SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of Chihayafuru volume 1.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.