Josei is a Japanese word meaning lady or feminine or female.
As the meaning suggests, josei is also a specific genre in anime and manga is caters towards a largely mature female audience, ranging from late teens to senior citizens. The stories in this genre tend to have a more realistic plot that are reflective of the female experience, and they feature characters that are often seen by the audience as believable and relatable.
Confession time: I'm josei fan. I like any story that have interesting characters that I end up caring about, like Daikichi the single father from Usagi Drop. Since josei isn't the most popular genre out around, there's little wonder why few people have heard of josei shows.
This year's fall season welcomes the première of Chihayafuru, a josei show based on the manga by Suetsugu Yuki. The original manga had won the prestigious Kodansha Award and the Manga Taishō Award, which is a good sign indeed. Understandably I was looking forward to it, until I learned it was going to revolve around a competitive card game called Hyakunin Issu Karuta. I wondered if things could get complicated.
The concept behind karuta is actually rather simple. Cards from a deck are laid in rows in front of two or more competing players as they sit facing each other. The cards have a name or phrase on them. An announcer will read aloud the name or phrase on one of the cards and players will try to identify the card mentioned from the rows of cards. The first player to grab that card wins the round.
There are several variations of karuta based on the type of deck, and one of the most competitively played in Japan is the Hyakunin Issu or a hundred poems by a hundred poets. Each card in a Hyakunin Issu deck contains single line waka poem. Highly skilled players build their advantage by memorising all 100 poems, which is the names of every card in the deck.
While Hyakunin Issu Karuta is somewhat a national sport in Japan, simpler variations of karuta are also played at the elementary school level that may use picture cards instead.
Suetsugu Yuki was a member of the karuta club during high school, so I guess rather than let all those experiences go to waste she channelled all that into writing a story about competing and winning, for a championship title or for love.
Ayase Chihaya is a younger sister of an up and coming famous model. To her, this was probably the biggest thing that could ever happen in her life. However deep inside, she longed for a dream of her own.
The quest for that dream began incidentally with Wataya Arata, a newly transferred boy in her class, who was constantly ignored or made fun of because of his Fukui accent. Chihaya began to sympathise with Arata and defended him against the rest of the class, including her close friend Taichi.
Chihaya soon discovered that Arata is actually a junior level karuta champion and a grandchild of a karuta grandmaster. Arata invited Chihaya to give the card game a try and as she experienced for the first time the complexity and beauty of karuta, she realises that becoming a karuta champion could the one dream she had been searching for.
Joined by an fumingly jealous Taichi, the three of them embarked the same dream together, only to see it foiled by reality. Arata was going to return to Fukui when the year is over and Taichi had been accepted to a better school. With the team mates gone, can Chihaya singled-handed keep that dream alive?
Chihayafuru may not be the best example of josei, mainly because (so far) the characters are still in school and the issues they struggle are not much beyond the usual lost friendship, love triangles (I think), and becoming competitive in something. What gives me some hope that Chihayafuru will become another memorable story is the characters.
Chihaya may share her sister's beauty, but the isn't type of girl who worry about breaking a nail or ruining the mascara. She believes strongly in karuta and goes all out to become champion by her own right. Her beauty coincidentally becomes an unrealised advantage, something she herself is unaware of and something her male opponent find very difficult to ignore.
The two leading young men are flawed in their own ways. Taichi is the overachiever of the bunch. He excels at nearly everything mostly because his family expects that from him, but in return he gets very little praise or recognition, almost the same amount of support Chihaya gets from her family in her karuta endeavours.
Arata is the brooding, misunderstood social outcast. He cherishes Chihaya's friendship more than anything (well, maybe except karuta), and is almost single-mindedly driven to become as good as his grandfather.
At first the common tie between Taichi and Arata is Chihaya's sudden interest in karuta. Taichi couldn't be bothered at first but he can't stand seeing Arata hogging all of Chihaya's attention.
After a few episodes, the story skipped a few years to high school. Time, as we know, changes everything in different degrees. Chihaya's dream remained unwavered but someone among the other two has unexpectedly given up karuta altogether, sending her on a new quest, to rekindle her old team mates' love for the game.
Hyakunin Issu Karuta is an interesting game to watch. It's not as complicated I first suspected, yet there's aspects of it karuta that makes it challenging. Players arrange the cards differently for every game. They must remember and forget the card positions quickly since karuta matches are often played consecutively, sometimes up to seven matches in one single day. Concentration, excellent hearing skill, and mental strength are determinants that set the excellent players apart.
Chihayafuru would be dull show if it revolves around only Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata. Episode six and above will introduce new characters and players as Chihaya rounds up members for her school's newly formed karuta club.
I really hope the pace would pick up as the story progresses, but I don't feel should worry too much. The show is in good hands with Asaka Morio in the director's chair. Asaka has handled many shows that feature strong female characters, including my personal favourite, Gunslinger Girl. Gunslinger Girl started out with a group of little orphan girls who were secretly trained to become deadly assassins and slowly progressed into an examination the various types of mentor-protégé relationships.
True blue josei fans including myself will definitely stay tuned for 25 episodes lined up for the whole season. The jury is still out on whether or not it will rank among the most memorable josei shows, but Chihayafuru is easily one of the best shows the 2011 fall season has to offer.