I’d have to say this is a good season on balance, especially as there are several excellent shows (four on Monday alone) that have a chance to make my top 10 list for 2012. But the same thing is true that’s always been true about Chihayafuru – this is the show I look forward to most every week. This is the show I enjoy watching most, the show which touches me emotionally in the deepest way. In much the same way it combines the best elements of shoujo and shounen, it also successfully combines so many narrative styles – comedy, romance, drama, action. It might not be the funniest or scariest or most exciting series on the air (although it might just be, in that last case) but it’s the one that masters all those elements in the most skillful way. To paraphrase Taichi’s catch phrase, Chihayfuru is a Jack of all Trades, and Master of all.
It was inevitable that when Arata re-entered the story in a meaningful way it was going to be dramatic, but Chihayafuru really did the moment justice when it finally happened at the Yoshino Qualifier. Of course as always, the timing was the worst humanly possible for Taichi. If that poor boy goes to the shrine on New Year’s his fortune must say “bad luck” every time, because timing is not his friend. With Chihaya – told she’s about to fail out and be forced to repeat a year – and Nishida studying under the watchful eye of tutor Tsutomu-kun, Taichi – who was the only one who had more at stake than simple practice for the Eastern Master/Queen Qualifier – went to Yoshino on his own to take his last chance to make the leap to Class A. And it seemed to be going well, as he breezed through his first two matches. But then, this is Taichi, so you knew it would all blow up in his face. Harada-sensei points out that Arata has come to compete at the worst moment for Taichi – and even worse, Arata hands Taichi his phone number and E-mail to give to Chihaya. Arata didn’t do it on purpose but that was the worst thing he could have done, and Taichi’s concentration is shattered, causing him to lose in the third round. As this is happening Arata is competing in the Class A tournament (along with Harada-sensei) and Chihaya has ditched Tsutomu, racing off to Yoshino to root for Taichi. Tsutomu’s response to this is a simple and concise text about running away from responsibilities, but the point still hits home.
Here’s where things got intense, sad, and ironic. Taichi was naturally devastated at his loss, distraught at losing his last chance to jump to Class A before the Eastern Qualifier and at having let Arata blow his concentration. Chihaya has gone to Yoshino because, in her own words, she was “worried about Taichi being alone after he won or lost” – yet as soon as Taichi told her Arata was there, she forgot completely about Taichi and let him suffer alone. Not that she displayed any overt romantic feelings for Arata – it was more about studying his Karuta and the reunion of the three childhood friends – but still pretty insensitive on her part (when Tsutomu asks later if Taichi was depressed, she can’t even remember). Yet, being insensitive is so intrinsically part of who she is that I’m not sure Chihaya can be any other way. More than any of the others in the cast, Chihaya is stuck in childhood – her approach to life and to Karuta is simple, direct and often thoughtless. It’s only now that she’s realizing the impact this has on her Karuta – perhaps that will lead her to realize that her personal growth is a victim of her immaturity, too.
As for Arata, he loses to Hiroshi (from Harada’s Shiranami Society – Harada loses in the semi-finals). But then the real drama begins, as he meets up with Taichi. Arata even goes so far as to mention to Taichi – after the latter dries his tears and insists that Arata give Chihaya his number himself – that he hesitated to give his number to Chihaya because he wasn’t sure if she and Taichi were a couple, a notion the startled Taichi denies quickly. There are so many emotional repercussions happening here that it’s staggering – Arata’s effective declaration that he’s interested, Taichi’s effective admission that Chihaya is still available, and the larger dynamic of the three of then being together playing Karuta again. As Taichi himself says, while part of him was angry at Arata, another part of him was thrilled to see him, and to have the old team back together again. I might even go so far as to suggest that in a way, this is the nudge Taichi needed to make his feelings known to Chihaya himself – I get the sense that he was hesitant to do so in Arata’s absence, as it would have been unfair of him to do so and a sort of tainted victory in any case.
The mangaka certainly isn’t doing us any favors in terms of mixed messages. Kana drags Chihaya home to study, and on the way she reads a poem from The Tale of Genji which she states “sounds like a love poem, but is actually about a childhood friend – it sounds just like Arata”. If there’s a theme overriding the episode it’s personal responsibility, and Tsutomu sums it up by quietly scolding Chihaya when she returns – “You have to do the things you don’t want to do before you can do the things you truly want to do.” The words hit home in context – Taichi is the example Tsutomu uses, for the way he works hard at Karuta and manages to rank at the top of his class in grades anyway – and Chihaya takes the message and promises to do what she needs to do not to be held back a grade.
But those words could just as easily be applied to Taichi – what he really wants to do it tell Chihaya he loves her. But before that, he needs to grow up – to accept that he’s been afraid of commitment for his entire life, and to face Arata head on in a battle for Chihaya’s heart rather then hope that battle never comes. Indeed the best scene of the episode is actually the one on the platform between Harada-sensei and Taichi, where Harada offers Taichi the opportunity to advance to Class A based on his two second-place finishes in Class B tournaments – something Taichi has earned by right, and which both Nishida and Arata were surprised did not happen. Harada-sensei is very quietly a wonderful character, and he sees what’s happening in Taichi’s heart. The following exchange of dialogue astonishingly captures the very essence of the series and these characters and where they stand, in a few simple words. As Harada thinks to himself “Frustration won’t last forever. Nobody can keep on going without some measure of reward”, an announcement comes over the PA that “an empty train is passing on platform two”. And after a moment Taichi laughs and replies simply that, no, Harada shouldn’t break the society rule and promote him because he’s “Not so much focused on making Class A as becoming someone who doesn’t run away.”
That scene – Harada’s thoughts, the station announcer’s message, Taichi’s reply, Harada-sensei’s reaction – is probably the best I’ve seen in any anime this season. Every thought I’d had about Taichi’s journey (many of which I expressed in last week’s post) was captured in this simple exchange, and it completely validates the experience of watching this series and responding to the character the way so many have. That’s spectacular writing, truly rare and special – maybe the best in a consistently well-written series. It looks at this point as if the anime will wrap up at the Eastern Qualifier, with Arata and Shinobu joining Chihaya in the tournament – but I can’t help but wonder what Taichi’s role in that drama will be. My faith in both the mangaka and the director is strong, and I can only trust that Taichi won’t be an afterthought in that final drama. But for Taichi’s fans as well as the character himself, frustration can’t last forever – indeed, we can’t keep going forever without some measure of reward…