The competitive karuta love continues with a second round of the always excellent Chihayafuru anime.
(This is a review of the second season of the Chihayafuru anime series. Slight Season 1 spoilers will follow. If you want to read about the series in general, I suggest the Chihayafuru feature in the April 2014 issue of Otaku USA.)
When we last saw the members of the Mizusawa Karuta Club, Kanade and Tsutomu made Class C, Nishida Made Class A, Taichi was stuck in Class B, and Chihaya was not Queen. As a team, they did not win nationals but did make it really far under some very trying circumstances. Now a new year brings new challenges, namely finding at least two new members in order to keep the club room. But, hey, how hard can it be to find people interested in an extracurricular activity, based on the stale poems they make you study in classic literature class, that involves mental and physical exertion to the point of exhaustion? But beyond finding new members, all of the existing members challenge themselves with goals of their own. There are areas each wants to improve upon as individuals as well as goals they have in mind for the team as a whole.
Chihayafuru 2 is basically more of the same of the first season as far as settings and execution go, but the focus is an incredibly subtle shift with a lot of ramifications on the plot and feel of this already tension-soaked josei extravaganza. Whereas the first season focuses on the youthful individual characters’ back stories, drives, and development in working toward becoming an integral part of a team, the second season dives deep into team dynamics. (This difference between seasons is also readily noticeable in the thematic differences between the OPs for each, respectively featuring “Youthful” and “Star” by 99radioservice.)
The Kids Are Alright
Although initially grating, each of the new recruits-turned-members embodies something essential about the second season. The trickiest is Akihiro, the tongue-wagging import from Hokkaido, whose skill at second-verse karuta gives him an ego but not an edge in Team Mizusawa. The breaking down of his ego, coupled with his drive to learn to be better both for himself and for his team, mirrors in miniature the club’s struggle. His characterization is strong and accomplished entirely in the present (little to no flashbacks), which makes his evolution feel completely organic. But oh, that tongue!
While Akihiro joins because he loves karuta and wants to tackle a different style, Sumire is the polar opposite. She’d rather polish her nails and apply mascara to get a boyfriend than … oh wait, who’s that devilishly handsome boy in the karuta club?! Yup, Sumire joins to be around Taichi (and nab him for her own) but comes to connect with some of the poems from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Her connection with the poems parallels Oe’s initial interest from Season 1, but Sumire represents internalization of intense drama (whereas Oe is all about appreciating craft and history). This really comes into play as all members of Team Mizusawa struggle to gain an edge over their increasingly difficult opponents
This Is Where Things Get Weird
For as much time as you spend getting to know the protagonists, another thing Chihayafuru 2 does admirably is really flesh out the members of the teams on the opposite side of the tatami. Teams as well as their individual members offer lessons (of skill, behavior, or personal investment) that Team Mizusawa learns and incorporates … but no one on the team does so lightly. Idiosyncrasies abound in this season of Chihayafuru, and most are rooted in backstory and perfected by drive and practice. Every defeat and win, no matter who won or lost, is felt because of the time and intensity devoted to every character. That said, there are a lot of one-trick ponies (and the most entertaining is a group of “foreigners”).
But of course the ultimate weirdness, the question of who loves who, is what keeps josei fans watching … and oh man does Season 2 know it! Putting aside the audience’s Chihaya x Taichi or x Arata leanings (not to mention that penultimate moment near the end of the last episode!), what’s really excellent is the time we spend with Shinobu (the queen) and Arata. Season 2 rounds out their characters quite a bit, and it’s engrossing to watch how the dynamic between Shinobu and Arata not only mirrors the individual vs. team theme strung throughout the season as a whole but also grows Arata to a point where he’s not just a karuta robot.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Like ‘em or leave ‘em, English dubs are downright essential to those who cannot read subtitled anime. (Imagine if you were legally blind or had dyslexia.) That’s why it’s super awesome that Sentai Filmworks produced a dub, and a really loving one at that, for Chihayafuru! And before I get into the voice actors and their roles, a loving message of thanks for keeping the Japanese poems in Japanese while providing subtitled translations; some sounds are too beautiful to mess with, and some songs don’t need to be understood to be heard. And now, roll call!
Adam Gibbs nails Taichi Mashima’s fluidity and accuracy rattling off similar consonances (and is pretty great all around), and Juliet Simmons makes it all too easy to fall in love with Kanade Oe all over again. Bryson Baugus slides immediately into Tsutomu’s desk, and Luci Christian finds and maintains a perfect balance of space case and impassioned karuta player in her Chihaya Ayase. The instantly recognizable nasal tone of Greg Ayers as Nishida is distracting at first, but his talent is undeniable and all the more powerful in Porky’s more meditative moments. In Season 2, Gareth West sells quirky from the start as Akihiro and brings out his insecurities without being too cartoonish. Maggie Flecknoe as Sumire is the perfect high school teen … so perfect it made me wince. And as Flecknoe sinks into Sumire, you can feel the ice melt and the sharp corners wear. It takes a lot to make an unlikable character worthy of viewer investment, and both West and Flecknoe do a great job of it.
So Why Watch Another Two Cours?
It’s a phenomenal love story that’s just as much about romantic love as it is about investments in dreams and personal passions. It’s also a grand sports/competitive gaming anime that knows exactly how to leverage info dumps for tension and comprehension. And aside from being one of the most beautiful sports/competitive anime out there, Chihayafuru continues to awe with its pressure-building techniques and strategic visualizations. The ways both are used, coupled with character drama, make these 25 episodes all too easy an excuse to call out of work for a couple days in the middle of the workweek or ignore your family for a weekend while your nails leave permanent marks in your favorite chair’s arms. Highly Recommended.
Chihayafuru 2 is currently available in Sentai Filmworks’ Complete Collection on Blu-ray, DVD, and in a Premium Box Set.