Released as the second half of a two-part movie series, Chihayafuru Part 2 is the conclusion to the story of protagonist Chihaya and her competitive karuta club as they take on the nationals. Where Part 1 was a sigh of relief that a live-action adaptation of a popular anime/manga was actually good, Part 2 took that relief and ramped it up to full-on enjoyment.

At the end of Part 1, Chihaya and her friends had successfully won the Tokyo qualifying tournament and are set to go on to the nationals. As they prepare, Chihaya is faced with new personal issues as her childhood friend and inspiration, Arata, has announced that he has quit competitive karuta. Not only that, but a new rival emerges in the reigning female champion karuta player, Shinobu Wakamiya, a karuta prodigy who became the nation’s and the world’s greatest female karuta player as a 9th grader. All of this forces Chihaya to reexamine her love of the game in the midst of preparing for one of the biggest tournaments of the year.

Unlike the previous movie, Part 2 starts off strong. Where Part 1 was a standalone story that had its own conclusion, Part 2 is completely reliant on the fact that the audience has seen its predecessor. As such, very little emphasis is placed on the character introductions and backstory, resulting in a much stronger start to the movie.

Where the previous movie was an outsider’s perspective into the world of competitive karuta, Chihayafuru Part 2 takes an insider’s point of view by focusing on characters that are already well versed in the nomenclature and expands the world through them. Consequently, focus is shifted largely from the novice characters to the veterans, with the novices taking a back seat in terms of the story. Where Part 1 was about characters like Tstutomu Komano trying to get into karuta, Part 2 is about characters like Chihaya trying to be better karuta players.

One of the biggest plot points in the story involves Chihaya struggling to improve her game while simultaneously trying to figure out why she plays. Anyone who been in a rut in doing something they love can relate to this personal conflict. It’s a slow, tedious process that takes time, patience, time, and more time. Unfortunately, this causes the middle of the movie to drag a little. While I understood the necessity of the arc, watching it made me long for them to get back to the exciting, high-paced action of the actual karuta competitions.

Chihayafuru Part 2 also introduces a new rival for Chihaya in the character of Shinobu Wakamiya. I knew of the character from the original manga and anime, and I knew she would be appearing in the movie thanks to trailers. What I didn’t expect was the outstanding performance by actress, Mayu Matsuoka. As opposed to actress Suzu Hirose–who was a decent Chihaya–and actor Shuhei Nomura–who played a passable Taichi–Mayu Matsuoka completely stole the show as Shinobu. From the moment her character makes an appearance, it completely becomes her movie. I seriously considered seeing only Part 2 again just for her performance.

The highlight of the movie comes when Chihaya and her karuta club go to the nationals at the Omi Shrine. Much like in Part 1, the scenes where players go head to head are absolutely spectacular. The Omi Shrine is viewed as sort of a mecca for competitive karuta players and the movie treats it with the appropriate reverence. According to people who have actually been there for the nationals, the film really captures the atmosphere of what it’s like to go there and compete.

As stated before, while Part 1 can be watched on its own, Part 2 is not. Nevertheless, the two movies complement each other and make for a complete and satisfying package that I’m glad I got to see. Part 2 was definitely the stronger of the two–being a sequel in all the right ways. It was bigger, sharper, smarter, had better performances, and added new, interesting characters.

While many live-action adaptations don’t stand well on their own without the source material, I think the Chihayafuru movies work as their own story while also serving as an abridged introductory course to the manga and anime. They’re a treat that both fans and newcomers can enjoy.

Chihayafuru Part 2 showed in theaters in Japan from April 29th. No word on a Western release.

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