[Feature] A Dream of One’s Own: Finding a home outside femininity in Chihayafuru

Chihayafuru is one of my all-time favorite anime series, so you can imagine my surprise and delight when Kodansha announced they’d licensed the manga for an English-language digital release. While devouring the first volume, I once again fell in love with this endearing, intense, emotional rollercoaster of a sports series about three friends in the world of competitive karuta—and was also struck for the first time by how insightfully Chihaya’s childhood arc depicts the plight of the “tomboy.”

Sometimes wrenching but ultimately inspiring, Chihayafuru’s first volume quietly challenges traditional gender norms and offers the hope of a supportive community to anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t quite fit society’s gendered expectations of who they’re “supposed” to be.

SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of Chihayafuru volume 1

Grade school aged Chihaya walks to school with her friends. Friend 1: "Good morning, Chihaya-chan!" Friend 2: "I saw the newspaper, Chi-chan! Your sister's amazing!" Chihaya: "Yeah, she really is!" Chihaya's voiceover: "I'm always proud of how beautiful she is. Back then, it was my dream for her to become number one in Japan."

While the bulk of Chihayafuru takes place during the characters’ high school years, the story begins when protagonist Chihaya is in the sixth grade. Athletic, straightforward, and honest to a fault, Chihaya is an energetic, mostly happy kid, but she’s utterly lacking in any personal goals. Her only dream is to see her sister Chitose, an aspiring model, succeed at achieving her dream.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Chihaya doesn’t have a dream of her own largely because nobody’s ever acknowledged her talents the way they do for the people around her. Her sister Chitose is praised for her beauty; her friend Taichi is praised for his intelligence and athletic ability. Chihaya is just as athletic as Taichi (something he himself admits), gifted with speed and sharp hearing, but no one ever encourages her to develop those skills. Instead, they tease for her acting “like a boy” and bemoan her poor grades.

Grade school Chihaya sighs, "I really wish it was easier for people to notice the things I'm good at. I'm kinda jealous of you, Taichi."

While it’s never stated outright, these early chapters of Chihayafuru make a sharp statement about gendered expectations, and how those expectations can hurt people who don’t conform to those narrow roles. Chitose’s talents align with cultural feminine ideals (physical beauty, charm, and grace), but Chihaya’s don’t. As a result, her family is completely focused on Chitose and pays almost no attention to Chihaya. It’s no wonder Chihaya thinks her only goal should be to support her sister.

All this changes, though, when Chihaya befriends transfer student Arata (after defending him from classroom bullying) and he, in turn, introduces her to his passion: the competitive card game, karuta. Chihaya quickly falls in love with the sport and Arata encourages her to keep playing because, as he says, she has a “real knack” for it. It’s the first time we’ve seen anyone praise Chihaya for her talents, and the moment is a minor revelation for her.

Chihaya kneels in front of Arata, looking in delight at the card she has managed to take from him in their karuta match. Arata: "Your dreams have gotta be about'cherself." Chihaya: "I got my first card. Playing karuta feels great!"

Sadly, her family doesn’t see it that way. After Chihaya beats Taichi in the school’s karuta tournament (“the first time I’ve ever won something,” she says), she runs home to show her “competitive spirit” certificate to her family… and her parents are too distracted by her sister’s new talent scout to even listen to her story.

Worse still, her sister sees it and laughs at it. “Why would you bother showing me this?” she asks. Even when Chihaya has found something she loves, and even when she’s discovered that she’s good at it, she’s still ignored and mocked for not having “normal” skills and interests. In a heartbreaking moment, a teary-eyed Chihaya crumples the certificate into a ball and tosses it to the floor.

Chihaya's sister Chitose smirks at Chihaya's certificate. Chitose: "Karuta tournament? Pfft, well that's boring. Or more like lame. Why would you bother showing me this?"

The good news for Chihaya (and for any kid who doesn’t fit rigid social expectations) is that even though not everyone understands or supports her, there are still some people who do. The karuta world is not large, but it is welcoming. Along with her two best friends, Arata (who encouraged her from the start) and Taichi (who’s always been willing to acknowledge her talents, albeit grudgingly at times), Chihaya discovers the local Shiranami Karuta Society, an all-ages, all-genders group connected by their love of competitive karuta.

The beauty of karuta is that, while it is a sport that requires physical strength, speed, and conditioning, the style is such that men and women (and all other genders, of course, although Chihayafuru doesn’t have any canon trans or NB characters) can compete against each other on an even playing field. Barring the Meijin/Queen title matches, every tournament is mixed-gender, and the series later features a variety of rivalries, including many between boys and girls.

Harada-sensei embraces Chihaya, Arata and Taichi, weeping. Harada: "You're all welcome to join! No matter what anyone else says, you're welcome here!"

For someone like Chihaya, a girl who doesn’t fit traditionally feminine ideals, this gender-neutral world is a dream come true. (You could also argue that karuta’s overall inclusiveness is why it appeals to Arata, who’s bullied for his accent and economic status, as well as Taichi, whose mother pressures him to “win” at everything; but for the sake of brevity I’m just focusing on Chihaya here.) Her fellow karuta players don’t care that she’s not demure or graceful or “cute.” They don’t see a girl who’s “like a boy.” They see quick reflexes, sharp hearing, and stubborn persistence. They see a karuta player.

This support network is vital to Chihaya, and thanks to the encouragement of both her friends and coach, Chihaya finds the courage to admit that karuta is something she wants to do for herself. She wants to join the karuta society, play in tournaments, grow stronger, and one day win the Queen title. She has her own dream now, and she intends to pursue it–even if that means missing out on some of her sister’s modeling events along the way.

Chihaya turns down the opportunity to help Chitose with something relating to her modelling. Chihaya: "Sorry. There's something... I want to do."

Importantly, Chihaya still passionately supports her sister’s career, and while the series does tend to paint Chitose as self-centered and shallow, it generally applauds her tenacity and doesn’t snub its nose at modeling itself. Too much fiction tries to lift up women who aren’t traditionally feminine by disparaging those who are (a.k.a. The “Not Like Other Girls” Mentality), which continues to limit people in how they “should” behave. It’s a different set of narrow little boxes, but they’re boxes all the same.

Chihayafuru doesn’t fall into this trap. Instead, it shows that both sisters can follow their own paths, and that each are equally as valid. Chihaya understands that. Hopefully her sister will someday, too.

Chihaya looks up at Arata and Taichi, holding her hands up in teddy bear mittens as they look down at her in surprise. Chihaya: "Let's play karuta together forever, okay?"

In just one short volume, the Chihayafuru manga impressively and emotionally conveys Chihaya’s growth from a neglected “tomboy” convinced all she can do is support her “feminine” sister to someone who’s found her own passion, dream, and a supportive community to help her achieve it. The series acknowledges that Chihaya’s path isn’t always smooth, and not everyone understands her interests and goals–in fact most people, including her own family, don’t. And that bothers her, but it also doesn’t stop her. She has people who do understand and appreciate her. More importantly, she’s begun to understand and appreciate herself.

Chihaya has plenty of speed bumps to overcome and growing to do, but she’s no longer limited by rigid ideas about the kinds of dreams she “should” have or how she’s “supposed” to act. With luck, her story will also encourage readers to recognize their own talents, pursue their own goals, and find communities who will support them in their efforts, regardless of how neatly it fits into gender-based expectations.



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  • Blusocket

    I’m so pleased to see discussion of Chihayafuru on AniFem! I absolutely adore the anime, and recently bought the first volume of the manga (although I still need to…finish reading it…) it has such a wealth of well-developed female characters with unique personalities, diverse goals/motives, and great relationships with one another–including relationships that involve conflict, misunderstanding, jealousy and uncertainty as well as ones that involve admiration, compassion and respect. It’s really, really awesome. Chihaya specifically is such a fantastic character, too; when I first saw the anime I immediately fell in love with her athleticism, ambition, and disregard for typical gender roles.

    That said, there’s a quote from Jack Halberstam’s book on female masculinity that really strongly reminds me of Chihayafuru and that I think sheds a more critical light on its narrative direction. The full quote can be found here: http://citizenpublius.tumblr.com/post/154970915280/tomboyism-usually-describes-an-extended-childhood with the most relevant bit being “[E]ven a cursory survey of popular cinema confirms, the image of the tomboy can be tolerated only within a narrative of blossoming womanhood[.]” I think Chihayafuru mostly avoids presenting its heroine’s gender non-conformity as a passing, immature phase as it’s so closely tied to karuta, which (spoilers) Chihaya wants to make her career (!!!!), but it is undeniably a story of blossoming womanhood. Heterosexual romance is a key part of Chihaya’s arc, and is closely tied to her becoming aware of herself as a woman.

    From what I remember of the first and second seasons of the anime, it seems like Chihaya’s arc is about awareness–both of her own desires and of how others desire her (her desire to be Queen, her feelings for Arata, how she represents her team, Taichi’s feelings for her…) and that arc is well-written, so this isn’t all good or all bad–it’s still so so cool to see a female character be ambitious, competitive, and an active agent in her own story without ever being punished for it–I just do think it’s interesting and significant that it occurs in a story that’s in large part about a beautiful girl becoming a beautiful woman and learning to understand and accept heterosexual desire.

    • Verso Sciolto

      Chapter 184 came out in Be Love 14 today in Japan. There are a lot of chapters between the first volume of the analysis above and the moment when he is first introduced. There is therefore no urgency in this query but with the release of this chapter to date latest chapter in which he features, I can’t help but wonder again what role in the story, what potential influence on Chihaya, Suetsugu-sensei has in mind for Mima Keiichirō 美馬 慧一郎

      • Verso Sciolto

        In their English Digital Edition, Kodansha Comics’ third volume was released in June but no release date for volume four has been announced as yet. Meaning the series currently lingers at the end of the same 17th chapter where the bilingual edition stopped…. … on a cliffhanger, with five first year Mizusawa High School karuta club members aligned as a team of two girls and three boys opposite the all boy Hokuou Gakuen team, Ready and determined for the final moments of their the regional finals in the Tokyo’s preliminaries for the national karuta championships.

        The series is well beyond that point in Japanese. Scans from Be Love magazine were uploaded to their Twitter feed this morning, after the release of Be Love 16. Two pages from the start of chapter and verse 185, setting up for the ongoing karuta matches in a different tournament and expanding on the different, personal, approaches to karuta strategy. Twitter link:

  • Verso Sciolto

    Thank you for writing and hosting this wonderful piece about Chihayafuru. For writing about this series and character from a perspective which contains so much of what made me fall in love with Chihaya, Chihayafuru too.

    From the very first pages onward, in the flash forward culminating in Chihaya’s determined swing on her namesake poem, before we’re taken back to elementary school. Getting ahead of ourselves. Getting besides ourselves. Karuta and so cool. We know that’s where we’re headed. Back to the female division national championship matches. I hope the Chihaya we saw in those very first panels is still recognisably the same person to whom we were subsequently introduced in flash back and with whom we’re growing up all over again in these new English translations. I wish Kodansha Comics granted global access to their digital editions.

    Will you be doing a volume by volume write up, based on following their release schedule? Volume four up next if things are going according to plan. I love these earliest chapters yet felt this ridiculous urge to rush ahead and pour the entire series -so far- into one single comment as soon as I saw your headline and read the article. Still have the urge to go over the same ground Blusocked covered too, concerns for Chihaya’s future articulated so well.

    What is the role of Ogura Hyakunin Isshu in Chihaya’s life as compared to the role the poetry collection traditionally held in women’s education in Japan? In Volume one, at this stage of the story as covered by Dee’s review, we haven’t met her yet but … what is the role of Kanade Ōe in Chihaya’s life and extra-curricular education? Kanade, the heir apparent of the family run Japanese clothing store. Representative of Japanese tradition and etiquette. In universe interpreter of Heian era poetry. Kana-chan whose very nickname is a syllabary and among whose favourite historical figures is Ki no Tsurayuki. How is she raising Chihaya?

    I don’t want her to remain an elementary school kid but there are still so many questions about the intentions Suetsugu-sensei has for her, for which the hints are contained within these early pages. How to decipher them? To whom does that other hand belong when the cards for Chihayaburu and Aki kaze ni go flying? Is she foreshadowed in the open box of cards in Arata’s apartment in Tokyo? Is his mom a stereotypical mom for thinking and saying “girlfriend” when the unexpected friend in her new home turns out to be a girl in her boy’s clothing? Is Chihaya on the right track for self-critically recalling a moment with her sister when she enters Arata’s apartment? Another kick in the gut? Why is Chitose just a magazine cover in the live action films and who decided to omit those very first pages for adaptation into the opening moments which became season one, episode one of the animated series? I miss them despite trying very hard to see each version of the Chihayafuru universe as a separate entity.