As speculated here last week, the “fated meeting” on the shrine steps last week was indeed with The Queen, also knows as Wakamiya Shinobu (Nakamichi Mihoko), and she’s the main focus of this week’s fast-paced all-Karuta episode. The Queen is a bit of an odd duck – a fellow competitor notes that she’s “Cute but has the fashion sense of a rock”. Indeed, she arrives for the individual competition in a “Snowmaru” T-shirt (his topknot is his best feature) and her only hiccup during her second-round match with Chihaya is when she goes all fangirl over Chihaya’s “Daddybear” shirt.
This matchup is the focus of most of the episode and fittingly so, as it represents Chihaya’s real step-up to the big leagues of Karuta. Chihaya wins her first-round match easily enough, but The Queen wins hers – against the shota from Hokuo High – while losing but a single card. Conveniently the two end up paired in the second round, and it’s a fascinating look at the psyche of both girls. Shinobu is calm, collected and deadly – she plays a defensive style that takes few chances and isn’t too creative. But she makes up for it with her preposterously quick reflexes, at one point even managing to take a card on Chihaya’s side that she’d been covering. Chihaya is actually quicker to react to the reader (especially given their placement right next to her) but The Queen is so fast that she takes cards just by waiting until she’s sure which one has been called. She also seems bored by Karuta – arrogant, yes, but genuinely sad when her opponents go away in the middle of a match, broken and defeated.
Chihaya seems to have learned from her panic attack during the team matches, as she’s somewhat calmer here even in the face of looming defeat. Rather than panicking she recalls the advice of “Obi-wan” Harada, who appears before her with pearls of wisdom. She analyzes why she’s losing, even adopting Sudo’s technique of standing up during the match when under duress – which allows her to note Shinobu’s left-handedness. But even so she’s seemingly on the verge of dismay until an inadvertent switching-off of the lights leads to her noticing Taichi and The Empress watching her play. Inspired, she recalls Harada-sensei’s advice about taking a card from her opponent’s strong zone, and the worm seems about to turn when she takes her first cards.
One trend I don’t especially like is that the series seems to be abandoning the Karuta of the other team members in favor of focusing 100% on Chihaya. It turns out that all five are playing, with Taichi and Nishida in Class B and the chibis in Class D, but apart from a brief look-in on Taichi and Nishida after they’ve won their first match (Taichi is able to watch Chihaya because he wins his second in a walkover, for reasons unexplained – an odd number of players, perhaps?) we get no time dedicated to any of the other players. That’s too bad, as the series did a fine job building up interest in them both as people and Karuta players – I love Chihaya but I want this show to be more “Mizusawa no Karuta” than “Chihaya no Karuta”. The Empress does seem to be getting into the swing of things and promises to film everyone’s matches, but we see her only in the Class A room. As for Arata, he makes no appearance this week – leaving us to wonder if he’ll show up again to support Chihaya before the end of the tournament.
It was always obvious that we weren’t going to get anything like a complete telling of this ongoing manga in two cours, but it’s becoming quite clear now that what we’re getting is only scratching the surface. Chihayafuru was never going to be a big seller on BD/DVD, so the longshot hope for second season was always dependent mostly on a boost in manga sales. So far we’ve seen a modest though not overwhelming one, and indeed BD sales are minimal, so it’s not looking great. Frankly, I find it hard to see how Madhouse can even do an anime-original ending based on where we are with 10 eps to go, but we’ll see. In the short-term, while it’s exciting to see Chihaya rally her spirits and battle The Queen, I really hope she doesn’t win this match as I think that would be pretty unrealistic. It’s enough that she push Shinobu and catch her interest, creating a long-term rivalry. In the meantime, please show me the others as I’m dying to see how they’re doing – especially Taichi. I think he’s better at this game than he realizes and it’s high-time he starts worrying about his own chances more than Chihaya’s, as he’s probably very close to being a Class A player himself – in Karuta, if not in love…