I am currently 5 episodes in to the drama/josei/game anime series Chihayafuru, and I am enjoying ever bit of it! It's only so often that one comes across a story that is simple, inspiring, memorable, fun, energetic and beautiful all the same time. The premise of the story may seem a little strange at first glance. Chihaya Ayase is an energetic young girl whose dream is for her older sister to become an idol. Then she meets a boy named Arata, who tells her that her dream should concern herself. Arata himself is passionate about a two-player language/card-memorization game called Karuta and wants to become a master competitive Karuta player. Chihaya, impressed by Arata's conviction, also becomes passionate about Karuta and plays with Arata.
The first few episodes take place in a flashback that tells this story of how Chihaya met Arata and became interested in the card game Karuta. I probably was not the only one who thought that the card game premise sounded awkward. But after watching the first episode, it is very clear that this series was going to be more than just over-dramatic card games. The card game almost becomes secondary to the main development of Chihaya's character. Chihaya, in a way, starts playing Karuta because she saw how passionate Arata was about Karuta, and it was fun to be caught up in the passion of the game and play with Arata. However, it's not really clear whether this passion for the game is solely Chihaya's, or if she is simply replacing her dream about her older sister, with a new dream about being able to play Karuta to compete just like Arata. I'm just five episodes in, and it looks like these are some things that the series is going to explore in the upcoming 20 episodes.
Now that I've sold you on the plot being more than just an over-dramatized card game ;), I will talk a bit about the music, sound and visuals. The music is very fitting. The opening itself sets exactly the right tone for the show. It's energetic, upbeat, optimistic and gives a sense of longing or hope, which is exactly what characterizes Chihaya. The ending song is also superb, but in a different way. It is able to conclude each episode in a nice way, while also leaving enough hope and suspense for the next episode. Check out the opening yourself to see if what I'm saying makes any sense!
The voice acting and sound direction is very much on par with the music. The voice actress for Chihaya, Asami Seto, does an amazing job bringing life to the character. Visuals are well done as well. The first three episodes are noticeably very very happy, optimistic and inspiring, which is supposed to reflected Chihaya's child-like optimism and wide-eyed wonder at Arata and how he plays Karuta. It's only by the fourth episode, after this childhood story has been established, are we brought back to the present. Chihaya is now a teenager, and is still passionate about Karuta. However, the overall tone has changed as Chihaya seems to be confronted again about her own dreams, and is forced, in different ways, to question whether she should continue playing Karuta competitively.
Like how Ohana in Hanasaku Iroha (or rather the English title, Blooming Flowers ABC) slowly found her place at the Kissuiso, it seems that Chihaya is bound to take a similar journey to self-understanding. But the tools and stories that each series tells differ in interesting ways. On the one hand Hanasaku Iroha is primarily a "slice of life" taking place at a hot spring inn, while Chihayafuru uses a card game, of all things, as one of its themes.
Chihayafuru is available to watch online at crunchyroll.com.