After the emotional intensity of the last few episodes, it was almost inevitable that Chihayafuru would have a little breather somewhere – and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. While I’ve more or less accepted that we’re unlikely to see a significant movement with any of the three potential romantic pairings in the anime, the tension is sure to be at a screaming pitch for those last couple of episodes anyway. There was a certain calm before the storm feel to this one, and frankly, I needed it – and “calm” doesn’t mean nothing important happened.
For starters (after I did a little spit-take seeing Chihaya looking like this) we had the aftermath of exams, which Chihaya apparently passed by keeping her word about avoiding Karuta until they were done. The Empress was thrilled for her, and I was happy to see the first thing Chihaya did was go to Tsutomu-kun and humbly thank him. We haven’t seen many signs of actual personal growth from her, and this one is significant. However, I thought Nishida more or less stole the intro with his reaction to Taichi’s rather remarkable feat of calling the cards completely by memory. Nishida is still guilty of trying to get everyone to play Karuta as he does, but his advice to Taichi was sound – memory isn’t everything. If Chihaya was guilty of trying to rely solely on her physical skills, Taichi – as is so often the case with those two – was just the opposite, refusing even to practice swinging because it’s not dignified. What really stands out, though, is how much Nishida has come to like and admire Taichi, and how deeply he – like so many of us (and Harada-sensei) – wants to see Taichi’s hard work rewarded. In guy terms, that was a pretty powerful declaration of bro-hood.
But the main focus of the ep was the Eastern Qualifier, and thus Chihaya – especially after Nishida lost to Sudo the Sadist in the first round . While she was susceptible to mind games as ever, letting Sudo distract her (no matter how much is floating around Chihaya’s brain there’s always room for Daddybear) and then bait her into making a bet that whichever of them loses first has to shave their head, the real story was her opponent. That was Ririka (Ohtani Ikue), a sixth-grade prodigy touted as the next challenger to the Queen. In Ririka we have a player exactly the opposite of Chihaya’s last opponent, Sakura – a woman past her prime who relied on timing and experience to win. Ririka even more than the old Chihaya relies on speed alone, and while Chihaya is trying to follow Harada-sensei’s advice not to take cards with speed, she’s in a dogfight. It’s only when he signals her to unleash the beast that Chihaya is able to teach the youngster a lesson and carry the day pretty easily.
There’s no question that Chihaya saw a lot of herself in that little girl, and it was the both of them in tears when the match ended. Again, personal growth is a theme for Chihaya this week, and empathy is a huge part of maturity. Seeing Chihaya bond with Ririka and defend her from the insulting whisperers gives me hope that Chihaya really is growing, and that she might use that newfound empathy to see what’s so obvious to us – that Taichi loves her and it’s killing him not to tell her so. In terms of her Karuta, I still see the same dilemma she had before. Harada says, he wants to give her all the weapons he can – game sense, timing, speed, situational awareness… Only with all those will she be able to challenge Shinobu. Yet it’s clear her speed is still her best weapon in a tight match. The message, it seems to me, is that Chihaya isn’t quite ready to challenge the likes of Shinobu, Arata and the Master. As in any good sports shounen, you have to try and fail a few times before you achieve your goal. She’s already won the “Queen” title when it comes to facial expressions, though – this one would do Sasuke from Hyouge Mono proud.
Lastly, there’s the matter of Arata – and the role he continues to play in Taichi’s psyche. He wins his first match in the Western Qualifier, but his idol Murao-san, formely the strongest player in the Nagumo Society and national runner-up, lost. It’s clear that Murao is drifting away from Karuta and that his chance at glory has passed him by, and this hits Arata pretty hard – perhaps even prompting a thought of his grandfather as he sees another of his heroes fall away. Murao even gives a name to the current Master for what I believe is the first time in the series – Suo Hisashi. Meanwhile Taichi is agonizing over what to tell Arata in his email message, aside from “Chihaya won her first match” – and he finally settles on “My goal is to become the Eastern qualifier finalist, so you better become the Western qualifier finalist”. That had to be brutal for Taichi to write, knowing he wasn’t even able to play this year. I don’t think there’s any question that Arata is more important to Taichi than vice-versa, probably to an unhealthy degree – he continues to define himself far too much by the comparison. Where Chihaya is concerned and otherwise, Taichi needs to focus on himself and if not to forget Arata, to stop measuring everything he does against him. It seems to me that this represents a huge step in his journey to be, as he puts it, someone who doesn’t run away.