It's weird, the things anime will expose you to. A few weeks ago I'd never heard of Karuta, a Japanese card game; now, I'm fairly annoyed that I don't know enough Japanese to be able to play it. The show in question, Chihayafuru, follows the members of a high school club taking part in competitive karuta tournaments, with a version of the game that plays like a cross between bingo and snap.
The players' deck has one hundred torifuda cards, each of which has the second half of a Japanese poem printed on it1. There's a second set of one hundred yomifuda cards with the entire poem on it, which is held by the reader. Each player gets 25 of the 100 cards and sets them out in their own "territory" in three rows - the actual placement of cards is apparently up to the player. The reader picks a torifuda card at random and reads out the first half of the poem; the first player to grab the corresponding torifuda card wins it and, if it's in the opponent's territory, passes a replacement card to the other player. The first one to empty their territory wins.
I'd assumed, when first watching Chihayafuru, that the speed and skill that the characters possess when it comes to identifying the poem and its corresponding torifuda - not to mention the lightning speed with which they grab it - was unrealistically fast. Then I watched a YouTube video of a real match. It's stunning how quick they react to the first one or two syllables of a card, and it only reinforces the importance of the players' strategy when placing their cards and how good their memories are of the overall layout.
The only other sports anime I've watched is Princess Nine, and as much as I love the its characters, the actual sport itself is a bit of a weak link. The Kisaragi Girls' High School baseball team's strength comes more from innate abilities of the characters - especially Ryo's pitching - than from any hard work or skill progression of the team as a whole. More games are won single-handedly by Ryo's "Lightning Ball" than is really necessary for dramatic purposes, which leaves most of the rest of the cast as little more than filler, at least when it comes to the "A" plot.
While Chihayafuru still gives its progagonist a little bit of a natural edge over some competitors, Chihaya's better-than-average hearing is far from the superhuman feats displayed in Princess Nine. It's not enough on its own to let her win games either; while she can pick up on verbal queues from the readers, enabling her to "hear the next syllable" before it's been read, her memory skills and speed are frequently outmatched by opponents, which makes the games less predictable.
While I'm sure there are cynical business reasons to want the characters' progression to the top of their game to take longer, it's also reassuring that the series is willing to take its time developing the characters rather than giving them a shortcut to the Master and Queen titles. They've got to earn their place to even play at those games, and it's not going to be a quick or easy road even to get to the qualifiers.
The main subplot of the first season is the unusually good-natured rivalry between two of the male characters, Taichi and Arata. It could easily have become bawdy or childish, but the way their relationship is approached by the story feels a lot more realistic. To begin with, Taichi's hanging around to keep an eye on Arata, who he fears might be making moves on his childhood friend. (It's fairly obvious that Taichi has a thing for Chihaya but doesn't know how to tell her.) The romantic rivalry is downplayed a lot, however - mostly by Arata's absence from large parts of the series, but at one point Taichi even admits (although only to himself) that "Chihaya belongs to both of us". Instead, it's their karuta that's the main focus of their competitive streak - although for Taichi at least, a large part of his motivation is probably to get Chihaya's attention away from Arata.
But Chihaya's not interested in either of them romantically. She's briefly jealous when Taichi gets a girlfriend, but doesn't seem to have any worry beyond how it'll affect his (and her own) karuta training schedule. As far as she's concerned, he's primarily her training partner, as he's initially the only person in the school karuta club capable of challenging her reflexes.
Her relationship with arata is different in a lot of ways - when he leaves Tokyo, having inspired Chihaya's borderline obsession with karuta, she's fixated on the game as a way to reunite with him. As a child she didn't have anything that she loved for herself; Arata introduced her to karuta, and her love for the game and for him are indistinguishable. It's intriguing that her driving force in becoming Queen is her need to be with Arata again, but without the romantic hopes that would entail in an only slightly different story. I can't help wondering how their relationship will change once they are together again; their few brief meetings have a hint of deeper feelings than Chihaya maybe realises, but is playing karuta enough to keep them together?
It's one of the things that keeps me going with the show, though - Chihaya's excitement at playing karuta, with old friends, new club members or other semi-pros at the local karuta society is infectious. She's so focused on it, and her gradual improvement - depite her failures along the way - is hugely different from the path of endless victory I'd expected from a sports-focused anime coming in.
Even the opponents she faces are more varied than I anticipated; rather than all high-school students, Chihaya faces off against everyone from a six-year-old girl to old men - and in almost all her matches, seems to refine her technique.
The second season started airing recently in Japan, and is being simulcast on Crunchyroll. On one hand I'm glad that I'll be able to follow along with the series as it unfolds - and I don't have to worry about hitting any spoilers, except from people who are up to date with the manga. On the other, having spent the last few weeks watching three or four episodes at a time, the seven day wait between each episode is going to be tough.
The title of this blog post is the opening phrase from one of the most important cards in the show; the full text is Impassionate gods have never seen the red that is the Tatsuta River. In Japanese, "Impassionate" is "Chihayafuru"and begins with the same kanji (千早) as the main character's name, so she has a special attachment to the "Chihaya card".
1 The poems are taken from a collection called Ogura Hyakunin Issu (Ogura Hundred Poets), compiled in the 13th century by Fujiwara no Sadaie to decorate the sliding doors of the Ogura mountain villa, the summer home of the general and poet Utsunomiya Yoritsuna. Each poem in the collection is by a different author, and are arranged based on when they were written, between the 7th and 13th centuries.