This was pretty much a full-bore shounen episode, action-packed from start to finish, yet as this show so often does it managed to sneak quite a bit of subtle character drama – romantic and otherwise – in as well. It acted as something of a progress check for Mizusawa’s Karuta team (they passed) as well as a chance to start tying many plot strands together. Mostly it was just an exciting thrill ride (who’d have thought I’d ever be saying that about karuta?) and a chance for the team members to prove themselves not by winning alone, but by becoming part of a larger purpose.
While I doubt many of us were surprised by the outcome, there was certainly some heart-pounding drama watching it unfold. Hokuo was indeed a formidable team, with two Class “A” players including “S is for Sadist” Sudo-kun (Ohara Takashi), who seems to inherit the mantle of the episode’s designated asshat (though to be fair, pretty much everyone on that team seems to be a jerk). Interestingly, Chihaya – probably for the first time in the series – shows the ability to step outside herself and really analyze a larger dynamic when Taichi is overthinking the playing order. Her logic makes perfect sense – calm and loud-spoken Taichi in the center, with the newbies close at hand on either side where he can support them, and the aces Chihaya and Nishida on the outside trying to wrap up quick wins. I loved that moment because it was one of the few signs of real growth we’ve seen from Chihaya so far, though as it turned out it was largely moot as Retro-kun’s “Retrot” cards seem to be infallible at predicting the other team’s playing order. Sudo-kun got the matchup he wanted – Chihaya – and so did Retro-kun, Taichi.
Another wonderful moment was the little meeting between Taichi and Harada-sensei (who seems to be in the middle of a lot of those) before the final match. Taichi admits his failure as a leader because of the way he unwittingly unsettled Chihaya in the semi-final match, but states his resolve to do better. As Harada watches Taichi literally take Tsutomu and Kanade under his wing, he realizes what Taichi doesn’t – that he’s already grown tremendously from the boy he was when they met. Mainly in the sense that he’s no longer the ultimate “play-it-safe” kid – never extending himself too much, only taking on what he knows he can conquer. Now Taichi is laying it all on the line, embracing the unknown and facing possible failure, but at the same time he’s more passionate than he’s ever been. Obviously for Chihaya, but also for the game and especially for the team.
Everyone on the team faces a harsh test during this match with Hokuo. For the newbies it’s mostly a matter of being in over their heads and still going all-out, and staying strong for their teammates. The highlight here was definitely seeing Tsutomu fight like a little bulldog when he feels he’s been cheated out of a taken card by his opponent. For Nishida, it’s an old foe that he used to dominate when they were kids, but has now achieved the “A” level that Nishida has not. No, he didn’t really do an Immelmann Turn, but Nishida did launch a perfect barrel roll at the crucial moment in the match, inspiring himself and his team. Taichi shows his true strength – not the instinct and athleticism of Chihaya or the keen board sense of Nishida, but his relentless competitive fire and keen memory, and he heartbreakingly yearns to become the “backbone of the team”. And for Chihaya, it’s a matter of outlasting Sudo’s petty mind games and maintaining her composure – always her biggest challenge in karuta – and staying on the attack. The Hokuo team wasn’t among Chihayafuru’s best work – they come off more as stock villains than interesting opponents and the Retrot cards seem a bit preposterous in this context.
The payoff for me wasn’t the much-expected win, but the group hug afterwards (and it was impossible not to notice how tightly Taichi was hugging Chihaya, even if she’d already gone catatonic). There’s no longer any question that this is a team, even if they aren’t all on the same level as karuta players. Of course, it was very notable that Arata made his first extended appearance in the series for weeks – we get a look at him working at the bookstore, whose only customer appears to be a cat. When he uses the store computer to check his email he has no less than 49 messages from Chihaya, leading right up to her dispatches from the tournament. And Arata takes the time to read every one of them, including the one with the team picture after their victory. If you’re an Arata backer this was a good week, for even though he was on-screen for only a few moments there were quite a few flags – the way Chihaya reacted when she saw his strategy in Sudo’s moves (“Did I just make her fall for me?” I think not, S-kun) for one.
I suspect we’re getting close to a new stage now, and Arata is going to become a real player in events and not just a mostly unseen presence. One way or another he’s going to be at that National Tournament – we’ve seen no indication that he’s formed or joined a team at his school, though I wouldn’t rule it out. Even if he hasn’t I expect he’ll show up to watch, and I suspect that’s going to be incredibly bittersweet. There’s something very special growing not just (though especially) between Chihaya and Taichi but between all five members of the Mizusawa team, and fair or not, Arata isn’t a part of that. When he comes back into the picture everything is going to change, and the bonds that have built over the last few episodes are going to be severely tested.