Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Chihayafuru Episodes 1 and 2 – The Cards Don’t Lie

Chihayafuru Episodes 1 and 2 – The Cards Don’t Lie

Manga and anime based on collectable card games are traditionally one of the bottom feeders of the industry, used to boost some commercial product. Slightly above CCGs that are games based on non-athletic sports, from shogi to go to puzzle solving to, now, karuta, a traditional Japanese card game with several variants. These sorts of themes are tricky for animators to properly utilize. Done wrong, as was the case with shogi in Shion no Ou, and viewers can’t grasp even the basic mechanics of the game, much less understand the strategy or depth of play involved. Unlike athletic sports, cerebral games are remarkably difficult to capture in a visual medium.

However, when a series gets one right, as Hikaru no Go did with go, an entire generation of Japanese can relearn the virtues of a traditional game. A quick glance at Chihayafuru’s wikipedia page confirms that the manga did that with karuta, providing some hope that this show would be one of the better examples of the genre. Add in the fact that the original manga was published for a josei audience, and that hope of quality became an expectation. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.

Shots like this should immediately tell veteran anime watchers who the expected audience is supposed to be

Karuta itself, by way of explanation, is a game where a set of cards is laid out on a playing surface and a moderator reads out certain key words. The two players then try to grab the card matching those key words. (In the version played in the anime, the words are the first half of a traditional Japanese poem, with the second half written on the cards.)

It’s a fairly easy game to understand, requiring memorization capability, good reflexes and reaction time, and concentration. While the show is already revealing there’s some deeper strategy involved, it’s not a deep enough game to carry the weight of a series, so thankfully the plot focuses on something else.

In addition to the love triangle that forms, karuta also inspires Chihaya to think about her own goals in life. It's inspiration she clearly needed, even if I wish she'd set her sights a bit higher

That something else is Chihaya Ayase, a freshly minted high school student trying to start a new club on campus. She gained a love for the game of karuta in her final year of elementary, and in the process won the admiration of Taichi Mashima and Arata Wataya, two boys who left after graduating from elementary but who, I think it’s safe to say, were sorry to say goodbye.

Most of the first two episodes, in fact, revolve around Chihaya’s grade school experiences: how she’s the only person in her class who doesn’t pick on transfer student Arata, who talks a bit funny and is obviously poor; how she winds up being ostracized by the class for defending him, with class over-achiever Taichi leading the pack because he’s jealous of Arata stealing away Chihaya’s attention; and with Arata and Chihaya teaming up to beat Taichi at a school karuta competition despite Taichi employing various dirty tricks against them.

There's some interesting tricks to karuta, like how Chihaya starts reading her opponent to figure out where the right cards is. I'm not certain if it constitutes actual strategy, though

The boyhood Taichi eventually comes around, we know, and the high school Chihaya is very warm toward him. But she, ironically, has taken on the role that Arata had four years before: an isolated student seen by everyone as being a bit weird for loving a card game as much as she does. The rest of the show will likely spend a lot of time with the emerging (really, returning) love triangle between Arata, Taichi, and Chihaya, but I suspect it won’t ignore Chihaya’s attempts to win acceptance for her karuta club either.

Chihaya is both the great strength and weakness of the show. Like many shoujo and josei leads, she’s admirable yet idealized. Beautiful but not vain, intelligent but not stuck up, seemingly immune to peer pressure and driven by an unshakable and selfless moral core, she’s the sort of person anyone might want to be, but which so few people are, and none, I’m sure, as effortlessly as Chihaya pulls it off. It’s hard not to cheer for her, but it’s also hard to accept that someone like her could exist.

Chihaya's response when the class starts picking on her like it does on Arata is to claim the moral high ground and (cheerfully!) tell them all off. She has the self-assurance you'd hope for every kid her age, even as you know you'll never find it

This is an odd stumble for a show which has otherwise invested so much in its characters—and specifically their weaknesses. Taichi is the obvious class idol, but he suffers from the pressures of overbearing parents who will never settle for him being second at anything. His older self has a girlfriend, which seems to be just one form of denial about his affection for Chihaya. Arata seems nice enough, but he’s a natural loner who is further hurt by being so invested in a game most people don’t take seriously. We haven’t seen his older self yet, but I suspect he’ll still have some lingering issues.

Even Chihaya has been ignored by her parents for so long in favor of her older sister (who is aiming to be a model) that her elementary school self doesn’t have any personal dreams or ambitions. Perhaps this is the show’s way of saying that Chihaya’s selflessness comes with a price, but while it makes Chihaya more sympathetic, it doesn’t seem to be the burden on her that it should be. At least, it hasn’t made an impression of doing so yet. Perhaps I’m jumping the gun here.

We get a little taste of how emotionally crippling Chihaya's home life must be like, as her achievements are continually ignored in favor of her sister's. I hope her older self is willing to be a bit resentful about it

Regardless, I’m spending far more time than I should on what should be a minor complaint. Chihayafuru gets so many things right in the first couple episodes, from the causal cruelty of children to the subtle depictions of burgeoning love to the tension of competitive play, that making criticism on a slightly too perfect protagonist is a bit petty. Heck, the fact that the show can make a game wrapped up around traditional Japanese poetry so engaging in the first place is a major accomplishment. And the show is still in the process of introducing itself, making any judgments on potential flaws in characterization a bit premature.

Perhaps that also makes judgments on the quality of the series as a whole equally premature. I’m going to make them anyway. Right now, the question isn’t whether Chihaya will be the best romance offering of the season. The question is how many seasons we’ll have to go back to find one that can measure up.

Chihaya in high school is just as loose with social conventions as she was earlier, but this doesn't always work to her benefit. I'm guessing the show will prove more interesting once it finishes up its backstory

You can watch the episodes here and here.

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