Chihayafuru part 1 is a film that leaves you wanting more. Much more. Fortunately I’ll be able to see part 2 tomorrow at the Japanese Film Festival. There are significant spoilers ahead for both the movie and season 1 of the Chihayafuru anime.
If that’s a problem, the TL;DR is that the Chihayafuru movie is astonishing, and you should go see it when you get the chance. If that’s not a problem, read on.
For those that aren’t familiar with the Chihayafuru manga or anime, the premise is the three childhood friends Chihaya, Taichi and Arata bound by the game of competitive karuta, and the belief that it will reunite them.
The live action Chihayafuru has the same core premise, but has been structurally reworked to fit the demands of the cinema and live action.
Instead the story is firmly centered in the formation of the karuta club at Mizusawa High School, with snippets of the flashback appearing when directly relevant to the current story.
Much as I like the anime, that solid block of flashback just wouldn’t work within a movie. I hate to say it, but it’s too much like an infodump, and having the directly relevant moments called to mind as they’re needed really does work much better.
Another change is to shift the death of Arata’s grandfather to when Mizusawa qualify for the nationals by narrowly defeating Hokuo High School. As at the conclusion of the film, only Taichi knows this (more on that later).
There’s also more emphasis on Taichi’s unrequited love for the typically oblivious Chihaya, which is a change I’m somewhat less happy about.
A Chihayafuru film will always rise or fall on Chihaya, and Suzu Hirose’s Chihaya carries it to the top. There is only so much that can be done with direction and camera angles. Ultimately in a story like Chihayafuru, the actor has to have the presence to command the screen, and Hirose delivers in spades.
Chihaya is a complex character, beautiful but uncaring about it, ditzy about many things but terrifyingly focussed on karuta, driven towards personal success at karuta yet desperate to have a team to fight with and for. Whilst Chihaya doesn’t change much over the course of Chihayafuru part 1, all of those elements are there, and well represented by Hirose. She is quite simply fabulous, managing to be both intimidating and comical as the moment demands.
However it did strike me as odd that so much of the friendship arc is represented through Komano, and almost omitting Chihaya’s willingness to sacrifice some of her own karuta to boost the team.
Speaking of which, Komano (Yūki Morinaga is one of the strengths of Chihayafuru part 1. As in the anime around episode 10 Exchange Hellos and Goodbyes, Komano has a major crisis of confidence in the lead up to the match with Hokuo. Morinaga turns in a superb performance that is ably supported by the rest of the cast, and the moment when he starts playing again is just wonderful.
This is where much of the emotional resonance for the friendship / club formation arc of Chihayafuru is invested. There are moments scattered throughout the film that give a much deeper treatment of Komano’s personality and motivations, and that makes his moment of courage in the face of defeat all the more inspiring. Certainly I think he got a better treatment for this moment than he did in the anime.
Taichi (Shūhei Nomura) has the other major emotional arc of the movie. Part of the restructuring of the flashback sequence including changing it so that Taichi never confessed to stealing Arata’s glasses in elementary school.
As a result he has felt guilty and abandoned by the gods ever since, and facing that is at the core of the Chihayafuru live action. This element is further helped by shifting Harada-sensei from a doctor to a priest who helps Taichi face who he is, and who he wants to be.
It turns out that Taichi doesn’t want to be sly, doesn’t want to be a cheat. So, when they qualify for the nationals, Taichi gives Chihaya Arata’s cell phone number. That’s a critical moment for Taichi because it’s when he decides to face both Karuta, and his rivalry with Arata for Chihaya openly.
This ends with Taichi completing his confession to Arata, including the confession that he loves Chihaya and plans to reveal this once he surpasses Arata at karuta. Interestingly this is on Chihaya’s phone when Arata tells Taichi that he’s given up karuta.
Arata and Shinobu
Arata (Mackenyu) is a mostly absent figure in Chihayafuru, but it’s significant that he doesn’t tell Chihaya that he’s given up whilst she’s celebrating a win. This is also when the film ends so I imagine that dealing with that story arc will be a significant chunk of part 2. Shinobu (Mayu Matsuoka), the current Queen, appears only in the part 2 trailer without speaking.
In terms of characters Chihayafuru has an odd balance with much of the emotional weight falling on Komano and Taichi. Nishida and Kana-chan have their moments but are mostly sidelined, and the real core of Chihaya’s story is presumably yet to come.
Despite that, Chihayafuru is compelling viewing from start to finish, and when it hits those emotional notes, it really hits them. Chihayafuru looks and sounds great, the cast are superb, and I’m really looking forward to seeing part 2 tomorrow.
I may even try to see part one again next week, and yes, Chihayafuru is just that good.
 I often refer to competitive karuta as competitive snap poetry. Emphasis on competitive.
 I recently binge watched S1 again to prepare for the live action movies, and will probably tackle S2 again soonish.
 Although it does mean we get to see Kana-chan as a fairly blatant Shipper On Deck. Which is amusing, especially as Kana-chan is so adorable about it.
 Not to mention oblivious to it.
 There’s a significant chunk of S1 of the anime where the Mizusawa Karuta Club becomes almost more important to Chihaya than her own improvement. The S1 anime opening does a really good job of centering the theme of Chihaya’s loneliness:
 Although she’s bounced off somewhere else by this point and doesn’t hear.