Looking at last Autumn's season listing, this was the one title to really stand out, the one I hoped against hope that would get licensed -- Madhouse escaping from their Marvel phase, adapting a josei sports manga, where the sport is karuta, a curiously Japanese affair, involving memorizing the 100 poems, and capturing cards based on recognising the one bearing the closing lines of the poem being read out.
After a very brief current day set-up, the story flashes back from high-school to junior school, where Chihaya Ayase befriends Arata, the shy transfer student with the regional dialect being bullied by the rest of her class. He introduces her to the game -- she is mesmerized by the way he flicks the cards and such speed, and hooked by finding that one of the poems begins with her name. Both of them play at school and in the local club, and eventually become friends with fellow player and classmate Taichi, until Arata moves away with his family.
Surprisingly enough, the skip forward to high-school does not end up presenting us with a love triangle with occasional card games -- there are more important matters, like recruiting enough players to get an official school club and team, and then it's off to the major tournaments, with Chihaya aiming to become the overall womens' champion or Queen -- the best in Japan, and thus the best in the world. Only this is not Saki (although the first passing encounter with the current Queen is reminiscent of the entry of one of the monsters from that series); older and wiser players can take advantage of Chihaya's over-impulsive speed, she can become unsure of herself, and not adapt to the person she is playing.
And between all the play, there are the relationships between the bunch of misfits that have been recruited to make up the team, the team with families and other players, and also finding out what happened to Arata -- once tipped to become the Master -- to make him give up the game in the intervening years. And so we end, a year after the start, everyone gearing up to do better in the next season. The manga continues, the anime, well it would be nice to dream.
The production of the series is definitely good Madhouse; and the character design subtle -- characters can be plain, or plump, or middle-aged, and the ones who are meant to be pretty do stand out. The story never becomes mawkish, nor does it sacrifice everything for romance with a flimsy excuse to get the principals together. Very definitely, anime of the year, 2011. Available in many regions on Crunchyroll.