Chihayafuru – Series Review

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Maybe I’ll start re-watching this series next Tuesday…

There’s not much left to be said about Chihayafuru that I haven’t already said in blogging 25 episodes. I love it – I love it to pieces, and I’m gutted that it’s over. The series is a mortal lock to make my 2012 Top 10 list, even if we were to have a monster year like 2007 (which I sincerely doubt will happen) and who knows, it might even be #1. Why? Read the posts, it’s all there. This is the very best of josei, with deep, complex characters and a rich emotional palette, merged with what’s effectively the best sports shounen since Hikaru no Go. That combination is every bit as powerful as it sounds on paper, if you’re the sort of anime fan I am.

There’s the very basic stuff, too. Madhouse have done a wonderful job adapting Suetsugu Yuki’s manga (about half of it, anyway). I absolutely adore the backgrounds here – the scenes in the snow, the cherry blossoms, the lovely depictions of Omi Jingu Shrine. The music is a constant pleasure, a perfect complement to the visuals. And the character designs are my favorite of the year – so much depth of feeling in those faces, the beauty of youth and the wisdom of age, all brought to life by Madhouse’s animators with some of the most lively facial expressions you’ll ever see. If it lacks the fluidity of KyoAni or the stunning detail of P.A. Works, Madhouse’s visual effort here is – like the anime itself – a sweeping triumph. The job of any adaptation is to retain the look of a manga and improve on it, make it come alive – and they’ve done it.

For me, animes are always primarily about the characters, and no matter how splendid a series is it cannot achieve greatness in my eyes unless the characters are exceptional. And happily this is foremost among Chihayafuru’s many strengths, and this was apparent from the flawless premiere episode. We begin with a brilliant three-episode flashback featuring Chihaya, Taichi and Arata as 12 year-olds, and then rejoined them four years later as they entered high school. And amazingly, they grew up as much over the next 22 episodes as they did in that long time-skip. While Arata was physically at a remove for most of the series, his spirit was always present – gently influencing everything that happened in Chihaya and Taichi’s lives even as he struggled to find his own path, losing his way for a while before finding his way back to the game and the friends he loves.

Of Chihaya and Taichi so much has already been said, but they were an incredibly engaging pair (I can’t say “couple”, alas) at the heart of the series. Chihaya was in many ways tasked with the thankless role of the shounen lead, the driven and freakishly talented but emotionally clueless hero, but there was so much more to her than that. I would argue that Chihaya changed the least of all the major characters in the series, both inside the game of Karuta and out. Her game is still a child’s game, athletic and instinctive, but at last through her time with the others she’s learning how to grow as a player – through Kanade a love of the poetry, through Tsutomu an understanding of analysis and preparation, from Nishida the importance of strategy, and from Taichi’s own growth the importance of toughness, of never giving up. Emotionally she’s still a child too, romance never really entering the equation in her mind, unaware of the impact her insensitivity has on those around her. But here, too, being around the others in the club – being embraced by the camaraderie and affection that’s built between them – she’s coming out of herself, and becoming a whole person at last.

You certainly know my feelings about Taichi. Miyano Mamoru was my seiyuu of the year for his work in Steins;Gate in 2011, and he’s the early favorite for a completely different role in 2012. In terms of growth and change, Mashima Taichi has had one of the greatest character arcs in modern anime. While Chihaya was the main character, it was Taichi who did the emotional heavy lifting in this series – where she was wrapped in herself, Taichi was an emotional open book, sharing all his pain and ambition with the audience. Is he flawed? Yes, absolutely – and all the more interesting and sympathetic for it. Taichi changed more than anyone in the cast, and it all played out in the open where we could see it happening and hear what was roiling in his mind. For all the depth of feeling I had about the potential romances in the show, the emotional high-point of the adaptation for me was the scene between Taichi and Harada-sensei on the train platform in episode 20. In that moment was encapsulated everything that had happened to Taichi in the series – all the frustration, all the pain, and how much he’d grown as a person. And in Harada-sensei’s face was all the love he feels for his students, and how personally he takes his role as their mentor. It was emotionally a perfect moment, a bull’s-eye.

Speaking of Harada-sensei, he was arguably the best among an amazing supporting cast which featured no throwaway characters, even in small roles. Rivals, opponents, it didn’t matter – there were no villains, just people. Sudo and Shinobu were scene-stealers from their first appearance, but even a minor character like Retro-kun was a lot more interesting than he needed to be. The anchor of the supporting cast along with Harada-sensei were of course the club members. Lovely, idealistic and artistic Kana-chan, dedicated and deceptively sensitive Tsutomu, and the brash and passionate Nishida. Each of them had their own journey over the course of the series, and each of them taught the others something valuable. The gradual strengthening of the bonds between the five Mizusawa stalwarts was one of the very best things about the series, and perhaps that bond is the thing that I’ll miss the most.

I guess the elephant in the room is the romance side of things, and it must be mentioned – though I was pretty certain it wasn’t going to get much play in the anime finale. Perhaps we can all agree, at least, that Tsutomu and Kanade are adorable together – and I think genuine feelings developed between them. Of the main event, I think we’ll know nothing until Chihaya grows up, and finally knows herself well enough to start thinking about the boys in her life as more than friends and rivals. They’re each very special to her in different ways – Taichi is in many ways her alter ego, and surely her closest friend and the one who knows her best. Arata is the kind, gallant and heroic boy who changed her life with their brief encounter in childhood – and as the anime ends he still exists half in the mythological world, the “God of Karuta” and that heroic boy she remembers. She loves them both in their way, and they her in a romantic way – but of where Chihaya’s heart ultimately takes her, I don’t think anyone can say. She may decide that neither Taichi or Arata is the man of her dreams, as important as they both are to her. Or she may see it otherwise, especially if one of them takes the initiative and shares his feelings. She would do well with either, it seems to me – they’re both exceptional people, and both would treasure her in a way she can’t yet understand. Someday, perhaps, we’ll know how it all turns out. But not today.

So there we leave it, at the end of this amazing six month journey. The characters are still chasing their dreams in their own way, in Karuta and in life. For us, there’s the manga, and I intend to follow it as best I can. And there’s also the Blu-rays and DVDs. I rarely talk about campaigns, concerted efforts to influence the industry on behalf of a series. But I feel very strongly about the following – if there’s any justice in the world, Chihayafuru will have a second season. It deserves it and it’s earned it, and perhaps as fans we can do a little by ordering the discs from Japan, by purchasing the manga (there is a Japanese-English bilingual version) and by asking for a licensing of the series. The latest volume of the manga was the #1 seller during it’s first week in Japan, with over 212,000 copies sold – so there’s hope. I encourage you to do everything you can do to show Madhouse and Kodansha that you appreciate manga and anime that do everything the right way – intelligent, emotionally honest and original. This series is a beautiful and rare thing, and I appreciate having had the chance to experience it. I’m going to be greedy and ask for more, but I’ll still take a moment to be grateful for what we’ve already been given.

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  1. T

    Two days in a row you carry the same sentiments about a show as I do. I am going to deeply miss this show and will begin the manga as soon as I look up which chapter to start. Every thing about this show was just so real that it hit home every week especially Taichi in 20 as someone who also tends to run away when things get difficult. That line just really hit home to me. I will gladly give money to this series where I can because it is the type of show that needs to be made and deserves the financial reward versus other shows *cough GC cough*.

  2. K

    LOL. You don't need to disguise it with some coughing. GC is plain sucks other than its animation and OST.
    Seriously though, Chihayafuru is a hidden gem this season along with Natsume Yuujinchou Shi. Too bad both shows are somewhat underappreciated in my opinion.

  3. K

    The best shows often do go unappreciated. At least the manga seems to get respect winning awards and so forth.

  4. S

    I need more links to buying stuff from the Chihayafuru franchise! I want the anime and the manga, but I don't live in the US. This show needs a second season so badly that my student loan is gonna have to take the heat.

  5. d

    Enzo. Link the bilingual manga pls
    Amazon?? ebay?? Kinokuniya??

  6. D

    Allow me to take this off my chest…

    THANK YOU VERY MUCH, Enzo for your work on this series.
    I've been reading RC and your blog for quite some time and have always enjoyed your posts.

    When Chihayafuru started, I had the same intial reaction as you did. I've grown to love every aspect of it. The theme and the emotional pulls are very strong. I couldn't help but to always agree with what you write after watching every episode. Your posts enhance my experience and create good reflection points everytime.

    It's hard to fight the tears at the end of the finale. The ride has been great for the past half year. Once again, thank you Enzo for blogging this.

    Hope it will be picked up for a 2nd season. Team Taichi all the way!!

  7. I

    I'm going to Japan in the December and I very much intend to carry out those sentiments GE

  8. Thanks Helen for that link to the manga. There are links to the Blu-rays on the Chihayfuru Wiki, thru

    Dunn, thanks – it's been a blast to blog this and I'm glad it enhanced your experience. And Ishruns, thanks for pitching in.

  9. I'm hesitant to even mention something so third-hand, but there are rumors that a second season is coming…

  10. e

    Impassioned hope arising.

  11. A

    I suspect that I will really be depressed once next Tuesday roles along and it wont be a Taichi Tuesday 🙁

    I haven't commented much about this show any where because really, there isn't much to comment on. I honestly love this show for it's human cast, it superb music, it's solid visuals (even as you had put it, it's nothing special, it's certainly nothing to scoff at either!) and of course Chihaya, Taichi & Arata (yeah yeah, I know :P). Really, I worried that if I started writing anymore about this show, it would reach the point of fnaboying lol

    And yes, Miyano Mamoru was as usual phenomena. The man deserves every bit of praise and fame he gets, and I'm glad he ended up landing a role here. He adds so much to Taichi' character via his extraordinary vocal skills, that I don't think I would've been in love with him as I do now had he not had Mamoru-San behind him.

    Really, this just makes me sad … the signs that Madhouse are about to make their grand exit are there, and what makes it hard to watch them go isn't just how much impact in the sort of shows they got out that helped define and shape the anime viewing experience for everyone, but also that their last acts are just so goddamned good! Goddamn it Madhouse, why couldn't you have landed a cashcow sometime along the way? It's no use for you to bring out all this amazing stuff if it's going to be the end!

    Ah …

    BTW, if you are interested Enzo, I'd like to recommend Shion no O to you help you recover from the lack of Taichi Tuesdays. It was the show that actually had gotten me interested in Chihayafuru back when it showed up on the Fall '11 list, considering that I got a similar vibe from this show. It's certainly would be worth your time if you haven't checked it out already.

  12. It's one of many on the list of shows I'll get to eventually…

    You keep saying Madhouse is about to go away, but I confess I haven't seen the evidence myself. They keep announcing new projects, they just licensed Peanuts and they still own a big chunk of DR Movie. Are there rumors out there I'm not hearing?

  13. A

    Well, rather than rumors, it's what you can gather from what you read about the studio and what does the staff there say about their current situation, namely the financial one.

    Since about '08, rumors about Madhouse going through difficult financial and funding trouble had been surfacing. With each passing year, it was difficult to not hear about how there isn't enough money for shows in the studio. Last year, two events proved that these rumors were true: Madhouse being bought by NTV, and perhaps even more tellingly, Masao Maruyama (the co-founder of the studio more than 40 years ago) revealing that he had left the studio to start his own because the financial situation had gotten so bad, he was no longer able to make the shows he wanted to work on. Worse, he revealed part of the reason why he started his own studio is due to the fact Satoshi Kon's last film (The Dream Machine) couldn't be completed due to a number of problems (one of them being the funding for the film).

    Then there is of course the loss of their core talent over the past 5 years. Osamu Dezaki(Co-founder of the studio) and Satoshi Kon tragically passing away from our world, and with Masao Maruyama and Araki Tetsuro leaving the studio to become freelancers, Madhouse had lost some of it's key directors who had helped shape it's image in this era, and that is a massive blow to their creative force. Furthermore, Araki was the directors who was responsible for the studios last two biggest hit's in recent years (Death Note and HSoTD) so with him around, the possibility of the studio getting another massive hit isn't that likely (and they need a massive hit somehow). Redline also drained them a lot, and from what I have been hearing, Takeshi Koike has apparently stopped being an exclusive employee for Madhouse as well …

    As for Peanuts, well … I'm all for diversifying, however from how I view it, the decision to go ahead and adapt all of these unusual projects strikes me as being more of a desperate attempt than actual desire for trying something different. It seems like the current heads at the studio are trying to get a hit somewhere, to do something right whatever it is, just to make sure they wont end up falling into the abyss.

    I wont claim to be a prophet and say that Madhouse is going to die off with absolute certainty (they might end up actually getting a hit after all) but going by all what I've read, it's hard to paint a bright picture for their future …

    Source: Masao Maruyama at Otakon '11 saying that he is to leave the studio + His new studio to work on Satoshi Kon's finale film The news about NTV purchase of Madhouse Work on the dream Machine stopping

  14. H x H 2011 is doing very well in TV ratings (which I know aren't the main source of revenue) and I don't think that's a series they're counting on for a lot of BD/DVD sales. I would imagine that's proving a solid winner for them. I'd also note that there was no evidence whatsoever of Chihayafuru's production values suffering – it looked great for all 25 eps.

    Also worth nothing is that they have arguably the most commercially viable theatrical anime director not working for Ghibli in Hosoda Mamoru. He's had two big hits for them already, and another likely on the way.

    I guess I tend to view this things from the perspective of what my instinct and senses tell me. Madhouse is coming off one of the great seasons an anime studio has had in five years, they have the top young cinema director in the business, and it's hard to imagine a studio like that being in major trouble. The business with The Dream Machine is terrible sad, but I'm not so sure it's terribly surprising or indicative of a deeper problem. A Satoshi Kon film without Satoshi Kon is a difficult sell commercially.

  15. d

    So what is being aired next tuesday?

  16. B

    Man, I can't believe Chihayafuru is over for the foreseeable future while shows like Phi Brain of all goddamn things get a second season. I honestly just don't understand humanity and I don't think I ever will.

  17. Most likely not an anime, as it's mostly the dead week between seasons.

  18. d

    and the week after? Asking about what possible replacements (??) there are.

  19. As of now Jormungand is my top Tuesday pick. I love the manga, though it's nothing at all like Chihayafuru, obviously.

  20. B

    Shion no O is good, I remember watching that back when it aired, but don't expect another Chihayafuru. It's a good show in it's own right but the characters and writing don't have near the same level of depth.

  21. A

    Sir, this coming Tuesday you are going to sit down in front of your computer, look up track 7 of the Chihayafuru OST, hit play, shut your eyes, and reminisce. For three glorious minutes, you are going to reminisce HARD. Then you will open your tear-blurred eyes, and though it'll be difficult, damn difficult, you'll be ready to move on. Trust me on this one.

    …ok, you can throw track 20 in there before the whole moving-on thing, but it's track 7 that really hits you.

  22. e

    A fine review for a fine series.
    I'm among the many persuaded to watch this after reading your early reviews as I wasn't particolarly interested in any of the winter season series outside of Thermae Romae.
    Now that is over ( is it over? that rumor you mentioned en passant is an enticing one) I'm glad I could follow most of it timely and savour both each episode and your opinion of it.
    Some moments were reallly memorable (train station scene in episode #20 above all maybe), the characters were endearing, aesthetics and emotional grip were up the task. I wish there were more series like this, seriies with a more… permanent quality to them.
    Well, grateful to Madhouse and to the mangaka for what we got so far. And, again, to you for sealing the lovely ride with your posts.

  23. Thanks, elianthos. "Permanence" is a good word for this series brings to the table.

  24. L

    Hey enzo check out this argument made by euphoric.symphony on this trend you will love it:

  25. I'm not reading manga raws so I steered clear of that as soon as I figured out what it was. But from the first few paragraphs, sounds like a pretty standard Chihaya x Arata shippers' rationale that I've been hearing from the beginning.

  26. A



    (And it's hasn't been even 4 months!)

  27. A

    That might be so, but it included stuff from the latest chapters, in which it became somewhat clearer what Chihaya's feelings might be. Anyhow, season 2 will make everything clearer; and wherever your shipping preferences lie, every fan of Chihayafuru can agree that's a good thing.

  28. A

    "That/it" being the Chihaya/Arata manifesto referenced above.

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