House of 1000 Manga
Chihayafuru

by Shaenon K. Garrity, Dec 19th 2013

Chihayafuru

Of all the manga genres I never thought I'd like, card game manga is the most unexpected. My “House of 1000 Manga” tag-team partner, Jason Thompson, is a devoted Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, not to mention the editor of the English-language edition of the manga. As for me, I'm enormously fond of CLAMP's confection Cardcaptor Sakura. But both of those manga are based on fictional card games created by the authors (although Yu-Gi-Oh!’s Magic & Wizards is pretty much a transparent lift of Magic: The Gathering) and only later licensed as actual card decks. What about real competitive card gaming? What, in fact, about a card game so real, it's been around for over 200 years?

Chihaya, a tomboyish middle schooler, has no goals in life beyond supporting and worshipping her aspiring-model big sister. Then she befriends the new kid at school, Arata, and learns his secret: he's a champion at the traditional card game karuta, played with a deck of 100 cards printed with classical Japanese waka poems. Why is Arata so into karuta? Because he comes from a rural area where a lot of people play the game, and because his grandfather is a karuta grand master. But Chihaya becomes obsessed with karuta too, and eventually she recruits a third player, class golden boy Taichi. It turns out that Chihaya's tomboy athleticism serves her well in karuta matches, giving her an instinct for grabbing cards. Of course she's especially good with the card whose poem begins with the syllables chi ha ya.

After a volume of this, flash forward to high school! Chihaya has grown up into a hottie like her sister, but the boys give her a wide berth because she's so weirdly fixated on karuta, not to mention sort of clueless in general. Her old karuta mates are long gone, but then Taichi wanders back into her life, and Chihaya decides that her mission is clear. She must form a champion high-school karuta team, get the gang back together, become the queen of karuta, and introduce the wonders of her favorite game to the world! Welcome to Chihayafuru, by Yuki Suetsugu, the most epic josei manga ever drawn on the subject of feudal-period Japanese card games!

A directionless protagonist who finds meaning in whatever activity is the subject of the manga, an inspiring but aloof genius/romantic interest, a love triangle between the competitors, lessons about the power of friendship—this is all boilerplate competition-manga stuff, especially in shojo manga. The previous sentence could just as easily describe, say, the music-themed dating sim adaptation La Corda d'Oro. What sets Chihayafuru apart isn't the unusual subject matter, although to a nerd of my stripes karuta is way more interesting to learn about than your standard CCG. It's that the manga is just so damn well-written. Where other manga would give us stereotypes, Seutsugu gives us specifics, building characters and situations that feel real.

Examples. When Arata shows up, he's not the cool transfer student everyone wants to get to know. He's ostracized for being new, having a weird accent (he speaks in a Fukui dialect, inspiring his classmates to keep lists of the funny words he uses), and being poor. Taichi is a familiar manga type—the all-around perfect guy who's always top of his class—but it's not portrayed as an admirable situation. Instead, being a flawless student means living under the heel of his helicopter mom and never having the time to do anything that can't go on a college transcript, whether it's playing karuta or making real friends. As the manga goes on, the karuta world fills up with eccentrics, like a girl who agrees to join Chihaya's team because she's into old-timey Japanese stuff and insists that her teammates wear hakama to matches. (Her parents own a traditional kimono fabric store, so they get a nice kickback from the deal.) And Chihaya—tall, lanky, hyperactive, socially awkward, geekily enthusiastic about her passions—is the best character of all, a refreshingly rounded manga protagonist.

Seutsugu's art is equally good, in essentially the same way her writing is good: there's nothing about it that's groundbreaking, just more skilled and more thoughtful than 99% of the competition. The central protagonists are typically shojo-attractive, but Seutsugu draws a wide variety of faces and body types and gives each character his or her own body language. And the karuta action is thrilling. Like Hikaru no Go, Chihayafuru spares no dramatic angle, sweaty close-up, nor speed line to make a board game feel like a sport. Fortunately, although karuta is niche even in Japan, the rules are simple enough—it's basically a Concentration-like matching game, and can even be played with a normal deck of cards—that they can be followed even by Westerners who don't have a hope in Hell of understanding the classical Japanese in which the waka are written (not that it's much easier for the teenage Japanese characters).

Chihayafuru has yet to be licensed in the U.S., but the first two volumes are available in English in a Kodansha Bilingual edition, the eternal salvation of non-Japanese-reading hardcore manga fans. In Japan, where it was a surprise hit, it's currently 23 volumes long and counting, sprawling over time into a rich drama. (And yes, eventually child prodigy Arata does return to the game—but what of his feelings for Chihaya?) The anime is already available on Crunchyroll. Some bold U.S. publisher needs to license this sucker and show Americans who think card gaming ends with Yu-Gi-Oh! how thrilling, how heartbreaking, and how beautiful a deck of cards can be.
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