In the fourth article in this series I discussed the hyakunin isshu from a literary-critical perspective, and mentioned how my interest was piqued by the series Chihayafuru. The series focuses primarily on the pastime of karuta, a literary game based around memorising the poems and identifying them as they are read aloud to claim cards with the verse on. In many ways, the story is similar to so many sports and school-club animé; the protagonist discovers a passion for karuta and assembles other like-minded students to try and compete at a niche activity, raising awareness of it. Yet among the usual school misfits and passionate types she encounters, one character’s focus episode particularly stood out as showing that the series was something special.
Oe is one of the first characters recruited to the karuta team, and her story at first seems quite standard – she is bookish, and bullied for it. In a more straightforward, generic plot, this would be all the motivation needed for her to join other outsiders and take up a niche, studious activity – yet at first she does not want to associate with Chihaya’s club and would prefer doing archery, something she does not fully enjoy, because what enjoyment she does get from it is so great – it is something she enjoys on a personal level, for personal (and unusual) reasons. Oe’s love of archery comes from the tradition and ritual of it – the fact that it is a sport played in traditional historical dress that appeals to her love of history, specifically historical costuming. What puts her off karuta, despite her love of history and literature, is that Chihaya plays it too much as a game to be won; it represents an interesting culmination of the story so far where Chihaya has fought to become a competent karuta player through hard work. She has succeeded – she can beat many players and win tournaments – yet this is purely through, as her mentor claims, powering through and memorising syllables and strategies. This approach does interest other members – the next member of the club is someone for whom mental acuity and the strategy inherent in a memorisation game is the “selling point” – but for Oe, it is off-putting and too mechanical. Chihaya cannot at first understand why someone who adores the hyakunin isshu would hate playing karuta – she cannot distance the poems as literary works from their role as playing-pieces even when considering her “favourite” poem, the one whose first syllables are her name. The “Chihaya” poem is a recurring motif through the early episodes – it is the first one she learns and the one which helps her get early victories at karuta – and yet when she talks to Oe about the poems she finds out she knows nothing about how it can be read.
An episode of a sports-type animé focusing in this way on the joy found in close reading texts is interesting, and addresses one of the thoughts I had had about karuta since beginning the series. Tests of mental acuity are fun, but the continued emphasis on karuta as something competitive, played by grand-masters and taught in terms of strategies, seemed to be missing something. Chihayafuru was too much a sports animé, and yet it had from the start revealed an interest in the hyakunin isshu in me. Thus Oe proved to be the most relatable character – her interest in the subjects around karuta aligned with my own, and her confrontation with Chihaya about how simple memorisation almost undervalued the literary history behind the game provided a kind of catharsis. In many ways the series has become by this point about Chihaya’s worldview and perception of karuta being challenged; she still holds blindly to an immature enthusiasm for the pastime played for laughs – she wants everyone to play and share her enthusiasm without actually accepting other people might think differently about karuta. It is only when she takes the time to listen to Oe, and learns the alternative readings of the chihaya-poem, that there is reconciliation and the expected ending of Oe joining the club. Chihaya herself is a fascinating character within the sports-anime genre; she begins the series with not so much enthusiasm for the sport itself but for seeing other people happy, and gradually learns to enjoy it herself. That this is then subtly changed into a kind of selfish desire to do things her way, and the opposite learning process becomes necessary, provides her with a very interesting arc of development. She enjoys herself but at the expense of others, which is a far more interesting flaw than simply being not quite good enough and needing to work hard to succeed. Yet this is not always shown as negative, adding a kind of welcome nuance; sometimes it is Chihaya’s single-mindedness that is needed to reassure others (as in a later episode where she meets a past opponent and tries to convince him that he should do what he enjoys over what he feels he “should” do, as a kind of inversion of Oe’s story).
To return to Oe specifically, her story ends with Chihaya’s enthusiasm for karuta as a game tempered with a discovered love of literature; Chihaya learns that understanding the poems can help with, rather than detract from, her capacity to memorise and recall. Similarly Oe’s beliefs are tempered; she is not shown to simply have been unquestionably right all along in her love of tradition and history over the gamist aspects of karuta and it is suggested that in time she will learn as much as Chihaya does. It is a welcome episode; Oe as a character is a very positively depicted iteration of the bookish, studious student because the episode barely focuses on her having a hard time to fish for sympathy. It establishes subtly that being studious is not well-received at school, and then focuses instead on her finding someone to share her enthusiasm with – successfully – rather than having to temper it to fit in. That an ostensibly sports-focused animé should find the time to show love for academia, and emphasise the poetic aspect of karuta as much as the more easily televised game aspect, really made the series stand out as something special – its focus in this establishing arc is not so much on the hardships of competition but on the ways in which sharing a common interest can bring people together. Yet even such a straightforward message of community and common interest is depicted slightly more subtly; Chihaya does not simply find other likeminded karuta-players or outcasts who want to learn from nothing, but instead is challenged by people who might agree with her in principle, or be interested, but turned away by her single-minded enthusiasm.