You won't find any ninja, robots, explosions, gunfights or even fan service Chihayafuru and that's part of the reason that it is such an endearing series.
Based on the manga series of the same name by Yuki Suetsugu, Chihayafuru is a story of dedication, friendship and an oddly riveting card game called karuta. Karuta is a game of both speed, knowledge and language. Players face off against each other while listening to Japanese waka poems and try to grab the card corresponding to the poem being recited. Frankly, even that description is deathly boring and yet at no point during Chihayafuru will you find yourself catching some Z's.
Competitive karuta seems to be a misnomer but somehow, director Morio Asaka (Nana, Cardcaptor Sakura) has managed to make a card game about poetry akin to an extreme sport. Instead of approaching the action sequences with a heavy hand, it is instead the characters intensity and emotional determination that drives the action. The action is used to punctuate emotional scenes between our three main characters and frequently occur where, ordinarily, you may find a trough in most "slice of life" series. Instead of being forced to experience every single one of the highs and lows of high school life, Chihayafuru takes us on a constant yet well paced journey which is ultimately about love and friendship.
Animation studio Madhouse do fantastic work, there's no doubt about that, and yet it is still surprising to see such elegant and beautiful animation from the studio responsible for Ninja Scroll and Highschool of the Dead. Being set in real-world Japan, backgrounds are an integral part of the impressiveness of this series. The auburn colour of autumn leaves and subtle pink of a falling cherry blossom are quintessential icons of Japan's natural beauty which works perfectly with the theme of Japanese poetry. Colourful leaves and flower petals are one thing but poetry cards being flung at the velocity of a throwing knife is another story all together. It still seems ludicrous to be refer to "action sequences" in the series but realistically, that's what they are. Without being sensationalised, the karuta battles are fast, intense and still deliver real world charm with the dull thud of hand against tatami.
Chihayafuru is just plain nice. It's the kind of series that leaves you walking away with a big smile and a heart full of sunshine. The friendship that Chihaya, Taichi and Arata share is the true linchpin of the story. Although karuta, and the characters' passion for the game seems to be of the highest importance, it is in fact simply a bi-product of friendship. The main storyline seems to echo this theme and in a way becomes rather cyclical in nature. While somewhat reminiscent of Nana, it doesn't contain any of the sordid character traits that we've become so accustomed to. In short, Chihayafuru is good food for the soul.
Don't dismiss this series as being a knock off of Hikaru no Go because it's so much more than that. A lovely and touching story which is matched in beauty only by its animation, Chihayafuru is absolutely delightful.
Chihayafuru Part 1 and Part 2 are available on DVD now from Siren Visual.
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