Seeing as I had no confidence in the summer season, I decided to invent a backlog of shows to watch from one of three different areas. The eighth show on this list was Chihayafuru, a show that aired in the fall of 2011 and I dropped after viewing all of one episode of the series. I marathoned it, and these are my thoughts on the series.
There’s a moment in the first episode which was both the initial reason why I dropped the show and also one of the foundations of my opinions on the series. Having brought Chihaya into the apartment he lived in and beginning to play a game of karuta, Arata explains that becoming the best player of the game in Japan also means being the best in the world at it. At the time I dropped it, I think my thought on that line was that it was because no one else in the world cared about it. After watching the rest of the series, I should have also added that they really needed to lay off the cheerleading for their niche event.
Yes, I came out of a show like Chihayafuru thinking that it did little more than attempt to promote karuta while doing minimal character development. In seemingly every scene, the show’s attempt to bring karuta to a wider audience seemed to be making the gap wider. The characters on screen devoted their lives to the game and little else with little else to make them seem like rounder characters.
About that story, Chihayafuru starts in the present with Chihaya trying to create a competitive karuta club at her high school with little success. Her friend Taichi tries to dissuade her with little success. Then we go back several years where the two of them and Arata, the outsider from another part of the country form a friendship all based around karuta. These are actually some of the best scenes in the series as it does show character development that goes beyond the results of a contest. Fast forward back to the present and Arata has quit playing due to a tragic event while Chihaya and Taichi gather a group of misfits to take on the karuta world.
The problem with the characters is that they pretty much come in to the series missing just one element to complete them. Obviously, all they had to do is have faith and accept Karuta into their lives. They still show a range of emotions, but it seems all programmed around what is happening in a game. In addition to Taichi and Chihaya, joining them are Kana, a girl who loves ancient poetry but lacked an outlet to express it; Desk-kun, the 2nd smartest kid in the class (behind Taichi), but needing an outlet to express his own intelligence; and Nishida, a player in his younger days who returned because it stoked his own competitive spirit. Once this group gets together and starts to compete in tournaments, the show becomes about promoting karuta and little else.
Chihayafuru gets caught up in this desire to promote karuta a little too much for its own good. There’s discussion of tactics and card placement analytics sprinkled throughout the second half of the show. Above all, there was an inferiority complex about karuta that always seemed to come up when characters outside the bubble of game were used. The idea that karuta is this impressive sport that would be on par or better than more popular sports if more people would watch just a little bit of it. They sprinkle in training montages and flashbacks to eureka moments other players have had throughout learning karuta from coaches. Yet at the end of the day, the series concludes with the two best players in the country having no coaching at all and winning purely on experience and natural talent with techniques they refined themselves.
The show never goes as far as raging against the larger culture as to why karuta isn’t as popular as it is. I can perfectly understand what it’s like to be fond of something niche and isn’t viewed as normal by popular culture. This is an anime blog, written by an American, in an online community that is associated with being introverts, while being a fan of association football, which is even less popular to watch in this country.
Actually there was one nice episode that took place at a tournament that I did like and I wish it would have had the attitude present in this episode more. In the 18th episode, Chihaya is playing a match against a woman twice her age called Kanai Sakura. She loses to her, but in the process realizes that the opponent matters in karuta. That wasn’t the most important thing I got out of it though. After the match, Sakura is with her family and pretty much says she plays because she enjoys it and that’s what she wants to do. For one brief moment, Chihayafuru provides a life lesson to those out there who like doing an activity, but either through lack of talent or opportunity will never get to the pinnacle of their craft. Just do what you enjoy, that could have made this show a much better experience if they kept that at heart.
Next Week: A movie about the militarization of the police in response to a terrorist threat.