Chihayafuru: Kami no Ku (Part 1)
Director: Norihiro Koizumi
Original screenplay: Yuki Suetsugu (manga), Norihiro Koizumi (screenplay)
Cast: Suzu Hirose, Shuhei Nomura, Mackenyu, Mone Kamishiraishi
North American premiere: June 10, 2017 (Canada)
(It entices the flowers—)
(the storm—but through the garden’s white)
(it is not snow)
(and what it is that’s scattering)
(are, in fact, the years of my life!)
– Poem 96, translated by Joshua S. Moscow
When you think of poetry competitions, it’s easy to conjure up images of school contests and literary magazines. Poetry isn’t something that we tend to associate with cutthroat tournaments and physical training, but in Japan, the game of karuta challenges its players to not only know 100 poems by heart, but to be strong and quick enough to physically snap poems away from their opponent’s reach. It’s the game at the heart of Chihayafuru, the hit manga series by Yuki Suetsugu adapted into two films that premiered last year in Japan, an unlikely co-star alongside current It Actors Suzu Hirose and Shuhei Nomura.
I wasn’t familiar with karuta before my best friend–a Chihayafuru fan–started gushing about the manga. While watching the film, I quickly realized that what little I knew wasn’t going to be enough to get me through, and I had to stop watching several times to look up the rules of the game. In uta-karuta, players memorize 100 poems (the Hyakunin Isshu). These poems are divided into two decks, yomifuda and torifuda, and players must listen to the yomifuda card that is read, and find its corresponding torifuda card before their opponent. Sounds complicated?
The film doesn’t do an amazing job of introducing the new viewer to this intense game, dropping us instead into a surprise encounter between main characters Chihaya Ayase and Taichi Mashima. Chihaya and Taichi were friends once, and karuta teammates, but a secret divides them, makes Taichi a little more awkward with Chihaya than he’d ever been. We get glimpses into their shared past throughout the first half of the film, along with quick scenes featuring a mysterious boy with glasses (Mackenyu). He’s Arata Wataya, the catalyst for Chihaya and Taichi’s love of karuta through his grandfather, who taught all three of them how to play.
Despite Suzu Hirose’s flighty energy as Chihaya, the first half of the movie is almost unbearably slow. Chihaya manages to convince Taichi to help her form a new karuta team at their high school, but their classmates are less than enthused. They eventually pull together a lackluster team of misfits (Mone Kamishiraishi, Yuma Yamoto, and a tightly wound Yuki Morinaga) for their first competition, and the training begins.
Karuta is a beautiful game in director Norihiro Koizumi’s hands: the cards are lovingly filmed, lingering on each kanji almost long enough to trace each line. Several poems are read out loud, matched to parallel threads in the plot. When Chihaya strikes out a hand to sweep cards away, Koizumi’s camera follows, capturing the intensity of the game without making it look unreal or cheesy. Between Hirose and Nomura’s expressive faces, and Koizumi’s detailed shots, the tension escalates through silly training montages and games alike.
There are two more parts to Chihayafuru, the third coming in 2018, but the first film wraps up cleanly. We are here to watch a proper karuta tournament, and we get exactly that, with all of the power and hope that the film seems to infuse into its audience over two hours. We are here to see Chihaya and Taichi rediscover what they love about the game, though there are two scenes near the end that do hint at where the next two parts will likely take our characters, and who they might be to each other by the end of it all. It’s an enticing invitation, despite the slow start, and one that fans of the manga as well as new viewers will answer with enthusiasm.
Chihayafuru: Kami no Ku screened at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival on June 10, 2017.