Tag Archives: karuta

Karuta Forever: At a Real Life Karuta Demonstration


I was reading about a reporter’s visit to Chernobyl a few weeks ago. It’s fascinating for many reasons, especially given the fact that one probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience it. I felt the same way about karuta after having seen Chihayafuru. It’s a sport played in the land of the Rising Sun that I figured I would never have the pleasure of playing or spectating.

That is, until this past week.

Braving the snow and freezing temperatures, a few dozen people gathered at the JICC on Wednesday for a karuta demonstration. I sat in the front row and toyed with my shiny new karuta cards when it caught Ms. Stone’s attention. She became more intrigued at my getup as I was wearing a medical mask. I sighed heavily inside, like all the other times where no one recognized my Arata cosplay at conventions.

Her voice was fading in and out, but a sudden tilt of her head coupled with a twinkle in her eye ignited a glimmer of hope in me. She continued to nod her head and at that moment, my heart probably skipped a beat. She got it!

Ms. Stone heads the DC Karuta Club. Yes, there is such a thing. She began with a lecture about the origins of karuta. It was highly informative but I was getting impatient staring at the tatami mats behind her Powerpoint presentation.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. Entering on stage was Kyoko-san and Nanami, both attired in hakamas. It’s as if Chihayafuru magically materialized before me! I had to pull my mask down to intake more oxygen.

What proceeded next is best told in motion pictures. (Kyoko-san is on the left.)

Sugoi ne?! The only complaint I have feels unfair. Ms. Stone aims to educate the audience on karuta so her interruptions are only natural. It did interfere with my enjoyment of the match given that I am familiar with the sport.

After the lovely and amazing demonstration where I witnessed karuta in person (yeah, I am still excited), Ms. Stone insisted on dividing the audience into two groups, where those who could read Hiragana would play kyogi karuta, and those who couldn’t moved outside for Obosan Mekuri.

prizeThe latter is a karuta variation that requires pure luck. Fortunately for me, luck is just one of my many skills. Round one included three groups where the winner advanced into the championship. Needlessly to say, I trumped two others to take first place ^_^ The best part was the prize, as shown on the left.

I take that back. The best part was learning the game from Kyoko-san, who just flew in from Japan the day before. And my insistence on explaining my cosplay after she inquired about my shirt. I think I took her apathy for misunderstanding XD

This would be the end of the story except the reader can see that more words follow.

Anohana sold out before I got to the theater, so my Saturday began on a sour note. Mere hours later, I got an email that would not only turn around my day but bring more delight than I ever thought possible. Kyoko-san wrote hoping that I could attend the New Year’s celebration hosted by the JCAW on Sunday where she and Ms. Stone would have another karuta demonstration. An invitation one cannot refuse.

Once again I will let the motion pictures do the talking. (More here.)

I want to express my gratitude towards Ms. Stone and Kyoko-san, as well as Nanami and Ms. Stone’s son (the reader!) for giving me the opportunity to experience karuta first hand. It’s a dream come true ever since Chihayafuru entered my life. Speaking of which, at the conclusion of Wednesday night, Ms. Stone mentioned that she had a dream.

“I hope in an year or ten, the U.S. will hold a karuta tournament and the winner would go on to compete in Japan.”

I am going to try to make her dream come true, just like she did for mine. But we need your help. Let’s spread our love of karuta!

Chihayafuru: The Rules of the Shoujo Game


Early in its run, I remarked on Twitter that Chihayafuru was an example of how good writers can make any situation and any subject interesting. This is because what a good writer can do is make almost any specific experience or subject matter universally relatable. Someone may not necessarily know much about the exact rules of karuta, but he or she will know what it’s like to find new friends and do things together with them, and how painful it is to part after being together for a while. Karuta is just a catalyst, or an organizing principle, in which the human drama can play out.

The first few episodes of Chihayafuru started this way, with plenty of subtext and hints of things to come: for instance, Chihaya’s neglectful home situation, the rivalry between Taichi and Arata, the implicit love triangle between the three of them. Chihaya’s enthusiasm, concern for the outcast, and diligence are infectious and make her a surprisingly likable protagonist—especially later on, when some of her actions might seem grating and obnoxious were it done by someone in reality. (No doubt, it also helps that she is pretty, and seems to have a soft spot for lonely nerds. If only there was someone like that in my life at that age—ahem, moving on…) Taichi, too, comes off as initially unsympathetic compared to Arata, but his character grows over time and matures subtly.

All this happens while large amounts of screen time is given to the game itself, to a degree that often feels like the show is sponsored by whatever official league might exist for karuta in Japan. Various strategies for passing cards are discussed, in detail. The etymology, and later the meaning, of many of the poems of the Hundred Poets is lovingly explained (and indeed, given the name of our heroine and the show itself, this is an important detail). The swiping of cards is presented with such kinetic force it manages to make the game feel badass. To a large extent, the show actually serves an educational function, though if the game is played in most elementary schools (as I’ve read), one might wonder why the show forms such an extensive tutorial in the basics. I walked into this show knowing nothing about the game, and now, after watching 10 episodes, I have a grasp of the basics.

The problem is: I’m beginning to feel like it’s a bit much in the game-focusing department. The sense nagged me even as early as the childhood arc in the beginning, and it’s gotten moreso over time.

Not hating the game: worth a dozen shoujo sparkles

More specifically, the game is frequently called upon to serve as the singular metaphor or analogy for what the characters are going through, and it’s getting more and more strained. Chihaya’s frequent declarations, both as a child and as a teen, that all she wants is to play karuta forever and that karuta will bring them all together is overstated. So, too, are the stories of Arata and Nishida (Porky), in which their lack of playing the game is the chief sign of their trauma—and of course it’s up to cheerful, persistent Chihaya to coax them back into the game, and thus into friendship? love? (Shades of Fruits Basket here; this is a very shoujo-y kind of thing.) Taichi, who is the most complex character of the lot, is also the only character who doesn’t seem to be basing his entire life around playing, or not playing, karuta. The attitudes toward the game actually kind of typecast most of the characters and define their roles in the story.

I think this is fine in the initial stages, but I’d like to see the more overtly human element pick up more emphasis as the series continues. We’re seeing some good hints of that, fortunately—Chihaya’s sweet 16 was a particularly well-handled scene, if a tad melodramatic. Part of Chihaya’s maturing, no doubt, is to be able to grasp her own feelings beyond the filter of the game and understand what the pining Taichi, and the hurting Arata (among others) are trying to say. The exclusivity of that filter so far has been a little grating. Yes, I know, a lot of it is not-very-subtle sublimation. It just feels somewhat, well, overused.

But only somewhat. The show has charmed me and I’m glad I caught up on it. Its earnestness and likability is a good counterpoint to the cynical Mirai Nikki, and it stuns me that this isn’t a Noitamina title and Guilty Crown is. (More on that one in a future article…)