Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Suetsugu Yuki: Chihayafuru (2007-present)
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).