About a week ago, I'd never even heard of karuta. I imagine that's probably true of a lot of viewers of Chihayafuru. I've noticed lately that (despite being male), I've been really enjoying Josei, and to a lesser extent Shojo, series. I have no idea why, but I find the stories and the characters to be more relatable and real. And that's how I found Chihayafuru, searching for similar anime. It didn't disappoint.
Story - 8/10:
I enjoy the plot of Chihayafuru, and it's probably the weakest element. I mean, at its core this is just another show about some sort of high school competition. Whether it's Haikyuu! or Shokugeki no Souma or whatever, the stories are all basically the same with different themes/sports/topics. So it really boils down to execution, and Chihayafuru does a really good job of hitting all the right beats. We feel connected to the characters and share their joy or sorrow when they win or lose.
The concept is pretty simple. Chihaya is obsessed with karuta - a traditional Japanese game involving poetry and speed/skill. She was introduced to the game as a child, and played with her two best friends, Arata and Taichi. Now in high school, she reconnects with Taichi and wants to start a karuta club at school. But karuta isn't very popular - it's old fashioned and slow-paced, not really up to the speed of modern day life. So the first arc revolves around Chihaya and Taichi building a club/team, and then they start competing.
One big selling point for the story is how good a job it does of explaining and teaching karuta. Most viewers (especially Western viewers) aren't going to know what the hell karuta is at all. So the fact that, after 50 episodes, I'm able to go to Youtube and watch a real life karuta match and understand the rules and a reasonable amount of strategy says a lot. And I know very little Japanese (the language is very important to the game, given that poems are being read).
The tournament scenes are often a little predictable, with our heroes suffering some defeats, and sometimes emerging victorious. A lot of the usual underdog stuff, which can be compelling if done well - and it mostly is here. Overall, I dock a couple points for the predictability and the sometimes overly drawn out matches. But the story is strong and enjoyable.
Art - 9/10:
I think Madhouse is rapidly becoming my favourite studio. Their art style is little more realistic than many other studios (although I know they're mostly copying the mangaka's style anyway). But the character designs work here, and the care and attention to detail for recreating real life locations is admirable. The karuta scenes themselves are well animated, you really get a feel for the speed and swift movements that make up so much of the game.
Sound - 10/10:
I watched Season 1 dubbed and Season 2 subbed, so I got a good feel for both versions. The voice acting was solid in both, especially for the main trio. The soundtrack was very fitting, it had a traditional feel to a lot of the tracks, but also some good inspirational music when needed. What I really enjoyed was the karuta reading itself. The poetry sounds very beautiful when read (really, it's almost like it's being sung more than read), and that was enough to snag a 10 for me. I liked the choice they made in the English dub of leaving the Japanese karuta readings in - there's definitely something mystical about the sound when you have no idea what's being said. I was actually a little put off when watching Season 2 and seeing a lot of the poems subtitled - they lost their magic for me once I understood the words.
Character - 9/10:
I want to preface this by saying that I love Chihaya. She's awesome. Her spirit and tenacity are infectious. And she's adorable and weird and goofy too (she tends to be an airhead about a lot of things, and she falls asleep after her matches and what not). But man, it's getting tiresome to see so many anime where the main characters are just clueless about love. Whether it's some dopey male lead in a harem anime who doesn't notice a half dozen girls throwing themselves at him, or some doe-eyed high school girl who doesn't realize that the hottest guy in the school is in love with her. You're going to get that here, and it can be frustrating to watch at times.
Despite that, I actually really enjoyed Taichi's character because of it. Chihaya's actions annoyed me on occasion, but it only served to help deepen Taichi's actions and motivations. Taichi comes off like an arrogant little shit as a kid, and it's really interesting to see the maturity he displays as a high schooler. Despite Chihaya being the team's ace, Taichi is definitely their leader.
I also like the way they handled Arata's character. It's clear that Chihaya feels a deep connection to him, but he's absent for most of the first season, just popping up here or there. He's like some distant dream or goal that's just out of reach for her, and it's a big part of what helps drive her. Unfortunately, it means that he doesn't get the kind of screen time that he probably deserves, as he also seems like an interesting character. We just don't get to know him that well.
Secondary characters are handled very nicely in this show. No one seems like they're just filling an archetype (except maybe Porky, the fat kid, but even he plays off type a lot of the time). I really thought they did a good job of making the opponents seem appropriately daunting or intimidating. Whether it's someone like Sudou, who is frightening due to his personality, or someone like the Queen, who is frightening due to her remarkable skill at karuta, adversaries are set up very nicely for Chihaya and her club.
My only disappointment is that the relationships between the different characters don't develop or manifest quicker than they do. It's not necessary that Chihaya choose Taichi or Arata, but she should at least engage with her feelings instead of being completely ignorant. And there were several pairings of minor characters I would have enjoyed seeing.
Enjoyment - 10/10:
I blew through all 50 episodes of this show in under a week, which is fast for me. I felt like any free time I had I was hitting the couch to sneak in an episode or two. And the moment I finished the OVA, I immediately started in on the manga. Anytime I'm interested enough after a show ends to check out the manga or novel and continue the story, that's an easy 9 or 10 in enjoyment from me.
Overall - 9/10:
Chihayafuru is an engaging story with likeable, nuanced characters, that highlights a rather niche sport in Japanese culture. You don't have to know or like karuta to enjoy the show. The characters and the plot provide ample motivation to keep watching.