I know this is just an anime, and the way we interpret it is a matter of opinion and subject to personal tastes. But I’ll say this – anyone who wants to argue that Chihaya doesn’t belong with Taichi, I’ll fight you right now. Name the time, name the place – I’ll be there. And in true shounen style, I’m willing to battle to the death.
I was really digging this episode, and ready to call it a solid success for the way it built on the last few and brought new insight into the Karuta Club, both as a group and as individuals. But then the last five minutes happened, and made it one of my favorite episodes of the season. More on that coming up, but while it’s tempting to forget everything that come before that epic finale, there was important stuff going on. Starting with the Miyauchi-sensei (Fujita Toshiko) proclaiming that she’d make the club official, but only if Chihaya isn’t the President. It’s easy to dismiss this as her just being a vindictive bitch, and she’s certainly given no indication so far that she’s anything else. But partly because I don’t think this is that kind of series, I wonder if there wasn’t more to it than that.
Part of me thinks she might have been doing the club a favor, by forcing them to choose Taichi, in the knowledge that Chihaya isn’t temperamentally suited to be the President. And indeed the events in the clubroom and at Taichi’s house seem to bear that out. Chihaya is an amazing athlete with incredible, single-minded dedication, but her first thought isn’t necessarily how the other person might be feeling. Let’s face it, she’s a battering ram, a tornado – and just because a training method might work for her that doesn’t mean it would work for anyone else. Taichi on the other hand is measured, patient and sensitive. He provides a much-needed break from Chihaya’s unbridled, one-speed-fits-all enthusiasm. As Nishida said, there’s nothing wrong with having a pushy person around (though I wish she’d ditch the “Pork Bun”) but I don’t know if that’s the person you want as your President.
Fortunately Chihaya names herself Captain, and this contrastingly styled leadership seems to be off to a good start. Tsutomu and Kanade are rank beginners, but between their own stubbornness, Taichi’s patient instruction and Chihaya’s inspiration it seems possible they’ll get strong enough to help her achieve her dream of winning the Tokyo Regionals as a team and finding their way to the national tournament at Omi-Jingu, the “Koshien of Karuta” as Nishida calls it. Now, I suspect that when they get there, they may meet a team from Fukui, with a boy who resumed playing Karuta without telling his old friends from Tokyo, assuming he’d never seen them at Omi… But that’s speculation and a pure guess on my part.
With the episode’s transition to Taichi’s house, things got exceptionally interesting. Once again we see how Chihaya seems very much still the child she was, breathlessly announcing that she’s going to Taichi’s room to see what new stuff he might have acquired in the last few years. Naturally, he stops her – “You shouldn’t go running to a guy’s room like that.” But whether he was hiding a birthday cake or something else altogether in there, the point about the difference in their maturity level is clear enough. Chihaya is at her unfiltered best telling Kana-chan that she doesn’t like Taichi’s Mom, who she calls “Mrs. Pressure” for the way she treats her son. The “camp” is interesting, as Chihaya works Tsutomu and Kanade to exhaustion before Taichi puts a stop to it. But when Taichi’s mother arrives home with his little sister in tow, eagle-ears Chihaya hears her before she’s even at the door and hustles Kanade out the back door, lest Mrs. Pressure discover to her horror that Taichi had girls over.
What happens next is so effective for a number of reasons, first of which that it comes out of left field, with no foreshadowing in the episode. But it’s also full of fascinating and heartbreaking implications, and tells us a lot about the characters on our screen. While it’s Chihaya’s birthday, she’s made no mention of it whatsoever – but Taichi remembers. Not only that, he calls Kanade and has her drag Chihaya out into the night to hold the surprise sweet 16 party he’d planned all along, except now it’s on a picnic table by the river. Of course it says a lot about Taichi that he remembered after not seeing Chihaya for three years, but I think it’s also significant that Chihaya thought so little of it that she said nothing, assuming everyone had forgotten – and indeed, it seems logical to assume that Chihaya’s self-absorbed sister and sister-absorbed mother did forget. In that moment you can see in Chihaya’s eyes that she knows how important she is to Taichi, and the depth of their bond in never stronger – but like a bolt of lightning, Arata strikes out of the blue by sending a birthday message for Taichi to pass along. Arata always, invariably seems to find a way to interject himself into the moment just when Taichi is closest to Chihaya.
Poor Taichi – it’s much easier to fight a man than a memory, and Arata can forever remain a perfect ideal in Chihaya’s eyes, frozen in time as he was when they parted. But at least Taichi can eat the cake Chihaya offers him and share an indirect kiss, something a guy in Fukui can’t do, before he shows her the message. That was a pretty heartbreaking moment for Taichi, as his reaction showed, but I’m heartened that his actions and body language didn’t show surrender, but a willingness to fight. I’ve been defending Taichi from the beginning so I won’t claim impartiality, and I know the “poor little rich boy” trope is overplayed. But the thing is that while I love all the characters here – and I do – Taichi seems to be both the most real person in the cast and the heart of the series. He’s a somber, serious person really – but despite his actions as a child he’s proving over and over that he’s sensitive to others and that his feelings for Chihaya are completely genuine. Being Mrs. Pressure’s son has clearly had it’s impact, and he sometimes sags under the weight she places on him and that he places on himself. But we’ve gotten inside his head in a way we haven’t with any other character (I don’t see how that can’t mean something in the end) and the guy I see is a good soul who’s harder on himself than he is on anyone else.
Divine and I were chatting earlier about what a weak year it’s been for romance in anime – though a pretty good year overall – and I argued that Steins;Gate might just have been the best romance of the year so far, even though it’s not a romance series. Frankly I couldn’t think of a more compelling romance in 2011 than that of Okabe and Kurisu, but I’m starting to feel that way about Chihaya and Taichi. As with S;G this isn’t really a romance anime per se, but it’s certainly romantic – and I bring all this up now because it’s Miyano Mamoru at the heart of both series. It’s hard to imagine guys much more different than Okabe and Taichi, and I’ve really found new admiration for Miyano-san as an actor this year. It’s a credit to him that he can play totally different guys in totally different series, and be so likeable, believable and compelling in both.