Chihayafuru is a series I’ve always wanted to get into, but a number of excuses kept me away. First, I was scared of it being so long. Then I was trying to hold out for a physical release after it got released digitally. Amazon recently had a deal on the volumes of this series currently out, so I caved. I’m glad I did, because this was a really great intro volume.
Chihaya is a sixth grader from Tokyo who idolizes her sister. One day, she sticks up for Arata, a transfer student from a more rural area who gets picked on by his new classmates. Unlike the others, Chihaya is in awe of his memorization of the Hyakunin Isshu, a series of 100 famous Japanese poems. She later learns that he is an excellent karuta player, a game built around memorizing those poems. When she tells Arata of her dream, which is to see her sister become famous, Arata rebuffs her by saying dreams should be about yourself, not of others. When talking about karuta, he also mentions that becoming a master in Japan is as good as becoming a master worldwide because the game is not popular on a global scale. This motivates Chihaya to refactor her goals and learn to memorize the poems so she can be as good as Arata. She wants to get on his level, so to speak.
The rest of the chapters in this volume see Chihaya grow closer with Arata and Taichi, a boy from Chihaya’s class who rallied her classmates to bully Arata. After Arata and Chihaya beat him in a karuta match, the three start to hang out more through a shared interest in the game. The last chapter ends while the three are mid-tournament, but some tension has already arisen in that Taichi got admitted to a prestigious middle school over an hour away from home, while Arata intends to go back to his hometown to be by his ailing grandfather’s side.
This volume really hit the spot for me. I can’t say I know much about karuta beyond the concept. Essentially, poems are written on two sides of a card. Players sit above a layout of cards with lines of a poem written on them. As they play, poems will be read out loud that have a matching card; to win, players have to match more cards than their opponent by swiping the card as soon as they hear the match. It’s still a little out there, but you don’t have to understand it thoroughly to enjoy the story. Honestly, all I knew about the manga before reading was that Perfume recorded the theme song to the live-action film adaptation in 2016.
So far, it’s a vivid, emotional story of a girl discovering something she’s passionate about and working towards a goal. Chihaya has gained friends through a mutual passion and has found something to fuel her energy into. It matters enough to her that she gets visibly upset when her mom and sister don’t share her excitement in finding a dream of her own. The way Suetsugu draws this particular sequence, where Chihaya has a door closed in her face and watches through a window as her family talks to a modeling agent is so arresting at first glance. It made my heart sink to see her literally be on the outside looking in, her face wet with tears and her certificate crumbled on the floor. The way she then turns it around, where she reflects on good memories that prompt her to dry her eyes and smooth her certificate out, is as uplifting as the prior sequence was saddening. The layouts flow nicely throughout the book, but that sequence in particular was especially well done.
I can relate to finding a passion later in life, then enduring a lack of enthusiasm from loved ones. I know what it’s like to be met with skepticism after you find something that brings you such joy. It just makes me want to see her come out on top. Her passion burns brighter than that of any other character in the story so far. I love her personality, too – even before she made friends with him, she doesn’t play along with her classmates’ plan to bully Arata and immediately calls them out when she sees foul play. She doesn’t give in to peer pressure or listen to naysayers when it comes to her interests. It doesn’t bother her if they don’t get it; she gets it, and that’s all that matters. I can get behind that 100%.
The plot pacing is just fine for now – we’ve met some new players, Chihaya has been working to study the Hyakunin Isshu, and the three kids have just entered their first tournament. A larger conflict hasn’t been set up, but I’m sure we’re moving towards it. At this point, my love for Chihaya’s character is enough to keep me reading. She sells the story on her personality alone.
The art is pretty standard josei fare. The background characters are fairly plain, but the main characters are distinctive and expressive, and the environments get the job done. I particularly love the way Suetsugu draws Chihaya’s eyes – check out the cover art above.
I get why people are so excited about this series. Of all the manga volumes I’ve read so far this year, I’ve enjoyed reading this one the most. I’m glad I chose to pick up this series digitially and am beyond excited to read the next volume. If Kodansha decides to print physical copies of this series, I’ll be first in line to buy them. Believe the hype and give this series a shot!
Chihayafuru is written and illustrated by Suetsugu Yuki. It has been serialized in Kodansha’s Be Love magazine since 2007, and its chapters have been collected into 36 bound volumes as of November 2017. It has been licensed for release in North America by Kodansha Comics, which has released nine volumes to date.