One of the best sleepers — if not the best — of the Fall season.
At least mine, anyway. That’s what I feel after watching the first episode. With lots of big hitters getting most of the recognition this season, Chihayafuru will be overlooked by many. The premise — about a girl who decides to play Karuta competitively — is understandably not one that’ll typically garner initial attention. But as the saying goes: Don’t judge a book by its plot summary. Or something like that.
The show’s title character is Chihaya Ayase (Seto Asame), a stunningly beautiful tomboy, dubbed by her classmates as a “beauty in vain” because of her propensity to not carry herself like a pretty girl should. She tries to start a Karuta Club in high school, but not surprisingly, is hard pressed to find members to join due to the game’s unpopularity. Later she discovers that her old childhood friend, Taichi Majima (Miyano Mamoru), is also attending the same high school. We learn that both Chihaya and Taichi grew up passionately playing karuta with another boy named Arata Wataya (Hosoya Yoshimasu); but through their middle school years, that passion, along with their friendship, slowly diminished.
The majority of the pilot is spent flashbacking to the moment Arata, a quiet exchange student who often was teased for his dialect and for being poor, entered the lives of Chihaya and Taichi and introduced them to the game of karuta. Arata comes off as genius at memorization, a skill seemingly passed down from his grandfather — a master of the game. He especially inspires Chihaya, after a one-sided karuta session, to strive for her own dreams. Thus, she takes up the game competitively.
Lots to like and admire about the first episode of Chihayafuru. First thing noticeable is that the production value is top notch. Madhouse has been more miss than hit for me personally over the last couple of years, that it’s easy to forget they’re a studio that has had a great track record during their tenure. The studio once again teams up with veteran director Asaka Morio, famous for Cardcaptor Sakura, but also responsible for Chobits, Gunslinger Girl and NANA.
Episode 1 is extremely well-paced, slowly divulging the motivation of its main characters and introducing karuta in a way where fans can generate an interest and learn along. While fun-spirited, there is a good touch of drama painted in its atmosphere — not too overbearing or forceful, just the right balance. Based on Morio’s previous work, it appears we’re in capable hands as far as the drama department goes.
The trio of Chihaya, Arata and Taichi are easy to root for. Chihaya and Taichi, in particular, have an inherently good chemistry — although, there is the matter of all of them being able to reconnect like old times once the current narrative moves along. The soundtrack is also easy on the ears, fitting in perfectly with key scenes. It especially helped capture the right mix of playfulness and intensity in the karuta scene.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the character designs and the big round eyes Chihaya and Taichi possess, which is very similar to NANA, but they’re not offensive. Akagi — another game-centered anime from Madhouse — had even worse designs, but because of its source material and story execution, I ended up loving it. I anticipate that Chihayafuru will be the same. A good step in the right direction.
A ton of series will get higher billing than Chihayafuru. That’s unfortunate because after watching most of the pilots from the Fall (with a ton more to come), I can honestly say it’s one of the few shows that has genuinely impressed me. And this coming from a person who is not necessarily a fan of josei. Chihayafuru feels like this Fall’s Kuragehime — and that’s a good thing. I recommend that you give it a try!
GO Rating: 4.5/5
Will Continue To Watch? - Yes.
Will Continue To Review? - Maybe.
(Unfortunately, though, due to my schedule, I probably won’t be able to cover this show throughout the season. You guys and girls may need to convince me.)