Well, that was a jaw-dropping, leg-twitching, GAR-packed, heart-pounding epic of an episode if ever I saw one. Frankly, it pretty much out-shounened any shounen series for ages. Every time I hear someone complaining about how there haven’t been any good shounen sports anime in the last few years I just shake my head, because there’s one right under their noses, even if it gets classified as something else. And this episode had about everything you could ask for – action, drama, rivalry, tears – and a little shoujo romantic drama at the end to tie it all together. It also continued Chihayafuru’s run of providing some of the best-looking animation of the year, especially as regards the faces of the characters.
I regret that we probably won’t get to see the eventual battle royale between Taichi and Arata over Chihaya’s heart animated, because I think it’s going to be a classic. But while much of the episode was a glorious showcase for Bishounen #1, we still had a great deal of superb development in another budding rivalry to start with, that of Chihaya vs. The Queen. And what a fascinating character Shinobu is. As I’d hoped we didn’t get an unrealistic miracle win for Chihaya, but a 20-card stomping by Shinobu, who proved herself up to the challenge Chihaya presented her. Indeed, she seemed genuinely angered at the temerity of another girl in taking five cards from her, but also thrilled – understandable, as she’s probably been unchallenged since Arata stepped away from the sport. No doubt she’ll play even better now that she has a rival on the horizon, and she defeated Sudo by 12 cards (if you’re keeping score, 8 less than Chihaya) for the Class A title.
All things considered, Chihaya took it pretty well. Once she’d proven herself by taking a couple of cards, she seemed to have a little more perspective on the situation, and of how much work she had to do to catch up to Shinobu. Rather than breaking down when it was over, she replayed the match over and over in her head, crying yes – but tears of determination and frustration, not despair. Indeed, I think it might even be possible that she and Shinobu could become friends, as Shinobu seemed genuinely interested in this weird girl who has superhuman hearing and recognized the name of the snowman on her shirt, that she didn’t even know herself.
We saw a bit of the difference between Taichi and Chihaya here, both in terms of empathy and maturity. Chihaya is single-minded to a fault, and still very much wrapped up in her own worldview. It must in fairness be pointed out that while Taichi watched her match, Chihaya didn’t spare a thought for watching any of her teammates – not until Kanade told her than she and Tsutomu had lost in the third round, but that Taichi was playing for the Class B title – at which point he’d played three matches since Chihaya was eliminated. Taichi in contrast nearly missed his own third-round match in his dismay over her defeat – as Taichi noted, he was more upset about her losing than she was – but that’s Taichi, and the difference in their regard for the other is a real issue, in far more important arenas than just the Karuta ring.
As for Taichi, he once again showed why I consider him the true hero of the series. It took longer to get a look at one of the other Mizaswa players in action than I’d wanted, but it was well-worth the wait because his internal struggle was epic. Taichi – in part thanks to another remarkable performance by Mamoru Miyano – is an early frontrunner for best male character of 2012. “Desperado” indeed – the kid is a warrior through and through. His way is to work harder, think harder, and never give up – there’s no question he’s getting more out of his natural ability than any of the other Karuta players in the cast. As he plays, he lives – taking the path of greater resistance, plowing ahead, and suffering mostly in silence as he supports the others. When they break down in tears at his three-card defeat, he wills himself – almost but not quite successfully – to hold back his own tears and be strong for them.
The fact that he can’t quite do it is just one reason why this is a watershed moment for Taichi. Driven to succeed or secede by his parents, Taichi has always resisted putting himself in emotional jeopardy, but when he says “this is the day” he doesn’t just mean Karuta. True, his commitment to do whatever it takes to catch up to Arata in the arena is a vital step, because it means accepting failure and learning from it. But even more, I think he realizes he’s going to have to take the biggest risk of all and try to win Chihaya’s heart, despite the deck being stacked so heavily against him – it’s no coincidence that the first card we see in his match is “I recall how my own efforts were in vain”. In my view, Taichi could always see that he’d probably lose to Arata if he openly pursued Chihaya – so in his typical fashion, he longed silently for her and concerned himself with what he knew he could handle. This is the change in him, in Karuta and life – even if he probably can’t win, Taichi has resolved to fight. He’s probably going to lose and it’s gonna break his heart (mine, too) when it happens, but that won’t lessen my regard for the character one bit.
Inside the arena and out, it’s clear Arata is back, and back to stay. He’s joined the Fukui Karuta Society, and while Chihaya is dreaming of Shinobu, of Arata she says she doesn’t dream – she wants to meet him in real life. And meet they will, at Karuta and otherwise, and it’s sure to be powerful and dramatic when it happens. How much of all that we see in the anime and how much we’ll have to turn to the manga to see, I can’t say – but regardless of where it leaves the story, Chihayafuru is a very special series.