The best Chihaya.
Sports anime often has a magical effect on me. I am not into sports, nor do I interest myself with the popular Philippine sports like basketball and boxing, but there’s something about cartoon characters and the sports that they play.
Chihayafuru is about three friends who are devoted to karuta, which is a card game and a competitive sport. The show gives you enough of an idea to understand karuta, which is pretty simple enough, and it also lends enough detail to show you how deep and skillful it is. I’ll probably never be able to learn the game, but I know how hard it is!
It does these things with a strong introductory arc, a flashback that introduces how the main characters met. It’s a great hook to the show–I even think that you could drop it right after if you didn’t like karuta at all, for it’s good character drama coupled with a a positive, healthy attitude towards competitive play.
Taichi, Chihaya, and Arata all love karuta, but their individual reasons set them apart: Arata was destined into karuta, Chihaya was inspired into it, and Taichi sacrificed for it. These tie into their characters very well, and form the core of their relationships with each other.
Taichi, being the one closest to the world outside of karuta, has the most to lose. Yet he throws himself into the sport, despite a host of other pursuits that he could excel at. But even with more favorable options, he chooses karuta, because he wants to stand beside his friends, whom he feels inferior to. He doesn’t have Chihaya’s drive or Arata’s talent, so he tries to make up with hard work, clawing his way up with every little improvement he could muster. It’s also obvious that he does have feelings for Chihaya, but if anything, it makes his desire all the more noble to me: Taichi isn’t using karuta to get close to Chihaya; through the blood and tears and sweat he is seeing the karuta that Chihaya loves, and desperately wants to be her equal.
Arata is by far my favorite character. Arata had everything going for him, but had a falling-out with karuta after losing his grandfather. He blamed karuta for taking his grandfather away from him, and he blamed himself for choosing karuta over his grandfather during that fateful day. He tried to banish karuta out of his life and failed, because it’s in his blood, in more ways than one. When he started walking away from the building where a tournament was being held, and found himself inexorably drawn back was a defining moment for him. But he had not played for far too long, and had to make up for lost time. To me, Arata is a shining example of how one could reconcile with one’s self and continue on with even greater resolve. In contrast to Taichi, Arata has nothing but karuta, and while he is stronger than his friends, he still has a lot to prove against the real strong players out there.
(On a personal note, I envy Arata dearly because he was able to go back to the sport that he loved; I played in the high school chess team until my parents forced me to quit. They wanted me to focus on my studies, but it caused the reverse effect for me. This continued on in college, where I decided on my own that I wouldn’t bother trying out for the university chess team, for fear of earning my parents’ disapproval. I’ve never quite gotten over it.)
Chihaya, the titular character, warmed my heart with her sheer, pure love for the sport. Despite her lofty goal of becoming the strongest woman player in the world, Chihaya loves karuta because it’s fun. It’s about the journey more than anything–the joy of seeking out challenges and testing one’s skills against them, overcoming hurdles, improving yourself, and playing karuta over and over. Her love for competition is embodied in her indignant retort to Taichi in the initial episodes, “what’s so lame about losing in a fair fight?” I can’t help but be inspired to pick up something competitive and enjoy it. I’ve had this persistent belief that people who love competition in their games banish the fun for others, but through watching Chihaya, I learned that competition in itself is not bad, it only because so if you start thinking that it’s not enough for you to win, but your opponents must also lose.
In any case, the first season (yes, there is a second under way!) ends inconclusively, with Taichi, Chihaya, and Arata all struggling to improve themselves further after seeing the Masters/Queens matches. I have no idea how their goals will intertwine and turn out in the future, but I believe that the only constant that will remain is their enduring friendship.