Adapted from a popular manga series, the “Chihayafuru” trilogy shines the spotlight on the popular Japanese card game known as karuta
JAPANESE DIRECTOR Norihiro Koizumi has been busy in recent weeks, travelling from one Asian city to another to accompany the Japanese Film Festival, which is showing his “Chihayafuru” trilogy, a teenage romantic comedy in which the three protagonists are talented players of a traditional card game known as karuta. Although the first two parts were released a couple of years back and included on the festival’s programme, this is the first time viewers have been able to see them together with the latest “Chihayafuru Part 3”.
Japanese director Norihiro Koizumi brings his “Chihayafuru” trilogy to Thai audiences as part of the 2019 edition of the Japanese Film Festival.
This was the first time that all three parts were being shown continuously and tickets sold out fast as audiences, all of them fans of the Yuki Suetsugu manga on which the film is based, happily confined themselves to their seats for a straight six hours.
The manga, which made its debut in 2007 and is serialised in a popular magazine, tells the story of childhood friends Chihaya (Suzu Hiroze), Taichi (Shuhei Nomura) and Arata (Mackenyu Arata) bound by their passion for competitive karuta. They part ways after graduating from elementary school, but reunite in secondary school where they form the Karuta Club so they can compete in the national Karuta competition of which they are declared the winner.
The new film is set two years after the events of 2016’s “Chihayafuru Part 2” and follows the life of the titular character, Chihaya Ayase (Hirose) and her team as they traverse the final year of high school and get into the national tournament of the card game.
“Chihayafuru” Parts 1 and 2, were shown here two years ago as part of the festival and captured the hearts and minds of Thai manga fans.
Shuhei Nomura as Taichi
“I was impressed at the understanding of Japanese culture and by the number of people who had read the original comic. They also knew a lot about the actors who were portraying the characters and had even formed fan clubs,” says the 37-year-old director of his experience while touring with his trilogy from Beijing to Manila to Bangkok.
He credits destiny for his involvement with the story. “Only a few volumes had come out when I read it and asked for the rights from the publisher to make the movie. And they told me that someone else had already acquired those rights. Six years later, a producer contacted me and asked if I wanted to make a film about ‘Chihayafuru’,” he says.
“I was surprised because they already held the rights. It transpired that they didn’t know how to make the film so the producer asked if I could do it. He had no idea I had earlier contacted the publisher”.
Taichi, right, and his childhood friend Arata (Arata Mackenyu) who is talented in karuta.
Koizumi, whose directorial debut, 2006’s “Midnight Sun” grossed over a billion yen and was later picked up for a Hollywood adaptation starring Bella Thorne, says he was attracted to the story not because of the love triangle between the high school students, but the card game.
“Chihayafuru” focuses on Uta Karuta (Poetry Karuta), a card game in which 100 poems will be read and the players must race to find the card associated with the upcoming poem, which is often identified just by the first one or two syllables. This game is traditionally played on New Year’s Day. Competitive karuta is organised at various levels, with the Japan national championship tournament being held every January at the Shinto Omi shrine in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. The game’s popularity has soared since the release of the first movie.
“A lot of tournaments are now held throughout the year but organisers are really struggling because of the high number of competitors wanting to take part. They struggle to find venues to accommodate the number of national players. Now, with more and more players coming from abroad, from France and even Thailand, they launched a World Series last year.”
Koizumi is quick to add that the game is not just about grabbing the card as fast as you can but identifying the meaning of the poem. That’s quite a task considering there are 100 poems and thus 100 meanings and he’s tried to make that point by having the poem and the story run in parallel in his movies.
In “Chihayafuru Part 2” Chihaya, (Suzu Hiroze), right, plays karuta with the reigning queen (Mayu Matsuoka) at the Master Karuta tournament for Women.
“It’s interesting that poems written 2,000 years ago convey the same emotions as we hear in today’s popular Japanese music. I found it interesting that the same things were being written 2,000 years apart and that made it easier to adapt to the culture of today,” he says.
The initial idea was to release just two films and shoot them both over the same period. The first episode had yet to be released when the producer started to ask Koizumi if he wanted to make part three. He agreed immediately.
In “Chihayafuru”, both Taichi and Arata fall for Chihaya, who is focused only on becoming the ace of karuta. When it comes to the movie, the director chooses to focus on Taichi rather than the main characters of Arata and Chihaya.
“Chihaya and Arata are the geniuses in karuta so they don’t really have a story to tell. I needed someone to whom the audience could relate, someone whose story would make the audience both cry and laugh,” he explains.
“Taichi is not talented. He is however good-looking and rich but while he’s the envy of others, he doesn’t have what he really wants –Chihaya and karuta,” he says.
Koizumi has also chosen to reconstruct the story and theme and make each part able to stand alone.
“There’s a completely different timeline going on so I had to carefully select the episodes that lend themselves to becoming a feature film that has a message, an opening, a climax and an ending. That was really complicated work”.
He has also vied away from the love triangle between the three protagonists, giving the films more of a sports feel and also choreographing the characters fighting during the game to be like the samuri fighting action.
“When I first saw karuta being played, I thought it was like samurai action. You have to move really fast to catch the card, which is not random, but before that you are really silent and still. When you strike out for the targeted card, it’s rather like the samurai taking out his sword and then snap, in seconds, somebody dies.”
Viewers don’t have to understand all the rules of karuta , Koizumi adds. “You just need to know that you have to take the card before the opponent. Most Japanese people don’t know how competitive karuta works. I had to choose what to explain and what could be left out.”
All three parts feature the same actors and booking them has been hard as they are rising stars much in demand. Actress Hirose has been in many recent films including Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Our Little Sister” and “The Third Murder” and “Let’s Go, Jets!”
“Hirose wasn’t famous at all when I cast her for the role, but she was clearly an up and coming star. She had charisma even though her acting was not really mature. So I was pretty sure she would be a major star within the next decade so we chose her for the main role,” he says.
“Shuhei was a child star so we knew he could act but what made him perfect for the part of Taichi was that he also had an inferiority complex.”
Mackenyu was initially turned down as a non-starter but refused to give up. “I said no a couple of times but he came back again and again because he really wanted this role. I gave it to him on the condition that he would really concentrate on this role and do nothing else while working on this project. He went to Awara in Fukui Prefecture, which is often called karuta city, learned karuta and even practised the Fukui accent. When he returned he was so good that we confirmed him in the role,” Koizumi says.
“Chihayafuru Parts 1 to 3” will be screened during the Japanese Film Festival, which will travel to SFX Cinema Maya in Chiang Mai from Friday to February 10 then head South to SFX Cinema Central Festival Phuket from February 22 to 24.
Tickets cost Bt80. Find out more at www.SFCinemaCity.com.