As a Tokyo-based writer, I will introduce you to various aspects of pop culture such as manga, anime, movies and music. I want to spread the joy of Japanese pop culture around the world.
Hey, everyone! This is Mokugyo, from MANGA.TOKYO! It is now spring, the season of change in Japan! Students graduate in March and enter new schools in April. It is also very common for students to join after-school activities in middle school and high school.
Today, I want to tell you more about the live action adaptation of manga and anime Chihayafuru and its competitive karuta club.
— ちはやふる公式 (@chihaya_koshiki) August 31, 2016
Chihayafuru is a manga series written by Yuki Suetsugu. It has been serialized since 2008 in BE LOVE, the popular manga magazine for girls. The manga volumes had a circulation of over 16 million copies as of March 2016. It was adapted into an anime in 2011 and 2013, and both seasons were highly rated by the fans. It was also adapted into two live-action films in 2016 with Part 1 being released in March and Part 2 in April of the same year.
The story is about how protagonist Chihaya gets fascinated by and absorbed into the world of competitive karuta (a Japanese card game). The original story starts with Chihaya in elementary school. Chihaya finds out that Arata, the transfer student in her class, is a talented karuta player who has won many competitions. Inspired by him, Chihaya starts learning karuta. Taichi, a classmate who wants to win at everything, also starts karuta to defeat Arata. Soon after, Arata transfers to another school. However, days go by, and once again, competitive karuta brings the three together. Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi are friends who have known each other since childhood, and the love triangle among the three characters is one of the important aspects of Chihayafuru. In the movie adaptation, their days in elementary school are illustrated only as flashback scenes, and the story starts with Chihaya having established the competitive karuta club at her high school.
Karuta is a traditional card game for children. The rules are very simple. The ‘reader’ first reads out a card. Then, the players search for the card that matches the one which was read aloud from the cards arranged randomly on the floor. Nintendo, the famous video game company of Super Mario and Pokemon, began as a company that produced karuta cards.
The cards used in competitive karuta are from the Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets) a classic Japanese anthology of 100 waka (Japanese poems) chosen by Sadaie Fujiwara, one of the most famous poets who lived during the Kamakura Era. It is said to have been compiled during the early 1200s, so it has a long, long history!
It is very common for Japanese students to learn Hyakunin Isshu at school. It is often used as a textbook in Classical Studies classes. Therefore, many Japanese people are familiar with the poems. It is also a traditional custom in Japan to play karuta on New Year’s Day.
Competitive karuta is a karuta match using Hyakunin Isshu. The games are played according to the rules established by All Japan Karuta Association. The Meijin-sen (Master Tournament) started in 1955 to decide the strongest male player, and the Queen-sen (Master Tournament for Women) began in 1957 to determine the strongest female player. These rules and information are explained in detail in the story of Chihayafuru.
Although competitive karuta has a long history, many Japanese people are quite unfamiliar with it. Today, thanks to Chihayafuru’s popularity, karuta has become well-known by the public.
In Japan, many students participate in after-school club activities. Since the 2000s, it has become popular for manga and anime to illustrate life in non-athletic clubs as their main theme. Until that time, there were more anime featuring sports clubs such as baseball, soccer, and basketball because the stories have more movement and energy, and they ended up becoming very popular. Sports anime are still popular today, but in recent years, anime illustrating the activities in non-athletic clubs and other unique clubs have rapidly increased.
A good example is K-On!, a story about girls forming a band in the light music club. Hibike! Euphonium (Sound! Euphonium) is also an anime which features a concert band club Tomehane! Suzuri Koukou Shodou-bu (Tomehane! Suzuri High School Calligraphy Club), a manga which illustrates the characters getting absorbed in Japanese calligraphy, has been adapted into TV drama in 2010. As you can see, many manga with a non-athletic club theme have gained popularity in recent years, and Chihayafuru is no exception. All of these manga illustrate the young days of students enjoying their club activities.
— ちはやふる公式 (@chihaya_koshiki) September 21, 2016
In the live action film adaptation of Chihayafuru, protagonist Chihaya is played by Suzu Hirose. If people were asked to name the most popular teenage actress today, I’m sure many would answer Suzu Hirose. She is very famous for her roles in many dramas and movies. In the story, Chihaya is very tall, and although Suzu Hirose does not have such a tall figure, her personality and brilliant acting perfectly matched Chihaya’s. Chihaya is a girl who can show extraordinary powers of concentration when playing karuta. Suzu Hirose has very powerful and vivid eyes, and in the film, she was able to express Chihaya’s level of attention just by her facial expressions.
In Chihayafuru, the poems written on the Hyakunin Isshu cards become a key factor in the story. For example, the title Chihayafuru and the character name Chihaya are strongly linked to the poem that goes, ‘Chihayaburu kamiyo mo kikazu Tatsuta-gawa, karakurenai ni mizu kukuru towa’, which also shows up in the movie adaptation.
‘Chihayaburu’ means that something is strong and is gathering momentum. However, this power is not wild or violent. In the story, Chihaya starts off as a girl with wild energy, but as time passes, she grows into a lady with an inner strength and a moderate force. Also, this poem expresses the beauty of the red autumn leaves which cover up the surface of the river. These leaves act as a metaphor for the author’s feelings of love. Therefore, this poem is used in Chihayafuru to express Chihaya’s heart that is filled with love.
— ちはやふる公式 (@chihaya_koshiki) September 28, 2016
In Part 1 of the film adaptation, subtitled ‘First Verse,’ the story starts with Chihaya establishing the karuta club at her school and ends when Chihaya participates in the karuta tournament. One of the club members is called Tsukue-kun (Desk-kun) and he is a brilliant character. In Part 1, Tsukue-kun entertains the viewers with his comic nature and mental conflicts. Competitive karuta has both individual matches and team matches, and one of the fabulous points of Chihayafuru is that it illustrates both types. In Part 2, subtitled ‘Second Verse,’ Shinobu Wakamiya, Chihaya’s rival, appears for the first time. Shinobu is played by Mayu Matsuoka who is also a famous young actress. Shinobu is the Karuta Queen, and Chihaya looks up to her. The battle between Shinobu and Chihaya is one of the best scenes.
Music Video of ‘FLASH’ by Perfume (Movie Chihayafuru Theme Song)
The ending theme for both Part 1 and Part 2 of the movie is ‘FLASH’ by Perfume. Perfume is a Japanese idol group trio who sing electro-pop music and have held many concerts not just in Japan but also overseas. The group is unique: all three members have black hair, and they dance with many Japanese-like movements. The theme song is speedy and catchy. The title is expressing the fast movement of the characters when grabbing the karuta cards. The song creates a feeling of hope, particularly in the end of Part 2, that greatly matches the mood of the movie. Competitive karuta is a game in which the players need the ability to quickly judge which card to choose, literally in a ‘flash.’ The song perfectly expresses the speed and beauty of competitive karuta with its catchy lyrics.
Part 1 and Part 2 are connected to one story, so I recommend first-time viewers to watch them together. If you have never read the original manga, I think watching the movie would be a good start. The manga and anime of Chihayafuru depict the characters feelings in more detail, so if you have the chance, I recommend that you follow up with them. I hope that Hyakunin Isshu and the unique Japanese culture will be known to more people throughout the world in the future.