Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chihayafuru - First Season Review

Year: 2012
Studio: Madhouse
# of Episodes: 25

Synopsis: [ANN]
"Chihaya Ayase is a frank and ebullient girl who becomes fascinated by the obscure world of competitive karuta, a card game based on Japanese poetry. Introduced to the aggressive style of the game by a quiet and thoughtful elementary school classmate named Arata Wataya, the two quickly become close friends. They start playing as a group with Taichi Mashima, Chihaya's smart and athletic childhood friend, until they have to part ways during their middle school years due to several circumstances. As their high school life begins, they meet once again."

Chihayafuru was pretty much hailed as the best series of 2012 by many people, but I actually had to put it on hiatus twice before finally finding the time to marathon it. The premise of the show isn't what most people would consider as exciting – it's a josei sport series about an obscure ancient card game. That doesn't leave much room for imagination does it. Well, it just goes to show we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss a show based on a  seemingly uninteresting premise, which may well turn out to be something exceptional by the hands of a capable writer. Hikaru no Go is another case in point. 

The production studio Madhouse usually has a knack for picking interesting projects, and given their excellent track record for josei/seinen (Paradise Kiss, Nana etc), I had a lot of incentive to finish the series. That said, I didn't feel quite connected with the story until maybe one third of the way into it when character development began to pick up. I was a little held back by the amount of drama played out in the first part of the show, especially with Chihaya displaying all the trappings of a single minded character who is overly determined to reach their goal. In the back of my mind, I couldn't help but constantly question: what's so exciting about Karuta anyways, how and why did it become such an integral part of her life? In retrospect, I think I was probably trying too hard to rationalize her passion from a narrow-minded perspective that is undeniably shaped by my own experience or lack thereof. The bottom line is I don't think I've ever had anything in my life that I would consider to be my ultimate passion for which I would tenaciously pursue through thick and thin. I mean sure I have passion for a lot of things – anime, books, art, writing, just to name a few – but probably not to the same level  Chihaya has for Karuta. Though eventually I think it is precisely this unyielding love, to the point of obsession, that makes Chihaya special. The initial episodes with all their predictability and cliches are essential in setting up the ground for character dynamic to blossom.

I slowly warmed up to the series as it progressed and I fell in love with it by episode 9. The atmosphere in that episode was simply magical, enough to jolt awake all my slumbering senses. If I had more time, I could probably spend a whole post on the episode alone. Anyways, the many significant moments that transpired brought me emotionally closer to the characters. For perhaps the first time, Chihaya comes to be aware of the suffocating pressure she exerts on her fellow club members through her aggressive practice regime, being the Karuta monster she is. And then there is Taichi with all his awesomeness. I can't stress enough how much I love his character. I don't think Chihaya is aware of Taichi's feelings for her, or her own feelings for him for that matter, even though the hints are definitely there, albeit subtle and very obscure. Chihaya is simply too preoccupied with Karuta to take notice of any other humanly emotions that are not directly related to the game. On the other hand, Taichi is the most dynamic and complex character of all. His personality has a lot of layer to it that makes him  interesting to analyze. Though I think it's intended for the audience to empathize with him, because comparing to other characters, we get to hear his internal dialogues the most often. Taichi is perceptive, smart, and rational, but at the same time, his strength is also the source of his insecurity. Comparing to Chihaya and Arata who seem to possess natural talent for Karuta, Taichi believes his skills, which are gained through effort, cannot match up to raw talent in the long run. From how I see it, any ambition he has for the game is at least partially driven by his feelings for Chihaya and not wanting to lose to Arata, whom Chihaya greatly admires. On several occasions, Taichi shows his envy for the kind of connection Chihaya is able to have with Arata, but exactly what the connection entails for the three is rather hazy at the moment. Things have gone all the more interesting when Arata assumed Taichi and Chihaya were already a couple, to which Taichi clarified, probably with some degree of frustration. I have a hard time discern Arata's thoughts and whether there is indeed a romantic undertone, but I don't have any doubt that he will be a central force in the brewing conflict that will manifest in the second season. I cannot wait to see how their bonds will transform in the future.

Overall, the show has been hugely enjoyable. At times, even I was quite infected by Chihaya's simple but relentless devotion. Also, I never thought the games can be so intense and exciting to watch. The psychological roller coaster the characters experience through their trials and tribulations can easily draw you into the moment,  you can't help but root for them, for their passion, for their perseverance and for their team work. It also helps that by the end of season one, I have a gained a pretty good understanding of the game rules, and that certainly increased to my appreciation for the game itself.

The supporting cast is very likable, I'm especially interested to see how Kana improves as a reader in the second season. In contrast with most Karuta players, Kana has a playing style that's fairly different as she actually cares about the meaning of each verse printed on the card. I like her gentle manner and her affection for poetry. The club's various opponents over the course of the series are all pretty unique in their own right, though I wouldn't say any of them are particularly deep.

As a package, Chihayafuru is a presentable series that's pleasant to the senses. The directing is nothing short of exceptional, the camera angles are always creative – notice how the cards fly through the air – and coupled with gorgeous animation, I have little to complain about in the technicality department. I also love every piece of music used in the series, both the OP and ED are beautifully composed and fit the mood perfectly.

So here you have it, my review of a wonderful series that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. This is a series in which the atmosphere and character interaction matter more than the end goal. Let all your presumptions go and simply enjoy it for the colorful details and emotionally charged moments it offers. At the end of the day, it's not about understanding why Chihaya loves Karuta, but how she loves it and allow yourself to soar through the dream with her.

Overall: 9/10 

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