Chihayafuru is a fantastic manga that involves a card game. That card game is very good though.
Yuki Suetsugu begins Chihayafuru by placing her main character, Chihaya Ayase, in a significant karuta match. As she goes to take a card, we flashback to six years ago — back to when Chihaya looked to help make her older sister the #1 model in Japan; back when she got Wataya in trouble for having a job in elementary school. And back to when she fought with Taichi because of how much of a jerk he is to Wataya.
This is also when Chihaya finds what she really wants to do.
Chihayafuru is one of those odd series. The manga is serialized in Kodansha’s Be Love magazine, which is a josei magazine. There’s maybe a few things that point to it being a mix of shounen and shoujo instead. This series started in 2007, and is still ongoing. It won the 2nd Manga Taisho award in 2009 and won Best Shoujo in Kodansha’s Manga Award in 2011. I remember citing one of those reasons for wanting to watch the anime when it aired that year. It was good. Very good. Eventually a second season aired. It has also led to a few live action films. Now Kodansha began publishing it digitally earlier this year.
The story revolves heavily around the game of karuta, which, in this manga, is seen as boring and lame. Chihaya only learned about karuta after she outed Wataya’s part time job, and stuck up for him after he was being bullied by Taichi. She soon discovers a world she’s never known before, but it’s apparently inaccessible to others. Not a lot of people find it interesting, starting with her family and classmates. This all changes when she shouts out to her class how Wataya won’t let anyone get a card from him in karuta. This leads, eventually, to some character evolution while playing the game of karuta.
Of course, in volume 1 of Chihayafuru it’s not gonna be all positive, which is important to showcase. But it’s that combination of drama, and the fascination behind people competing against each other, that makes it a delight to read. The art contributes heavily to this as well. There’s a few panels that stand out in this volume but one that’ll be my highlight is Wataya vs Taichi. Long story short, Taichi steals Wataya’s glasses. Wataya manages to succeed well enough until Taichi starts moving his own cards. That’s when things break down for Wayata. He just can’t see the cards anymore. And out of nowhere Chihaya casually pushes him aside and says, “Can I take Wataya-kun’s place in the match?!”
It’s moments like that you can’t help but remember. That develops the characters, and of course, drives everything forward. And it sticks out like a sore thumb. This is one of the reasons Chihayafuru has been well received, and why its future volumes should be just as good too.
The only big issue is the text. And there is a lot of text. As karuta is based off the 100 poems in Japan, it’s very much a Japanese thing. That means you have to keep the Japanese text. So for Ko Ransom (translator of Attack on Titan, Monogatari) and Hiroko Mizuno (letterer of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjo, Kiss Him, Not Me), their challenge was having the translation and the Japanese text together and making it tolerable. For some, it probably is too much. For others, not so much. Chihayafuru is one of the few titles that I think has to have it translated this way. You can’t put all of that in the translation notes. This is the right move.
And if the text isn’t too much of a hassle, then you’re gonna enjoy reading a manga about kids doing what they love to do.