It's kind of a sad feeling, knowing that something that you love is often misunderstood by others. In the case of the characters in Chihayafuru, it's the game of karuta that is such a niche competitive sport, and one that the players and Masters and Queens of which gain little to no recognition from.
Our three main characters go through hellish training and to the peak of their mental capacities to reach high honors, but every one of our heroes, and even villains, question themselves along the way: why karuta? For Chihaya's rival, Shinobu, karuta was a means to give them shelter and a place to live, as well as to stick up against all those who bullied her. For the former queen, Yumi, it was a need to live up to everyone's expectations and to coup with the pressure of winning.
For Arata, it was a need to honor his grandfather and returning to what he loves to do. For Porky, Desktomu and Kanade it was for a sense of belonging to a group, having someone care for their love and to build a friendship. For Taichi, it was once an obligation that turned a simple middle-school crush into something more...
For Chihaya, it was doing something that she loved...anything that she loved... and ultimately, no matter who she was facing, it was all about the fun. Chihayafuru is a mixed series, and one that ironically will be forgotten or typecasted as nothing more than a charming, yet "just another card game", kind of show.
Chihayafuru, much like it's titled lead character, is "beauty in vain". As amazing as it actually is, no one is willing to look past its most glaring stereotype.
Chihayafuru cuts a lot of the bullshit most competitive/sport-based anime usually touch upon. Early on... way early on, the viewer learns the hard truth that victory is never guaranteed. The series isn't so much about seeing the players in the Mizusawa Academy get better and better overtime to the point of God-tier abilities at playing a card game, but rather the training process, and what strategies come and go from the mind of a player in such a specific, yet still exciting, sport. Similar to how the first season of the anime Kaiji broke down the basic rules of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Chihayafuru takes that a step further with providing backstories and actual motives behind each opponent. No one is safe... not even "anime safe", if that logic means anything to you. It's a bitter pill to swallow but by the end of Chihayafuru, our main characters lose. A lot.
Even so, some of the best moments of the series comes from the multiple encounters of rivals and opponents, and in the case of Arata and Shinobu, the tragedies that befall them upon their long-anticipated return. Dealing with the death of a family member and a sudden change in physique are game-changers to the rather "behind-the-scenes" dependent stories that Chihayafuru like to tell. Whether it also be that one time Chihaya utterly fails to win by not taking her opponent seriously enough, or when even after giving it her all and training for months on end to make it to even the qualifier for the finals, Chihaya still utterly fails to win. Chihaya, for her keen sense of hearing and her amazing speed, doesn't make it to the realm of God-tier karuta players, despite all that you know about other sports anime telling you so by "following your heart" and "never give up". Not by a long shot.
Everyone ultimately fails, and even the final episode rubs it right in your face by bringing up about two or three more incredible karuta players who will forever and always be better than anyone Chihaya and the gang have and forever will have played against. Despite running for 25 episodes, Chihayafuru manages to barely cover an entire year, leaving the gang hanging to maybe get their asses kicked again and even possibly make new rivals. To the viewer, and even the protagonists themselves, when the final episode wraps up, things are not looking hopeful in the least.
But to be perfectly fair, none of that really matters in the end. The funny thing is is that there is still so much more karuta and training ahead of our heroes, and even though only one year has passed by, they've already accomplished a national victory for their school. As far as personal vendettas and individual karuta tournaments go, there is room for a lot of work, be it the introduction of the reigning Master or the "new" Queen. But as a team, Mizusawa Academy is the new powerhouse all around Japan, providing actual proof and recognition to their teachers and peers that karuta is as legitimate of a sport as soccer or baseball. With new support from their intimidating club adviser and a whole new year up ahead of them, the only thing hold them back would be a lack of a second season, if Madhouse has any say in it.
It's a sadness, really, that an anime like Chihayafuru has so much ahead of it, but simply is held back due to it's naturally slow story-telling. As an amazingly welcomed change-of-pace from other sports anime that may be, I'm still really itching for more Chihayafuru, and despite all of the praise I give it for teaching viewers that some sports are just simply incredibly difficult to master, somewhere in the back of my mind... I just want to see Chihaya and the gang kick ass and win it all. It's not a feeling that makes me sad the series doesn't take that route, but it's more of a testament to how much I love to see all of the characters grow and become better. And even if it's sometimes tough to see Taichi lose a key match to making Class A, or even to watch as Chihaya locks herself into a locker and cries after learning she won't be able to face the queen, in the long-run, it's incredible to think (in a realistic sense, not necessarily an anime-influenced sense) that these five club members eventually went on to accomplish the feats they set out to do.
If there ever was a message in Chihayafuru that wasn't slammed down your throat, this would vaguely be hinted as one: "You don't become the better player in the middle of a match. It is almost always already decided who is going to win". As shitty as it sounds, very rarely do true comebacks in karuta happen, because if you aren't already determined to win, you best be determined to fall, then. It's a matter of fate: even if things look to be going your way, if your opponent is more determined than you, it's their fate to feed off of your ignorance and fucking destroy you for the rest of the painfully slow match.
Key mistakes are made in karuta because of the psychology of the game, not so much because of physical abilities. Even though excelling at both is a major necessity, a lot of the losses in Chihayafuru are due to misconceptions, assumptions, arrogance and being cocky. Mixing things up by changing the physical condition of Shinobu in the final episodes were a nice touch, but her determined, fatass-self still won over the former Queen, due to Yumi's own doubts and feelings. Chihaya decided to not take the exact same opponent with the same level of seriousness, and in return the tide shifted for Yumi, humiliating Chihaya and teaching her a lesson that her careless, dumbass self would never have learned otherwise. This was the match that costed her the match against the Queen, and even up until the final episode, she was still kicking herself for her mistake.
Even up until the final moments of the end, Chihaya, Taichi, Nishida, Tsutomu and Kanade all are still learning new techniques, fixing what problems they had, and collecting new data on future opponents. Even for a fictional series, that has access to any kind of creative freedom, to stress that: "Hey, all of the main characters are still learning new shit, don't expect them to be perfect", even in the final moments of a series that may or may not continue due to it's criminally niche genre, it's amazing to think that they didn't spend the final moments of the series wrapping up loose-ends and creating a perfect happy ending. Instead, the creators went out of their way to show that you still have to work really, really, really hard to earn that so-called "happy ending" in life. Instead, all of our characters are getting ready to set things up and do it all over again for another new year.
It isn't perfectly wrapped up, there's still a lot of character-development to go on (so much so, in fact, that one would argue that not enough development happened in the actual anime), and these two seasons ended abruptly in the middle of the entire saga between Chihaya and the famed Omi Jingu. However, Chihayafuru was a resounding success in my eyes, earning my praise as the best anime that has aired these past few seasons. From its symbolic way of representing itself as "the karuta of anime in 2012", it's crazy to hope for an anime continuation... however, any more of Chihaya may overstay it's welcome.
It is, but of course, just another simple anime about a silly card game, right?
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