Chihayafuru, an anime centered around karuta, hits its poetic stride in episode 6. Contemplation over the cards’ content by the characters leads to metaphors, both visual and contextual, layered to form a statement about how association with history breeds stronger warriors (read: competitors). In my head, this episode, and series by proxy, is made to appeal to the nostalgia of older generations while providing a back story with which to draw in younger audiences to everything involved with one aspect of historic national pride: poetic culture.
The episode starts off simply enough, with two students – one who’s sincerely interested in her own talent at the competitive aspect of karuta (Chihaya Ayase) and another (Taichi Mashima), who is bound by friendship and an agreement to help the other start a karuta club at their high school – putting effort into establishing a physical representation (club room) for their passion (karuta) by lugging up tatami mats amidst the snide murmurs of their peers. This physical effort might be likened to basic chores preceding a warrior’s training regimen. Although the instance is brief, there is mention of return trips, and this scene compliments those of earlier episodes with similar training exercises wherein Ayase hones her card slapping technique.
Chihaya’s enthusiasm for the game up until this point has been cultivated via happiness derived from gaining friends with which to play and the competitive aspect of the game itself; karuta matches are recalled time and time again to hammer home this point. Ayase has memorized the poems on the cards but never given much thought to the meaning of the poems themselves, much like the act of learning how to say a sentence, based solely on phonetics, in a totally foreign language. Ayase wants to be the best at the game, but hers is an aspiration shallowly stolen from one of her close friends, Arata, whose grandfather endowed him with a great love and respect for the game (and one would only assume the meaning of the cards upon which it is based). Ayase’s shallow adoption, her love for the competitive aspect of karuta, is contrasted by a scene in which a “warrior,” archery student Kanada Oe, has an introspective moment reciting a short poem: “So spring ends and summer comes, now white robes hang to dry on Mount Amanokagu.”
Kanade Oe is referred to early on as being “born in the wrong era” and is initially presented as more of an antique clothing otaku than anyone particularly invested in or protective of poetry. Not much later, though, it is revealed via overheard gossip that Kanade Oe is “always reading old books by herself.” In fact, there are a few occasions in which her on-screen reading habits showcase “Explanation for Ogura Hundred Poets.” The classmates’ opinions of Oe parallel the muttered jeers pointed towards Ayase and Mashima for how outside-the-box each appears to be, and the content of those antagonistic barbs regarding Oe – the book that is always shown to the audience – relates directly to the poetic content of karuta. Thus the poem Oe recites earlier reveals both her character’s passion for poetry and traditional (read: antiquated) fashion.
Oe’s family runs a “traditional clothing shop,” which has come upon hard economic times. This provides background for Oe’s obsession over vintage clothing and can also be seen as metaphor for the general population’s disinterest in history. Who needs fancy ceremonial garb that costs too much and takes too much effort to put on when one only needs mass-produced suits/jeans/etc. to make it through daily life? In fact, Mashima’s response to a question later posed later by Oe as to why the karuta club members don’t wear hakama, that it takes “too much effort,” can also represent the effort of getting to know the meaning behind each poem as opposed to simply memorizing the words on the cards. Thus this scene portrays the club as shallow by exposing its members ignorance of history, lending credence to Mashima’s observation that something was lacking in Ayase’s slow-start performance earlier on in this episode.
Upon being spotted secretly observing a karuta club match, Oe is aggressively pursued for recruitment by Ayase. But Oe, after the initial shock of seeing karuta played so fiercely and learning that Ayase has no comprehension of the history behind the game or its content, can barely stand to hear the word karuta uttered from Ayase’s lips. Two very lovely and important visual metaphors are integrated in this scene. First is that of Oe being slapped in the face (vicariously via her image in one pane of intervening glass) with a competitively slapped karuta card, its poem reflected on her eye as the card falls to the floor after initial impact. This visual represents an attack on Oe’s contemplative enjoyment of poetry by Ayase’s aggressive single-minded, competitive concentration. Ayase’s seeming disregard for the poem on the card is literally slapping Oe’s shocked sense of deeper appreciation for the same in the face. In this way, Oe’s disgust for the way Ayase and Mashima play karuta could be a direct metaphor for the way older generations see younger generations: living lives relatively shallowly due to memorization of history instead of internalization.
The second visual metaphor comes shortly after, when Mashima points out the flaw in Chihaya’s game: listening for sounds of syllables but only in a strategic manner. This is enhanced using Oe Kanade as a foil, emphasizing content over structure (realizing intent over sound). This is represented perfectly via the seemingly slapstick gag of having Chihaya run into a latticed glass door in an attempt to catch up to Kanade Oe. To spell it out: Chihaya rushes towards the goal with no concept of what lies between her and it, slapping away a card with the properly corresponding sound despite the consequences of not knowing if something contradictory (say a similar phrase or pane of glass) might interfere with her intentions.
Remember how I said Oe has the deepest connection to and utmost respect for the game’s content? Well, I also enjoy the irony that the karuta club’s newest member is one who only agrees to join on solely aesthetic conditions: wardrobe/attire (hakama) and clubroom renovation. Each can be dissected. The more minor of considerations is the need to pay proper respect to the game (read: tradition/history) by not holding matches in an untidy area. The more important connection is that of the wardrobe to the past. While both will undoubtedly affect all club members, only one deepens the connection to the game itself. Respect is general, universal, but donning specific attire directly and personally links the game’s participants to tradition and gameplay.
Other aspects of this episode which can be read into (without much effort) reveal contemporary concerns over the canonization of male vs. female poets as well as the effectiveness and beauty of contemporary vs. classical verse. The former is dealt with via a diatribe on the origin of the Ogura Hundred Poets and their compilation by Fujiwara no Teika. Kanade Oe breaks down the number of poems by author gender (79 male and 21 female) and expresses her “particular attention” to the female poets. As to classical vs. contemporary, Oe enthusiastically makes known her passion for the heritage of the poetry on karuta cards by saying, “You can feel the seasons and modesty in a way that can’t be found in modern poetry!”
So now that we’ve talked the simple, let’s tackle something a tad more complex: Chihaya’s comprehension and subsequent adoption of Kanade’s passion for karuta via her appreciation of wardrobe. In Oe’s family’s shop, Chihaya attempts to prove the depth of her love for the poems in karuta by reciting and explaining her strongest card, “Impassionate gods have never seen the red that is the Tatsuta River,” to Oe. After Ayase finishes, she notices a particular garment that could visually represent the poem she just recited.
The revelation behind the poem’s meaning leads to an enlightenment of literal versus figurative for Ayase and draws her deeper into the game. The strength found in meaning is summed up by Oe, who in no uncertain terms states that “Classical poetry becomes fascinating when you know the history behind each poem.” This scene is, at its heart, an encounter which brings about an evolution from aesthetic and historical appreciation to introspective interpretation…a poem! So the series actually gains some degree of depth. All of this insight, of course, leads back to a karuta match in which Chihaya becomes faster on the draw, better for her understanding of the poems in addition to her ear for language.
If Chihayafuru is about watching its characters evolve, then the series is actively attempting such via two avenues: characters’ attitudes towards playing the game and now identification with its poetry.