The Chihayafuru series, in its entirety, is a shoujo anime which has elements of literary and poetic appreciation, as well as ‘training’ easily associated with that of competitive team and individual sports. It features a high school female protagonist, which misleads one into thinking that it is only for the shoujo genre. But as we follow the series further, we realise that Chihaya’s motivation to improve herself her skills of playing karuta and her never ending desire to win and ‘be the best in Japan and the whole world’, is more reminiscent of the male protagonist of a shounen sports anime. Chihaya herself is pretty much tomboyish, and her cluelessness to anything to do with romance makes her a unique female protagonist, similar to Sora from Kaleido Star. In fact, the two are pretty similar, if not for the fact that Chihayafuru manages to develop Chihaya, Taichi, Arata and not to mention the rest of the supporting characters much better than Kaleido Star did. We see Chihaya’s desire to win as not merely idealistic as Sora’s dreams, but her passion for karuta and to become good at it is laid out in a more sophisticated manner. To love karuta is one thing, but to see Chihaya’s journey in her self-understanding of how to even better appreciate karuta, from appreciating the colours of different sounds and the evocative scenes that accompany each verse, leads the viewer, too, into a more unanced understanding of the sport that is nothing short of beautiful. Watching Chihayafuru really calms one down, forces one to take a step back, and appreciate the most basic elements of nature, emotions and the way people relate to each other. The anime exudes a very serene feeling which is not overshadowed by tensions created by competition, and carries both the excitement of watching an intense competition, and when that ends, what viewers are left with is the impression of serendipity, peace, appreciation for nature, literature and history. Of worthy mention is the way Chihayafuru takes time to expound on rivals’ backstories and the various reasons and how they are motivated to improve on their karuta-playing skills. We identify different aspects of ourselves with the various perspectives of these people, and we grow and learn from how they manage to win the war within themselves, and from what happens if we don’t manage to do that in time.
This story also manages to squeeze in what I consider to be one of the most trying and well developed love triangle I have seen so far in a shoujo anime. It is rare to see a story where I can’t choose between both male contenders. My preferences lie with Taichi, the one who has stuck by Chihaya all this while, giving her mental and physical support. He who spent some time trying to run away from his feelings, has incredibly bad luck in general, and whose journey in karuta pretty much has everything to do with Chihaya. He who loves Chihaya wholeheartedly and unconditionally, and whom, I believe, his love for Chihaya spurs him on in karuta since the two are inexplicably linked, and his desire to win is augmented by his subconscious efforts to win Arata, his rival in both karuta and love. Taichi is the figurehead of normalcy (ironic given his princely stereotype – smart, rich – a gir’s dream) given his mental weakness. Yet he is the one who has shown tremendous character growth over the series, where we are shown his overcoming of obstacles in his karuta journey and given a glimpse of hope for his romantic endeavours at the very end of the second season.
Arata, though undisputedly a main character as well, is never really physically present together with the other two. Nevertheless, he looms largely in the minds of both Chihaya and Arata as they strive to beat him (and for Chihaya’s case, to reach him). The group interactions between the three are largely limited. Arata fans bemoan the precious lack of time that Arata actually gets to physically interact with his beloved childhood teammates, before they get interrupted (by an event central to plot advancement as always). However, his lack of presence is made up by the amount of times the other two of him. He is never really absent from their tight-knit group, and is never far from the minds (and the audience’s, since this is a story of karuta and Arata is karuta).
Chihayafuru is a beautiful story of competition, art, sport, friendship and motivation. Though I am embarrassed to say that I still do not understand the full nuances of the game and the strategies involved, this never spoils the ride for me. Chihayafuru is always a good choice after a long day of school and studying.