It’s always a little scary waiting for that first premiere of the season that you love – what if it never comes? But it’s also pretty exciting when it does – and for me, Chihayafuru is that series this season. It’s love at first sight.
OP: “YOUTHFUL” by 99RadioService
What – excited about a series centered on an old Japanese game? After needlessly missing out on the greatness that was Hikaru no Go for years, I’m never falling victim to that prejudice again. This time the game is Karuta, a card game built around connecting lines from the Hyakunin Isshu or 100 poems – a collection of classic Japanese poems compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the 12th Century (yes, this one has a 12th Century Fujiwara connection too). This is obviously going to be a hard concept to capture in the translation, but I find it to be a fascinating concept. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the series than that.
In fact, I’d say the series is largely a coming-of-age story – my favorite genre, probably – and built around three characters that are lively, likeable and complicated even after just one episode. There’s Chihaya (Seto Asami, only 18 and wonderful as Yoshino in Hourou Musuko). She’s a kind spirit and a lovely girl whose dream is to see her older sister become Japan’s top model. Her best friend in elementary school is Taichi (Miyano Mamoru, Takagaka Ayahi as a child) a high-spirited boy and excellent student who has a serious crush on her. The third wheel is Arata (Hosoya Yoshimasa, Terasaki Yuka as a child) who’s a transfer student from Fukui (several hundred miles SW of Tokyo – also a character name in Hikaru no Go). Mocked for his dialect and for the fact that he’s obviously poor, he almost never speaks – but sweet Chihaya takes a protective interest in him, and is fascinated when she discovers that he’s a whiz at Karuta and has memorized the entire 100 poems. This sets off trouble with Taichi, who’s the only other student to accomplish the feat, and grows jealous of the blooming connection between Chihaya and Arata.
We see all this as a sort of flashback from the teenaged Chihaya, now a first-year high-schooler and frustrated at finding no one willing to join her Karuta club (struggling for club members, just like in…never mind, I’ll stop now). She’s drifted apart from all her friends, but meets Taichi by chance and discovers that he’s attending the same high school. He has a girlfriend but is still seriously hung up on her. It seems as if the series is going to skip between time periods, at least for a while, as we learn more about how Chihaya and Taichi came to share Arata’s passion for the game, and how they lost it – but she didn’t – and then drifted away from her.
What makes this all work for me is… Well – everything. I thought the pacing of the episode was excellent. I thought all three leads were brilliantly conceived, each of them immediately alive and distinctive and sympathetic. The art is quite stunningly beautiful, some of the best work I’ve seen from Madhouse in years. This series shares a director – Asaka Morio – and character designer with NANA, so it’s certainly going to remind you of that series. Asaka also did Cardcaptor Sakura and Rozen Maiden among other shows, so he’s both a veteran and seriously talented, and it really shows in the extremely polished final product here. Make no mistake, these character designs are extremely shoujo, right down to the freakishly long eyelashes, but they’re easy on the eyes.
I can’t find a single major element in the premiere that I thought was a weakness – it was just a solid, thoroughly enjoyable piece of work. Chihayafuru ranks with Fate/Zero as my two favorite first efforts so far this season, and this is the one that has me most eagerly anticipating the next episode.
ED: “Soshite Ima (そしていま)” by Asami Seto