A sports anime that grabbed me! Yes, this show involves a deck of cards and poetry. No, I am not talking about Dark Magicians, White Dragons, or Shadow Realms, although I love that classic show! Welcome to the world of competitive karuta, a beautiful tradition of Japan that has been played for centuries and is still beloved in modern times. It is not a standard sports anime, but it has the excitement, the drama, the tears from happiness seeing them strive after hard work, or heartache from loss and innocent moments.
Let’s dive in. Grab your deck. Tie the obi on your kimono. Practice your swings until you need chocolate to reenergize. Let’s go play some karuta!
Our story opens with the characters actually in upper elementary for the first two-three episodes. We have our main characters, Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata. Chihaya is a very tomboyish girl in school that is loud and over the top, but has a good heart. Everyone is interested in her older sister, who is a model. Chihaya is proud of her family, but deep down, wishes she had something she loved and was good at. Taichi is the popular and bright kid in the class, smug to no end. He just won the school’s required karuta contest by being the one to memorize all 100 poems like they are taught in elementary. Everything seems to go his way until a new student, the shy and studious Arata, comes into class. The other kids think he is odd, but Chihaya finds something unique about him. Later, she follows him and discovers he is excellent at Katura and practices all the time to a tape, but alone. Chihaya confronts him and the two play together. She wins one card, but it is the one with her name in it. It was such a rush and she cannot help smiling. Taichi finds out about their little makeshift club and decides to join, the trio becoming friends. They even enter a local community karuta club after school where they first meet their mentor, The Doctor, and win a competition. But, not long later, they have been torn apart when Arata has to move.
Then, we flash to high school, where Chihaya, who is now beyond beautiful, is desperately trying to start a karuta club so she can show others her deep love for the game and enter competitions. She bumps into Taichi on the streets and begs him to help, becoming captain after much pestering. After struggling, but finally getting new members (in some adorable and humorous ways,) the club is born and their hard work, matches, and dreams are center stage as we follow them around the current three seasons. From their first competition to nationals, and their aim for individual rankings (there are classes, A to F, by skillset with official rules), rivals, and goals to become Japan’s Queen or Master or rooting for their friends and teachers still determined along the way. It is a wave of high school acceptance, club activities, bonding over a common love, working hard, coming of age, and showing how we are never too old or different to believe in what we can do.
If you also like romance, it definitely is hinted at here! However, it is not drowning you in it, but it is a nice dynamic to the show, refreshing and pure. A classic love triangle. Chihaya has liked Arata all along, but they have hardly spoken since he moved and his grandfather, who was a Grand Master at Katura, died. Taichi also hated Arata when he was young out of jealousy, wanting Chihaya. Will those feelings resurface since they are spending more time together? And how does Arata feel about Chihaya? Will he get back into katura to reclaim his prodigy status and live out his grandfather’s dynasty?
Do I have a favorite ship? Hmmm…yes, but I am not going to tell you; you can decide for yourself. But, I will say, all the moments between them in any even remotely ‘romantic’ way is adorable, but I can fit in their shoes. Or, kimono. Do not get me started on how stunning they all look in them! And the music pairs so nicely with the scenes too, giving you even more flavor and culture.
Oh! It flows so wonderfully, the animation with a lovely watercolor-like hinted to them, especially in their facial designs and expressions. Imagine a park with a fully bloomed maple tree in fall and the leaves are cascading down lightly in the breeze, making everything have a dream state quality that is peaceful but keeps you on your toes to keep looking. That is what this anime is to me. Stunning. Warm. Exciting. Fun. Relatable. A work of art.
You get really attached to these characters. You cheer with them during matches. You follow their intense and complex moves. You cry at their sorrows and want them to find happiness, their dreams your own. I often feel for characters, but this time feels like I am a part of their group and we are achieving this dream I never knew I wanted together. The lesson here is so powerful: the magic and sacrifice of finding something you are so passionate about. Its journey. The ups and downs. The hard work and the reward.
Chihaya is a great protagonist. She loves only one thing truly and does not care what others thinks. She is determined, dedicated, and sometimes dense. But, she has this relatable charm. Her heart is big and her care for others is easy to see. She can be brash in her actions and decisions, but deep down, it is because she wants to get better for herself and her team. I found it endearing how she is timid to admit her dream for a while because she did not think she could compare to her older sister and did not want to stomp on her success or bug her parents. I found this so sweet and I related to that shyness and almost fear intensity to voice your dream. Her innocence of the heart makes you want to hug her and go, “Oh honey…” Plus, she loves kawaii Hello Kitty-inspired mascots on her clothes! My girl!
All the characters are fantastic and do their jobs for the story to move well. Like the current queen being an icy, odd high school girl with a choking rich family. Yet, she can hear the cards talk to her because she loves them so much and is also a fan of cute mascots characters, her favorite a grumpy-looking snowman. LOL! The rivals and other teams all have a quirk that clashes with most of their attitudes. It is conflicting, yet made a connection with me. Maybe because humans are complex. Their dynamics though with our main team is incredible, intense at times, and entertaining.
One of the greatest components of this anime is that it is based on a Japanese tradition. Karuta is a card game that was introduced by the Portuguese in the late 1500s. How to play is 100 waka poems are divided out from the great 100 poets (decks have 200 cards) between two players. They can set them out in formation in front of them, whatever helps them memorize them more. A professional reader draws one of the cards from the box and reads it in a singsong voice in a smooth pitch. The karuta players listen for the stanza of the poems on the cards, them going by one syllable, two, or three. They swipe their hands (you have to be on your knees the whole time) to collect the card. The person who grabs it or touches it first, no matter whose side it is on, gets the card (there are judges to help determine if need be.) The winner is the person who collects all their cards on their side first or until the last card in the box is read. There are dozens upon dozens of rules and regulations too. You learn them gradually over time in the show, which is refreshing and will not make my brain explode. LOL! It makes me feel emersed in this lush, stunning culture.
And all the things you have to remember and do! It is a full sport! Listening to the speaker’s voice. Memorizing your card placement. Physically swiping the cards. Running to collect your cards. Watching your opponent. The heat (no air conditioning) while wearing a full kimono sometimes! Phew! Figuring out when to move your cards or send one to your opponent. Watching your speed, your hand placement, your accuracy. Possibility of fatigue and injury. There are numerous things to worry about and I adore how all the new challenges Chihaya faces with all-encompassing players are clever in their strategies and feel like an earned nugget of information for me. Like one opponent could feel the first syllable of a poem from the slight mouth movement and breathing of the reader’s lips beforehand. Another, a former queen, can hear the pitch of the cards when first spoken, even though many of the cards have the same or close to starting letters/syllables! These people are superstars!
I want my own deck someday! The special box edition of one of the dubbed seasons HAD a full, Chihaya the anime-inspired karuta deck and rules on how to play! It was gorgeous but so expensive! *cries* It is pictured above.
The manga-ka (the one who wrote the manga the anime is based on) was in a karuta club in high school and wanted to write a series where you have passion for something with your whole heart. She succeeds in this charming and gripping series, it a breath of fresh air. And do not worry about her running out of material: the manga started in 2007 in Japan and is STILL GOING! It currently has 42 volumes!
There are also three live-action films that look great and are set two years later. I personally have not seen them, but I desperately want to!
The anime currently has three seasons. All are dubbed in English by Sentai, my favorite voice actress Luci Christain playing our main girl Chihaya! A dream come true and she does brilliantly in the role! You can get the series on retailers on DVD and/or Blu Ray OR if you have HiDive, Sentai’s monthly streaming service.
The big question is: why did I not add this to my favorite anime I discovered last year? Well, this one would for sure be number two, but for me, it is its own world, a level on its own. I feel so calm when I watch this show while still being vastly entertained with ‘sports’ action and teenage antics. I want to snatch it up and have it never end, like when you go on a wonderful trip or are eating your favorite sweet. For a show to make this sort of reality for me over a centuries-old card game, it must be special.
I would rate this show 10 kimonos out of 10 kimonos every time! 😀
Be passionate. Be You. Dream Big! Stay nerdy! 🙂
Educator of young minds by day, super nerdy savior of justice, and cute things by night, Morgan Straughan Comnick has a love for turning the normal into something special without losing its essence. Morgan draws from real-life experiences and her ongoing imagination to spark her writing. In her spare time, she enjoys doing goofy voices, traveling to new worlds by turning pages, humming child-like songs, and forcing people to smile with her “bubbliness.” It is Morgan’s mission in life to spread the amazement of otaku/Japanese culture to the world and to stop bullying; she knows everyone shines brightly.
For more information about Morgan and her works, check out her website, which also has links to all her social medias: http://morganscomnick.com