The spring has passed
And the summer come again
For the silk-white robes
So they say, are spread to dry
On the Mount of Heaven’s perfume
~attributed to Empress Jitō
To be honest, I didn’t really know where to start with Chihayafuru [Madhouse, 2011-2012/2013]. It’s possibly only the second show ever (joining my all-time favorite, Blast of Tempest) to have totally stumped me as to why I love it so dearly. Sure, I can point to several small things, but something about the poems, the sport, Chihaya, Tachi, and Arata adds up to a sum far greater than the individual parts or the unique elements that make up Chihayafuru. So bear with me as I do my best: the 10/10 reviews are always the hardest to write. This review covers both seasons. (Ranking)
I. Art as Sport, Sport as Art
Karuta, as a sport, is very nearly the activity I wished for during my own high school days. Since I was a child, my parents had me participate in a variety of sports, but when I got to high school my passion for the arts overcame my love of competing. I somewhat found solace in show choir, which combined the team aspect of sports along with the obvious arts side of singing. But still, as much as I loved show choir, it wasn’t quite the same as facing off in a one-on-on battle (however brief) with another player on the soccer field or the same as facing a full day tournament with all the mental pressure multiple games or matches in a day bring.
Sports are often brutal, ugly affairs, filled with harsh words and grind of physicality. Yet, it is said that to play a sport at its highest level is nothing less than an art. I often think of art as something that inspires awe in me, and there have certainly been times when I have watched a professional sports player at the height of his or her career play the game and sit, totally in awe, as they throw a beautiful spiral 50 yards downfield perfectly into the arms of their receiver or as they drain a 3-point shot from the edge of the arc as the buzzer rings. The competitive karuta of Chihayafuru takes art and remakes it into a sport. And at the same time, the sport is inseparably linked with art. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the personages of the card readers. Once Chihayafuru graduated into the upper levels of the the tournaments, I was struck by the musicality of the readings. Eastern and Western singing styles are very different due to unique prioritization of what makes “good singing,” but the readings of many of the top readers were undeniably beautiful. And those readings, in a fascinating blend of artistry, precision, and talent, act as the gateway into the sport.
Kyoko Yamashiro, the Certified reader who reads for the Mejin match at the end of the first season and for the semi-final team match in the second season, is the finest example of this tension. Kyoko is an artist. Her readings are, as heard by the top players of the game, wondrously lush and communicative. Yet, as Shinobu Wakamiya, the Queen, notes, her voice communicates too much information. And so, while Kyoko’s artistry qualifies her as an incredible reader, that very expressiveness—the ability to access both her own soul and the soul of the poetry—also makes her uniquely unqualified to read for the best of the best karuta players. The overwhelming presence of art in her readings conflicts with the sport. And yet, what can you call the way that Shinobu and Arata play karuta other than art? My absolute favorite imagery in all of Chihayafuru (and there are tons of beautiful visuals) were the water-centric sights and sounds of Arata playing in the final episodes of Season 1. It was graceful. It was beautiful. And Shinobu’s silent karuta, with the threads that draw her to individual cards as if they were owned by her, has a striking beauty, a terrible beauty of its own.
Even Chihaya, in her best moments, is beautiful in the way that her whole body responds to sound. I find myself drawn to the dual nature of karuta—a sport so thoroughly founded and dependent on art, and an art the feeds into the sport; a sport that becomes art when played by the best players in the world, and an art that both conflicts with and enhances the sport. Such tension and harmony are rarely found in relationship at all.
II. Perspectives & Reasons
And, of course, a multi-faceted sport-art like karuta breeds a brilliant spectrum of reasons and connections to the game and the people involved. It’s basically a cliché in sports anime to give each main player their own motivations for playing the sport, but Chihayafuru covers a wider expanse of immersion in its sport of choice than most.
Sure, we have the feisty female protagonist who wants to be the best karuta player in the world. Sure, we have the prodigy who learned to love the game from his older mentor. Sure, we have the guy who only starts playing to be with the girl. But we’ll deal with Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi later on. Chihayafuru has a wealth of side-characters who access karuta in ways that give the entire anime color and turn the show from a tri-color rainbow into a prism reflecting all manner of humanity, and it would be a crime to ignore all of them. Perhaps the most exaggerated character in terms of connection to the game is the reigning Queen, Shinobu Wakamiya. Not unlike how other great shows like Hunter x Hunter and Ping Pong allow the audience to hear and sympathize with their “villains,” Chihayafuru makes concentrated efforts to present Shinobu’s thoughts and reveal her backstory. As a child of great talent isolated in order to enhance her skill, Shinobu was left with nothing besides karuta and the cards.
The great diversity of the cards (100 poems, no matter how short the poems may be, is a lot of unique literature) allowed a young Shinobu to forge friendships with each of cards. The somewhat embellished nature of these relationships is not lost on me, but karuta is an art-sport and art deals with the soul. And Shinobu is nothing if not a lonely soul. She seeks, even craves, companionship in her world. Connected by strings and personal affection to the cards as she is, she has not been able to deny her desire to be in relationship with other human beings. So she seeks those who can ascend to her level—Arata foremost among them, as one who can challenge her on her own terms, as one who can penetrate the lonely isolation of her talent.
But Shinobu is also proud and greedy, unwilling to give up her precious friends, the cards, to fulfill her needs a relational existence. Thus, we see her despise team karuta and hold in contempt those who can only somewhat meet her challenge. She must do so. To acknowledge her desire to connect with humans is to, in some form, distance herself from the cards who have been her constant companions for so long. A more realistic example of a unique perspective on karuta is Kana. Kana specifically joins Chihaya’s karuta club for the purpose of being able to wear traditional Japanese clothing during the matches, and stays because of her love of the poetry. Like Kyoko, Kana could be said to have an artist’s soul, but her focus appears to be different. Where Kyoko’s artistry is centered on the beauty of sound, Kana’s revolves around the meaning and content of the poems. (The connection between the two should not be overlooked; Kyoko’s musicality both enhances and is enhanced by the content of the poems.)
Kana certainly falls farther towards the “art” end of the art-sport spectrum than most, and her occasional agony—fearing the poetry is being lost in the competition of the sport—is well-founded. But here we necessarily return to the relation of art and sport because, for players like Kana, it is in embracing the art fully that they can participate in the sport.
The first qualification for playing karuta is memorizing the poems. Art is the foundation on which the sport is built. Whether or not the players themselves realize it, they are steeped in art every moment of the game. Kana sees this better than most, and her unique perspective allows her to view the cards by colors, authors, and emotions. Does it make her a great karuta player? Well, no. But for someone without Chihaya’s immense natural talent or Taichi’s mental abilities, Kana’s love of the poems means that she can play the sport at a lower level of excellence and still maintain her enthusiasm. She can, and does, play karuta for reasons besides winning—and this, in a magnificent twist, makes her a better karuta player.
III. Single-Minded Pursuit of a Goal
I have always responded well to characters and people who are particularly focused on achieving a single goal. My favorite historical figure and Catholic saint, Joan of Arc, was perfectly concentrated on the mission she had been given from God—to save her country. One of my favorite anime characters of all time, Mahiro Fuwa from Blast of Tempest, is obsessed with revenging his murdered sister. Obviously, the exact focal point affects the degree to which it is wise to admire such people, but those who are focused on good things are almost necessarily good themselves. In a world that forces us to divide our attention between the numerous tasks necessary for life in the modern world, individuals who are absolutely devoted to a single purpose are rare, rare enough that I might even say they are very nearly an ideal. Chihaya is one such rarity—she thinks of karuta first and foremost in all things. I will make no judgement here on the value of her goal to become the best female karuta player in the world, but I do believe there is virtue in the act of devoting oneself fully to achieving a single purpose. In any case, that certainly is her goal. Arata is the inspiration, not the goal itself—perhaps the closest he comes is standing as an incarnation of the goal. It is interesting, though, that it is Arata that Chihaya is so often fixated on, even after her match with Shinobu. But both of them pale in comparison to Chihaya’s intense drive to just play karuta. It is at once a beautiful and a terrible thing that both grants her immense focus and blinds her to almost everything else. Even Arata and the Queen become mere focal points, motivations for concentration for Chihaya’s own improvement.
Such focus on a single point is beautiful, I think, because it betrays a certain devotion, a certain love—a love that may not even be the exact goal. Mahiro obsessively seeks his revenge, but it is because he loved Aika. Joan of Arc devoted herself to saving France, but it was because she loved God, not just because she loved her country. Chihaya loves karuta, and she seeks to embrace it in the fullest way she can; that is, by becoming the best, by loving the sport the most deeply. To love something single-mindedly is enviable. It is beautiful. Love is certainly the most powerful obsessive force to which we humans have access, and someone like Chihaya, who has put all their love into one thing, becomes a shining beacon. It’s not a totally explicable phenomenon. To completely love something is a transcendent act, one that bypasses humanity’s instinctive selfishness and overrides it by pouring out endlessly into a single something. We Catholics might say that such love is beautiful because it is an image, a reflection of the love that God has for us. But I don’t think you have to place single-minded pursuit of a goal into a religious context for it to have human resonance. Whether you believe the goal should be perfect devotion to a deity or not, everyone wants something they can love without reservation. Chihaya has found her goal. It may not stay her goal forever, and her reasons for wanting to achieve that goal may be simplistic and not fully understandable even to her. But for the brief moments we are allowed to see Chihaya be impassionate in Chihayafuru, she shines brightly.
This review of Chihayafuru continues in Part 2.