Who knew that a simple New Year’s Day pastime could become a vicious, brutal pit of vipers?
What They Say:
Chihaya Ayase was a girl who never seemed to fit in. She never had much in common with the other kids, and her family was so obsessed with her older sister’s modeling career that, sometimes, it was like Chihaya wasn’t even there. Everything changes when transfer student Arata gets Chihaya interested in the world of competitive Karuta, a unique card-based game that requires lightning fast reflexes, an exceptional memory, and a keen ear. Chihaya is a natural, and she has the skills to take her to the very top. Suddenly, Chihaya has found her goal: to become the best player in Japan! It won’t be easy, but when a girl has a dream in her heart, nothing else matters in CHIHAYAFURU!
Includes all 25 Episodes on 5 Discs!
For this viewing, I listened to the Dolby Digital 2ch 48kHz 224kbps English track. While there is some musical directionality, in general this is a dialogue-driven show and almost all the work is done by the center speaker. It was clear, without any notable dropouts or fadeouts.
Originally airing in 2011, the show is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The image is pretty clean without too much in the way of noticeable artifacts or defects for upscaled 480p video. While there is a bit of grain, much of it is intentional grain, not the result of defects. It’s not perfect, of course. There are instances of noise at times, where it’s clear a high definition version would have much smoother, less noisy imagery. But linework in general does not come across as too fuzzy or jagged, beyond what you would expect from upscaling. No dot crawl. It is a touch fuzzy in places, especially when there is heavy movement, but that’s to be expected of standard definition compared to full high definition. Watch Chihaya’s skirt in the OP and you’ll see how it becomes a blurry mess when swirled around by the wind.
Packaging, Presentation and Menus: B
The series comes in a single normal width DVD keepcase with two two-disc flippy hinge holders for four of the discs; the final disc is held on the back wall of the case. It’s functional and space saving. The front cover art (see picture above) features the main trio of Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata. The back cover has an action play scene along the top, with a framed portrait of Chihaya from the end of the opening animation inset on the right, followed by several screencaps from the show underneath. The catalog copy is to the left, in the center. Below that is the technical grid and production credits.
The discs themselves are picture labeled with small images of the major characters and text stating which episodes are on the disc in addition to the disc number. The on-disc content itself is not particularly complex, with very simply menus. Music plays in the background (the opening theme for the main menu; the ending theme for any submenus available. Episodes and submenu options are placed on the left, with a static picture of key art on the right. Here is the breakdown by disc:
Disc 1: Ep 1-5, Languages, Special Features: Clean Open, Clean Close, Sentai trailers. All accessible from main menu.
Disc 2: Ep 6-10, Languages.
Disc 3: Ep 11-15, Languages.
Disc 4: Ep 16-20, Languages.
Disc 5: Ep 21-25, Languages. Clean Closing Animation (ep 25).
This is pretty much the minimum standard in packaging and presentation for a DVD release these days.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga by Yuki Suetsugu, serialized in Kodansha’s josei magazine BE LOVE, in Fall 2011 the work was adapted for anime by Madhouse with Morio Asaka directing and scripts under the supervision of Naoya Takayama. The show ran for two cour and this complete first season set contains 25 episodes.
The story follows the life of Chihaya Ayase, a girl at Mizusawa High School who has forever been in the shadow of her elder sister, a great beauty who has modeling success from her teen years. Chihaya herself is very attractive, but has never thought to attempt to follow in her sister’s path. But when a manga author creates a great beauty, there always seems to be a price exacted from the character. Probably because watching a pretty person do amazing things is incredibly boring, not to mention irritating and potentially insulting, to all of the more plain and less blessed masses that make up humanity. Authors know this, so they know they need to put a flaw into such a character. Chihaya therefore follows a very common archetype in manga and anime, which is the “pretty person with a rotten/crappy personality.” It is not that Chihaya is abrasive or abusive, which are common ways to go fairly often for male characters who otherwise seem perfect; instead, she is rather simple-minded and stupid and commits that greatest of Japanese sins—not being mindful of others. This has rendered Chihaya pretty much a social outcast, though she’s so unconcerned and uncaring about that that it likely does not register much with her. That’s because the other part of what’s wrong with her personality is that she is fixated, to the point of obsession, on only one thing: competitive karuta.
What’s that? Normally, it’s a simple and fun little game played by families during New Year’s Day when one is supposed to be together with family. The game itself is quite simple: a set of cards is printed with the words from 100 poems, specifically Fujiwara no Teika’s famous collection known as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu that is comprised of 100 poems from 100 poets, one each. The cards come in two sets: one set has the complete poem; the other, only the final two verses. The game consists of the players laying out that second set of cards on the floor (tatami mats are very good for this) and having two people (or two teams of players) attempt to grab the card that contains the final two verses of the poem being read by a Reader, who pulls cards from the first deck. The casual version is meant to be fun.
But Chihaya is interested in the competitive version, where you have skilled players who memorize the poems (or at least the first syllables of the beginning and the final two verses) and literally fight on the mats (the competitive version must be played on tatami mats). She first fell under the spell of karuta (the word itself derives from Portuguese, as they were the ones who introduced playing cards to Japan) as a child when her elementary school held a tournament for all the children. While Chihaya herself was not a natural talent nor had the poems memorized, she was inspired by the playing prowess of her otherwise quite, socially marginalized classmate Arata Wataya. He had been ostracized by the rest of the class simply because he was quiet, shy, and kept to himself. Chihaya, however, tries to befriend him and in the process learns about his passion for karuta, which he inherited from his grandfather, who was a Master (having won the national tournament) of the competitive sport.
Here, we see the beginnings of Romance Cliche #1 in the story, as Chihaya’s childhood friend Taichi Mashima, a spoiled rich boy with perfect grades who is good at everything, gets jealous of Chihaya’s paying attention to the outsider. A love triangle begins to rear its ugly head right from the start, but I will give Suetsugu credit that this triangle is fairly quickly shoved to the back burner and does not become a major source of angst or irritation for the entire rest of the first season run. This is what I mean by Chihayafuru being a show that is filled with standard cliches and conventional elements, but with somewhat more intelligent execution. Taichi aims to beat Arata in the school tournament and even takes the low road to make it happen. Things do not turn out his way, however.
This extended flashback takes up most of the first three episodes, serving as an important establishing arc. I was not entirely on board during this time since I found quite a lot of it…rather irritating.
As we come back to the high school present, Arata is nowhere to be seen (and at the end of the opening arc, it was revealed that he had to move back to Fukui, where his grandfather lives), Chihaya is an outcast whom other students consider a “waste of a pretty face” (pretty much a direct quote of the show, not my words). Taichi is the prince of the school, with the best grades and many admirers, as well as a girlfriend who goes to another school. But Chihaya has never quite karuta and when she is inspired with the idea of starting a club at school so that they can compete in the national high school tournament, she ropes in her old childhood friend Taichi, who it is clear to us, but not to Chihaya, still carries a torch for her.
And here the story follows the usual conventions of a sports manga, going through a number of standard story arcs: the “putting the team together arc,” the first major tournament arc, the national tournament arc, and then the aftermath as the individual members of the team work to improve themselves as they do not progress too far, and finally what we can call a “campaign for the Titles” arc as Chihaya, Taichi, and Nishida of Mizusawa, as well as Arata, make their attempts to compete for the national titles of Meijin and Queen, the male and female masters of the sport. From the standpoint of formal story construction, looking at the foundation, the support beams, and the scaffolding, it’s all pretty logical and solid. Events flow forward with occasional flashbacks to fill out backstories.
On the character front, the Mizusawa High School Karuta club is a group of misfits, with the exception of Taichi, whose major flaw is his unrequited love for Chihaya. Chihaya is none too bright and uninterested in just about anything other than karuta; Kanade Oe is a refugee from the kyūdō (traditional Japanese archery) club…which she only joined because they get to wear hakama, a kind of traditional Japanese clothing worn by archery and kendo athletes—Oe is obsessed with traditional Japanese clothing and culture, as her family runs a kimono store; Tsutomu Komano is yet another outcast, who spends so much time alone at his desk studying that he’s nicknamed “Desktomu” by the rest of his class—he spends his time studying because he thinks it’s the only thing he is good at, though in high school he had a rude awakening when he found out he’s only No. 2 in academics—Taichi holds the top spot; and Yusei Nishida, who is a somewhat portly boy (who is therefore nicknamed “Porky,” much to his displeasure) who plays tennis but as a child had played karuta, including against Chihaya, Taichi and Arata in children’s tournaments, and is roped into playing again by Chihaya, desperate to find a fifth player. This group of oddballs, misfits, and one boy with an undying crush from childhood, form the Mizusawa team. In terms of group dynamics, they actually work well. Taichi, who initially was not portrayed in the best light in childhood, is actually not a bad person and is also a fairly good leader, taking care of all of the members. Kanade is the cultural conscience of the team, insisting on the importance of the poems and the whole culture of decorum associated with them. Tsutomu is the data master, analyzing the playing styles of his teammates and providing helpful information to them on how to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. And Nishida is a fierce competitor who brings knowledge and experience in a way that is useful to Kanade and Tsutomu, who are both complete novices at the start. Chihaya might be a strong player, but she’s a failure as an instructor and mentor. Her greatest use in practice is to be an example of what others will be up against when playing in the major tournaments.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the show is that it manages to balance its romance and sports action elements well, never boring us with excessive amounts of annoying angst. Over time, I began to feel a bit sorry for Taichi as it’s clear he’s not such a bad guy and Chihaya would be lucky to have him…if she ever could figure out his feelings, which he’s not able to reveal to her bluntly. That would be because Taichi is still jealous of Chihaya’s interest in Arata, though she’s not exactly in love with him either, more like she’s infatuated with her childhood memories of his skill and power in playing the game. Arata himself is the focus of a brief bit of angsty drama, which fortunately gets resolved relatively quickly, where lesser shows might well have wallowed in it for too much time. We do get a brief window into his thoughts on Chihaya, which show that he still feels like just a rival to Taichi…as well as another unrequited suitor as Chihaya treats him more like some kind of divine being, not a man. She really is a blockhead, by design.
In terms of weakness, the show does suffer something of a letdown after the national tournament winds up. The dramatic tension is completely drained and only slowly starts to refill with the new focus on trying to attain one of the national titles. But the tension falls away again when that campaign is done. The final episodes of the season, then, feel a touch weak as what we get to fill the time is a look at the Title Matches for the Meijin and the Queen, with some backstory for both characters provided. It’s important table setting…but for things we will not be seeing in this season.
Overall, Chihayafuru Season 1 does a decent job, after some of my issues with the opening arc, of gathering a decent group of characters and then putting them through the excitement and adventure of pursuing a national title, only for them to fail and need to try again (this is not really a spoiler; ALL sports manga work this way, with freshmen entering high school, joining a competitive club, qualifying for nationals but not winning the title; there are too many examples to bother citing). There are elements of romance, but they do not dominate and their execution is a bit more sophisticated (likely because this is based upon a josei work, one intended for adults in the first place, so it is absent of the excessive angst that shoujo stories often wallow in). The sports action itself, while animated fairly simply, can be enthralling. The characters work for the most part. It’s a show and story worth seeing.
A brief note about the dub. Directed by Shannon Reed, Chihaya is played by veteran voice actress Luci Christian. While it’s a voice and a performance that will be fairly familiar for long-time dub listeners, this is one where Ms. Christian is in fine form. Taichi is voiced by Adam Gibbs (Chelsea McCurdy in the childhood flashbacks), whose laid back styling works well for Mishima. Blake Shepard plays the high school version of Arata (Shannon Emerick voices him as a child) as a bit of whiny emo teen at first, which is correct for the character at that point. He later gives him a more “normal” kind of personality. Juliet Simmons plays Kanade as a bright and chipper girl, fitting with the physical image. Bryson Baugus’s Tsutomu is very closed off at first but slowly comes alive, matching the character’s changes well. And Greg Ayres plays Nishida with the right levels of energy, as Nishida rightfully gets upset at being called Porky all the time by Chihaya. A mixture of long-time veterans and some more recent voices from the newer generation of talent that is becoming well-established in Sentai dubs. The performances are solid, with natural line reads and good rhythm. Casting in general is solid, with even most incidental and episodic roles being given good performances. A good, professional dub.
If you are looking for a sports show that’s a bit different, still filled with many expected cliches of the genre, as well as a generous helping of romance tropes, but a show that is still a touch more balanced and fine tuned, you could do a lot worse than the karuta as a full contact sport anime Chihayafuru. It may be nothing more than “a group of geeks form a club in high school and experience adventure and frustrate any chances of real romance” story, one that is not uncommon in manga, but the execution is pretty solid and the characters work enough to retain the viewer’s interest. As this is only the first season, there is quite a lot of table setting done that will only be fully used later, but a good stopping point is reached and leaves you wanting to know what happens next.
Content Grade: B+
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: September 12th 2017
Running Time: 625 minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Features: English 2.0 Dolby Digital audio, Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital audio, English subtitles, Sentai trailers.
Sony KDL-32S5100 32-Inch 1080p LCD HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Sony Bravia DAV-HDX589W 5.1-Channel Theater System connected via digital optical cable.