In American TV there's a limited amount of lives that are considered dramatically interesting: cops, doctors, lawyers, gangsters, sexy teenagers, and... well, that's more or less it. (Comedies are a different story, but we'll leave that alone for now.) But in Japan, it sometimes seems like there's a competition as to the most mundane activity that can be sensationalized and made the centre of a dramatic story. There are entire genres of manga dedicated to cooking, mahjong, fishing, advancing as a salaryman... you name it, there's a manga that makes it look exciting. Chihayafuru is a show that stems largely from that tradition, structuring a (melo)dramatic narrative around karuta (literally a localization of "card"), an old-fashioned memory game usually used to teach children poetry and then forgotten about.
Even by the standards of the strategy-game story genre, karuta is a distinctly unfilmable game. It doesn't have any of the intricate strategy of go or one of the brain-teaser gambling games in Liar Game or Kaiji, nor does it have the visual spectacle of physical sports or fantasy-themed games like you would see on Yu-Gi-Oh! (the embarassing standard bearer for this genre.) The main skills being tested are memorization and dexterity. Some of the thrill of, for instance, Liar Game comes in being able to follow every move of the game and "play at home", as it were (this is the same ludic thrill as a mystery narrative, in which the viewer tries to figure out the solution before the protagonist.) There's no real way to do that with karuta: the skills required are simply not ones that can be exercised in spectatorship. Chihayafuru tries to make it more visually entertaining by having Arata snatch up cards so fast they fly into the wall and become embedded, but I suspect this will grow old after a couple episodes.
However, there are virtues to the dullness of the game that lays at the heart of Chihayafuru. There's a certain fundamental nerdy impulse to triumph in obscurity which underlies this show along with much of the genre. It's the impulse that drives countless geeks to competitive gaming and drove me to grad school: the egocentric thrill of being the best in the world at something nobody else gives a shit about. There's an almost romantic element in the dedication to something so unglamorous, and that's what the narrative of Chihayafuru is about as much as anything.
It also helps it become an empty signifier, a kind of hollow centre. At its root, we're not supposed to care about karuta, or at the very least it's not a prerequisite in the same way that, say, caring about mahjong at least a bit is a prerequistie for Akagi. Karuta works the same way: it's ostensibly about poetry, but only as a matrix to memorize: the poems could be swapped out for literally any other set of data and the game would remain the same. The fragments of poetry that Chihaya memorizes are meaningless to her except for their relation to another line (the one she has to associate it with) and the game. Similarly, karuta has no meaning except for its relational one: it matters because our characters think it matters, and it's significant only in how it affects the characters around them. This is similar to how, say, Friday Night Lights was never really about football.
Thus far, Chihayafuru has been a story about geekery, with the tomboyish Chihaya becoming the friend and defender of bullied Arata. But if the positive side of geekery is the kind of obsessive joy described above, which appears in the opening scenes of "The Red That Is", its negative side appears soon enough: having aligned herself with Arata, Chihaya finds herself a target of the same bullying and isolation that affected him. Their interests are simultaneously marginalized and made all-encompassing, as they have to bear the stigma of such obscure passions. Even their moments of triumph are viewed as insignificant -- when Chihaya wins the karuta tournament in this episode, her mother doesn't really care, being caught up in the modelling success of her more gender-compliant sister.
(Of course, this is all very melodramatic, as E Minor points out -- there's not much subtle about this show. At the same time, it's pretty believable behaviour, as middle school kids are, with few exceptions, evil pieces of shit (whether this is dramatically interesting is an entire different matter). In what we've seen of the "present day" high school setting, everyone's mellowed out a bit, and Chihaya's karuta obsession is not greeted by outright bullying so much as a general "Whatever, weirdo" attitude. The parents can't really be defended this way though. I feel like since anime doesn't usually go for a straightforward drama show it often falls into melodrama in its genuine attempts to do something outside the box -- see Rainbow or that one with the long title about the flower.)
Still, Chihaya and Arata are granted a chance to confront their tormentor on their home filed when Arata and Taichi meet in the finals of the school karuta tournament. This is in itself a fantasy -- your school bully is never going to sit down and let you whoop him at Magic: the Gathering. The problem for the anime is that Arata has already been established as a preternatural karuta player, so once the game starts he's no longer the underdog -- in fact, he becomes such a prohibitive favourite that he stops really being a sympathetic character at all. So how do you get the audience to root for someone who's almost certainly going to win? Use the same trick pro wrestling promoters have for decades: have the other guy cheat his ass off.
Taichi steals Arata's glasses, switches around cards on him, and generally does everything he can to avoid a fair fight. Do you see what I mean about the game being given significance based entirely on context? Interestingly, this cheating allows the interjection of a kind of strategy that the actual game doesn't: Arata and Taichi engage in a battle of wits where one tries to adapt to the other's cheating while the other is constantly trying to come up with new ways to tilt the odds in his favour. However, at the end we're left with the same problem: there are a limited number of dramatic possibilities in a karuta game, and we seem to have burned through all the obvious ones in two episodes.
There's another thread which emerges towards the end of "The Red That Is", which is the redemption of Taichi, used as the villain for most of the episode. Enemies or rivals becoming friends is a frequently recurring trope in shounen anime, and I would wager it extends to shoujo series like Chihayafuru. There's a really annoying tendency to tie everything made in Japan to World War II, which I'm going to have to indulge in a bit -- there's a strong possibility that, given Japan's forcible transition from enemy to friend of Western powers, there's a desire to see this kind of reconciliation play out on screen, especially when it involves the redemption of a villain (as Japan are viewed in the war narrative the rest of the world holds.) It also fits into the pacifistic message advocated (sometimes quite hypocritically) in many shows aimed at young audiences. As far as tropes go, this is a pretty benign one, but it's still worth paying attention to.
The whole redemption scene is sculpted to be a feel-good moment like something out of a Lifetime movie. Everything after the end of the tournament is shot in a hazy orange glow. There's enough light humour -- Arata running into a door, Chihaya having a super sense of hearing -- to make you smile but not laugh, putting you in a positive nostalgic frame of mind. And then there's the soft, comforting music. It's actually very pretty -- Madhouse has had their reputation put through the ringer by a lot of dodgy adaptations of Western properties, most notably the recent string of Marvel anime, but if nothing else Chihayafuru shows they still have the competence to put together a moving moment in a quite ordinary show.
Ultimately, however, what causes Taichi's redemption and move into the group is not any kind of penance or admission of guilt, but the simple activity of play. There's almost a religious aspect to karuta presented here -- the game may be one of conflict, but at the end both parties are closer. When the three finally become friends, it's in a scene of play, goofing around in the woods. In some ways this goes back to the experience of geekery, bonding over the shared interest. But I think it's also important in recuperating play as being, somewhat ironically, productive. It's precisely the rituals and activities that have no productive purpose that bring us together. As someone who has met most of his friends through tabletop gaming, I kind of desperately want this to be true, and fortunately for me I think it is.
As I mentioned above, Chihayafuru is animated by the prestigous Madhouse studio (although probably not as prestigous as a year ago), who does a reassuringly good job -- the animation is smooth and the art beautiful, looking just soft enough to convey the warm tones that the series aims to create (see Usagi Drop and Wandering Son for examples of this style just from this year). Of the staff for this episode, most are rookies, signifying that either Madhouse wants to develop some new blood or just isn't stressing about the scriptwriting for a manga adaptation. Series director Morio Asaka is the only experienced crew member, and he's done a wide variety of adaptations (most notably Nana and the No Longer Human portion of Aoi Bungaku.) Adaptation is an art in itself, and Asaka's signature may be a lack of signature -- every one of the above-mentioned adaptations seems to have its natural style, and this is no exception. In short, other than a framing device in the first episode, this isn't a staff that wants to make the material more than it is, but rather just translate it into a different medium. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm not sure this material justifies it.
In the end, this is a show that hits close to my heart -- from the obsessive game-playing to the isolation and accompanying frantic desire to keep friends close, Chihayafuru is probably closer to my childhood and adolescence than almost any coming-of-age narrative I know. But when something hits close to your heart it can do a lot of damage. The narrative is often deliberately cloying, and ready to settle for effective cliche instead of looking for complexity. It's competent, but low-reaching. In this season's weak anime crop, that just might be enough to get it into my TV schedule. But maybe that's less the show itself and more a kind of mirror shock.
Next Week: A super spooky Communiy.
As I was writing this, I realized that I had never actually seen a Lifetime movie, and I'm not even sure if Lifetime is a channel in Canada. I'm using the idea of "the Lifetime movie" as a received package of cultural ideas transmitted through snarking on the Internet, with a lot of connotations of "those silly women things" attached to it. Then again, it's not like I'm going to go and actually watch a Lifetime movie just to confront my biases. But I thought it was worth noting.
Of course, a strict Marxist would say that the purpose of leisure activitise like games was to reproduce the worker in order to make him ready to work again (and to sell the game materials), but those guys are sourpusses anyway.