Chihayafuru – 01

High schooler Chihaya Ayase is very beautiful, like her model older sister, but her odd behavior at school earned her the nickname “Beauty in Vain.” She also happens to be a decent player of the obscure card-grabbing game Karuta, though it wasn’t always that way. In a flashback, she remembers her classmate Wataya being teased because of his accent and tatty clothes, but after a chance encounter while he’s on his paperboy rounds – and an incident where both she and Wataya are pushed down and ostrasized by her childhood friend Taichi – Wataya shows her how he plays Karuta, and his dream to become a master. She shares that dream, and back in the present, starts a Karuta club at her high school.

This is the second straight series debut to be dominated by a flashback, and why not, best to establish the character’s motivations right off the bat. This was a strong start. Chihaya had always dreamt for her sister to excel at something – modeling – but the awkward, bespectacled Wataya breaks her out of that. We liked how their initial one-on-one encounter was just pure chance: he was a paperboy on his early morning route, and she was outside waiting for the paper with her sister’s picture on the front page. Of course, to Wataya, it looked like she was waiting for him.

We tend to see Japanese society in best light possible, but this series shows that teasing and ostracism for being “different” is no less present there than anywhere else. We got annoyed when classmates talked about how Chihaya is pretty, but that that beauty is “wasted” whenever she “talks or does something.” Hmph. No matter, we like Chihaya, and this series, so far. We knew nothing about Karuta, but after watching this, we now know we probably wouldn’t be too good at it. Memorizing poetry in hiragana and rapid recall aren’t our strong suits.

Rating: 3.5

Chihayafuru – 02

Wataya has a chance to show his peers what he’s made of in a class karuta tournament. Taichi resorts to lying, cheating, and stealing to keep Wataya down once they’re the last two players. Chihaya sits in on the game, replacing Wataya, and proceeds to figure out how the game is played and how a player’s senses should work. She beats Taichi, and the three eventually reconcile, united by their love of karuta

We’re still in flashback mode this week, and one thing’s for certain: Chihaya and Wataya have to contend with some awful people. Taichi is beyond embarassing, but his character is very realistic for his age group. Young boys will tend to tease an pick on girls they like, rather then, you know, be nice to them, while at the same time hating any other guy who looks at said girl. His helicopter mom is pretty grim too; her attitude towards his defeat helps garner some sympathy for the lil’ stinker. Still, the bastard’s lucky Chihaya has such a thick skin.

Meanwhile, when Chihaya calls home to announce she won the class tournament, her mother doesn’t even listen. It’s all about her older sister, the up-and-coming model. For her part, she dismisse’s Chihaya’s feat with two words. “Lame. Boring.” Harsh, just harsh. I have just one word for her: bitch. Even in the country that invented it, Karuta is not that popular, but it doesn’t seem like that will stop Chihaya, Wataya, or even Taichi from continuing to pursue it. On that note: when are we going to go back to the present?

Rating: 3.5

Chihayafuru – 03

Chihaya, Wataya (Arata), and Taichi enter the world of competitive 3-on-3 Karuta when they join a local club, who are pleased to have them. Here, Chihaya awakens her talent, Taichi learns teamwork and sacrifice, and the three become friends. But when Taichi is accepted to a far away school and Arata has to leave town to be with his ill grandfather, the golden trio splits apart after competing in a tournament, which they barely lose. Chihaya plays Arata one last time before he moves, and manages to beat him. She vows they’ll never be apart as long as they keep playing Karuta.

That was a god-damn tearjerker at times. We haven’t seen this much vibrant, compelling drama fill a scant twenty-two minutes of airtime in a while. This episode covered both the establishment and the disbanding of Team Chihaya Furu, and really fleshed out the excellent core trio. Taichi was far more likeable, Arata showed his gloating side, and Chihaya was simply fantastic throughout, as she finds her passion and develops her skill for the game, even as her family offers zero encouragement (We don’t care how pretty her sister is, she’s just plain scum).

All these good and bad times almost pass too quickly; but at the same time the series definitely made a bold statement telling so much story in so little time; it means it has a lot more story to tell. After all, we’re still in the past: Chihaya’s in high school now. We’re not sure the next episode will return to the present (there are no previews), but we would say we’re ready. All that needed to be established in the past was deftly, efficiently, and affectingly established. The series needn’t maintain this rapid pace, but if it maintains this quality, it has a chance to join the likes of Hanasaku Iroha and AnoHana as our favorite dramas of the year.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 04

Now in high school, Chihaya continues to play and improve at the Karuta club, and makes Taichi promise he’ll help her start one at school if she wins the upcoming tournament and becomes Class A. She makes the final, and has to go toe-to-toe with Yasuda, a very efficient and aggressive player. After exchanging her Chihaya card multiple times, she is ultimately victorious. Her performance may be enough to reignite Taichi’s passion for the game, but Chihaya is dejected when she calls Wataya to celebrate and he tells her he’s quit playing, and not to call again.

Now we’re back in the present, where nobody cares about the promise they made but Chihaya. She’s sacrificed a high school social life by playing Karuta whenever she can, and even running track to keep herself in shape. Her “play/eat chocolate/sleep” with eyes open is as eccentric as it is cute. We like how she screams when swiping away a card like a tennis player; it keeps her pumped-up while adding her own little flourish to the game. We were pumped up to for the entirety of the final match, this series does a very good job keeping the tension up.

Of course, not everything is puppies and rainbows. Wataya, it seems, would rather have nothing to do with her and Taichi. That leaves us with lots of questions about what happened in the time between now and the day he left for Fukui, sad to be torn from his new friends, but determined to become a master. Now he’s given up? Something tells us Chihaya isn’t going to leave it there…and his apparent hiatus from the game, perhaps she and Taichi have a better chance at beating him then they’d assumed.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 05

Chihaya drags Taichi with her to Fukui to confront Arata. She’s carefully crafted what to say, but when they’re finally in his house, she pulls out karuta and suggests they play, infuriating him. They find out from his neighbor, Yuu, that his grandfather suffered a stroke, and relapsed while Arata was at a tournament to reach Class A. Blaming himself, he forswore Karuta forever. But Chihaya left her notes and letter to him behind, which make him see the error of his ways. As Chihaya and Taichi pull out of the station, Arata chases them in his bike. Taichi agrees to help her start the best Karuta club in the world.

We knew this was going to be a special episode, but it still managed to eclipse all expectations. It was quite simply some of the best 22 minutes of drama of the entire year, certainly of the Fall. Every moment was simply brimming with emotion and the characters were firing on all cylinders. The soundtrack was soaringly awesome as always. And all the little gorgeous details, like Chihaya’s chocolate wrapper notes. Everything was masterful. We can’t believe how much we now connect and sympathize with Taichi now, who has clearly fallen for Chihaya. Those moments when he was about to take her hand kicked so much ass. And hey, she is frikkin’ gorgeous.

Arata’s grandfather used to tell him about a “karuta god” who whispers the next syllable into those deemed worthy. But rather than the Gods forsaking Arata, perhaps he was meant to be playing Karuta when his grandfather died – the god challenging him to see to his own future and realize his limitless potential. He quit instead, but it would seem Chihaya’s words snapped him out of it. His grandfather certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to quit. Quite separately, Chihaya refers to Arata as a karuta god in her letter. Meaning she worships him, or at least her idea of him up to this point. It’ll be tough for Taichi to compete with that! Hard to believe this is just the fifth episode.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 06

Chihaya and Taichi need more members for the Karuta Club, and when a curious Kanade Oe shows up, Chihaya aims to recruit her. Kana has an encyclopedic knowledge of the 100 poems, their authors, their history, and their different levels of meaning. She agrees to join if Chihaya models yukata for Kana’s family’s business catalog, and the club members must wear traditional garb from now on.

Just when we were wondering how an entire series could revolve around such a seemingly clear-cut game as karuta, enter club member #3, Kanade Oe. She is for lack of a better work, a 100 poems otaku, as well as someone obsessed with history. She’s teased by peers as being born in the wrong era; they may be right. It can happen. In any case, she is an invaluable tool for Chihaya, who’s over-relying on her ears while neglecting card position; a definite hitch in her game she must correct if she’s to be Queen.

Kana shows Chihaya – and us – that each card is much more than just a poem to be taken at face value, and to listen for the first syllables. They are worlds, full of colors, sounds, emotions, and inspired by the lives of the 79 male and 21 female poets, whose 100 best poems make up the game. Chihaya even learns that her namesake card is a poem about “deep red  love”. So Chihaya shores up her game and gains a member; Kanade gets to geek out on yukatas and poetry; Taichi has a nice little harem going…everybody wins!

Rating: 3.5

Chihayafuru – 07

Needing two more members to make the Karuta Club official, Chihaya recruits – by dragging – the nerdy and skeptical Komano “Desktomu” to their clubroom to watch a match unfold. Taichi has been losing a lot to Chihaya lately, but when Desktomu suggests they truly test their memorization skills by flipping the cards over, Chihaya loses her main weapon – her speed – and Taichi creams her, bolstering his confidence.

There’s nothing like winning, and you cannot win if you do not play. In Taichi’s case, wins are few and far between – thanks to Chihaya’s latent catlike reflex time – but that makes the wins all the sweeter. His ridiculous mother insisted he only compete in fields in which he knows he can be the best. But where’s the challenge and fun in that? Similarly, Komamo stays in his safe place behind his desk, because he’s afraid of failure. Everybody fails, nerd. Even the best.

Taichi is starting to doubt whether Chihaya will ever improve past her current level playing someone as “talentless” as him, and considers Arata a better sparring partner for her. When Komano’s gambit results in a stunning victory for Taichi, Taichi’s confidence rushes back, and he remembers just how much he hates losing, both at karuta and in the struggle for Chihaya’s heart. He’s back, baby!

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 08

The Kurata club is still one member short of becoming official, but their recruiting efforts are fruitless until Chihaya chances upon Yusei Nishida, who was the No.2 grade schooler in the country at Kurata, and just happens to attend her high school. He plays tennis now, but it’s clear to Chihaya tennis is not his true passion. They play a game together, which re-stokes his passion, and he quits tennis and joins the club.

Yes, it’s quite a coincidence that “Porky” Nishida goes to the same school as Chihaya and Taichi, but it’s good he does. Kanade brought meaning to the words and stories of the cards, while Tsutomu restored Taichi’s confidence. Nishida is an influx of talent and experience; someone who can keep Chihaya on her toes. You know a kid is into kurata when his movements in tennis are timed to the beat of the 100 poems. That Chihaya picks up on this and even blurts out the next verse in his head from behind a bush is just a fantastic little moment.

Nishida realizes he once played kurata for fun, then he started playing to win. Winning became the whole point, so when Arata beat him, he didn’t see the point in continuing…then. But like Taichi, he just needed the right spark to rekindle that ingrained passion that tennis just wasn’t ever going to replace. His match with Chihaya was very fun to watch not only because it was a good match, but because it transformed Nishida before our eyes. His fire’s back…and as the post-credits epilogue shows, with an offical club, Chihaya is ecstatic that she’s “no longer alone.”

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 09

The Karuta club becomes official, with Taichi presiding and Chihaya as the Captain. She has lofty goals for her five-man team: to reach the national tournament. To that end, she plans on pushing the rookies Oe and Desktomu hard, facing them both herself in order to toughen them and give them valuable experience. They arrange a weekend camp at Taichi’s house, but his mom returns prematurely, and in any case the rooks are exhausted. Returning home guilty she pushed them so hard, Oe gets a text and races to a riverside park with Chihaya in tow for an impromptu celebration of her sweet sixteen.

Just an episode removed from finally becoming complete, the club Chihaya and Taichi have founded is already hummin’ along very nicely. Taichi is incredulous at first when Chihaya announces she’ll be the rookie’s first opponent, but having played her first game against Arata, she’s well aware of how valuable getting creamed is, as you get to see the person creaming you going all out, as she does. Oe and Desktomu are understandably dubious of their abilities, but by the time Oe snags her first card from Taichi, she’s addicted to playing and getting better.

Aside from getting the club up and running, the primary substory in play throughout is the increasing romantic tension between Taichi and Chihaya. Neither say anything to this effect, but the couple moments where they’re close or touch speak volumes, and are very well done. Chihaya could finally be starting to see Taichi as more than just that bratty little kid from her childhood. Taichi meanwhile is already quite far along in his longing, and of course a golden opportunity is snatched from him when Arata texts with birthday wishes for Chihaya. As for the birthday: while random at first, it was the perfect way to brighten Chihaya’s spirits. We don’t think it would have had as strong an effect if we’d known about it beforehand.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 10

The Mizusawa Karuta Club is competing in the Tokyo regionals for the High School Karuta Championship, and they’re wearing hakamas, as per Oe’s instructions. But trouble brews when Desktomu cannot win a single card in the first round, even as fellow novice Oe wins a game. Desktomu sits out the semifinals, believing they don’t need him, but that throws Chihaya off her game. Taichi has to bring the team together in the face of serious competition, and Desktomu returns when he hears they’re in trouble to lift Chihaya’s spirits.

After intense training and practice, it’s time for Oe and Desktomu to jump into the pool of competitive Karuta, and it very nearly goes pear-shaped but for some assertiveness from Taichi. We’re pleased with how far his character’s come from that petty, cheating bastard of yore. But as least part of Arata’s assertion that he’s a coward may still hold true, in that he cannot yet come out and confess how he feels to Chihaya. Her texts to Arata obviously irk him, but he has the power to make things happen, and yet he merely stews.

However, he isn’t distracted by these problems wihle playing in the tournament; in fact, it’s Chihaya who briefly loses her edge and nearly chokes under pressure. Their competition are a bunch of gung-ho loudmouths, constantly communicating and yelling support and intimidating the other side – we were a little surprised all that noise is allowed in a game where listening to the poems being recited is so crucial. But once Chihaya snaps out of it, her killer instinct kicks back in, and she’s flicking cards before a syllable is uttered. A good team effort throughout.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 11

Team Mizusawa moves on to the Regional Finals, and must face Hokuo High, who can claim two Class-A players. Porky’s opponent is someone he remembers from years ago, but unlike him, he never stopped playing. Taichi has to play Retro-kun, and Chihaya has to play Sudo, who immediately proceeds to play mind games to throw her off. Oe and Desktomu lose first, putting the others on the spot, but by supporting one another and concentrating on their strengths and not weaknesses, Porky, Taichi, and Chihaya defeat their opponents and the team moves on to the Nationals.

More brilliant, suspenseful drama this week, far more than we could have expected from a game we only barely understand. It’s good to see the team gel so well after a rough start last week. They work out the best layout, with Taichi in the middle to keep the team focused and motivated with his words, Porky and Chihaya at the ends where they can concentrate, and the noobs in between. It works, as the center and bookends managed to take wins from very tough opponents. This episode underscored that a win was important for Hokuo too…but they’re not the focus of this series, so we didn’t expect Chihaya’s team to be tripped up by failure so soon, and they weren’t.

We really didn’t care for Chihaya’s opponent Sudo for the majority of the match, but even he was softened and humanized by the end…not to mention humbled by Chihaya’s innate skill at grabbing her Chihaya card, no matter where it is or when it’s called. Hell, she grabs it before a whole syllable is uttered. It’s literally her trump card; and she’s drawn to it like a magnet. She owes that connection to the card to her name, but also to the games she played with Arata, who makes an appearence this week, but is stuck at work and can’t go watch. We have a feeling he’ll show up for the nationals.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 12

With the regional trophy in their hands, Chihaya starts to fear the upcoming nationals at Omi Jingu, worried she’ll disgrace Tokyo if they lose badly. Taichi snaps her out of it. Chihaya’s family appears totally transfixed on her sister Chitose, making it hard to bring up her own recent achievements. She’s relieved to see her father also keeps a scrapbook for her. Their faculty advisor, Mrs. Miyauchi, who originally was going to blow off their tournament, sneaks a peak at what the karuta club is really up to. She changes her mind and accompanies them.

We’re nearly at the halfway point in Chihayafuru, as the Nationals come next week. This week was all about preparation, both practical and mental. The upcoming tournament will be a far tougher challenge than anything they’ve faced, but they can’t face it with wavering wills. A degree of fear is healthy in any competitive exercise, but it must be controlled. Taichi proves yet again that he’s the motivational glue that keeps the team cheerful and confident.

This week also featured to parties that were previously utterly indifferent both to Chihaya and to whatever it was she was up to: her family, and her teacher. When her dad sees her in the paper, he saves the clipping, as he has saved clippings of her ever since she started on the karuta road. Chitose is definitely a big bright star in which Chihaya is often lost in the glare, but Chihaya’s family still loves and supports her, even if quietly. As for Mrs. Miyauchi, she was fortunate enough to look in the window of the club just when they were about to put on a hell of a show, which utterly convinced her that karuta is not just some silly obscure dalliance. It’s serious, beautiful business.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru will continue in January 2012. 

Chihayafuru – 13

The day of the national karuta tournament arrives, but the conditions prove too much for Chihaya, who cannot focus and faints in the middle of the first match. Meanwhile, as Arata makes his way to the match, he rememices about the past, including his grandfather’s stroke and subsequent dementia. He is able to meet briefly with Chihaya until she goes to the hospital. When she wakes up, Taichi has present from him that assures her he’ll play her in a match next time.

This was another excellent episode, but it didn’t feel like the end; perhaps there’s more episodes in store? If so, that’s news to us, but we certainly wouldn’t begrudge a continuation. While the regional matches were comprehensively covered, the nationals end about as soon as they begin for poor Chihaya, who has to forfeit for, shall we say, unspecified illness, exacerbated by the crush of people, the heat, and of course, all the pressure on her elegant shoulders.

Chihaya is one to punish herself for letting people down, but when she awakens in hospital, her teammates aren’t down at all; Desktomu even won his first two games, and everyone is in high spirits, eager to play more. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Arata’s part in this episode. His scenes with his deteriorating grandfather are very moving. You know he’s moved too when a karuta official tells him he plays like his grandfather. His teachings live on in Arata; wasting them wouldn’t be cool.

Rating: 4