Chihayafuru: First Impressions – A Beautifully Impassioned Portrayal of Youth & Culture

Chihayafuru (ちはやふる) is a josei, slice-of-life, sports (karuta), romance anime adaptation of the original manga series written by Yuki Suetsugu. The series was produced by anime powerhouse Madhouse with directorial support via Morio Asaka. It is one of my all-time favourite anime in existence, superseded only by Initial D and possibly even Natsume’s Book of Friends. This year die-hard fans of the franchise were blessed with a third season, which is currently simulcasting as part of the Fall 2019 line-up. Even though I have been waiting nearly six to seven years for this release, I knew that keeping up with it on a week-by-week basis would become immensely frustrating for me as my impatience would get the better of me. So, while I wait for a good-sized chunk of segments to become available, I decided to go ahead and watch through the first fifty episodes.

Chihayafuru is a story about a young high school girl named Chihaya Ayase and her ardent love of the traditional Japanese sport Karuta, which is a game centred on the One Hundred Poems, which is one of the most important contributions of classical Japanese literature. We follow Chihaya in the first season as she starts her high school career by attempting to pursue competitive Karuta in a day-and-age where the sport is dwindling into obscure niche-dom.  

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The episode opens with a vibrant shot of beautiful pink cherry blossoms in bloom, bouncing slightly to the soft spring breeze. This scene is a supremely common one in the anime medium. Regardless of the genre or the narrative style, cherry blossoms in spring is a use of imagery that is distinctly Japanese, which is the essence of what Chihayafuru is about. The whole point is to experience the beauty of what it means to be impassioned (translation of “Chihayafuru”). As I watched the first episode unfold, I could see the depth of emotion that lay brimming beneath the surface just waiting to release with the anime’s storytelling, similarly to the cherry blossoms that shall get swept away once their bloom is done.

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Within the opening 24-minutes of Chihayafuru, we are introduced to our protagonist, Chihaya Ayase, who’s just starting out at high school. We watch as she struggles to formulate a Karuta club. Then later in the episode, she bumps into a friend that she hasn’t seen in a while. While they reminisce about old times on the train ride home, she gets lost in thoughts of how she came to love the game of Karuta.

The whole sequence showed me multiple things. It showed me a young girl who has one thing in her life that she feels so magnificently passionate about, not because she’s (possibly) good at it, but because it also helps alleviate a great sense of loneliness that has filled her. I see friendships that go beyond the simplicities of youthful camaraderie and into the effervescence of first loves. There is a subtle hint of an identity crisis that the characters are facing as they embark into their high school careers that will define the people they shall become when they come out the other side that I cannot wait to see as the episodes unfold, and more.

The breath-takingly lovely animation style, which still holds up quite phenomenally even after nearly a decade (eight years to be more specific) creates a welcoming atmosphere that urges you to watch another episode and then another. This is partially the reason that I have a difficult time watching new seasons as they simulcast because I’m always left hollow and hungry for the next segment. Then there is the musical score, which is such an exquisite and cinematic complement to the nature-focused virtual cinematography, the humour, the characters interactions with one another and the things around them, and with karuta, of course. It paints an expressive environment that pulled me deeper into the history that’s to be revealed and the challenges that are to come. When all of these elements are combined, you have a series that is crafted to explore the impassioned exhibition of what it means to live. Why it’s important to dream.

How does all of this connect with Japanese culture? The One Hundred Poems are all about what it means to be alive in a moment of fleeting nature. Whether it’s about falling in love for the first time with the first snowfall of the year or experiencing the first heartbreak while the leaves of Autumn are red, or how to move past incapacitating loneliness during a monsoon, and much more. Most of these poems were penned during the Heian Era, which was one of Japan’s most culturally rich periods, particularly where poetry is concerned. Additionally, they are all moments in life that are celebrated across Japanese mediums in an array of ways. How many anime or manga have you seen or read that hyper-focus on one or more of these ideals? There are so many works of Japanese literature that all draw focus from nature to express the milestones of moving through the seasons of one’s life, from youth to adulthood and finally the elderly years. It’s a huge aspect of Japanese artistic culture specifically and one of the reasons why I fell in love with Japanese literature to begin with. It truly is unlike other literary cultures out there, and Chihayafuru’s modern expression of these traditions and how it continues to be so successfully long-standing is exquisitely mind-blowing.

I know that most of what I have to say about Chihayafuru shall be biased as this is my third time seeing the first two seasons, and I very well could be seeing things from future episodes in this pilot, but I also believe that my previous experiences will make my re-watching a lot more insightful and meaningful. One of the reasons that I love returning to stories I’m familiar with is because of the foreshadowing that I may have missed initially, or because I will have new life knowledge of my own to associate to those long-forgotten, yet profoundly beloved narratives, just to name a few. Chihayafuru, like Natsume’s Book of Friends, is a series that has a new lesson to teach and fresh new wisdom to impart every time it’s visited, and I cherish it so much because of that. Plus, as a literature nerd, it’s a drug I simply cannot resist or go without for extended periods of time.

Anyhoo, the pilot ended with Chihaya in a mid-reminiscence of her past, which shall wrap itself up in the second episode. Normally, I’m not a fan of having flashback sequences so early on in a series, but I feel like it works rather well with this anime because of its timing and placement. It may also help that Chihaya can be somewhat scatterbrained at times, at least when it comes to anything that isn’t Karuta related.

If you have not seen Chihayafuru thus far and have been undecided on whether you’d like to pick it up, please feel free to follow my episodic musings for the next few weeks! I’ll be talking about a couple of episodes every night and then I’ll wrap it up with my review for the first season. However, if you’d rather not wait, then my recommendation is to give it a try, especially if you like slice-of-life anime or anime that is just superbly well-written. Did I mention it’s pretty? Because it’s also a very pretty anime to see.

You can catch all seasons of Chihayafuru, including the current simulcasting Season 3 over on CrunchyRoll and seasons 1 and 2 on HIDIVE.

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14 thoughts on “Chihayafuru: First Impressions – A Beautifully Impassioned Portrayal of Youth & Culture

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  4. Chihayafuru is one of my favorite animes. I agree that it can only be binged because I could never have waited a whole week for the next episode. Last night I finally started watching this new season, hoping they will be far enough ahead so I never have to wait for an episode. Already I’m in love with this show all over again.

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  6. I remember we started watching this like five years ago, but never finished it (a long with a few other shows we really need to finish -_-) reading this made me want to finish it. We should find that mythical time ting and actually do that!

    • Haha, when I catch up to where we left off, I’ll let you know and you can finish it with me. XD

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  8. This series is one of few that I consider a masterpiece and you pointed out exactly why. Also Shinobu is my queen.

  9. Oh gosh, I love Chihayafuru so much! At her best, there is no more beautiful or interesting girl in all of anime. Arata and Taichi can go run off together and leave Chihaya for me.

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