Despite being about an obscure Japanese card game that most non-Japanese readers have never heard of, Chihayafuru is incredibly compelling.
While the most popular manga series are usually standard Shonen stories, one relatively obscure series named Chihayafuru proves that the medium can make any subject compelling, no matter how niche it is. There is nothing wrong with the traditional Shonen fare of series like One Piece or Naruto, but if those are the only mangas people are familiar with, then they may pigeonhole the medium as containing only standard action series. Chihayafuru however definitively proves this assumption wrong.
Of course, Chihayafuru isn’t the only manga series to set itself apart from more standard Shonen series. Among the current lineup of Weekly Shonen Jump, one of the biggest manga magazines in Japan, there are a variety of series that buck this trend. Most notable among these are PPPPPP, a manga about classical piano competitions, and Akane-banashi, an innovative manga focusing on the traditional performance art of Rakugo. And even among more typical action series, there are manga that manages to innovate, like the groundbreaking Chainsaw Man. But all of these series can’t compare to the obscurity of the activity that lies at the center of Chihayafuru.
Chihayafuru is a manga by Yuki Suetsugu following a high school girl named Chihaya who dreams of becoming the top Karuta player in Japan. Karuta is a Japanese card game based around a collection of 100 classical poems. Players arrange 25 cards featuring the latter lines of these poems in front of themselves and then must attempt to grab the correct cards when a reader reads the corresponding first part of the poem. The game continues until one of the two players manages to clear away all of the cards in front of them. While other manga have more confusing battle systems, Karuta’s rules are still very confusing, especially to non-Japanese readers who are very unlikely to have encountered the game before. And yet the manga manages to make these games extremely compelling.
Part of this is accomplished through the manga’s breathtaking art. Suetsugu makes every grasp towards a card dynamic, and the paneling of the series does a great job at building tension over which player will take a card. The other part of what makes this series so compelling is its characters. Unlike regular sports which often require their players to be young and athletic, Karuta is a game that can be played by anyone, which means that characters have a wide variety of backgrounds and motivations. While other manga like Boruto are attempting to diversify their casts, Chihayafuru still has them easily beat. Whether this be an antisocial girl who views the poems as her only friends or an old doctor who wants to prove that anyone at any age can become a Karuta master, they are all united by their passion for a game that most of society views as a waste of time.
In following these characters who have devoted so much of themselves to Karuta, Chihayafuru causes its readers to become invested in the game as well. This can make Karuta matches some of the most intense conflicts in manga, easily surpassing more standard Shonen fights in terms of suspense. In making such an obscure card game so compelling, Chihayafuru proves that manga can make any topic compelling as long as it is executed well.
Chihayafuru is available to read from Kodansha.