This is a sports anime, but it is unusual in a couple of respects. The vast majority of sports manga and anime are shounen stories. A few are shoujo or seinen. This one however is based on a josei manga, which accounts for both the drawing style and the strongly character-oriented story.
The other unusual thing in the choice of the “sport.” It’s fairly common for sports anime and manga to cover things that Americans wouldn’t consider sports, including board games. (There are any number of manga series devoted to the adventures of heroic Mahjong players.) Still there seems something particularly unique about the sport of Competitive Hundred Poets Karuta.
The game is played with 100 cards printed with the last two lines of poems from a medieval collection called The 100 Poets. Fifty cards are arranged in rows between two competitors and they are given some time to memorize the layout. A reader starts to chant one of the poems. The goal is to hit the card containing the end of the poem before your opponent does without touching any other card. (There is only a 50% chance that the correct card is even in play, so it is easy to make a mistake.) The game requires lightning-fast reflexes, superb memorization skills, and enough endurance to keep focused over multiple 50-card rounds during a full day of competition.
Now I’ll be honest. This is not a game that I would ever be tempted to play. I’m not sure I’d even be interested in watching an actual tournament. However I do care enough about these characters that I want to watch them play.
The main character is Chihaya Ayase (Asami Seto) a high school student who wants to start a karuta club. She is pretty but a misfit, a socially awkward tomboy with an unfortunate tendency to blurt out whatever pops into her head. (This is a real problem in a society that puts such emphasis on discretion and self-control.) She is an indifferent student, not because she is stupid but because she can only focus on things that interest her.
In flashbacks we see Chihaya in elementary school where she made friends with a boy who is even more socially awkward than she is: Arata Wataya (Yoshimasa Hosoya, played as a child by Yuka Terasaki). He is a karuta prodigy, trained from early childhood by his grandfather, a national champion. Chihaya learned the game from him and started to become obsessed with it after she realized that if she became the “Queen,” as the top-ranked female player is called, she would not only be the Japanese national champion but the world champion as well. (Well, duh.)
(The anime doesn’t mention this but the fact that the female champion is called the “Queen,” using the English word, implies that women were not allowed to compete until after World War II. This is ironic since if there ever was a sport in which women could compete with men on equal terms, this is surely it.)
After one year Arata moved away and Chihaya hasn’t heard from him since. But by that time Chihaya’s childhood friend Taichi Mashima (Mamoru Miyano played as a child by Ayahi Takagaki) had taken up the game. He is a well-rounded boy, excelling at both schoolwork and sports, but dominated by his overbearing mother. She wants him to be the best at everything he does and so she does not want him to play karuta since she could see at once that he was not as good as Arata. He insisted on playing anyway since he was secretly in love with Chihaya and jealous of Arata.
As a boy Taichi was a little monster but he seems to be maturing into a kind and thoughtful young man, and is also very good looking. (I can sort of guess where this is going.) He continues to play karuta though he is haunted by the thought that he can never really compete in the top ranks.
Chihaya and Taichi agree to form a high school club, but they need at least 5 members. They manage to recruit Kanade Ooe (Ai Kayano) a small delicate girl whose family owns a kimono store. She’s not really into the competitive aspect but she loves classical poetry. Yusei Nishida (Touru Nara) was a promising player in elementary school but became discouraged and gave it up after losing a match to Arata. They convince him to try again. Tsutomu Komano (Tsubasa Yonaga) is an introverted math nerd who compiles endless statistics about each match, looking for a mathematical edge.
Eventually they meet the reigning Queen, Shinobu Wakamiya (Mihoko Nakamichi). She is a girl the same age as Chihaya, but so autistic that she makes both Chihaya and Arata look totally normal.
Fair warning: the season ends after 25 episodes with the story not nearly complete and no guarantee of a sequel. At the end they have completed their first year of high school. The club made it to the national high school championship playoff at the Omi Shrine in Otsu City, but they didn’t get very far there. Chihaya entered the adult national championships but was quickly eliminated. She is obviously not yet ready to take on the Queen.
This suggests that to complete the story we would need 2 more seasons of 2 cours each, enough to get them through the last 2 years of high school. Whether the show will be popular enough to get 2 more seasons remains to be seen.