By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
The third entry in the successful series which began in 2016, Chihayafuru Musubi may not be the conclusive sequel fans may have been expecting, but despite some minor flaws, this is a good-natured, affectionate viewing experience. Set two years after Part Two, we find that Karuta Club members Chihaya (Suzu Hirose), Taichi (Shuhei Nomura), Oe (Mone Kamishiraishi), Yusei (Yuma Yamoto), and Tsutomu (Yuki Morinaga) are now in the senior year at Mizusawa High School, and now have to start considering what the next step will be. Of course the only thing Chihaya sees in her future is taking the crown of Karuta Queen from her arch rival Shinobu Wakamiya (Mayu Matsuoka), something her homeroom teacher Taeko Miyauchi (Miyuki Matsuda) sees as a short-term goal.
Taichi wants to get into the science/medical department at Tokyo University, so is studying hard to meet the level required, but the strain is beginning to show, causing him to rethink his place in the Karuta team. For the club to continue, the group will need to recruit new blood, and manage to sign up Sumire (Mio Yuki), who has a crush on Taichi, and Akihiro (Hayato Sano), a supremely confident youngster who already has experience playing the game. Arata Wataya (Mackenyu Arata), the childhood friend of Chihaya and Taichi, is still getting over the death of his beloved grandfather, but is convinced to return to the Karuta world, so he manages to put together a fiercely talented team, including fifteen year-old Iori Wagatsuma (Kaya Kiyohara), an ambitious player who has her sights set on Arata. Arata however still harbours strong feelings for Chihaya, as does Taichi, leading to complications which threaten to disrupt the Mizusawa team dynamic.
As the numerous school teams from different prefectures go through the preliminary process, it looks like these longtime friends will be facing off against each other at the National Championships. Another rivalry is occurring between Hisashi Suo (Kento Kaku) and Hideo Harada (Jun Kunimura), the latter being the person who coached Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata when they were young. Suo is scarily fast, even leaving former Hokuo High School Club Captain Akihito Sudo (Hiroya Shimizu) in awe. All these plot threads will converge during its big finale. Another adaptation of a popular manga, in this case a 2007 publication by Yuki Suetsugu, the first two films were shot back-to-back and released a month apart in cinemas, and both proved to be immensely enjoyable, overcoming its familiar elements with a joyous energy and characters that were easy to like and become invested in.
The sport itself, a one-on-one match where each player must quickly recognise an ancient poem (taken from a list of one-hundred) that corresponds with a specific card (each competitor has twenty-five), and touching that card before their opponent does, is fascinating to watch, especially for someone such as myself who hadn’t heard of the game before seeing these films. What might have come across as inconsequential and dull in lesser hands, is made gripping, even exciting, by screenwriter/director Norihiro Koizumi, who has helmed all three movies, and he deserves special praise for making the subject matter so captivating. The fondness and care he displays towards the characters however is what places the series above a number of other high school dramas, strengthened even more by the talented young cast who bring them all to such vibrant life.
Hirose, who made her feature film debut in the excellent comedy The Apology King (2013), garnered audience attention in 2015 when she delivered a charming performance in Hirokazu Kore’eda’s sublime Our Little Sister, and has been highly sought after since. While the Chihayafuru films have become the cornerstone of her short career, Hirose has provided splendid work in films such as Rage (2016), Let’s Go, Jets! (2017) and The Third Murder (2017), and again she imbues Chihaya with a sincerity and passion that is impossible to resist. Nomura (Daily Lives of High School Boys, Museum, Confession of Murder) is solid as Taichi; Mackenyu (Night’s Tightrope, Peach Girl) fares better as Arata; Kamishiraishi is once more a scene-stealer as Oe, veteran Kunimura is a typically levelling presence; while Matsuoka provides some unexpected hilarity as Wakamiya, a character who is pleasantly softened this time around.
The new rivals on the block, Wagatsuma and Suo, don’t quite have the same impact as those Mizusawa were up against previously, so the dramatic impact of these face-offs is somewhat muted, and if you haven’t seen the five mini-episodes released beforehand which briefly set-up their characters, then those feelings will multiply. Kaku (who is reminiscent of a young Hiroyuki Sanada) and Kiyohara (who reminded me of Chiari Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame) certainly rise above the awkward development of their characters. The biggest irritation is that the main plot thread involving Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata is left unresolved, and combined with a new story set-up, strongly indicates that this series is far from over. Considering this was advertised as a concluding chapter, the lack of closure proves to be strange and jarring.
Overall though, Chihayafuru Musubi is delightful, reuniting fans with a gallery of maturing teenagers who are as appealing now as they were when first introduced to moviegoers two years ago, and if a fourth movie does eventuate, it will be nice to see what life is throwing at them then. Make sure too you stay through the end credits for that new plot introduction, and also for the lovely end tune by the wonderful J-pop group Perfume.