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Following the trend of live-action adaptations of popular anime is the recent release of the two-part movie, Chihayafuru parts 1 and 2. While a long history of disappointing adaptations preceded it, my love for the source material made me put my doubts and misgivings aside and give it a shot. And I did not regret it.

For those unfamiliar, Chihayafuru is an ongoing shojo manga series–which managed to get two anime series–about a high school girl, Chihaya. Her dream is to become the best competitive Karuta player in Japan, and thus the world.

Karuta are a type of Japanese playing card. The most commonly known type is the uta-garuta, where 100 famous Japanese poems are written on the various cards. The players line these up in front of themselves and try to snatch up cards when someone reads out each poem randomly one by one. Note: This is an extremely simplified explanation, which the movie actually does a much better job of explaining to the viewer.

In Chihayafuru Part 1, Chihaya, together with her childhood friend, Taichi, creates a competitive Karuta club in their high school in the hopes of competing and eventually winning the Japanese national Karuta tournament. Part 1 follows the characters as they gather members to successfully create a legitimate club and go to their first actual competition, the prefectural qualifying tournament for nationals.

One of my biggest problems with live-action adaptations is when they try to slavishly emulate the source material by having the characters be outlandish and “wacky”–usually resulting in the actors hamming it up, overacting, and drawing exasperated sighs from my general area of the movie theater. To be honest, the first twenty or so minutes of the movie felt this way with the introduction of the main protagonist and her back story. It wasn’t until the first real Karuta battle where Chihaya competes to reach 4-Dan rank that the movie finds its footing and takes off.

Aside from that initial portion, the actors are actually well-grounded in their roles, giving convincing and entertaining performances as a group of high schoolers who are brought together by a single girl’s dream. Moreover, each manages to find something they too love to do.

Perhaps the most outstanding performance was by the actor, Yuki Morinaga, who plays the role of Tsutomu Komano, a nerdy work-obsessed boy who manages to serve as the audience proxy as an outsider taking his first step into the world of Karuta and the Japanese cultural history behind it.

As a fan of the source material, I can’t help but have some level of baggage going into the movie. Nevertheless, I found that I both agreed with and enjoyed all of the changes and deviations the movie made from the manga and anime. Slight changes in character backgrounds and the glossing over of areas that don’t serve the movie’s plot all work to fluidly create a solid story structure. There are also nods to the original source material that, while not being too overt, are there for fans to appreciate.

Chihayafuru is a sports drama, except the sport isn’t chasing a ball across of field–it’s smacking random cards with words written on them. As mundane as that may sound, the movie does an unbelievable job of making it entertaining and exciting. The movie completely sells competitive Karuta and makes it genuinely interesting. There were times where I was on the edge of my seat watching bouts between characters–even though I already know the outcome from the manga and anime.

Despite having a plot line involving Taichi, the childhood friend, being in love with Chihaya, the movie–to its credit–does not make it the focal point. Unlike a lot of movies involving high schoolers that try to push the potential on-screen romance between their attractive star actors front and center, Chihayafuru never takes its eye off the ball–or rather, the card–making the story as a whole more real, more interesting, and more memorable.

Chihayafuru Part 1 is a surprisingly solid movie. It stumbles a little at first, but manages to recuperate relatively quickly and remains strong throughout. This makes for a movie that, despite being the first part of two, is well contained and stands on its own. The world of competitive Karuta is mostly unknown outside of Japan, and even in the country, is somewhat obscure outside of those directly involved with it. Chihayafuru opens up that world and makes it one you want to be part of.

Chihayafuru Part 1 showed in theaters in Japan from March 19th. There is currently no word on a Western release.

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