Chihayafuru, Vol. 4

By Yuki Suetsugu. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Be Love. Released in North America digitally by Kodansha Comics. Translated by Ko Ransom.

The sign of a good series is that you care about the characters as if they were real people, and take joy in their triumphs and grieve at their setbacks. This can sometimes backfire, however, when you see the setbacks coming and think to yourself “Oh noooooo!”. The moment I saw Chihaya’s head throb, I knew immediately what was going to happen by the end of the volume, and it hurt. This is why this review is running somewhat late, because I really did not want to read what I knew was going to happen. It comes after a half volume of small triumphs and achievements, as they quality for the National Tournament, win over their faculty adviser, and slowly come together as a team, each character getting a little bit more to do and more for us to identify with. Then I saw that throbbing head. And I said “…she’s sick.” And yep. SO FRUSTRATING.

Arata gets the cover this time around, and fortunately also gets a chunk of the narrative, as we get to see the strong relationship he had with his grandfather from his POV, helping to explain why he was so devastated he abandoned Karuta. It’s portrayed very realistically: his grandfather is a vibrant, active guy who loves Karuta, but then he has a stroke, which brings memory loss and rehabilitation. And of course, this being a manga and thus obliged to observe the occasional cliche, he goes to the tournament and leaves his grandfather alone for a few hours. We all know how that’s going to turn out. It really helps bring Arata into focus and remind us that he is eventually going to be a major player in this series again, and I imagine seeing Chihaya and company here will act as a catalyst.

As for Chihaya, she does her best, and tries hard to hide her illness form everyone, but in the end they have to forfeit after she collapses. Naturally, after waking back up, she’s completely devastated, and I suspect Vol. 5 is going to have a lot of depression and self-hatred. We’ve been seeing a lot of sports titles over here lately, and usually when there’s something like this it’s a physical injury, such as a sprained ankle or somesuch. Of course, they usually deal with physical sports such as basketball or volleyball. When you have something like Karuta, which is a lot more physical than I expected but still played seated and relying primarily on memorization and strategy, a fever or nasty cold can be just as bad as that sprained ankle. It’s to the credit of the team that they kept playing after she had to forfeit, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll pick up after the tournament and deal with the fallout.

Chihayafuru remains one of the best digital titles Kodansha is releasing at the moment, and I hope my review of Vol. 5 (already out) will come sooner rather than later.

Chihayafuru, Vol. 3

By Yuki Suetsugu. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Be Love. Released in North America digitally by Kodansha Comics. Translated by Ko Ransom.

There’s a lot going on in this volume of Chihayafuru, which is starting to find its feet. We gain a new member of the karuta club, which has now hit the required five. Tsutomu, aka “Desk-kun”, is an introverted, small, nerdy guy who seems to be devoted to studies and has few friends. But once Chihaya sets her sights on him (which involves, at one point, kidnapping him), and he realizes that one of the otehr players on the team is in fact the #1 stude3nt in the school, he wonders if karuta can help his focus in other areas as well. I like Tsutomu. He brings a rookie lack of confidence that this sort of series always needs, and his crisis of faith towards the end of the book is both dramatic and understandable. What’s more, his suggestion of playing karuta with the poem-side down leads to a match of pure memorization between Taichi and Chihaya, and gives him his first big triumph.

Chihaya’s learning a lot in this volume, mostly as they now have a full team of five, which means that they have to learn how to play Karuta as a team – not that they play together, but such things as setting the right order for the matches and having trust that your other teammates are going to be fine. She’s also thrown off by one of her first opponents, who even gets her precious Chihaya card, which makes you feel like she’s going to break. (Her inner monologue has everything sounding far away to her, thus ruining her hearing advantage. I like this detail, as it makes it sound like she’s about to pass out – I’ve had that feeling myself.) Oddly, the true heart and leader of the team ends up being Taichi, who always knows the right think to say to Chihaya to snap her out of whatever funk she’s in. I suspect this is meant to be a love triangle with Arata, but given Arata’s ongoing absence it’s easier to fall on the Taichi side.

This volume is almost all karuta, but not entirely – there’s a “training session” at Taichi’s house that is just an excuse to give Chihaya a surprise birthday party. Sadly, it’s ruined when his incredibly strict mother comes home early, and the girls have to take off, but they at least get to meet up later (and we get an Arata text message cameo.) Chihaya continues to be the main reason to read the manga – Taichi may be the heart of the team, but she’s the heart of this series, and her incredible emotional ups and downs make for thrilling reading. Karuta isn’t just ‘let’s have fun and make friends’ anymore – by the end of the volume, the entire team is thinking ‘I want to win’ like it’s a mantra. Playing in a competitive sport means pushing your limits, and not slacking off. There’s a cliffhanger here, and Vol. 4 isn’t on Kodansha’s schedule yet, but I hope it comes soon. Unmissable.

Chihayafuru, Vol. 2

By Yuki Suetsugu. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Be Love. Released in North America digitally by Kodansha Comics. Translated by Ko Ransom.

I’d said in the last review that Chihayafuru is, in many ways, a sports manga. But this is not your average baseball or soccer title. Karuta is not really thought of as something that kids do these days, particularly once they enter high school, and especially if they’re good at other sports, which Chihaya is – everyone points out she should be on the track team. But Chihaya has a dream, and is very, very driven towards getting that dream, even if it means playing over and over without her two friends – we’re in high school now, and both have been away for years. Luckily, Taichi has returned, bringing his unspoken crush, his reluctance to get back into an “uncool” sport, and his ability to see flaws that Chihaya can’t see herself. Arata is another matter – not only does he still live far away, but he tells them in no uncertain terms that he isn’t playing karuta anymore.

The reason Arata abandoned karuta is not the most original one in the world – in fact it’s the most cliched part of the book – but it works anyway, especially as it helps to show off why Chihaya’s impulsiveness is not always a good thing. That said, it looks like it may work out in the end, which is good. Karuta is very much something that Chihaya associates with ‘having fun with friends’, and the group activity is the most exciting part about it. In fact, Chihaya’s enthusiasm is actually masking several issues – Taichi notes that her memorization at the start is still quite bad, and a new character who ends up joining the club, Ooe Kanada, who reminds her that the poems aren’t just there because they sound pretty – there’s meaning and depth behind each one. This is AMAZING to Chihaya, who is nice and sweet but her single minded determination means she can miss the obvious.

As for the Karuta itself, it’s actually still pretty exciting. I was not entirely certain whether Chihaya would win the match halfway through the book – in a series like this, the occasional loss is going to be inevitable, even if you promise that you’re going to win. I’m still somewhat amused at various antics going on during karuta that I would argue are fouls, but then I’m not a karuta player. It’s also a very old-fashioned game – it’s pretty obvious why the club is somewhat mocked, though honestly you get the sense it’s due to Chihaya’s overenthusiasm more than anything else. It’s also very clear why Kana thinks that they should be performing it in kimonos – a lot of karuta runs on aesthetic, and if you look the part it may help in other areas as well. As for any romance in the story, well, Taichi still has a crush on Chihaya, but that’s about it – she’s totally oblivious.

Chihayafuru may not be the most obvious josei series out there, but if you read it it will win you over on pure energy, just like its heroine.