Chihayafuru is a 50 episode (plus an OVA) anime based on a Josei manga about Karuta. Specifically, about a high school girl named Chihaya who is absolutely obsessed with Karuta and intends to become the best Karuta player in the world.
Karuta is a sport with 100 cards with Heian era poems written on them. Each player gets 25 cards, and a reader sings the cards. The first person to touch the card that's read claims the card, regardless of which side it's on. The goal is to have no cards left on your side, and you can send the card of your choice to your opponent's side after claiming one of their cards. The sport relies heavily on memorization and speed, and the placement of cards and choice of cards to send sometimes borders on being a form of psychological warfare. The sport is played in both one on one matches and team matches, and team members sometimes find themselves opposing each other in individual matches. Because it's only the first few syllables of the poem that are needed to win a karuta match, most players don't bother learning more than the first few lines of each poem. While I love pretty much everything about this anime, I give it extra points for being the first sports series I've encountered where the actual sports aspect kept me riveted. The matches tend to be very tense and emotional and the series gets pretty deep into the mindset of both the protagonists and their rivals during the matches. What really makes it excel, though, is the sound. I don't mean the soundtrack (though that's excellent) but the sounds of the matches themselves, with the players hitting the bamboo mats as they claim the cards, and running across them to pick up cards they've knocked away. (Since they're trying to touch the card before the opponent they often hit the cards with enough fore to send them flying across the room.) They's also the readers and how the players respond to the rhythm and timing, which creates much of the tension of the matches. Because of this, I'm actually somewhat leery of of reading the manga, on the one hand, I really want to. On the other, while I'm sure the characters and plot will hold up to the anime, I can see the actual matches having the same level of tension and intensity.
But, back to the plot.
As I said, the plot revolves around Chihaya, a girl obsessed with becoming THE BEST KARUTA PLAYER EVER. Specifically, she wants to become The Queen Of Karuta, a title given to Japan's top female Karuta player. (She has her King Of Karuta picked out, but we'll get to him soon.) When the series opens, Chihaya is a Class B player (the second highest ranking) and wants to form a Karuta club at school, but has no takers. She soon learns that Taichi, one of two boys she played Karuta with in 6th grade, is also attending her school. Taichi, however, no longer plays Karuta. Though he enjoys Karuta, Taichi grew up in a competitive household and quit Karuta because he wasn't naturally gifted at it, and focused on achievements he was naturally gifted at. So Chihaya makes a bargain with him that if she can become a Class A player in her next competition, he'll join her club. She wins, naturally, and we flashback to a handful episodes when the two were in 6th grade and met Arata, the other boy Chihaya used to play Karuta with.
Arata, a new boy in their class, is quiet and poor, and so bullied by Taichi, who wasn't a very nice kid to start with, and it wasn't helped by Chihaya being nice to Arata. Visiting Arata's house one day, Chihaya discovers his Karuta cards, which Arata takes as a sign that they must play. THEY MUST PLAY NOW. And then gets Chihaya obsessed by telling her that there's a card with her name for the first line, thus creating in Chihaya and obsessive need to CLIM THAT CARD. Naturally, they become BFF and decided that they will grow up and become the King and Queen Of Karuta and rule the karuta world forever. Or some such. Eventually, Taichi gets over being a bully and and they become a BFF team, but then Arata has to move away so his parents can take care of his grandfather, and Taichi and Chihaya go to different middle schools.
When Chihaya and Taichi find Arata again after they reconnect, they learn that he quit playing Karuta after his grandfather died, and wats nothing to do with it anymore. Chihaya, of course, considers this to be COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. Unfortunately, they live a couple hundred miles apart, so she has to use emails, text messages and voicemails to convince him that Karuta is still THE BEST THING EVER. Most of her time, though, is consumed with getting enough people to form and official club, and preparing for competitions. She forms her club by effectively abducting, bribing, or gambling with them. Her first recruit is Kana, a girl whose family runs a kimono shop. Kana loves the Karuta poems and thinks competitive Karuta is people sitting around in traditional clothing, calmly discussing poetry and complementing each other for instantly recognizing a poem. She deals with the extreme culture shock of competitive karuta by demanding that they attend matches wearing kimonos from her family's store. Kana is my favorite after Chihaya herself. After that, Chihaya almost literally abducts Komano (nicknamed "Desktomu"), the second highest ranking student in their grade (Taichi is the first) who never does anything but study. Because, you know, he's smart, so obviously he's really good at memorization and quick thinking and such. (Our Chihaya is not always overly bright.) The fifth required member to form an official club is Nishida (nicknamed "Porky" for his love of steamed pork buns) who was one of the threesome's rivals when they were kids, but was devastated and abandoned Karuta forever after being thoroughly trounced by Arata. Falling out of love with Karuta is still Totally Not OK, and so Chihaya recruits him through a combination of blackmail and betting. in season 2, the original 5 team members are joined by two new underclassmen. The first is Sumire, a girl who joins because she has a crush of Taichi (she sees herself as the heroine of a shoujo manga who will win the gorgeous but cold school prince from her beautiful rival), and the second Tsukuba, a transfer student who played Karuta in Hokkaido, where they go by the second verse instead of the first, and play by completely different rules.
The series focuses heavily on the matches (over half the second season takes place over the course of one tornament, though I didn't realize it'd been that many episodes until I'd finished) and the friendships between the players and their love for Karuta. They also have a lot of rivals of various import (the most significant probably being Shinobu, the current Queen of Karuta, and Retro, another childhood rival) though the big tournament in season 2 introduces several new rivals who I really hope to see more of in season 3. If there is one, which I really hope there will be. There's a romantic triangle between Arata, Chihaya and Taichi, but there isn't a lot of focus on it. I'm also not sure how much of a triangle it is when one love interest is isolated from the rest of the cast most of the time, and when the person in the middle has a pertty clear preference, but is completely oblivious to the feelings of all parties (including her own) and the "third wheel" is well aware that he's nowhere on that radar, and isn't likely to be. I'd actually go the OT3 route, but Taichi has moments where he almost goes into Nice Guy mode, and tends to try to control Chihaya's interactions with and knowledge of Arata's actions at times, though he almost always catches himslef in these moments, and knows they aren't ok, so it never gets to the point where I dislike him for it.
Even though there's fifty episodes plus an OVA, there's almost no filler to it. Each of the 2 seasons has the required recap episode that all 24-26 episode series have, but that's it. I suppose you could say the OVA is filler, as it's about what the rest of the team is up to in the last episode of season two when Chihaya is separated from them for plot related reasons, but it's literally a "bonus" episode, and separated from the rest of the series. While the various matches can sometimes stretch out for a while, they never felt, to me at least, like they were dragging or being forced to last longer than they should for dramatic effect or to reach the episode count.
I have a suspicion that this might be my favorite new-to-me anime for 2013, even though January wasn't quite over yet when I finished it. We shall see.