lot to be said about how this anime handles character growth. As the protagonists play in tournaments to move their way up the ranks, they learn a lot about themselves through the mirror of competition. But, that growth never stagnates.
Rather than simply giving the main characters one or two large flaws that they have to work through and solve by the end of the season, the anime paints a more realistic depiction of life. When one issue is overcome and the character is feeling invincible, they often learn the harsh lesson that, no, there is still more to be done. Nobody is ever perfect and you will spend your entire life improving upon yourself. Sometimes one step forward really does feel like two steps back. Learning to be OK with that reality is part of what it means to mature.
Chihaya embodies the “essence of youth” in many ways. Anime is obsessed with the “essence” and “vigor” of youth. I think everyone can identify with that feeling, small or large. Who wouldn’t want to go back to a carefree and passionate youth that knows no fear? Chihaya throws herself head-forward into karuta, thinking of little else (until reality knocks her over with some bad grades). This passion is present in a lot of anime, but the positivity and optimism of Chihaya is still refreshing to experience. It makes you want to cheer her on, even knowing that she’s being more than a little naive.
There is a second season of Chihayafuru that I have yet to watch (both season 1 and season 2 are large at 25 episodes each), but I can say that I am, without a doubt, very much looking forward to what’s in store. It has a lot to live up to, but even if it’s simply more of the same, that will be more than enough to satisfy my expectations. If you’re someone who enjoys dramatic slice of life (that doesn’t take itself too seriously), then I recommend giving this one a shot.