I’m a bit conflicted about the direction the series has taken the last couple of weeks, and looks to be following for the final three. On the one hand, these episodes have been extremely entertaining, and each new character the series rolls out is an interesting and complicated individual. On the other, though, I wonder if we’ll look back and say the series emotionally peaked around episode 20, on that train platform. At least from a Karuta standpoint it appears the focus is going to be on minor characters, and on the one central character who’s been absent for most of the series.
While last week was all about Chihaya’s first-round opponent Ririka, a 12 year-old, this time it’s a dramatic swing in the other direction as her opponent is Yamamoto Yumi. Yumi is a different sort of Karuta player – an adult college graduate with a full-time job, and someone who wins by grit and tenacity but whose passion may be waning. She also just happens to be the former Queen, having lost her title (and confidence) to then 15 year-old Shinobu. She’s a member of the same society as Nishida and the Chibis, under the tutelage of Harada-sensei’s arch-rival Kitano-sensei (Satou Kensuke). Yumin is fascinating in her own right, but also in terms of the dilemma she places Nishida in – does he root for his friend and club colleague, or the star of his society and his sempai? Nishida’s loyalties seem to waver during the match, and I know he’ll take some heat for that but I can sympathize – mine did too.
Why? It’s hard not to feel something for Yumin, who worked so hard to achieve the title that Shinobu snatched away so easily. And hard not to feel sadness at watching her crumble along with her confidence and her dreams under the force of the younger, faster and more driven Chihaya. But her trademark tenacity came through, arguably with a little help from Kitano-sensei who violated the rules big-time by opening the window and shouting encouragement. But as Yumi said, that probably helped “every simple-minded player in the room” more than it did her – it was mostly her pride that drove her forward. But her tenacity showed an ugly side as “The Contestant” came out – the persona she’d shed as too undignified for the Queen. She contested every card verbally, made a ruckus and generally got inside Chihaya’s head. And it was undoubtedly effective, as she steamrolled the rattled girl and won the match, under the disapproving glare of Harada-sensei (who should have been focused on his own).
It’s clear that for all her improvement and natural talent, Chihaya has a long way to go to be at the level of the Master and Queen. She’s still mentally vulnerable – and indeed the observant Taichi recognizes that this is the key to the match, and perhaps his own development. Yumi was mentally tougher and wanted it more, and while I don’t endorse her methods both Chihaya and Taichi need to learn something from that. it was brutal watching that match, as the stifling heat and tension in that room was palpable – what a ruthless game, when you can’t even open a window to alleviate the suffering of a Japanese summer. This is the “scary” Karuta of Class A.
My question now is, where are we left with the series (aside perhaps from a bald Chihaya)? Three episodes to go and Chihaya is eliminated, which certainly implies that the climax is going to be Arata fighting for the Master title, and/or Shinobu to defend the Queen – probably against Yumi. Or else that “climax” will come sooner, with last ep or two acting as a coda and devoted to the emotions of the core trio (and perhaps even a little Chibi romance – could those two be any cuter together?). That’s frankly what I would prefer – it’s not that I don’t care about Arata’s Karuta, but he’s been a remote presence for so long that his quest for the title isn’t how I want this to end. I’ll also be very interested to see if there’s any follow-up to this intriguing moment, when Tsutomu told Kana-chan about the elite Karuta readers – and she might have found her true calling in the sport.