Let's explore the finer points of one of next season's best returning shows, the thrilling Chihayafuru!
Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. The summer season is wrapping up at this point, but with so many great fall shows to look forward to, it’s hard to feel particularly sad about it. And though I’m sure you’re all eagerly awaiting the return of My Hero Academia, I’m personally even more excited for the fall’s other high-profile sequel: the return of the charming, thrilling, and infinitely entertaining Chihayafuru!
If you haven’t watched Chihayafuru, it can be a little tricky to understand what makes the show so good. After all, a show about a niche kind of competition that combines Simon Says with the famed 100 Poems doesn’t seem like it’d be particularly exciting, or even really coherent to an audience not familiar with either the poems involved or “karuta,” the sport which is played with them. But in truth, Chihayafuru embodies all the best qualities of anime sports dramas, from its rich and varied cast to its gripping tactical back-and-forth. So what exactly is karuta, and what makes Chihayafuru so great?
Karuta is a sort of “competitive matching game.” You start with a deck of cards that are each marked with the first lines from one of the One Hundred Poems, a famed collection of Japanese poetry. You and an opponent each spread out a portion of this full deck in front of yourselves, making sure all the different cards are aligned and visible. Then, a reader reads out the poems in a random order, and as each poem in turn is read, the karuta competitors must attempt to beat their opponents in grabbing that poem’s associated card. Poems are read out and cards are fought over one at a time, in a game that combines memory, speed, and far more strategy than you could ever imagine.
In practice, karuta is actually a pretty straightforward game, but the simplicity of its variables leaves ample room for competitors to shine in ways that are clear and satisfying to any audience. Chihayafuru’s titular protagonist, Chihaya, is something of a karuta genius - she’s crazy about the sport, but also kind of an idiot, and her passion drags a whole slew of friends and competitors into her shining wake. Chihaya’s specialty is her hearing - she can hear the reader’s syllables so clearly even in their intakes of breath that she’s able to attack cards far faster than her opponents, a strength she’s leaned into by focusing on speedy play. As the series progresses, Chihaya develops a wide array of talents and allies, growing into a well-rounded and genuinely terrifying competitor.
Chihaya’s talent and energy provide a great deal of Chihayafuru’s entertainment, but she’s surrounded by an equally charming supporting cast who all bring their own unique talents to the field. Literature buff Kana is able to turn her passion for the poems themselves into a genuine competitive strength, while Chihaya’s childhood friend Taichi makes up for his lack of inherent talent with incredible focus, and the ability to memorize every single poem that’s been read. In a game of inches like karuta, that sort of power can mean everything - after all, if you know all of the poems that start with a given series of syllables have been read, you can more easily predict what remaining poems might be coming next.
As you’re hopefully beginning to see, the simple core variables of karuta actually lend themselves to a wide variety of tactical specialties, and Chihayafuru draws every potential drop of drama it can out of that sturdy foundation. Over the course of its first two seasons, Chihaya and her friends have fought through tournament after tournament, each of them offering engaging new enemies, rivals, and thrilling karuta battles.
Chihayafuru is one of those rare and special shows where, when the good guys win, you can understand exactly why they won, and appreciate the smart choices and personal strength that drove them that far. Among tactics-based drama, I’d play Chihayafuru alongside fellow tactical feasts like Hunter x Hunter and Girls und Panzer. Those two shows also share another quality with Chihayafuru: that nearly undefinable can’t-put-down quality, a “just one more episode”-ness that defines much of the best joyful entertainment.
If it’s not already obvious, Chihayafuru is one of my favorite anime, and I consider it one of the best sports anime ever created. It’s frankly impossible for me to sound neutral describing this show, but if you like sports dramas, tournament arcs, shows with broad and likable casts, or just Fun In General, you should absolutely start catching up in time for season three’s premiere. Having surprised the world with their growing talents over the past two years, Chihaya’s team are now ready to take on the greatest players in karuta, and I’m right there with them. Three cheers for Chihayafuru!
Let’s all share the Chihaya love this season. Let me know your own favorite things about Chihayafuru in the comments!
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