[From October Issue 2014]
“Chihayafuru” is the story of a high school girl who becomes passionate about “competitive karuta.” This competition utilizes traditional Hyakunin Isshu playing cards. Selected in the Kamakura era by the court aristocrat FUJIWARA no Teika, a set of Hyakunin Isshu playing cards is a collection of the 100 best waka (Japanese poems) written between the Asuka era (sixth to eighth centuries) and the Kamakura era (twelfth to fourteenth centuries). The set is called Hyakunin (one hundred people) Isshu (one poem) because one poem was chosen from each poet.
There are two kinds of karuta sets: yomifuda (reading cards) and torifuda (playing cards). Torifuda only have the shimonoku (the second half of the poem) written on them. In competitive karuta, players compete for torifuda. If they can touch a playing card in their opponent’s territory, they can pass a playing card in from their territory to the opponent’s territory. Players compete to eliminate the playing cards in their home territory as fast as possible. It’s a taxing “sport” that requires quick thinking and reactions, since players need to immediately touch the torifuda when the first half of the poem – which is not written on the torifuda – is read out. It is generally played one-on-one but there are also individual and team competitions.
The story begins when Chihaya, the main character, is in sixth grade. She is proud of her beautiful older sister, for whom she has hopes of one day winning a Japanese beauty pageant. However, Arata, a new student at her school, tells her that this is not a true ambition as she isn’t aspiring for something herself. Arata’s own ambition is to become a top “meijin” (master) of competitive karuta.
In fact, having won the title of meijin seven times in a row, Arata’s grandfather was an “eisei meijin” (grand master in perpetuity).” Arata has also demonstrated that he’s an able player by winning the national championships each year for his age group from first grade to fifth grade. Inspired by Arata, Chihaya begins to nurse ambitions of becoming queen (top) in the women’s division. She gets her bosom buddy Taichi involved and the three begin to improve on entering the local competitive karuta club. However, after they graduate from elementary school the threesome is broken up when Arata returns to Fukui Prefecture and Taichi enters a private junior high school.
The story jumps forward four years. Chihaya and Taichi are reunited on entering the same high school. Though the two of them have distanced themselves from karuta during their junior high school years, they start up a karuta club at their high school. Chihaya’s interest in the meaning of these Japanese poems grows. In addition, by strategizing together as a unit, she begins to reflect on what it means to take a card as a team.
Meanwhile, Chihaya tries to persuade Arata, who had given up competitive karuta, to come back to the karuta world. Because Taichi has taken care of Chihaya since their elementary school days and because Arata becomes aware that Chihaya is a worthy rival, the relationship between the three develops a passionate side.
Since Hyakunin Isshu is often dealt with in classrooms, most Japanese are familiar with it, but competitive karuta was not so well known. Thanks to this comic, the popularity of competitive karuta has dramatically increased and the numbers of competitors has also increased.
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo