The small valleys of the Country of Chihaya lie between the two imperial giants, the Country of Boys and the Country of Girls, posessing culturally the traits of both of its titannic neighbors, yet unique in its own traditions. Fields of rice are plentiful by mid-summer, and the plains are as golden as the sun in Autumn. Gentle are its winters. But perhaps its one unrivaled beauty lies in the plum blossoms of Springcoming, when its inhabitants celebrate the arrival of warm weather with song and dance.
-Records of the NHRV Historian
In her book “Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke,” Susan Napier quotes Japanese writer and literary critic Saito Minako’s 1998 anime and tokusatsu book Kouitenron. Saito noted that in anime, there was a significant split between the types and forms of narrative, symbolism, and art consumed by males and females. Though Saito’s book was published a decade and a half ago, there remains some truth to that statement. At the same time, however, there are series that have the ability to pull in fans of both genders; Chihayafuru is one of them.
Published in josei manga magazine Be Love, which targets a slightly older female audience, Chihayafuru’s anime version is a fascinating example of how a series can transcend the established methods of representation found in anime, particularly in the area of sports drama and romance. There are a surprising number of anime marketed towards a specific gender that in the end gain a large number of fans in the other gender: Sailor Moon was a powerful example of how powerful creepy the adult male imagination could be, and the more recent K-On! has been noted for its substational number of female followers.
I want to argue that Chihayafuru is different from both of these examples. In the case of K-On!, the idea that girls even like to see cute girls doing cute things shouldn’t be terribly surprising—think about the cultural obsession Japan has with cuteness in general—since the comedy element is one of its main strengths. Sailor Moon is closer to Chihayafuru in the sense that they can both be classified as drama and romance. The important contrast, however, lies in the idea that the former possesses fantasy elements and was also marketed toward a younger audience with its magical girl elements, as opposed to the more down to earth sports focus of the latter.
This post will delve into the aspects of the Chihayafuru anime that arguably make it the refreshing and well-liked anime that people have considered it to be, taking a look at the way in which each element is influenced by certain conventions in anime, and how these aspects ultimately come together.
Perhaps the most noticeable element of Chihayafuru is its unabashed use of CG for scenes with cherry blossoms and the card matches themselves; motion infuses the entire show with a strong sense of energy that mirrors the characters’ passions for karuta. The use of CG to isolate the motion of cards flying is especially important in creating tension, particularly if the background image is still and the viewer’s eyes are focused on the flying card.
It’s interesting that CG animation was used for the card matches, much in the way that such techniques have been used in frequent male fare stretching across multiple genres, including mecha (various recent Gundam), space opera (Starship Operators), and harem romance (Infinite Stratos). As far as I’ve seen, CG use in series targeted toward women generally doesn’t have this trend toward an emphasis on kinetic motion. One reason why this may be the case could be due to the common stereotype of males as more spatially and physically-oriented cognitively relative to females.
Despite the fact that Chihaya has her heads in the clouds, viewers can be thankful that it’s not due to some drug addiction to love. Her dedication to karuta, though inevitably tied to her adoration for Arata’s skill and passion from the days of their youth, is genuine enough to propel the story, but doesn’t make the story ride on it completely. Furthermore, Chihaya’s status as mudabijin (wasted beauty) is far easier to swallow than your typical shoujo lead, who may be a misunderstood angel in disguise that is frequently preyed upon by amoral agents in a corrupt society.
In this respect Chihayafuru mirrors the successes of its sister series, ranging from hit manga and anime titles such as Honey and Clover, Nodame Cantabile, and Kuragehime to other lesser known ones. Confessions and feelings are never obviously foreshadowed in such titles—though in the case of Chihayafuru the character developments are somewhat predictable—due to the realistic portrayal that it’s hard to tease apart romantic feelings with other emotions present at the same time. Taichi’s growing love for Chihaya and the game itself makes watching his actions entertaining, not just one or the other.
When it comes to a romance series, there’s bound to be some panels or scenes with pastel colors and frivolous bubbles. The choice of effects is absolutely crucial to generating the well-established aesthetics of boys and girls manga. Chihayafuru doesn’t shy away from frequent use of flower patterns and soft colors to add bubbly warmth to some of its scenes: the moments where we see a framed composition of a character’s dignified face against a rosy background, we instantly recognize such techniques as frequently used by products marketed towards girls. What’s nice, however, about this series is that it changes it up in terms of the types of flowers, varieties of colors, and framing.
When fellow NHRV reviewer Reckoner claimed that Chihayafuru was too melodramatic at times, I couldn’t help but think if whether or not that’s the right critique for a josei show. What seems to make Chihayafuru a curious case is essentially the blend of motion and aesthetic elements I’ve listed above, with characterization slightly more complex than both your average shounen or shoujo fare. Contrasting the vigorousness of the kinetic energy in the series with the orchestral score and flowery imagery is quite the refreshing experience, one that, though perhaps difficult to pin down, transcends the typical conventions of sports drama and romance, therefore generating the perception of being melodramatic.
To conclude, I’d like to return to Saito Minako’s comment on the strong gender demarcation found in anime by saying that I think there’s josei manga and anime is becoming a genre that has the ability to transcend conventions, particularly in relation to the treatment of romance. We’ve seen recent successes in the previous decade stemming from content marketed towards adult women, and I don’t think this will be the last of it.
The Country of Chihaya may be smaller than its neighbors for now, but as new generations of manga and anime consumers grow older, there’s a chance its land—and the land of other countries like it—to expand.
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