If you were worried that Chihayafuru was getting a little too melodramatic after episode 5, this week’s effort should be a welcome change. It’s a return to the innocent, childlike exuberance of the first three episodes – and damned if it didn’t actually get me interested in Karuta a little bit, too.
I really have nothing but praise for this ep, so apologies in advance if you’re looking for criticism. I know this style of series isn’t going to be for everyone, but I love stories that look at the remarkable exuberance teenagers are capable of without ignoring the emotional roller-coaster adolescence can be. Other than the one GIANT ARATA FLAG at the very end, the bigger issues of relationships were set aside and the story turned to the wonders of the everyday, as Chihaya and Taichi struggle to get their Karuta club started. We’ve certainly seen the club-founding saga played out many times before in anime, but this was an awfully entertaining rendition of a familiar old song.
Much of the narrative focus of the episode centered on the girl we briefly met at the close of 05, Kanade Oe (Kayano Ai – very, very busy at the moment). She’s a spark plug of a first-year student, a member of the archery club and a lover of old books. Problem for Oe is, she’s not interested in archery or athletics – she just likes wearing the hakama, the traditional leggings archery club members (and kendo members, and Miko) wear. Turns out her parents run a traditional clothing store and Oe is a hard-core traditional attire otaku. She’s also a lover of all things traditional, including old poems and the story behind them.
Kanade is a wonderful additional to the cast, not just for her relentless energy and unapologetic geekiness but because she’s able to cast the by-now familiar – to us, and even more so to to Chihaya – game of Karuta in a new light. Yes, she only wants to play if she can wear the hakama during matches, but she also loves the poems themselves and the stories behind them. To her the hundred poems are living pieces of Japanese history, each with their own backstory and subtle interpretations. While Taichi feels this esoteric approach is ill-suited to playing the game competitively, Chihaya soon finds that a knowledge of the poems themselves and not just their opening syllables is crucial to getting better at Karuta. In a wonderfully written visit to Kanade’s family shop, she gives Chihaya a lesson in the history behind the hundred poems.
In this way, Chihaya finds she can do what Arata told her she should – “become friends with the cards”. She also hears an interpretation of her own “Chihaya Full” poem that differs from her own literal one, that it referred to beautiful scenery. Kanade’s reading is much deeper and more emotionally profound, that it was a poem written as an ode to a beautiful but unattainable woman, with the adoration disguised as praise for the delights of a natural setting. Of course it was Arata who brought this poem to Chihaya’s attention and decided that it “belonged” to her , so you can interpret all this in a number of ways – in any event, it’s certainly significant. Taichi asks Chihaya quite rightly if she’s serious about coming a Karuta Queen – her motives for forming the club and pursuing Karuta are critical factors, not least to him. Taichi’s quite pleased to have the “club” just be the two of them, but does she really want to get better at the game, or is she using Karuta as a way to pursue Arata?
In any event it was lovely to see the different ways each kid sees the sport: Taichi hasn’t played much and his skills are rusty, but he clearly has a detached and strategic sense for the game, easily identifying Chihaya’s weakness after one match. Chihaya relies on her senses and pure instinct, willing herself to succeed through her sheer passion – the same passion with which she tackles life, pulling boys off moving bicycles and running headlong into glass doors. And Kana-chan loves the game for what it represents – a bridge to a past she sees as precious and worth preserving, even if it causes her to be mocked as having been “born in the wrong age”. And then there’s Arata, who’s love of the sport is inexorably linked to love of his family and died when that love became too painful. Is his love for Chihaya and even friendship with Taichi enough to rekindle his love for Karuta? All signs point to yes.
It’s easy to overlook when this series is overshadowed by flashier and more popular visual feasts like Fate/Zero and Guilty Crown, but Chihayafuru is a truly gorgeous series. Every character design is distinctive and expressive, Kanade being no exception. The landscapes and interiors feel rich and alive. And I love the way the flashbacks and mental images are woven into the look of the show, lovely images of Chihaya as a catalogue model and of ancient princes and shoji screens, and imagined visages of feared school advisors. It all creates a distinctive look that’s totally won me over.