June 02, 2016

Poetry in motion

As discussed previously, there's a manga or anime for practically every sport, an entire subgenre for baseball alone. Competition makes for conflict and great story material, and that includes a fascinating series about a literary card game that quickly became one of my all-time favorites.

The game is kyougi (competitive) karuta, the latter word borrowed from the Portuguese carta during the Edo period and applied to Japanese playing cards in general. Here it refers specifically to the game of "singing karuta" or uta-garuta.

To be sure, even in Japan, more people know about karuta than can play with it with any competence. The Tokyo high school baseball regionals involve hundreds of teams. Only a dozen or so can muster enough members to compete in the Tokyo karuta regionals.

They'd all fit in a single gymnasium with room to spare.

The centuries-old game is based on a Heian period poetry collection known as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu ("One hundred poems by one hundred poets"), compiled by the court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the 13th century. Not the kind of game that makes the average teenager sit up and take note.

In competitive karuta, given the first three lines of a waka, players pick the card with the last two lines. Skilled players can identify cards by the first one or two syllables of the poem. The game involves lots of memorization, short-term spatial memory, sharp hearing, and good reflexes.

The reader card is on the right. The player card on the left is
written in kana, a purely phonetic syllabary. (Courtesy Tofugu.)

The best players become experts in assimilation and coarticulation,  the phonological processes by which the articulation of one phoneme influences the pronunciation of the next. That way, two poems that begin with identical syllables can be differentiated before the second syllable is spoken.

Fifty cards of the one hundred are randomly selected, each player receiving twenty-five, which they arrange in front of them. They have fifteen minutes to memorize the cards before the game begins. So players line up their cards to maximize ease of location and speed of identification.

A reader proceeds through a full, randomized deck (there are CDs to practice with: set the player to shuffle play), meaning that fifty cards will not be in play. Mistakenly choosing a "dead" card will cost one of your own.

A live card can be—is often—selected from the group with a sweep of the arm. With well-matched players, quick reactions matter, so this sweeping motion may be executed with considerable force, sending the cards flying. Multiple cards can be selected if the target card is included.

Towards the end of a match, a player can group his remaining cards together and hit them all at the same time; though if none of those cards are the right card, a penalty is exacted.

A player can also reach over and grab a card from his opponent's side (which requires being able to read the cards upside down), and then give his opponent one of his own (again, a strategic move). The first person to empty out his side wins.

The result is a formal poetry reading combined with a fast-moving athletic performance that gives competitive karuta a "chess boxing" vibe. It really is "poetry in motion." Oh, and that anime series? It's Chihayafuru. More about it next time.

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