Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Suetsugu Yuki: Chihayafuru (2007-present)

Another one that I'm the last in the neighborhood to read.  Mrs. Sgt. T got hooked on this, and before I could get around to reading it, our copies of it started making the rounds of our friends.  I finally got my greasy littles on it a couple of weeks ago.

The title is Chihayafuru ちはやふる, which pretty much defines the concept of untranslatable title.  It's a "pillow-word," one of those lexemes that Japanese poetry has been dragging along as a patrimony since time, literally, immemorial - long enough that scholars have been unable to agree on exactly what they originally meant.  Poets tend to use them more for impact and decoration than sense, although since pillow words tend to be associated (in the manner of the poetic epithets in other traditions) with particular words or classes of objects, they do have certain vague connotations.  "Chihayafuru" (also pronounced "chihayaburu") tends to get used with "god."  In some contexts I tend to translate it as "almighty," for obvious reasons, but that wouldn't work so well here, for a couple of reasons.  First, because its use here is meant to conjure up dim memories (the farther out of high school you are, the dimmer, chances are) of a very, very famous poem in which this is the first line;  and, second, because the main character's name is Chihaya.  Untranslatable.

It's a comic about karuta:  a card-matching game involving the poems of the famous 13th century anthology A Hundred Poets, One Poem Each (Hyakunin isshu).  "Famous" is an understatement:  Japanese kids are expected to memorize this in high school.  The game depends on having it memorized.  You kneel down front of a bunch of cards on which are written the second halves of the poems and somebody reads out the first lines.  You try to be the first person to grab the right second-half card.  And so on.  Most people play it a few times during Japanese classes in school, and maybe at New Year's.  But, as most people probably don't know until they encounter this manga, there's a competitive karuta scene.  That's where this story is set.

It's a little hard to classify. The art (flowers and lens flares everywhere) and the (after a brief prologue) high-school setting, complete with Young Love stories, mark it as a shōjo manga.  The venue where it appears, however, is Be Love, a mag ostensibly aimed at adult women.  And the way it depicts the competitive karuta play lifts extensively and knowingly from sports comics - not by any means exclusively a male genre, to be sure, but enough so that at one point one of the characters makes the meta remark that "some people say this is a boys' comic".

That's a lot of the fun of it.  The main character, Chihaya, is a figure of amusement precisely because here she is, model-pretty (it's a major plot point), with a hobby that most people would probably consider fairly feminine (classical poetry being rather flowery), but she approaches it with all the killer instinct and athleticism of yer typical jock.

And that's pretty much all there is to say about the comic.  It's enjoyable - I've stuck with it through 14 volumes (well, I'm waiting to get my hands on the 14th) so far.  Not particularly deep, but clever and well crafted.  Attractive secondary characters, introduced at almost a fast enough clip to keep the old ones from getting stale.  Well-drawn, dynamic game-play sequences, dragged out to impossible lengths (a single tournament can comprise a whole volume of the manga, and spill over into the next).  A background story arc (a love triangle between childhood karuta buddies) that provides occasional tears amidst the laughter (well, "tears" - I don't think the love triangle is working more than gesturally).



Matt said...

Using a pillow word for a manga about karuta is interesting, given that kompetitive karuta isn't (I am given to understand; no doubt you learned more about it reading this series!) really about memorizing poems at all -- it's more about internalizing the decision tree which determines which poem is being read out within syllables of the beginning.

So just as "Chihayafuru" is, to readers, an impenetrable symbol with implications but no actual meaning, the poems (including the one that begins "chihayafuru") are reduced by players too to symbolic stubs hooked up to reflex actions, with any original meaning entirely discarded.

Tanuki said...

Yeah, that's one thing I neglected to mention, even though it nearly obsessed me in the early volumes of this manga. As a vaguely literary kinda guy, my big disillusionment the one time I tried to learn karuta was how totally irrelevant to the game the literary content of the poems is. In competitive karuta, the world of the manga, that's even more true.

What neutralized that concern for me was the inclusion of a secondary character whose love for the game stems from her love for the poems as poems, and who occasionally even scolds the other players for ignoring the meaning. I imagine the author got some feedback from readers (or, more likely, high school kokugo teachers) on this issue...