Chihayafuru is an anime about a card game, where the card game is not important. Confused?
Ok, let me explain. Chihayafuru is, like so many others like Hikaru no Go and YuGiOh, a game promoting anime that tries to motivate the viewers into learning of that said game and eventually picking it up as a steady hobby. The problem is that I doubt many will be inspired by it, and it’s not the show’s fault for that. The way it presents Karuta (the name of the game) is fine, but the game mechanics are plain… bad. Well, bad in the sense that it requires from you to have amazing mnemonic capabilities, light-speed reflexes, and complete focus on the tiniest sound around you. And as cool as that sounds at first (like you are a ninja or something) I ensure you it is not a game most people would pick. I mean, seriously, you listen to this poem and you pick up the card corresponding to it as fast as possible. There is no interaction amongst players, no visual card flavour, not much variety in the things you can do, and all the time you just stare at a bunch of cards filled with kanji on them. Anyone who has played Magic the Gathering, Poker, Race for the Galaxy, or in general card games with player interaction, multiple rules, and myriads of variables will definitely find this the dullest game imaginable.
Studio Madhouse has made far better overalls in other shows but even here, it is still decent. The production values are ok without being amazing (what’s with those red lips all girls have?) but the soundtrack is quite underwhelming. The director is Asaka Morio, someone experienced in this sort of stories and has produced many goodies in his career (Card Captor Sakura, Chobits, Gunslinger Girl, Nana). This may not be something most will remember in the next years but it is not bad either. There are as some messy scenes though where something happens too fast to feel natural (like, when Mashima stole Mataya’s glasses and a second later was walking twenty meters away) or the rules feeling rather off (like when Ayase knocked out of the way a dozen different cards at once and yet it counted as a valid point). Though these are not big enough to ruin most of the enjoyment a casual viewer can drop out of the series and remains a fine light watch all the way.
As much as I dislike the game, I must admit that its simplistic rules and complete dedication are exactly what makes it fair and balanced. Meaning, there is very little luck going around and there is definitely no “heart of the cards” saving you at the last moment with a card you just picked up. It is almost pure strategy and mnemonic ability, how you will manage to place the cards in a way you can remember them without even looking at them, figuring out the poem in a few syllables, and zapping the corresponding card in a fraction of a second before the opponent. Doubt and wrong assumptions are what get you to lose the game. It is all understood and the series makes sure to constantly show you how competitive and rewarding it feels when you do all that right, as means to motivate you (sometimes in a comical or overdone way). It is a weird situation where the procedure of the gameplay is more interesting than the ACTUAL game.
I must make this clear by mentioning that Chihayafuru is unique as a motivational anime because unlike all others of its kind, it is NOT aimed at shounen demographics but at josei ones. That’s right; it is primarily for late teen girls. So that means the protagonist is not a boy but a girl. And since this is Josei, there is romance and light situations and fluff all over the place, to the point the game is overshadowed by them. It has a feeling far closer to a teen romance than that of a fighting championship.
Anyways, the context of the series is very simple yet plays out in a captivating way. Or at worst case scenario, it does for the first half of the show. It is very subjective to tell for how long it can remain interesting, since in all honesty the story is typical, the pacing is slow, and the games are made to look way more exciting that what they actually are. If you are into romances, you will definitely like it but it will otherwise feel like nothing more than just another simple tale of awkward people who don’t just tell what they feel and end the whole mess in ten seconds. After the core mechanics have been established and the characters are in need of development, you get some very interesting first dozen episodes. Afterwards, the plot offers very little in terms of development and you can skip another dozen without missing much before the show ends openly. And by openly I mean NOTHING is resolved, both in the romantic part or the game part.
So no, you are not going to watch this for the story or the game but for the character bonding. It is all about the characters LEARNING of the game and interacting with each other (thus accomplishing things the game aspect would normally be doing in similar shows). We have the geeky boy prodigy, grandson of a super powerful Karuta champion, picking up his grandfather’s footsteps. We have the tomboy girl who is in love with geeky boy and plans to be good in the game just to win his attention (far fetched but it works). We have the second boy rival-gone-ally, who is in the team after realizing bullying them to stop is not going to achieve anything and steadily falls in love with her. And we have all sorts of situations where Ayase (the girl) is slowly realizing the means to be a good player and how fun it is when you manage to do all of it right and get a card faster than anyone else.
In theory it all works fine. It constantly delves into their romantic and angst-filled lives, so it is captivating despite the plot being basic and the pacing slow. I am not so sure about all those secondary characters though; many feel underwhelming and sometimes eat up more time than they deserve. This always was about just the main trio; everybody else is an unneeded extra. The characters are otherwise likable without being anything uncommon (couldn’t be more stereotypical), and the game they are in is interesting to study (but not stare or play).
So in all, Karuta is there as motivation for friendship and romance and not as the meaning of life, as in the case of so many other card game anime. At the same time it flavours the otherwise simple lives of the three main characters, as without it, it just looks as yet another dorama most people would get bored of fast. Of course it may end up being boring anyways once you realize there is nothing resolved in the end but it sure feels more colourful than the “one of the same” dull premise of such shows.
… And seriously, watch it for the characters and not for the game.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 7/10
General Artwork 2/2 (looks nice)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (basic but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 1/2 (basic)
SOUND SECTION: 6/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (corny but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 2/4 (average)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 5/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 1/2 (slow)
Complexity 1/2 (not much)
Plausibility 1/2 (so-so)
Conclusion 0/2 (doesn’t exist)
CHARACTER SECTION: 6/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 2/2 (cheesy but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (generic and simplistic but it’s there)
Development 2/2 (strong)
Catharsis 0/2 (doesn’t exist)
VALUE SECTION: 4/10
Historical Value 0/3 (I don’t see it leaving any mark in history)
Rewatchability 1/3 (low because of the slow and simple plot)
Memorability 3/4 (the combination of card games and romance make it rather memorable)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 5/10
I liked the romance for awhile but then it became too slow and ended openly. Plus, I never liked Karuta.