Chihayafuru Part I
Japan (2016) Dir. Norihiro Koizumi
One of the things about Japan that appeals to us westerners is their exotic culture and rich traditions even if they are usually beyond our ken. A prime example of this is would be the card game Karuta, an arcane competition in which people fling cards across a room to our untrained eyes but a test of speed, hand eye coordination, physical dexterity, memory and pre-emptive cognisance for the players.
Already a successful manga and anime series, the tale of one girl’s quest to be the best competitive Karuta player is given the live action film treatment. The girl in question is Chihaya Ayase (Suzu Hirose), obsessed with the game since being introduced to it by her best friends Taichi Mashima (Shūhei Nomura) and Arata Wataya (Mackenyu) as a youngster. Arata moved away whilst Chihaya and Taichi now attend the same high school where Chihaya vows to form a Karuta club and make it to the nationals.
Getting started isn’t easy but eventually the requisite minimum member tally of five is achieved with the recruitment of former Karuta opponent Yūsei Nishida (Yūma Yamoto) aka Meat Bun, uptight bookworm Tsutomu Komano (Yūki Morinaga) aka Desk, and poem fanatic Kanade Ōe (Mone Kamishiraishi). As the last two are complete rookies, some intense training is required before the real games begin.
From the offset, director Norihiro Koizumi has the unenviable task of not only doing justice to the ongoing manga from Yuki Suetsugu but also condensing the two 26 episode anime series into two films. This first instalment covers half the story from the first TV series, taking many liberties with the chronology of events quite clearly in the name of expedience.
This results in a fresh narrative that will feel jarring to fans of the anime and manga but for the purpose of this film, Koizumi has managed to piece it together in a coherent fashion. However, the script often refers to things that are congruent to the plot but haven’t taken place in this version. Similarly, many of the supporting characters, such as one fearsome opposition team are not built up despite referencing their shared pasts.
Also limited by the time restrictions are the actual Karuta games themselves, which are largely rushed through en route to the all-important final showdown. The rules are explained in sufficient detail to give even the uninitiated a basic grasp of them yet it remains an enigmatic and esoteric contest.
My possibly insufficient reductive version is that the final line from the famous One Hundred Poems are written out on cards which are spread out on the mat before two players; a poem is read out and when the corresponding line arrives the card must be swiped to claim it. It plays out better than it reads and can turn into quite an intense affair and as both this and the anime show, highly dramatic as they come down to the final card.
At the risk of turning this review into a comparison between this film and the anime, it is necessary to explain how much of the original story is missing for anyone already coming into this and are already familiar with it. For a start, the history of the relationship between Chihaya, Taichi and Arata is limited to a only few scenes to explain their closeness and the importance of the game for Chihaya.
Chihaya’s home life and her living in the shadow of her older model sister is absent while Taichi’s own issues and those of Arata are briefly discussed in transitional conversations. And with time being against him, Koizumi relies a lot on montages to show the progress – or lack thereof – of the team, something the anime was obviously allowed to feature in detail.
Koizumi is aware of how bubbly a character Chihaya is but overdoes it, making her an overly contrived comedy figure. However, this is tempered as the film progresses and Chihaya becomes a lot more likeable as a result but Suzu Hirose (of Our little Sister fame) throws herself into the role with gusto. Shūhei Nomura is initially a little flat as Taichi, the sensible one, but comes alive during the actual card games.
The other characters, aside from Taichi and Arata, are not afforded backstories, leaving their personalities to be delineated through the performances but again appear as lazy tropes, with Desk being rigid and superior and Meat Bun (who was “Porky” in the anime) too excitable. But there is a lot of ground to cover and the title is clear as to whom the main spotlight is on.
Production values are quite high for what might feel like an innocuous project and the images are crisp and clean, a panorama shot of Mount Fuji being a highlight. Aside from a few comedic cutaways and one crucial dramatic scene involving a flying card, CGI use is limited in the actual Karuta games themselves.
Everyone clearly underwent intensive Karuta training of their own in preparation for the actual games, as the speed and accuracy in swiping the cards to the level required to make their characters so formidable is impressive. In one scene, the entire opposition team swipe in unison which is a remarkable sight and no doubt the result of many tireless hours of practice to achieve such perfect synergy.
Although not mutually exclusive Koizumi noticeably splits the film between the comedy and the drama elements, or at least the second half is far more drama-centric, but the intensity of the Karuta games barely allows room for levity. Otherwise, Koizumi did as good as job as he could with this adaptation in lieu of the aforementioned parameters.
Chihayafuru fans should recognise that the essence of the anime is present here which is enough to make this a worthwhile watch, although it befalls the second film to wrap this in a satisfactory manner. The fact I am intrigued after the preview during the end credits is a good sign.