The Live-Action Film, “Chiharafuru, Part I,” as an Introduction to the Hyakunin Isshu
By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
Certain features of Japanese culture lie beyond what most Japanese Americans know today. The collection of classical poetry of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu—“One hundred people, one poem each”—is among them.
There are several reasons for our lack of familiarity with these poems. The first is that they date from the 10th to 13th centuries. Second, there is the continual, practical paring of knowledge over time, as new information, needed for daily life, replaces antiquated content. For example, how many of us know how to forge metal farming tools? To plant and harvest rice? To care for tea and silkworms?
Accordingly, most readers cannot describe offhand what was happening in the early 13th century in Western Europe as well. One would guess—correctly—that there were the usual human endeavors and maladies, namely wars, conquests, and plagues. But beyond these generalities, we can guess, but not authoritatively state, specifics, without looking at our phones or computers. Was that the period termed The Dark Ages? Were Germany, France, and England fighting? Wasn’t the southern boundary of Spain shifting back and forth between the Spanish and the Moors?
Superimposed on the ceaseless replacement of new knowledge for old, there are the generations that separate JAs from Japan, and from Japanese educations. Many JAs today are two to five generations removed from Nippon.
A third factor specifically limits older Sanseis’ knowledge of Things Japanese. It is the “rain shadow” effect of World War II on this age group’s educations and mindsets. The leading edge of this generation were camp babies. They were raised during a period when learning about Japan was unpopular. Accordingly, their Japanese knowledge is like the precipitation that is blocked from falling on Ellensburg (annual precipitation, 9 inches) and Yakima (8.5 inches) by the Washington Cascade Range. It simply did not have adequate time to sink in during their formative periods.
Given this background, the central question for this article is, how can JA readers quickly get up to speed on the Hyakunin Isshu to appreciate UW Professor Paul Atkins’ upcoming March lecture on its poetry? The question is especially timely because public access to the Seattle Public Library remains limited.
A quick way would be for interested readers to simply watch the first film of the “Chihayafuru” live-action trilogy. Specifically, it is “Chihayafuru, Part I” (Kami no Ku, 2016, 111 min.). The International Movie Database (IMDB) rates it 7.1 out of ten, from 899 votes.
The story centers on rising actress Suzu Hirose, who first reached international stardom at the Cannes Film Festival, France, in 2015, for her title role in “Our Little Sister” (2016, “Umimachi Diary,” Hirokazu Kore-eda, with Haruka Ayase). Kami no ku is presently available online free as a beta version (for English translation testing).
The Part 1 story follows Chihaya, a new high school student, as she forms a karuta club to represent her school playing “uta-garuta,” or poetry cards, in high school matches. In each competition, a judge starts reading the ending lines of a poem from a 100-card set, while the players wait in anticipation in pairs, their card sets splayed before them. Then, as soon as one contestant recognizes the poem being read, he/she must quickly sweep the card containing the poem’s first two lines out of reach of their opponent. The game thus requires that players know the poems well, for as soon as early syllables are read, the proper card is quickly swept.
The game works because the poems are waka, which means they are comprised of five lines of syllables of lengths, 5-7-5-7-7. They are accordingly only slightly longer than the 5-7-5 poems of haiku, which would not become famous until the 17th century.
The charm of the film is that the high school team members are playing a game based on the poetry that was passed about during Kamakura-period Japan. It is as if American kids were playing a card game bearing the lines of Romeo and Juliet.
The judge might read,
“My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”
And players would feverishly seek the card with the preceding lines,
“If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this.”
Through the readings of the cards depicted in the film, any viewer with a beating heart comes under the spell of the poems. For from them, it becomes clear that the people of the Nara, Heian, and Kamakura periods of Japanese history were no different than us. They breathed, loved, and wrote across the ages of classical Japan.
Lovers set down their feelings, much as people do in blogs today:
Konu hito o 
Matsuho-no-ura no 
yūnagi ni 
yaku ya moshio no 
mi mo kogaretsutsu 
Like the salt sea-weed,
Burning in the evening calm.
On Matsuo’s shore,
All my being is aflame,
Awaiting her who does not come.
—Fujiwara no Teika [poem 97, image, p. 1]
People admired the beauty of nature:
kamiyo mo kikazu
mizu kukuru to wa
Even when the gods
Held sway in the ancient days,
I have never heard
That water gleamed with autumn red
As it does in Tatta’s stream
—Ariwara no Narihira [poem 17]
And they lamented the passage of time:
Hana no iro wa
wa ga mi yo ni furu
nagameseshi ma ni
Color of the flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts
My life passes vainly by,
As I watch the long rains fall.
—Ono no Komachi [poem 9]
Translations, Kelly and Walsh (1917)
How Well Do Japanese Know the Hyakunin Isshu?
The question is apt, for just because most Japanese learned about the poems in school doesn’t mean they remember them as adults.
To answer it, I queried the NAP Japanese staff. Notably, these individuals earn their livings working with words. Most of their efforts are devoted to publishing the Japanese-language lifestyle paper, “Soy Source,” which now runs 20 pages. Of seven asked, two responded.
Q. Without reading anything, can any of you remember a few lines of one or two poems in the Hyakunin Isshu? Please type them in Romaji… as an email.
Noriko Huntsinger, Soy Source editor, who also contributes to the Japanese pages here, replied:
“Se Wo Hayami
Iwa Ni Sekaruru
Takigaha (wa) No
Warete mo Sue Ni
Ahamu(n) to zo Omofu(u)…
Above, she shares the poem by Emperor Sutoku, taking care to mark where past readings differ from those of the present:
Though a swift stream is
Divided by a boulder
In its headlong flow,
Though divided, on it rushes,
And at last unites again.
—Emperor Sutoku [poem 77]
Ryoko Kato, who lays out interior articles of the NAP, added:
“I am afraid I do not remember any of Hyakunin Isshu. When I was in junior high school, I had to memorize them for the quiz. However, I forgot all of them after these 20 years…”