For a game that seemed so simple when I first learned of it, I’m finding myself continually surprised by how many different ways there are to look at Karuta. It almost acts as a mirror held up to each character, revealing their true nature to the audience – and eventually, one assumes, to themselves.
As mentioned last week, each cast member has shown their own viewpoint about Karuta and how to attack the game. This week we saw that demonstrated in pretty graphic form. Taichi’s analytical skills are undeniable, but they’re no match for Chihaya’s raw talent – she simply reacts more quickly and uses all that track training to her advantage. It’s been easy to forget in all the focus on Chihaya, but Taichi is a pretty competitive guy, and I was wondering how long it would take before constantly losing – even to the girl he loves – would become unbearable for him. At first, all he can think of is whether his weakness is holding her back from becoming a better player, and whether that would be different if Arata were around.
The catalyst for change comes in the form of Tsutomu Komano (Yonaga Tsubasa), the next target Chihaya has in mind for her quest to get the club to the requisite five-member level needed for survival. Tsutomo is pretty much your classic bookish nerd, one who takes the old saw “attached to his desk” quite literally. He’s disdained by his classmates who call him “Desktomu” and isolate him socially, though they’re only too happy to see his test scores improve their class rank and to copy his notes. If Arata is Taichi’s “white whale”, the opponent he can never measure up to, Taichi is himself that person for Tsutomu. Never mind the fact that he studies harder, Tsutomu can never pass Taichi in the class rankings – and Taichi has the gall to be good-looking and popular, too. For all this, Desktomu envies and despises Taichi.
The irony, of course, is that Tsutomu has no idea that Taichi is just as unhappy as he is. But the real action comes when Chihaya drags him, desk and all, to the clubroom and tries to persuade him that Karuta can help his memorization skills and thus his class rank. He dismissively challenges her to prove it by playing the game with the cards flipped upside-down. If the result is an “a-ha” moment for Tsutomu, it’s a genuine epiphany for Taichi. In this new challenge (not dissimilar to the “Blind Go” Akira was challenged to by his jealous clubmates in Hikaru no Go) his eidetic memory and analytical prowess give him the upper hand over Chihaya. Not only does he soundly defeat her, but finds that he enjoys it a lot, and finally admits the truth to himself – he hates to lose.
The key moment of the episode was Taichi’s triumphant “Chihaya – I’m the one right across from you!” – but of course, he didn’t say it aloud. It’s not easy competing against a memory, but that’s the reality of Taichi’s challenge if he wants to win Chihaya for himself. As many driven, successful kids are, he’s obviously lacking in self-confidence, something this newfound taste of glory will hopefully help him overcome. The math for Chihaya is simpler – she was dominating, and now she lost. For her it’s a matter of doing what she always does, taking on a new challenge and figuring out a way to beat it. But for Taichi it’s everything – not just the chance to win a game but to finally be useful to Chihaya and feel good about himself for something that actually matters to him.
As for Tsutomu, his introduction wasn’t as compelling as that of Kanade, if for no other reason than that we didn’t get nearly as much backstory in his case. But his character has a lot of potential, given that at the moment he seems to be a totally unexpressed person. Karuta will likely provide him with the opportunity to forge an identity beyond the caricature his classmates have imposed on him, one that he seems to have largely bought into himself. It’ll be interesting to see what approach he takes to the sport, given that he’s lacking the left-brain dexterity of Taichi, the physical talent of Chihaya or Kanade’s passion for the game itself. Will he find a way to make his grinder mentality work for him on the tatami, or will he adapt and change to find a way to compete?
We’re four down and one to go as far as club members, so I expect that part of the story to warp up fairly soon. I also don’t think we’ll see Arata for a while, so the next big thing I’m really looking for is some deeper exploration of Chihaya. She’s been a vastly entertaining character, passionate, beautiful and full of endearing and very odd quirks. She’s a great physical comedienne, too. But we haven’t gotten into her head much, really – rather, we’ve mostly watched her from a slight distance as she wears her passions on her sleeve. It’s Chihaya who’s driven the narrative, but in some ways it’s Taichi who’s been the POV character – we’ve spent much more time inside his thoughts and come to understand his insecurities and desires in a much more profound way than we have with Chihaya (or Arata, for that matter). I wonder if that understanding might come from a deeper exploration of Chihaya’s relationship with her sister, as I think it’s a bit early for major developments on the romantic front. I think it’s possible that she’ll always be mostly a sort of force of nature as seen through Taichi’s eyes, and something of a mystery. The series has been great so far while operating using that approach so I won’t complain if that’s the case.