For my money Chihayafuru and Fate/Zero have been the most consistent new series of the Fall, by far. While it’s an oversimplification to say F/Z appeals to the mind and this show to the heart – there’s plenty of crossover – for me the lure of Chihayafuru is much more of an emotional one. Where this series is really shining is in the depiction of its major characters as complicated, layered and sometimes puzzling people. We’ve seen every major character introduced continue to evolve and grow, becoming more human and more interesting in the process, and that’s even starting to extend to some of the second-tier characters like Retro-kun and Miyauchi-sensei. That should be easier than it is, but the fact that very few series are able to pull it off testifies to the fact that it’s damn hard. Of course there’s more to it than that – the series has a very clever visual style and while it isn’t as slick and polished as F/Z, the backgrounds and character designs are my favorites of any show this season.
It’s pretty heartbreaking to watch Chihaya at home, and not so much for the obvious reason that her family is so consumed with Chitose that they barely seem to acknowledge her – though that’s bad enough – but because she’s so lacking in self-worth that she can’t even bring herself to tell them about the stupendous accomplishment of the Mizusawa team. Not only that, she’s afraid to ask them for money to travel to Omi-jingu for the Nationals. In many ways Chihaya and Taichi are at the polar extremes of the bad parenting spectrum – her family takes no notice of her achievements, and his puts extreme pressure on him and derides him as a failure if he doesn’t win (yet another reason they’re perfect for each other, but I digress). So the payoff when Chihaya discovered that her Dad, Kenji (Ohara Takashi) had found the news story detailing the team win was well-earned – Chihaya had every right to those tears, but it’s still sad as hell that he only knew because he found it himself. Was he discretely following her progress and searching for the article, or did he happen upon it by chance?
It doesn’t help that Miyauchi-sensei – henceforth known as The Empress – seems to have no more interest in the club’s success than Chihaya’s family, even fawning off the “job” of accompanying them to Ume-jingu to a junior teacher so she can attend a tennis camp. That changes when she sees the passion they bring to practice, but the message is clear – everything this team gets they’re going to earn. Karuta is an anonymous sport to most of the population, and inside the small community of the game Mizusawa is a nobody, and everyone will expect them to lose. That’s why I appreciated the very Oofuri-like scenes early in the episode, where we saw what the pain of losing did to Hokuo and Retro especially, and that Retro gave all the team’s research for Nationals to Taichi as an act of support for their fellow Edoites. I mentioned in last week’s impressions that I felt the characterization of the Hokuo team wasn’t Chihayafuru’s best moment, as they were a bit of a stock villain – so those scenes were especially welcome here.
It’s going to be interesting to see if there’s any tension with the Mizusawa team as they grow and develop. While Taichi is the leader and Chihaya the ace and inspiration, the fact is that Nishida is the most experienced and accomplished in the group, and in fact the only one who has experience at Omi-jingu. He’s been happy enough to be a supporting player up to now, but he’s experienced and good and he has an ego (he has a right to one) and we can see that he has very definite views on teaching the youngsters. Taichi sensed at once that his direction to Kanade was probably wrong – while she’d come up with a system that worked for her (organizing the card placement into seasons – adorable) he quickly dismissed it and pushed her back to a more conventional approach. Maybe Nishida’s right that her way can’t work at the Nationals level, but it was working for her – it helped her see the game in the context that made sense to her. The whole poem is important to Kanade, not just the first few syllables. She even quotes her favorite poem which is – gasp! – not one of the “One Hundred”. One size fits all probably isn’t going to work as a training tool in most cases, and certainly not for Kana-chan.
That’s the conundrum the team finds itself in. Kanade and Tsutomu are still liabilities, as hard as they’re trying, and even Taichi and Chihaya have a long way to go. Harada-sensei and the #2 player at the Karuta Society easily dispatched them, temporarily shattering Chihaya’s confidence. Taichi set her straight for the moment (he really knows her better than anyone else in the world, it seems) but that lack of experience is sure to breed serious nerves. Basically, in order for the team to have any real chance Chihaya, Nishida and Taichi have to win every match. Unless, of course, one of the chibis pulls off a miracle – and that’s why it’s so nice that Tsutomu and Kanade are really emerging as co-leads more than supporting characters, because they’re going to be critical. Kana-chan’s idealism and love for aesthetics is one of the most genuine parts of the series, and with Tsutomu it’s really a matter of pure desire – he wants to succeed so badly it’s almost painful to see the way he glows with every small triumph and word of praise. He’s a boy who’s not accustomed to failing, and even less accustomed to being treated with kindness. For him, everything about the Karuta experience is new.
The larger plot pretty much took a week off here, with only a brief cameo by Arata in Chihaya’s memory, which makes it all the more impressive that the show didn’t skip a beat. But I have a suspicion that, one way or another, a bishie from Fukui is going to show up at that shrine…