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Interview: Chihayafuru's Asaka Morio, Kunihiko Hamada, Takuya Tsunoki

by Bamboo Dong,

This summer at Anime Expo, we were fortunate enough to sit down for a quick chat with some of the creative team members of Chihayafuru—director Morio Asaka, animation director Kunihiko Hamada, and animation producer Takuya Tsunoki. Animated by Mad House, the series is an adaptation of the award-winning manga by Yuki Suetsugu, which follows a high school girl named Chihaya who dreams of someday becoming the greatest female karuta player in Japan. Her journey is shared with two childhood friends, and other members of the school's newly-created karuta club.

One of the most amazing things about Chihayafuru is that you've been able to make karuta accessible to international fans. Were you ever concerned about whether or not overseas fans would be able to understand the series?

Asaka: We were actually kind of surprised that there were any people outside of Japan that understood it. Even for many Japanese people, the game of karuta is a very difficult thing to pick up and understand. We're thrilled and pleased that the show has found an audience abroad.

How did you strike a balance between focusing on the gameplay versus focusing on the characters actually playing the game? What were the creative challenges that came with that?

Asaka: For many of the characters, especially Chihaya—she is “karuta baka”—meaning she's completely obsessed with the game. It's her whole life. So, rather than trying to strike a balance, with Chihaya, karuta is a part of her, even in her everyday school life, and she's the main character. We focused on telling that aspect of the story. The rest came naturally.

In Japan, competitive karuta is not that popular of a sport. I imagine that one of the challenges in making the anime was the make the sport look a lot cooler than it was. Was this hard creatively?

Asaka: Yeah, even in the world of Japanese sports, karuta is a very minor form of entertainment. When I started working on the series, I didn't know what the Hell it was either. I ended up going to watch a match to see what it was all about. That's when I really got to experience the sing-song reading of the poems and the movements and the dynamic way that people play the game. When I saw that, I thought, “wow, that's really cool!” I think when you go and see it for yourself, you realize just how cool it is. When we were making the series, we tried to bring that coolness directly to the screen in the most creative way possible.

Mr. Hamada, in regards to the movement of the game, you've worked on several series that are action-heavy. What was it like trying to make a game like karuta look just as dynamic and exciting?

Hamada: There wasn't really any special process in creating the action feeling of the series. Nothing was really envisioned beyond turning karuta the game into a series. When you watch people play the game, you see these huge movements, like when players slap away the cards. That's one of the things we saw and we wanted to transfer that to the anime just the way it was.

Since the manga is still ongoing, how did you make the decisions in regards to what direction to take the series?

Asaka: Because the manga is ongoing, we wanted to respect the story, but in terms of the medium itself, what's appealing to manga readers and what's appealing to anime viewers can be different. We wanted to stick to the story, but we also wanted to try and add details or expand on things in the manga so that certain things would look better or more vibrant in an animated form in comparison to manga.

Do you already have a plan for season two?

Asaka: I don't know yet. The second series has been announced, but specific staff assignments, like who's going to be working with what and where hasn't been announced yet. We don't even know if we'll be working on the series. We hope we will.

You have a lot of experience directing female heroes with past projects like Gunslinger Girl and Card Captor Sakura. Do you approach projects differently if they star female rather than males?

Asaka: I don't really set up any divisions for series where characters are male or female. Especially with a character like Chihaya, who is kind of a tomboyish character. My main goal was just to adapt that series into an anime format. What was the most important to me was to translate that into an interesting product, rather than worry about whether it would end up more shoujo or more shonen.

The karuta club members have many different personalities, with many different reasons for playing. Whom do you best identify with

Asaka: Hmm, I haven't really thought about that.

Hamada: I guess Arata.

Tsunoki: He looks like Arata!

Asaka: I guess I would be Nikuman-kun.

Tsunoki: When I'm working as a producer, asking people to do various tasks, like, “you do this, you do that,” I feel like Chihaya, bossing everyone around.

Regardless of how the manga turns out, would you personally like to see Chihaya realize her dreams of becoming the Queen?

Asaka: Yes. When you're in the process of developing the characters and getting to know who they are, you want the character to succeed in their goals, so of course, yes.

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