If there were any doubts that this show was for real, Chihayafuru dispelled them with a second episode as nearly perfect the first. This is a series that has the potential for greatness written all over it.
Among the many miracles accomplished in the first two episodes, one is that Chihayafuru has already made me feel as if I’ve known these characters for years. Chihaya, Taichi and Arata are splendidly complex and interesting kids – and it does appear the focus will be on that time period for a while at least – and all different from each other. In many ways Chihaya has the thankless job here, because she’s the heroine and more or less forced to take on the mantle of plucky, kind and defiant. Fortunately she wears it well, providing one of the most likeable examples of the trope we’ve seen for ages.
It’s the boys, though, who’ve seen the most conflict and development in the first two episodes. Arata has something of an obsession with Karuta, of course, but it’s clear that it’s also an escape for him from his difficult home life. He’s quiet, but he’s not meek – Arata strikes me as a boy who’s just a little overwhelmed by the odds he sees stacked against him in life – life outside the Karuta ring, that is. As for Taichi, he’s the most difficult to like so far. There’s no defending the actions he’s taken towards Arata in the first two eps, but this is clearly the beginning of a long character journey for him – and I think we saw the first steps at the end of this episode.
If I’m to compare the tone of the second episode, it would be as a cross between Hikaru no Go and Hourou Musko – both high praise and a testament to another miraculous accomplishment Chihayafu can take credit for. Without physical danger or romance, we saw an absolutely gripping episode – like HnG, making the playing of an ancient Asian game thrilling. And like Hourou Musuko, it manages to really catch us up in the drama and tension of a different kind of danger – the raw, terrifying emotional trauma of something bad happening at school. From the moment Chihaya walks in and sees the desks moved, we’re cheering her on for standing up to the forces of hate – rarely scarier than among schoolkids – and our hearts sink when we see Taichi (who we’d hoped for better from) following through on his threat to blackmail Chiahya into abandoning Arata through the threat of blacklisting.
Of course Taichi compounds his sins when it comes to the Karuta tournament itself. But there’s more to this, and can any of us look back at the sixth grade as adults and not find things we’re ashamed of? Taichi has no excuses, but he’s clearly driven by powerful incentives to stray from the right path. He’s smitten by Chihaya and everything he does he thinks he’s doing to be with her, but of course we see what he can’t – that with every act of cruelty he pushes the gallant girl further away. He’s also got a pushy mother, the worst kind of meddling parent. She’s not interested in Taichi competing for fun – if he’s not guaranteed to win he shouldn’t play, and she’s damn well not going to tell Daddy what happened. All this drives Taichi to what I think will be his low ebb of the series – stealing Arata’s glasses, abetted by a cruel but seemingly harmless prank with an overshaken Coke can.
The tournament was exciting as hell, though I confess I felt sad for Arata even though Chihaya stood up and won in his stead. As much as I came to hate Taichi for a minute, I felt almost sorry for him at the end, and I think we saw that he at least has a sense of shame. Arata’s sense of dedication to Karuta is stronger than anything in Taichi’s life, and it seems to be sweeping both he and Chihaya up in its wake. It was cruel to see her mother and sister dismiss Chihaya’s victory without even wanting to hear about it, a different sort of family dysfunction but no less than what Taichi is facing. All three kids have something at home to run away from, and Arata’s passion for Karuta is uniting them as a group. We’re starting to see what brought them together – it’s obviously going to be left to later episodes to show us what drove them apart. Will we eventually see them come back together, before all is said and done?