As the two seasons present themselves much as a continuous series, with little to set them apart, this review is made and posted for both seasons of the series.
If there is one word that describes Chihayafuru, it is “passion” – indeed, “Chihaya furu” means passionate. On the surface there is little that separates it from typical sports anime, from the focus on the team and team spirit to rivalries to tournament story arcs where you’re typically served the main characters’ opponents’ motivations and reasons for participating in this sport. Through tears and joy we follow the main characters’ journey through the world of this sport, and Chihayafuru very much follows this trend. As for the sport in question, the series focuses on a rather obscure (at least to a Western audience) card game known as karuta, where one has 25 cards with the first verse of poems on either side of the field, and as a reader reads the second verse of one of those poems, you have to remove the corresponding first-verse card from the playing field. The first to empty their side (25 cards) wins the game. A very coarse explanation but that’s the gist of it.
While it follows many of the traditional recipes for the sports genre, they are pulled off quite well in Chihayafuru, alleviating many of the issues doing so can present. It does in no way lift it off the ground and up to stardom, and if you are not a fan of sports anime to begin with, chances are you won’t find Chihayafuru that very interesting. For the sports anime fan however, Chihayafuru offers a loveable and passionate experience, with some twists and differences. I already mentioned “passion” as a way to describe the series, and this is one of the aspects that sets it apart. From the at times striking visual and auditory imagery used – it is poetry after all – to the many ways of love for the sport that are presented, Chihayafuru delves deep into a world of passion, and while at times it seems a little too alien or cheesy how much of it the characters have for a single thing, it can also draw the viewer in and afflict them with a desire to do something they love, which is, at heart, what the sports anime genre is all about: Communicating passion and love for something.
Another thing that sets Chihayafuru apart is that unlike most sports anime, which are made to appeal more to a shonen audience, it leans more towards the shojo genre, evident in its at times flowery animation and colour palette, and more significantly, in its larger focus on emotion and romance. It forgoes some of the most intense focus other sports series has on the game itself and rather focuses on the inner world of the characters and their emotions – the full spectrum of it, not just the “I want to win”/”This is my motivation!” portions that you are often limited to. Often you see characters cry significantly, in joy or sadness, in defeat and victory. The series also builds up a solid love triangle between the main characters, without really forcing its and in its treatment, as well as adding these feelings and moments of love to the secondary characters. Of course, with a large cast it’s a near-inescapable fact that some side characters are more bland than others, relying mostly on a singular trait or two to provide comic relief or interaction, but for the characters that matter there are for the most part many layers and aspects presented – and developed – in an intriguing manner.
Aesthetically Chihayafuru is stunning. The soundtrack builds up around the atmosphere very well, from the heart-warming to the bittersweet, from the passionate to the suspenseful. It applies a rich orchestral instrumentation that fits very well with the oft-poetic art and animation. Meticulous attention has been paid to the quality of the card reading, and listening to the voice actors’ performance in this regard is absolutely fantastic, especially for the most skilled readers in the series. Visually it frequently applies imagery as befitting of a series focusing on a game of poetry: The voice of a reader like sakura petals, the flow of a match like that of water, the flowery feeling of romance; such feelings are expressed visually and beautifully, though, as can be expected, some come across as more cheesy than others, but for the most part it is a boon rather than a detraction.
When all comes to all, Chihayafuru definitely isn’t a series for everyone. Karuta can come across as boring, the emotional layer as sappy or over the top to many sports anime fans, and for those who do not have a taste for sports anime in the first place, the story and the series’ focus can seem unappealing. To me, personally, the series is a heart-warming and moving story that spreads a lovely feeling of passion, filled with lovely aesthetic value and likeable characters. It very often brings a smile to my face, not necessarily because it is outright funny and makes me laugh, but because it warms me up on the inside. At times cheesy, yes, but far from such a degree it spoils the series. It presents a lovely and different sports anime that quickly has earned a spot as one of my favourite series.
Karuta! Arata! Taichi? K-karuta!!
Twenty five more episodes worth of charming romance and competitive karuta fun? Yes please. But don't expect a balance between the two; there's more latter quantity than the former, and whether you should be satisfied or not is up to your preference!
Who expected, or even acknowledged beforehand, that the true presence of competitive karuta would be ever so fierce and exciting from its outline? Well, I sure certainly didn't when I started from season one. Karuta is more of a complicated sport than popular ones such as baseball and basketball, and the entirety of season one teaches that it requires much more than just reaction timing and memorization to win against other players. I enjoyed season one thoroughly, but watching karuta itself doesn't just hold its exciting entertainment factor by itself; there's a much larger insightful fulfillment that keeps its presence in each and every match. It's certainly more complicated than just slapping cards in front of people.
And that's what the second season is all about: Karuta, karuta, karuta! Chihayafuru 2 is a direct sequel to its previous entry, Chihaya and her team now in second year of high school. Chihaya is determined to, not only win the individual matches tournament upcoming to earn the Queen title, but to win the team tournament too, as well as establishing more members for the Mizusawa Karuta Club. It sounds difficult, and possibly silly considering it's still studying period, but this is Chihaya we're talking about; the pretty tomboy with a mind of karuta and karuta only. Who's going to stop her?
Despite being a direct sequel in terms of story, it does have its noticeable differences. Hardly any distinct features are involved mind; it's more of taking a step up on its previous features that made Chihayafuru for what it is. The central feature of the second season is the sight of karuta matches itself. If you wished for much more screen time on people competing in karuta from the first season, then you'll be delighted to know that your wish has be gracefully granted. If you're for the romance and sweet relationships though, as well as full development between the childhood friends Chihaya, Arata and Taichi, then you might be a little more unfortunate than Taichi himself.
The execution of each specific karuta match are all intense as ever. I'd say that probably more than half of the entire season covers the moments of the involvement of karuta matches, and without its sole execution the series wouldn't have been as exciting throughout. Its execution is graceful yet powerful, as well as being a little in-depth in its playful manner, from thought processes of the players themselves to tackling particular cards pronounced from the reader. Some scenes, preferably the opponents winning their cards against one another, can be striking in a single movement, maybe even breath-taking. The careful use of atmosphere and enthusiasm of winning or playing makes use of, and surpasses, the original Chihayafuru style from the first season. With the accompany of animation and the soundtrack, as well as different sorts of techniques and tactics used from each and every player, the passion and spirit created from these matches are very sensational whilst keeping the original, youthful atmosphere of the series.
But karuta isn't all just intensity in its matches. Season two explores the sport in a more exhaustive manner than the former season, and not just directly but indirectly too. Karuta is exciting because of the players themselves, but not solely because of their different levels of skill, style and tactics; it's more so as to why they're playing in the first place. Motivation, determination, pleasure, teamwork, whether its for a special someone or a particular goal, is all present in the characters of Chihayafuru. And karuta itself explores the different reasonings for lots of different players involved in the matches, which branches up the pasts and difficulties those characters have inside themselves. Realization can succeed to develop a character in a flowing manner, and that, despite it being a win or a lost, they learn something precious and important for their lives by their opponents.
It's the reason why this season, or the entirety of the series in this case, are filled with a great amount of extremely heart warming and tear worthy scenes. You'd love to cheer on one of the characters, like Chihaya, in a match to achieve her dreams, but that can't be entirely the case when the determination and reasoning of the opponent is involved too. Even when one seems in a tight or hopeless situation, you know how slump you're going to feel if the lost is given instead of a win. The motivation for each characters, even and especially side characters, are real. They're hardly one dimensional, and the match doesn't only determine if one has won or lost, but if their hard work and conviction has really paid off. The character's important speeches and actions boil down to karuta, even if slightly, and proves that the competitive sport has created a new light for these people; for something to devote and work towards to and be proud of it.
It's a plus too that the characters are in a wide range of variety, in both their motivation and personality. I can say without doubt that every single main and side character are likable and interesting, or at least from my preference. Nevertheless, there's a good deal of depth spiraled in each character, and most aren't so evidential until later on. They appear as mere opponents, not cardboard cut-outs but ones you wouldn't actually feel for if they lose. To be likable or not, they have distinct tropes that creates their characters, which are also for comedic factors which is a plus. But when their matches start, their pasts and goals begins to establish, and despite rooting for the other opponent because you've spent more time with them, your understandings for the character gets established as well. I find that the characters of the series all play out with interesting personalities, mysterious or not, and that their love for karuta is evidentially taken care of, rather than just written on the spot.
The series doesn't actually consists a whole load of content you'd expect from a two cour season. The speed of pacing is evidential throughout the series, as some matches can actually last longer than a episode or three. To consider it a problem in the fact that a little more content could've been included wouldn't be hugely anticipated, but it hardly is a problem if you consider wisely. Matches are, as explained earlier, made extremely well with a great deal of enjoyment factor, and the long scenes allows the different insights of each character to develop and to be explored. The pacing is necessary for this, as well as being able to build tension and anticipation on who would win or what will happen next. Though some of the matches can be predictable, the series focuses more on the depth of the players instead of the actual results itself, and plus it relies heavily on execution rather than shock factor, in which was a sensible decision to choose for a series like Chihayafuru.
As for the romance side of Chihayafuru, season one definitely contains a bigger portion of it. That doesn't mean to say that this season doesn't consist of no romance, but unlike the first season there are no episodes that fully dedicate the love between Chihaya, Taichi and Arata. The story behind all this continues, but doesn't develop so much throughout the series, rather it's used effectively throughout the minds of the stated characters; which leads to the motivational stories behind them that connects them to karuta in the first place. For those who side for more karuta though, it's presented in a manner that doesn't greatly effect the drama and tension in the series, so enjoyment factor would hardly be bumped down because of the romance.
Production values for the second season are not the greatest and grandest, although this is to be at least expected for 50 episodes altogether. However, animation is handled with great care and is used efficiently; both animation and sound are created well for the distinct atmosphere and style for Chihayafuru. Often, still shots are used for the usual swings and hits on the cards, but with great speed and accompany of sound and different textures of colours, as well as various effects in the scenes, it doesn't fail to look awkward or slow in any of them. Budget can look pale from far distances in shots, but when the more graceful or powerful scenes come along, the backgrounds and detail can look anything as beautiful with a fluffy aura or tension effect surrounding it, depending on the scene. It does this when necessary and makes the scenes even more memorable than it already was.
The youthful atmosphere is also accompanied by a very expressive soundtrack, applying brand new songs as well as ones from the first season. They are often orchestrated with light instruments like piano and strings, though does consists of acoustic guitars, bass and drums, and even pipes, flutes and traditional drums comes in the soundtrack. It gives a wonderful personality for the actual series to use, and although most are light-hearted or light-weighted, they're used really effectively in contrast of its atmosphere. The volume is oriented carefully so that the sound effects makes the karuta matches a lot more practical and engrossing for the viewers, building up a better experience to watch.
I'm glad series like Chihayafuru are still being aired. Produced by Madhouse and presented from the director of Cardcaptor Sakura, Chihayafuru manages to be an extremely enjoyable series with what it has to offer, not holding back with its execution on the theme of karuta. Anime doesn't necessarily need shock factor for a viewer to be surprised, and this series proves that execution is anything but less important than surprises. It's quite astonishing for me as to how much love I can express for a series I certainly didn't expect to ramble about, and especially one about a sport I have never heard of in my life until I started season one. It goes to show though that even such premises can contain a lot more potential than anime ideas that are more accessible for viewers, but fail to deliver because of its execution or lack of exploration in its concept.
I don't regret starting Chihayafuru and its sequel; the only regret I'll have is not being able to play proper competitive karuta because I'm in the entirely wrong place. But at least Chihayafuru was a charming experience, and I hope it inspires even more people out in Japan to compete in karuta than season one already has.