“Right, everyone was saying how she’s pretty, but it’s wasted as soon as she talks or does something. Beauty in vain,” tut-tuts a group of nearby boys. They grimace as they watch a teacher reprimand Chihaya for having the audacity to wear track pants and a utility belt with her skirt. The opening scene is merely a sign of things to come. I come to gradually realize over the course of the first episode that the extras in Chihayafuru are so gossipy, mean-spirited and judgmental that I almost find it hard to believe. In another example, when young Chihaya praises Arata, a classmate, for working at such a young age, a chorus of murmurs rises up: “He must be poor!” Well, if Chihayafuru‘s first episode does misstep, it’s that the anime is a little too transparent in its efforts to get the audience to sympathize with its main characters.
Growing up, I watched a lot of syndicated television full of family sitcoms. If these shows ever taught me anything, it was that growing up would be nothing but a horrendous miasma full of bullies, jeering girls, vindictive teachers and awkward boners. Well, color me surprised when I got to high school and found out that none of the above were true. In fact, life was boring and TV had lied to me. You could even say I was a little disappointed to discover how uneventful high school came to be. So nowadays, whenever I watch a show and see mean classmates and uncaring teachers, I can’t help but think to myself, “What a cheap illusion this is.”
For the most part, however, Chihayafuru is anything but cheap. Chihaya just recently got to high school and is excited to start a new club. She wants to find people who might share her interest in a certain sophisticated card game involving Japanese poetry — Magic: the Gathering, this is not. Unfortunately, her recruitment attempts draw no interest, and feeling despondent, she thinks back to her younger days. Chihaya, like most shoujo leads, is an absolutely gorgeous girl with a good heart, but nevertheless dense about the matters of the heart. It’s so eye-rollingly obvious that Taichi, one of her childhood friends, has a thing for her, but the girl, like most heroines, is unbearably innocent.
For the moment, the anime doesn’t take any risks with its two male leads either. One guy is out-going and charming, and the other is introverted, contemplative, and deep. I feel we as an audience are destined for a formulaic love triangle, and had it not been for the karuta gimmick, Chihayafuru might have been too forgettably shoujo. But you’ll have to excuse me if the card game doesn’t set my loins afire. It’s a twist on the proceedings, but is it necessarily an interesting one? In other words, can a card game really carry an entire series? No. After all, that’s why there’s a looming love triangle in the background.
Let me just say right off the bat that Chihayafuru‘s first episode isn’t a bad viewing experience or anything — in fact, there’s really nothing wrong with any of it. The show kept my interest from start to finish and I suspect it did the same for the friends watching the anime with me. The animation is fairly flawless — a little too bloomy at certain points, but otherwise beautiful. The art direction is solid and pleasant, if not particularly risk-taking. I’m not a seiyuu buff, but my untrained ear couldn’t notice anything egregious in this department either. To sum it all up, most of the elements in the anime are above par. So what more do I want? Well, I don’t know, I guess it depends on how you interpret “pretty good.”
We know Madhouse can do better. Sure, the studio has mostly twiddled its thumbs over Marvel IPs lately so maybe this is why Chihayafuru feels so safe and restrained. And there’s nothing really wrong with tried-and-tested shoujo conventions in and of themselves. Still, the spark of creativity is rather lacking. I’m not disappointed with what the first episode had to offer, as I didn’t really expect much after reading the synopsis. As always, however, I want to be wowed and Chihayafuru doesn’t wow me. You can take that however you will. Some will just relish the chance to watch a well-executed shoujo series. I’ll likely follow Chihayafuru to the very end too, but the fact that the anime is just “pretty good” doesn’t leave me feeling too inspired.