I’m convinced at this point that grouchy old Miyauchi-sensei knew exactly what she was doing when she forced the Karuta Club to name Taichi as President. And right now, she looks like a friggin’ genius for doing it.
I’m quite struck with just how thoroughly Chihayafuru blends its genres to the point where even assigning one is meaningless. If you look it up, most places will tell you it’s a josei manga. But the art is as shoujo as you can get (in a good way) and the mechanics of the romantic plot feel very shoujo as well. But it’s also very much a sports shounen in the mold of Hikaru no Go or even Major, and I’d go so far as to say that Chihaya is very much filling the role of the shounen male lead. She’s the kid with the dream and the talent to back it up, a passionate purist for her sport who inspires people not with her words but with the force of her actions. She’s also almost unbelievably clueless when it comes to social niceties and the feelings of other people. It’s a thankless role in some ways, which is why so many male leads are ridiculed by readers/viewers, and in fact I’m very much of the opinion that if Chihaya were a boy, she’d be on the receiving end of a lot of fan hate for her cluelessness. But as Chase said to Adams on “House” last week, “Yeah, but you’re hot, so it’s easier to put up with.”
Mind you I often find myself defending those good-hearted but tone-deaf male leads as I have a soft spot for that kind of character, and I adore Chihaya in spite of her failings. That said, though, she’d be the worst possible person to lead a karuta club (or anything else at this point in her life) because she’s so single-minded and almost literally runs around with blinders on. Taichi, on the other hand, is continuing to show himself as a remarkably poised and sensitive kid. I have a theory (based on personal experience) that people who think too much tend to be more unhappy than people who don’t think very much, and Taichi certainly falls into the first category. He carries a lot on his shoulders because he’s considering the implications of everything that happens, but that quality makes him ideal as a club president.
Case in point this week was Tsutomu. It was great to see a focus on the two weakest (and though everyone on the team is of an age, they seem the youngest, too) team members, and both Kana – who seems to be nearing a record for most flower-framed close-ups – and Tsutomu had some great moments. Naturally both of them were a little overwhelmed at the prospect of their first tournament – not that it stopped Kana-chan from seizing the opportunity to turn the club into walking, perfectly-dressed billboards for her family’s traditional clothing business. But Kana took to the competition a little better than Tsutomu did, and even stole her first win. Understandably this made Tsutomu feel even worse, especially given the fact that he’d attacked karuta as he attacks everything, trying to beat it into submission with hard work. Unfortunately Chihaya was so focused on celebrating Kana and the team’s success through the early rounds that she didn’t see that Tsutomu was slipping deeper and deeper into a funk, while Taichi and Nishida seemed to sense trouble brewing.
While not being used to giving orders may have made Taichi hesitate, when Tsutomu cracked and announced he wasn’t needed and was leaving for the day he stepped in and salvaged the situation by ordering Tsutomu to sit out the semi-finals but play in the finals. Whether through instinct or calculation this was exactly the right move, as it gave Tsutomu – who would have been useless in the semi-finals in his state – a chance to reflect on his selfish actions, and the others to focus on pulling together to get through their match against an obnoxious opponent that relied more on shouting than skill. Here again, Taichi stepped in to right the ship when Chihaya was faltering as a result of her guilt over Tsutomu’s breakdown. By deliberating spraying a slew of cards across the room, he gave himself a chance to get up and give the others the pep talk and pat on the head they desperately needed to get their mojo back. Whether he knows it or not, Taichi has the makings of a natural leader.
As it stands, Mizusawa is through to the finals based on Chihaya, Taichi and Nishida going undefeated – though Chihaya cut it close in the semi-final and had to fight back from being down eight cards to two. Nishida appears to be just as strong as ever, solid and unshakeable at the center of the team, and Taichi seems to have benefited from all those drubbings by Chihaya. As for the noobs, Kana-chan is clearly the further advanced at this point, having won her first match and come close a second time. The matches were interesting to follow, and the show is showing itself capable of some very exciting tournament episodes. As in Go, much of the strategy comes from the playing order – trying to find the matchups most beneficial to your team via a blind draw, even if that means trying to place your weakest player (Tsutomu) where you think the opponent’s “A” player will be and effectively throwing that match as a trade-off for better matchups in the others. In the finals awaits a very powerful team including old nemesis Kinashi “Retro” Hiro (Nakai Kazuya) and a mysterious sadist (“I like to toy with pretty girls”) that’s made the Nationals five years running.
What really sets Chihayafuru apart is the genre-bending romantic undercurrent that runs through everything that happens, adding a tension to seemingly simple actions and words. The others on the team are slowly becoming aware of this, too – they see the tension in Taichi’s face whenever Arata is mentioned, and the boys know something of the backstory – Nishida has even come to the same conclusion I have, that Chihaya started the club so that she could meet Arata at Nationals. Chihaya has been texting Arata, it seems, though she’s getting no response, and indeed wonders why Arata sent her birthday greetings through Taichi. Taichi thinks he knows, though – the issue being that he and Arata both believe that Chihaya “belongs” to both of them. Even Chihaya, dense as dwarf-star alloy (a cookie for anyone who can spot the reference) when it comes to human feelings, has picked up that something is bothering Taichi – though of course she doesn’t appear to have figured out what that actually is. There even seems to be a discernible chemistry building between Kanade and Tsutomu, who shared an intense moment in the hallway after the semifinal win. Baby steps, I suppose – for all concerned…