Initially, Chihayafuru is a romance. Ayase Chihaya is the class beauty, and sister to a (former?) child model. After first seeing her childhood friend in over three years, Taichi, tension between the two is apparent, and each showing an interest in one another in an attempt to catch up on lost time. The odd thing that mixes up this seemingly obvious romance, though, is that Ayase isn't interested in Taichi romantically. Instead, Taichi is friend-listed, as the only thing Ayase discusses with him about is her new hobby (or, arguably, her newest obsession), karuta: a card game of matching, memorization and reflexes.
Taichi, who obviously has the hots for his attractive friend, still after all this time finds it tough to believe that Ayase strictly focuses on karuta. To the viewer though, via a flashback, there's deeper meaning behind Ayase's goal of becoming the best at competitive karuta from her past, far least of which involving a third wheel to this relationship and a sort of mentor for her future involvement in karuta: a reclusive transfer student named Arata.
The most interesting thing about this series, by far, is the way this three-way relationship is handled. Taichi, years before the present time of the story, was nothing but an asshole. In contrast to his shy nature in the present time, we previously see him making fun of Arata and shoving Ayase for talking with him, whom being the only person in their class to talk with him. Years later, Taichi is a shy average teenager with an obvious crush on his friend, and Ayase is a girl focused on other things, though not oblivious to the awkward situation.
This isn't simply a story about a girl who slowly grows to love her old childhood friend. Instead, Ayase's feelings towards the mysteriously absent Arata seem more meaningful to her than her friend. It's because of Arata that Ayase becomes invested into karuta, which serves as her purpose in life, as modeling did her sister. The mindset of Ayase is one of determination and logic: she's pressing on to have people get along, and is genuinely confused whenever people don't. It's more surprising in the fact that not only is the best friend not the lust of the female main character, but also that he's more or less rightfully ignored for a character more isolated and lapsed in the plot.
The disappearance of Arata is more than just referenced throughout the first episode (a mentioning of Ayase participating in various karuta tournaments with no avail in finding him hint towards his leaving taking place long ago), as the difference in Ayase now as compared to when she first met him itself tells a sad story of her character slowly losing happiness and her quirky originality. Comparing the happy middle schooler tomboy who could easily take large ambitions to the high school beauty who conforms to make herself attractive and only pressing onward with karuta with minimal effort or care is an interesting gap to fill in, and something that makes me even more eager to continue on with to learn for myself exactly what happened.
Keeping an eye on the past and how it affects the present is what makes me keenly interested in this series, and I for sure am going to continue watching Chihayafuru, yet I don't really feel like calling the series a "must-watch" quite yet. With things merely being set up in this episode (hardly any kurata is even played, let alone on an even, competitive playing field), a few more episodes are still needed for me to fully judge the full quality. Even though this episode wasn't necessarily bad, things were rather just... there, if only to get the main premise out there. With that said, it certainly is an intriguing enough premise to run by.
On the presentation side, the style of the show is of typical Madhouse quality, which is nothing but great marks all around. While the animations aren't perpetually flawless and perfect, there are certain poses and interactions that keeps this from being stale and has things moving through organically. I've mentioned numerous times how music is a key factor in my love of a series, and while the OP theme and (especially) the ED theme are standard fare, I really dig the mood both of them convey at the beginning and end of the episode, respectively.
I feel that holding anything more than a neutral, yet highly respected stance for Chihayafuru could lessen what I feel it has going for it, and really I am perfectly fine with that. When karuta begins to become a big part of the series, it'd be interesting to see if the show begins to follow a more Kaiji/Akagi approach, or if this estranged relationship will continue on. It's great that Ayase isn't an annoying and clueless bitch, though it may be more great if we continue to learn about why she isn't an annoying and clueless bitch. If there ever was a series this season that peaked my interest the most about what can happen next, it would most likely be Chihayafuru.
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