Competitive card games form the backbone of this slow-burning but satisfying story of friendship and ambition. Sixth-grader Chihaya’s big dream is for her sister to become the number one beauty in Japan. Then she meets Arata, the dirt poor transfer student from Fukui that all the other kids in class bully. Arata introduces her to the world of competitive karuta, an old-fashioned card game involving matching poetry cards and swiping them away before your opponent can make the match. Chihaya throws herself into the game with passion, dedicating herself to memorizing the poetry on each card.
Chihaya’s newfound dedication comes in handy when Arata is targeted by the class leader, a boy named Taichi. Chihaya and Arata challenge Taichi to a karuta duel to make him stop the bullying, and after they beat him, the three of them become friends. Unfortunately, Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi are separated by circumstance and it is years before they are reunited. Successive volumes skip ahead to high school as Chihaya continues playing competitive karuta in the hopes that she’ll be reunited with her former friends.
The fun of books like Chihayafuru is not the competition, but the characters’ personal growth and constant striving. Chihaya works toward her dream, slowly, despite how nerdy everyone thinks karuta is. This is a uniquely Japanese game that most English-language readers have probably never heard of: the translators leave the poems on the cards in Japanese, offering a translation in the margins of the word balloons that brings readers a step closer to experiencing karuta in its original form.
Yuki Suetsugu’s art is nice, but not a standout. The character design falls apart when Suestugu draws adults, but the main cast is nicely drawn and it’s fun to see them age from 12 to high school. There’s a nice flow to the panels throughout, and Suestugu especially works to make the karuta matches exciting, changing camera angles and making the game seem fast; if the games are a bit hard to follow, it’s only because the rules are doled out a little at a time as the characters learn to play. But it all makes sense eventually, even if it takes a few chapters to do so. Give Chihayafuru some time—it’ll grow on you. Recommended.
story and art: Yuki Suestugu