Translated to English, Chihayaburu means ferocious, impassionate, mighty, or raging. In this anime, the “b” is changed to an “f” but the meaning is the same. Chihaya Ayase is a high school girl who’s playing style fits the definition perfectly.
They say this is in the josei genre. I think it has a massive amount of appeal to the shoujo and shounen crowds. Actually, it is one of those shows that has massive universal appeal. Ah well, on to the characters. And maybe a couple of spoilers too!
Chihaya Ayase is a beautiful girl in high school. Her older sister is a professional model of some fame. Her parents are obsessed with her sister’s advancement, much to the detriment of her own growth.
Chihaya herself has subordinated her own life to the sister’s needs. There is regret and sadness here. She would like her share of attention, to be considered as important in her own right but she tamps her needs down to get thru life without major conflict.
Despite putting the effort in to be as pretty as her sister, she lacks her sister’s social skills. This may just be a matter of doing something because this is how she was told to do it. At school, she has few friends and doesn’t fit in anywhere. Guys are drawn to her for the obvious reason only to be turned off by her lack of traditional feminine behaviors. She is a bit of a tomboy and doesn’t read emotional cues at all.
Every time I see powerful intellect, no social skills, few friends and a general inability to “fit in”, I start to think about Asperger’s. But, she doesn’t quite fit the Aspie mold. An extremely common trait among Aspies is poor motor skills. This is caused by a reduced sense of proprioception, the body’s ability to know where a body part is and what it is doing without seeing it or thinking about it. (Asperger displays a bit differently in girls than in boys. For a textbook case, there is the anime Kimi no Todoke.)
Chihaya has almost superhuman coordination between her mind and body. She is a superb athlete looking to be the best in the world at the sport of Kyogi Karuta. And she has the intense drive to do it. Maybe it is her obsession that distracts from all the social cues most people would have learned. I have seen gambling addicts behave much the same way. Obsession can start when one finds something that one is good at and you have nothing else in life that is interesting. Think of it as being a karuta otaku.
I am not going to explain the rules of karuta to you. There is Kyogi Karuta which is one on one and there is team karuta. Chihayafuru is about both. I will say that karuta is more like a quickdraw gun competition than a race. Just watch this video.
There are two boys in Chihahya’s life, Taichi Mashima, and Arata Wataya. Arata taught karuta to Taichi and Chiihaya at an early age. There are powerful childhood bonds of friendship.
Taichi Mashima is every girl’s heartthrob but he only has eyes for Chihaya. He was good at karuta but never quite as good as his two friends. At a much younger age he gave up on karuta as being pointless in his future life, a life his mother has all planned out. He is a high achiever in both athletics and sports.
He and Chihaya form a high school karuta club. She, mainly to get her karuta fix and he, mainly to be close to her. He begins to realize that his skills are outstanding, it was his perception of his skill that was off. Beating a powerhouse like Arata was going to take more discipline and effort than he has previously displayed.
Since Chihaya appears to have no interest in a boy beyond a karuta partner and a friend, Taichi’s love is that of koi, solitary longing. Unrequited love can be very tough on a guy.
Arata Wataya learned karuta from his grandfather, one of the greatest karuta players who ever lived. His life was lonely until he found people his age who shared his interest. He was not a superstar from the start, but once he found his center, he grew in ability and consistently defeated the little girl who would eventually become the karuta queen.
At some point, he had to move far away to care for Grandfather. When his grandfather died, Arata gave up on karuta. He felt guilt at having been at a competition when his grandfather had died alone. Chihaya and Taichi manage to pull him back into the sport.
Arata and Taichi are not enemies but you can see some tension between them. Chihaya has a bit of a thing for Arata but mostly a karuta thing. Not quite a romance – yet. Arata seems passive in his feelings for Chihaya, childhood friend more than anything else.
If he has stronger feelings for her, he is keeping them in.
Other major players.
Hideo Harada is the head Sensei at the Shiranami Society for karuta where the three main characters learned karuta. If you want to look at this as a classic heroic journey, he would be considered a Mentor.
Hisashi Suō is the reigning men’s champion, the Meijin. He has a psychological style that gets into his opponents head. He says he can hear words as colors and can tell the rest of the verse from the inflection of how the first word is spoken. He has also been in college for 8 years with no sign of ever wanting to graduate. He isn’t as important to the plot as…
Shinobu Wakamiya. This is the girl Arata defeated. All grown up now she is the reigning queen of karuta. Her childhood was quite miserable, full of isolation and intense training. All she knows is karuta. She has no other skill or employment possibility.
I think she has a thing for Arata. The only thing she respects is karuta and dislikes people who don’t fight to the last card even when losing. I think of her as being a bit yandere about the sport, considering each card to be a close friend.
Then there are the teammates in the karuta school club. Note how the faces have symbols of features rather than actual features, especially the nose. Each of the characters has their own arc that gets fleshed out a bit along the way
Kanade Oe is the third member of the club. Very strict about protocol and rules. She understands (and loves) the meanings behind the poems and will recite one if the situation matches it. She may have a thing for Tsutomu. She is very good at financial management. She is the one who decided that the word impassionate best fits Chihaya.
Yusei Nishida used to play Karuta with Arata. He quit after getting pummelled too many times and switched to tennis. Chihaya coaxed him back into Karuta. He is really quite good at both sports but his heart belongs to Karuta
Sumire Hunano is kind of interesting. Initially, she joined the club simply to be closer to Taichi. She is the complete social girl, desperately scheming to score the most attractive
boy in the school, despite being told he was “out of her league”. She joins… then leaves because putting in that much effort isn’t cool… then rejoins out of stubbornness. As she gets deeper into the sport she discovers her own strength. I like plots where supposed “airheads” grow into formidable people.
Tsutomu Komano is the classic egghead. Buried in studying and academics he is irritated that he is always bested by Taichi who puts in a minimal effort but still gets number one. He enters the sport only after
being convinced it will improve his mind. His study and analysis skills are put to good use doing recon on the opposing teams. He may have a “thing” back at Kanade. He starts out with terrible social skills and these improve over time.
And lastly, we have Akihiro Tsukuba. He is a former player of “second verse” karuta which he was fairly good at. I just don’t have a lot of feeling about him. His main motivation is to impress his younger brothers. Seems to be willing to get underhanded if he has to. His relationship towards Chihaya amounts to just admiring how pretty she is.
Of course, there are many other characters. If you really want to know about them in advance, there is a Chihayafuru wiki just waiting for you to visit.
Now, on to the anime itself.
What can I say? Madhouse struck gold again. The series has won numerous awards and
stimulated a national resurgence in the sport. The manga is 38 volumes long, written and illustrated by Yuki Suetsugu. Two live action movies are out and a third is in the works.
This is not a love story in the traditional sense. There is a background story of one boy’s unrequited love (koi) for a girl. Chihaya hardly participates in it. Her feelings are that of a strong friendship (filia) derived from an early childhood bond and a mutual interest. What Chihaya loves beyond all else is the game of Karuta. It is her obsession and to watch her play is to see someone who is truly impassionate and powerful.
If Chihaya can be said to have a love interest, it is Arata. Neither is making any romantic moves on the other or even thinking loudly about it. Instead, they both want to play karuta with each other very, very badly. It would seem simple to just take the train on a weekend to go visit the other and play, but maybe it has to be in a tournament for it to count. Is karuta really a substitution for sex?
In the two seasons out so far, neither of these potential themes have come to the forefront. Thankfully another season is in the works, as season two left me in the lurch. NONE of the loose ends got tied up.
A lot of time is spent watching the play. I consider it the most intense play of any sports anime. I found myself holding my breath when waiting for the sudden swipe. Probably a large majority of the screen time is either preparing for a tournament or playing in one. It is a sports anime, thru and thru. Karuta is the device by which everything else happens.
This “card game” is much more like a western style gunfight with each duelist waiting for the signal to draw. (I can almost imagine the theme for The Good the Bad and the Ugly in the background.) Reaction time, hand speed, and accuracy are critical. Tactics and psychological warfare lay the essential conditions for the lightning strike to be successful.
Then do this over and over and over again with opponent after opponent increasing in threat level as you go along.
Karuta isn’t a “simple” game, either. There is deep strategy, intense focus, and control culminating in an explosive move. You have to memorize the positions of all the cards and their positions can be switched at any time. You have to be so familiar with the 100 poems that you can pick the card with the poem being read within the first few syllables (often the first letter) and touch the card before your opponent can. There are different ways to position and move your hand in different situations. There are varied ways to organize your cards to your own strength and your opponent’s weakness. There is the psychological component plus the sheer stamina it takes to play through several rounds.
Look at this step by step exposition of Taichi’s thought process including things he has learned the strategy he wants to implement and lessons taught by Sensei. The supercharged strike at a card is but the very last step in a long mental process.
The actual process of striking the card is a remarkable bit of animation. This sequence was taken during one-tenth second intervals during the fast part of the strike.
Chihaya Ayase is not your usual beautiful anime girl. Artistically, she has a nose. Not just an outward notch or a slight shadow suggesting where it might be, but a real extraordinarily lovely nose. The overblown eyes and the micro-mouth doesn’t bother me nearly as much as how anime artists will draw suggestions of a nose rather than a real nose. I won’t say this is because the artist is lazy or incompetent, the reason is that good art costs more and takes longer.
Chihayafuru does not contain one single fanservice shot. There are no panties, nor any exposed skin. No swimsuits at the pool or soaking in the hot springs to show off cleavage. Yay! (And that is coming from a naturist. I like nudity with a valid context. I hate seeing it reduced to eye candy.)
The artists obviously know how bodies are assembled and move. There is a reason why anime artists in training do not draw in anime style until after they have completed figure drawing and other “classical” art courses. Anime is typically mostly symbols and good art is usually reserved for a few high production value images because of the cost factor. Anybody can learn to do the anime basics but it takes a complete artist to create beauty.
Another big plus is the use of realistic body shapes. Nishida is not an athletic failure
because of his weight. None of the girls are afflicted with unnaturally large breasts. The karuta “queen” puts on a lot of weight and then takes it off again. These things are important to me. Heavy people don’t get a life penalty flag for being heavy. Size 44 D breasts are quite uncommon among 16-year-olds, especially slender ones.
Chihaya and the other major characters are mostly well drawn. The supporting cast is often drawn as symbols. Save money where it doesn’t matter as much.
Aside from the karuta theme, other things are happening in the background. There is a short conflict when Nishida leaves tennis – and he is very touchy about his weight. I’ve mentioned a couple of “iffy” love stories. There is a conflict with their advisor. There is conflict within the group over priorities. Chihaya has to cope with her “sister centered” family life and her obsession with karuta retards the rest of her development. Taichi has to deal with his controlling mother and Chihaya’s indifference to his feelings. Arata has to deal with guilt. Kanade is inflexible and Desktomu is too cerebral. Sumire needs to get a life beyond being boy crazy. Akihiro is so obsessed with impressing his siblings that he behaves underhandedly and even lies.
Things happen and arcs progress. Plot summary for every anime ever made.
Karuta is always there in center stage, facilitating the character arcs but not quite overshadowing them. Even in a sports anime, my own preference is to see the characters progress psychologically. Physical progress plays second fiddle in my band. They achieved a good balance here.
Of course, I fell in love with Chihaya from the first ep. She’s prime waifu material for me. Right at the top of my harem list (if I were 40 years younger). How could I not? I always fall for a socially underdeveloped genius girl with a good heart.
She makes a great feminist icon, too. Brilliant in her chosen field. Strong enough not to need a male support. Strong enough to resoundingly beat her male competition. Uninterested in chasing boys around and doesn’t need romance to feel good about herself. Strong enough to deal with the slings and arrows of life without whining. And yet I fall madly in love with her, fully knowing she would never be interested in anything but a hard game of karuta with me.
I empathize deeply with Taichi. Maybe he can find happiness with Sumire. I know I could never clear Chihaya completely from my mind.
I give Chihayafuru two calloused and bloody thumbs up! (Been working with my hands a lot lately. My thumbs don’t like hammers.). Can’t wait for the next season in 2019!