Director: Norihiro Koizumi
Starring: Hirose Suzu, Shuhei Nomura, Mackenyu, Kamishiraishi Mone, Yamoto Yuma, Kunimura Jun, Yuki Morinaga
Three young friends, Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi agree to continue to play karuta, a traditional Japanese card game and the way they become friends, as a way to stay connected when Arata has to move back to his hometown. Fast forward a few years and Chihaya (Hirose Suzu) is a beautiful high schooler with plans to start a karuta club at her new high school. Taichi (Shuhei Nomura), also a student at the school, is at first reluctant to join; he hasn’t kept up with the promise, but eventually agrees to join as president because of the affection he holds for his oldest friend. As they and their club members rise in skill they find themselves in a competitive tournament to represent Tokyo.
Based on a long running manga as well as a hugely successful animated series from Madhouse, the live action films, the second film was released a month later theatrically and yes a review for that is coming soon, were some of the biggest hits of 2016 in Japan. Norihiro Koizumi adapts this story of cards, poetry, and above all, friendship to craft a hugely enjoyable picture that had me totally invested in a sport that I have little to no experience with as well as the nuanced relationships between the imminently likable characters in the film series.
Hirose Suzu continues her domination at the Japanese cinema with this absolutely winning turn as Chihaya, the beautiful but karuta obsessed girl who believes that the game they play is more than just a game. She is energetic, competitive, and handles both comedy and drama very well. It is easy to see why she has worked with some acclaimed directors already despite her relative newcomer status in the entertainment world. Nomura is solid as Taichi; he presents a dedicated friend and shows a great deal of growth during the course of this entry. Struggling with unrequited and unspoken feelings for Chihaya, he tackles things in what would at first glance seem mean spirited, but never to the detriment of his friendships with Chihaya and the little seen Arata (Mackenyu). The film is rounded out with good comedic moments featuring Kamishiraishi and Yamoto who play fellow club members. Morinaga has a fairly dramatic thread despite his supporting role status and it is perhaps his arc that helps to cement the club together as well as the final act of the film.
A brief description of karuta may help with my next point so here goes with a very layman explanation; basically, a series of cards containing the second verse of Japan’s most famous poems are placed face up in between two players. A reader begins by reciting the first verse of the poem and the competition is who can pick up the corresponding card the fastest. The nature of the poetry lends itself to the story as multiple times the competitive nature of the sport finds itself at odds with the meaning of the written words but it is the hidden meaning of the poems that this unlikely group uses to truly become a team and help them along with any struggles. It’s an absolutely beautiful story mechanism that simply and easily shows the beauty of Japanese culture alongside the friendship themes which are easily understood the world over.
Credited with igniting renewed interest in the game, Chihayafuru has become, thanks in no small part to the winning performance by Suzu, a literal cultural phenomenon. The films helps it along steadily providing an immersive and invested experience with solid photography and an absolutely stellar musical score. While it may not make me want to learn karuta, it does make me want to see the film again. And again and again.