Chihayafuru – Episode 1

Alright, let’s get started on Chihayafuru. I’ve had the show recommended to me a number of times, and even briefly started it a couple years back, but never really got into the meat of the drama. As far as I understand, it’s a combination of thrilling sports drama and shoujo-inflected love triangle shenanigans. I don’t actually have all that much experience with sports dramas, but the ones I’ve enjoyed (Girls und Panzer, Cross Game), I’ve really enjoyed. Setting up a kind of “fair,” parsable contest and then letting your characters clash in it is a natural recipe for impactful drama, something that smart shounen properties like Hunter x Hunter also understand. I’m also perfectly on board for romance, so pretty much the whole package here seems good to me. Let’s dive right in to the first episode!

Episode One

Spring and flowers, classic icons of youthful romance. But here, the pink “blossoms” are actually hiragana and kanji characters, echoing this show’s wordy subject matter. All of my expectations are being fulfilled at once!

And the pink characters serve as a match cut as we jump to actual sakura petals falling outside a school. Very nice

A very heavy bloom filter on the scenes so far, create a sense of nostalgia/idyllism. The show’s also emphasizing all the students outside of our lead before actually introducing her, thus creating the sense of a school that’s actually a living place. These choices are important – “high school shows” may be ubiquitous, but the way one or another high school is visually framed can often dictate the terms of the drama

And now we see our lead, starting with a classic shot below the eyes

Talk of a “model’s daughter” is contrasted against shots just barely hiding our heroine’s face while emphasizing her flowing, golden hair. An expectation of great beauty and elegance is thus established in moments

A sign that says Ayase Chihaya wants to create a karuta club

Now we get our rapturous panning portrait shot, complete with sakura petals framing Chihaya’s face

The impression of traditional feminine grace is then undercut by her track pants and no-nonsense attitude. A pretty natural reversal, matched by goofy horn embellishments

“She’s pretty, but it’s wasted as soon as she talks or does anything.” Man, that sure isn’t a dramatic assumption that lands gracefully. It’s a reliable trope in the genre, but it never gets any less sexist. The American version being the “nerdy girl who gets a makeover and then is suddenly and very traditionally ‘beautiful,’” I suppose

I do remember this OP song being really good!

There’s a deliberate contrast of light and darkness in this OP – light seems to be associated with Chihaya herself, like in the opening segment, while darkness hangs around this dark-haired boy and his claustrophobic shots

The lighting is just as distinctive in the afternoon, where dark shadows meet that burning light

Chihaya apparently used to be in track

“It must be nice to have teammates”

So karuta used to be her passion as a child

And we meet Taichi, a childhood friend

The two banter very easily, and Chihaya is comfortable treating him as a close friend in a physical way. Blushing and body language mark him as significantly less comfortable, and probably harboring some kind of crush

It turns out Taichi has a girlfriend, though he’s clearly far more invested in Chihaya

Chihaya’s first response to learning Taichi has a girlfriend is to muse on another boy, Arata. So it’s clear there’s some baggage there, and that Taichi is jealous of this other guy

Apparently Arata was competing professionally until recently

This show’s lighting is definitely pretty strong. The shots within this train car are gorgeous, a great mix of diverse yellow hues. You can get a lot of distinctive colors out of a very small range of the rainbow – Hyouka pretty much entirely exists within a faded yellow-orange spectrum, while March comes in like a lion embraces all the vivid shades of blue

And at the other hand, puking rainbows like No Game No Life or Handshakers really isn’t a recipe for a beautiful, memorable production

“We’re not gonna play karuta forever.” This story begins at a pretty interesting point, where their passion is already far in the past. Obviously they’re all going to get back into it, but starting here emphasizes transience, the fact that this is just a brief moment in their lives. Chihayafuru’s nostalgic shot filter extends to the dramatic framing of the characters

“This poem is about losing old friends.” Sometimes it can really hurt to meet old friends – your relationships stay close in your memory, but if you’re reunited, you can learn how much you’ve truly drifted apart. Time can separate us far more than distance

And flashback! Another graceful match cut, with the train forming a segue. We also got one quick image of young Chihaya with her friends just before the transition, so there’s no confusion about who we’re following now

Three years ago

I believe this was what originally knocked me off the show, when I tried it the first time. Starting off by establishing a reasonable premise and then flashing back years before is a risky gambit – you shouldn’t start off by telling your audience “interesting things will happen in the future,” you should start off by presenting interesting things. The dramatic flash-forward is a favorite trick of new writers, but editors almost always discourage it – it can work, but it requires clear purpose, and it drags against audience investment more often than not

Chihaya’s an upbeat, tomboyish kid, one who already knows Taichi. And her sister is already a successful model

We get the dramatic bump into the dark-haired boy. Time slows, eyes cross, etc. These romantic dramas have their own dramatic vocabulary of signifiers, and this one is honking “FATED MEETING” as loudly as possible

Oh man, Chihaya is FIERCE. Immediately defending the transfer student Wataya from the jeers of her classmates, and doing it without losing her cool, either

Even back here, we have Chihaya looking towards Wataya’s back and Taichi looking towards Chihaya’s. LOVE IS COMPLICATED

Now we get a scene dedicated to showing how Wataya is a memorization champion. Jeez, I would suck at karuta

Our shift from Chihaya to Wataya’s perspective is matched by a dramatic change in color scheme. We’re now bathed in shadows and dark blues, presumably matching his own temperament

The one break in the blue is the light of Chihaya’s house, unsurprisingly. Very nice use of color coding for dramatic effect

And now I realize that pretty much all of Chihaya’s outfits are one or another shade of yellow. Color coding is very good shorthand, letting us feel a character’s presence in a visceral way even before we’ve learned how to react to them through the narrative

Chihaya is very proud of her sister’s accomplishments

Both Taichi and Wataya memorized all the poems for a class event. How convenient!

This show’s animation is limited, but its expression work is pretty alright

Chihaya can’t help but shout out that Wataya is the paperboy. There’s no space between her head and her mouth, which actually seems like a great talent to possess for karuta – you can’t wait until you consciously understand what you’re recognizing, your hands have to react before your conscious brain even moves

Wataya’s eyes are a deep blue, of course

Taichi’s jealous, and so starts to bully Wataya

Chihaya is a very together kid, not intimidated at all by social pressure. That’s a large part of why she’s considered “weird” in high school – because she’s frankly just above high school’s social games. It’s nice to see the show immediately undercutting the expectations of feminine behavior it established at the start

“Wow, this place is falling apart.” Ahaha Chihaya, you just can’t help it

“My dream is to see my sister become the top model in Japan.” None of her own dreams yet

And Wataya points that out

His accent slips out when a chance to play karuta presents itself

Chihaya can sense his passion. The passion of another is a thrilling thing all on its own

Completely owning a friend with your practiced play is a terrible way to introduce a new person to a game you love. Fortunately, Chihaya just so happens to be a deeply competitive person, so it works here. You gotta learn how to sandbag, Wataya!

This whole sequence is pretty remarkable. They really do manage to convey the thrill of waiting for that verbal cue and then just sprinting for the card

Wataya announces his dream, and Chihaya sees a light behind him. It’s not her own orange light – it’s much more stark, matching his blue tone

“Impassionate gods have never seen the red that is the Tatsuta River.” A thought rising above her red umbrella

And Done

That was quite a strong first episode! The shift to a flashback from those initial seven minutes still feels like a tough one, but the visual execution here was lovely, and the cast is pretty solid too. Well, I say “the cast,” but it’s mostly just Chihaya herself so far – she’s a buoyant, unique, and instantly likable protagonist, and seems to have a distinctive personality in both time periods. So far Taichi is kind of cliche and Arata hasn’t really gotten that much material, but hey, it’s just the first episode. I’m very ready to see whatever’s next!

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

One thought on “Chihayafuru – Episode 1

Comments are closed.