Stillness and silence but for the recital of the first half of an 800-year old poem intoned in a sing-song chant. An explosion of movement, and then all is still once again, until the next verse is read aloud.
On the surface, the game of karuta doesn’t appear to be particularly interesting or exciting, but the game’s simple nature belies the speed and intensity of competitive gameplay. The same could be said of the new show on Crunchyroll this season, Chihayafuru. On the surface, a series about the game of karuta does not sound all that compelling, but this simple premise belies the strength of the show’s artistry, characters, and storytelling.
The animation juggernaut, Madhouse, creates a visual wonder with Chihayafuru that really brings the world to life. The background music is soothing with themes played on guitar, piano, and oboe that really stir the heart. And last, but not least, the characters are just so endearing, especially with Chihaya as such a down-to-earth girl whose passions are so infectious, it’s hard not to get caught up in her enthusiasm.The manga has already inspired a surge in karuta’s popularity throughout Japan. One wonders how many more people will begin playing the game thanks to the anime.
Karuta is a simple game to learn, but, and I’m sure you’ve heard this hundreds of times, difficult to master. Basically, several cards each with the second half of one poem from the Hyakunin Isshu (literally “100 people, 1 poem”) are arrayed out before players. An announcer recites the first half of the poem, and it’s a race to see who can correctly tag out the corresponding card from the floor. Truly competitive karuta, however, requires intense concentration, reflexes, endurance, an impeccable memory, and sometimes a little luck.
The series opens with Chihaya’s voiceover reciting the joka, the traditional opening verse that prefaces the start of a karuta match. It’s the first day of a new school year, and there’s a rumor going around of a pedigree beauty among the first years, the sister of a famous model. Then we get to meet Chihaya Ayase – very pretty indeed, except she has no shame and no self-consciousness. Her tomboyish nature has earned her the title “Beauty in Vain,” of which she obviously has no clue.
But there is more to Chihaya’s character than just a pretty face. As the series progresses, we see also see Chihaya as headstrong and spirited, intensely loyal, and possessing a sense of fair play so profound, that as a young girl, she defied even her closest friends to defend a transfer student from bullying. And when she becomes obsessed with something, it becomes her singular goal in life, and everything she does revolves around it.
Needless to say, her obsession is, or rather becomes, karuta.
When she was in elementary school, she obsessed over her sister’s rise to fame, vowing to do everything she could to help her succeed as a top model in Japan – that is, until the transfer student she defended taught her that her dreams in life should be something she strove towards for herself, not someone else. That’s when karuta is introduced to her.
Back in the 6th grade, Arata Wataya was a quiet and withdrawn boy from Fukui. His threadbare clothes and funny accent make him the target of ridicule from the other students in their class. He expresses little interest in the things that the other kids talk about and avoids interacting with them, but when Chihaya asks him what his life’s goal is, his eyes light up and the karuta cards come out. His enthusiasm for the game is overwhelming and Chihaya can’t help but become completely mesmerized by the game. He’s a bit of a pedigree himself, as his grandfather just happens to be karuta’s meijin – the top karuta player in all of Japan. He tells Chihaya that his dream is to become a meijin as well.
Then they have their chance to confront Arata’s prime bully, Chihaya’s own childhood friend, Taichi Mashima. He’s smart, athletic, and driven to win, so of course it’s an intramural karuta tournament that becomes their battleground. Arata’s raw talent and Chihaya’s determination help to turn things around in their favor, and Taichi, with a mixture of both jealousy and awe, decides that he too wants to become a karuta master.
Chihaya’s own passion for the game comes to the forefront in the few times they play together and her natural instincts impresses Arata so much, that he has no doubt in his mind that she will also become a great player one day. He suggests to Chihaya that she can strive become karuta’s Queen, the title given to the top female player. And, so long as karuta remains a sport that is only popular in Japan, to become the best player in Japan means to become the best in the world.
This sets the stage for the three of them towards becoming lifelong karuta buddies. Oh, and of course a love triangle is born as well. Sorry guys, but it looks like karuta is all Chihaya will ever truly love.
This article was originally published in the Crunchyroll newsletter on November 28, 2011. Reprinted with permission.