Chihayafuru Volume 1 by Yuki Suetsugu
Around a month ago, there were a few things I knew about Chihayafuru. It was a josei title about a Japanese card game. It has had an anime adaptation. I was interested in reading this, but I was convinced it would never be licensed. I have also been living under a rock, or at least totally unaware of what Kodansha was doing because I didn’t realize until several days ago that Chihayafuru was being released in English albeit just in digital format. I clicked the preorder button so quickly!
Chihayafuru is a josei manga, but it also is a sports manga centered around karuta, a poetry matching game that requires literary knowledge, memorization, quick reflexes, and strategy. From the start, the reader gets a few panels of the middle of an exciting game. Then the manga catapults into the past, to six years earlier. The main character is Chihaya, a girl who has buried her ambitions in supporting her older sister’s dream of becoming a supermodel. While Chihaya doesn’t seem to have any goals for herself, it is clear that she’s kind and a bit of tomboy at school. When a new kid arrives in her classroom and is promptly bullied, Chihaya sticks up for him. Wataya might talk funny and be poor, but he is a master at the game karuta, which the class plays from time to time. Wataya’s first enemy is Taichi, a popular boy who is dedicated to his studies and comfortable always winning the school kuruta tournament.
Wataya is a genius level kuruta player, and when he gets put at a disadvantage in a challenge match because his glasses were stolen, Chihaya substitutes herself for him. She doesn’t have all the poems memorized, but she has an incredibly dynamic and aggressive playing style that when combined with her reflexes enables her to eke out a win. She becomes inspired to pursue kuruta as her own interest. Taichi, Wataya, and Chihaya end up forming an odd friend group centered around kuruta, even visiting a local club to play practice matches and learn from a local teacher. The personalities of the three main characters create an interesting dynamic and dramatic tension.
I’m assuming with the flashback opening to this volume, the characters will be shown at their current ages soon, but the reader is set up to being able to feel all nostalgic when the trio gets together again outside of middle school. Chihayafuru reminds me of Hikaru No Go in the best way, because it takes a topic that might seem overly cerebral and invests it with a great sense of pacing and action. Chihaya’s dynamic personality and habit of slapping down cards whenever she gets a sudden insight makes everything exciting. Suetsugu’s paneling using multiple perspectives as angles on the game action also creates plenty of visual interest. I also liked the way romanized Japanese was presented along with the translations for the poems, because it was easier to get a sense of the rythm of the game, and how the players greet matched poems as “old friends”. In a digital release I suppose one can’t expect too many extras, but if print volumes of this series ever come out, it would be fun to have some of the poems and cards featured in more depth in notes at the back of each volume.