Time skips are always dangerous but interesting for any anime. They offer an opportunity to witness a great deal of change for the characters, but the trap is that the dots are sometimes never connected – the writer never really reconciles the person that was with the person that is. I don’t see any evidence that will be a problem here, because the writing for Chihayafuru is tight as a drum. As fascinating as it is to see just how different 10th-graders are from 6th-graders, it’s abundantly clear in the case of Chihaya and Taichi that these are still the same people at heart. Of course that leaves Arata out of the equation, but we’ll get back to him in a minute.
The awkwardness implicit in the situation facing Taichi and Chihaya is painful, but the circumstances are understandable given that as far as we know they haven’t seen each other for over three years. So it’s natural enough that the socially dexterous Taichi would have a casual girlfriend, but it’s pretty obvious he’s still hung up on Chihaya. Her feelings aren’t so clear – she’s clearly a romantic sort, but seems as much in love with the memory of her childhood adventures with both Taichi and Arata as with either of them as boys. I don’t give Taichi’s GF much of a half-life, especially considering that Chihaya has the advantage of going to the same school and living close enough to get off the train at the same station. Here’s hoping he shows some grace and doesn’t string this girl along.
And then there’s the matter of the Karuta club that she’s roped him into helping her form. Taichi – he of the success-obsessed family – has soured on the game a bit because he knew he could never become strong enough to beat Arata. But Chihaya’s enthusiasm seems never to have wavered, and though she’s been stuck in Class B, she’s only a win at the Tokyo Regional Tournament away from joining Arata (she thinks) in Class A. Taichi’s (ineffectively) incognito return to the Karuta salon to root for her not only confirms he’s still smitten but offers “Eyebrows” a reunion with Harada-sensei (Ishizuka Onshou). He remains a great character, just the right combination of humor and sincere mentorship.
The tournament itself is given a little more time than the 6th-grade one, and it once again called up memories of the Go matches in Hikaru no Go. As then, I wonder how it can be that watching folks play a game whose rules I barely know is so exciting, but it is (admittedly Karuta is a little more spirited – I can’t imagine Fujiwara Sai doing to a Go stone what Chihaya does to Karuta cards). More so than in the premiere we get a sense of just how dedicated to the game Chihaya has been, even joining the track team to help hone her reaction times to get better at Karuta. Her short-term goal is to win the tournament so that Taichi will help her with the club (though I never actually heard him agree to that) but in the big picture she’s been chasing Arata, trying to reach Class A so that she can compete with him again.
While it was the major twist of the episode, I can’t say I was surprised to hear that Arata no longer plays Karuta. There could be a myriad of reasons – maybe his beloved Grandfather died, and that soured him on the game. Maybe he has to work to support his family. But Arata remains the mysterious figure of the trio, as always the hardest one to read. Chihaya being the stubborn idealist she is, there’s not a chance in hell she’s going to rest until she has an answer at the very least, and I suspect until she drags Arata kicking and screaming back into the Karuta ring with her and Taichi. And yes, I do expect Taichi to take up the game again – not just to be with the girl he loves, but because the look in his eyes watching her play makes it clear that he had more fun playing Karuta than doing any of his parent-approved activities.
From a story standpoint the question that interests me is that of just how large a role Arata will have in the near-term. Is he going to be drawn back into the story immediately, or will he be the “goal” for a while, giving Chihaya and Taichi a mystery and a problem to solve? Between Chihaya and Taichi getting the club up and running and sorting out the personal entanglements my guess is the latter, and that Arata will be more of a presence in the psychological than the physical sense for a while.