Chihayafuru Part 3 (Chihayafuru: Musubi)

Japan (2018) Dir. Norihiro Koizumi

It’s time for the saga of high school girl Chihaya Ayase and her passion for the traditional Japanese card game Karuta to come to an end with this final chapter in the live action movie trilogy, based on the ongoing manga by Yuki Suetsugu. The first two Chihayafuru films were shot back to back in 2016 whilst this instalment was made two years later to accurately capture the time leap in the story.

The film opens with a brief transition from the closing moments of the second movie before jumping forward two years with Chihaya (Suzu Hirose) now a third year senior, along with best friend Taichi Mashima (Shūhei Nomura). Their junior teammates are still present – Yusei “Meat Bun” Nishida (Yūma Yamoto), Tsutomu “Desk” Komano (Yūki Morinaga) and Kanade Ōe (Mone Kamishiraishi), but with the two seniors about to move on, the club will need more members to survive.

When canvassing for new members, many only attend for fancying Chihaya and Taichi, including Sumire Hanano (Mio Yuki), a recently dumped vain girl, whilst arrogant Akihiro Tsukuba (Hayato Sano) proves a potentially worthy addition to the club with the national finals coming up. But he might be needed much sooner than that as Taichi is forced to quit the club after his parents pressure him to study for his college entry exams.

Liberties are always taken whenever a film adapts a written or drawn original work and whilst this is true of the Chihayafuru trilogy thus far, director Norihiro Koizumi has gone way beyond this here. Fans of the anime adaptation will recognise elements of the second season in the early going (the addition of Sumire and Tsubuka) but the rest will be unrecognisable.

Koizumi might have pulled material from later manga chapters but the conclusive ending suggests it is his own handy work – and he’s done a surprisingly terrific job too. Perhaps saying “surprisingly” isn’t so flattering but with so many adaptations of anime that have ruined them with their own lame endings, Koizumi bucking this ignominious trend is very welcome.

Chihayafuru Part 3 achieves a number of things beyond bringing the trilogy to a close, one of the most important being the development of the characters and making us invested in their journey. We were already behind them following the previous films but here, the stakes are much higher, ramping up our emotional attachment as they face challenges old and new en route to possible greener pastures in life.

However, this applies more to established leads Chihaya, Taichi, and their old friend Arata Wataya (Mackenyu), now fronting his own school Karuta club which we can safely assume will end up facing Team Chihaya down the line. But it will be a real test as one of Arata’s players is the reigning Junior Queen Iori Wagatsuma (Kaya Kiyohara); she wants Arata to date her except he has someone else in mind. Guess who that is?

Taking Taichi out of the Karuta club for the majority of the film is a bold move, one that doesn’t occur in the anime, though it allows the climax to take on a different twist this way. The gist of Taichi’s arc is his parents insisting he goes to a top university and Karuta is preventing him from studying. In the anime, Arata was the victim of this parental pressure not Taichi.

Whilst this means letting Chihaya and the team down, Taichi finds a club where reigning master Hisashi Suo (Kento Kaku) plays. Almost inert and far too nonchalant, Suo is also a college lecturer with odd ideas about passion for Karuta, but something about Taichi encourages Suo to take him on as his assistant. Suo originally appeared at the end of the first anime season but his role and character have been redefined here.

But it all comes down to the game of Karuta itself as much as it is about the lives of the teen protagonists. Even with a 128-minute run time, certain aspects are trimmed down to fit in, like Sumire’s change of heart and the reduced presence of current queen and Chihaya’s top rival, Shinobu Wakamiya (Mayu Matsuoka), on hand mostly for light relief for some reason, when she was critical to the plot as Chihaya’s final opponent.

Karuta is quite an energetic game, relying on speed and timing as well as tactics and the ability to predict the call of the cards, and once again, Koizumi is able to make each game a tense and thrilling encounter akin to a martial arts fight or high-speed car race. Through slow motion movements and tight camera angles, the drama is deftly conveyed via every precise stroke of the player’s arm and the struck card being propelled across the room, with either jubilation or despair on the faces in the background.

For added gravitas regarding the traditional nature of the game and the 100 poems that form the text for each card, Koizumi adds some lush animation to bring them alive with watercolour illustrations of historical figures acting out the stories told. This presentation returns for the end credits by way of showing what comes next for the cast before a mid-credit skit all but confirms one person got their ultimate wish.

As much as kudos Koizumi has earned for making this film work, the cast also deserve huge credit, boasting a number of future sure-fire stars in its ranks. Suzu Hirose has all the potential to be a top rank leading lady, having grown over the course of this trilogy, as does Mayu Matsuoka, who, like Hirose, has already worked with Hirokazu Koreeda who knows talent when he sees it.

It’s rare that diverting from the source material should actually pay dividends for a film adaptation but remarkably, that is the case with Chihayafuru Part 3, and indeed to the trilogy as a whole. Unquestionably, one of the better live-action takes on an anime, and a great primer for the third season coming later this year!