Karuta is sort like baseball and boxing. It offers a competitive advantage to southpaws—and there the similarities end. Using waka poetry cards derived from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, players try to snatch away the verses that follow the stanza chanted by the reader. Or something like that. Chihaya Ayase is a natural. Arata Wataya is even better. Taichi Mashima is just okay, but together they were an unbeatable team in grade school. Unfortunately, family circumstances split them apart, but a passion for the game might just bring them back together in Norihiro Koizumi’s adaptation of the manga and anime franchise, Chihayafuru Parts 1 & 2 (trailers here and here), which screened on successive nights during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Ayase’s passion for karuta can be a little overwhelming at times, but that is what it will take to start a new club in her high school. Naturally, she is overjoyed when Mashima transfers to her class, but he will need a bit of convincing. Their former rival Yusei Nishida (a.k.a. “Meat Bun Guy”) soon joins up. It will take some arm-twisting, but eventually they recruit Kanade Ooe and Tsutomu Komano (a.k.a.”Mr. Desk”), capitalizing on her love for traditional Japanese culture and his elitist pretensions. It will take a while for them to gel as a team, but they will have the wise council of their former teacher, Hideo Harada, who knows Mashima and Wataya as “Eye-lashes Boy” and “Glasses Boy,” respectively.
When they start competing, Ayase is their only A-level player, but Meat Bun will soon join her. Of course, all the top high school karuta gunslingers will be looking for her. Unfortunately, she will let herself get sidetracked by her perhaps unrequited (or perhaps not) love for Wataya and her obsession with left-handed Shinobu Wakamiya, “The Queen,” or the top-rating woman karuta player in Japan (and hence the world), despite still being in high school herself. Meanwhile, poor luckless Mashima continues to carry a torch for Ayase.
What a lovely, lovely film, or rather duology. If they screened it in high schools, it could inspire a karuta craze among American teenagers. The five Mizusawa High players are all ridiculously cute kids, but they also have realistically complex personalities. Two back-to-back films totalling nearly four hours might sound excessive, but viewers will miss spending time with them when it ends. Of course, it starts with Suzu Hirose, whose career is just exploding with Chihayafuru and Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister. As Ayase, she is both forceful and vulnerable—and altogether winning.
The entire ensemble is engaging, most definitely including Shuhei Nomura, who compellingly humanizes the somewhat moody Mashima. Mone Kamishiraishi and Yuki Morinaga give Ooe and Mr. Desk nuance and dimension beyond their character quirks, while the crafty veteran Jun Kunimura dispenses wisdom as Harada with seemingly effortless élan. Viewers will have to wait for the second film to see Mayu Matsuoka in action as the Queen, but she will definitely make her regal presence felt.