There was an episode during the first season of Chihayfuru – in fact, it was episode 23, the penultimate Master/Queen qualifier ep – that nearly brought me to tears with a scene involving a character who’d barely appeared at that point, Hiroshi. He was so heartbroken after losing in the finals and – in his mind – letting Harada-sensei down that he was overcome with grief. It’s pretty remarkable for a series to pack such emotional punch when focused on a second tier character and one that most of the audience wouldn’t have been able to pick out of a police lineup, but that’s the magic of this show – it’s so grounded in emotional reality that everyone in it feels like a real person. Chihayafuru is often praised for having no villains, but it’s just as notable for having no Saints either – everyone in this cast is flawed and has their moments of weakness, but that’s what makes them so relatable.
I was put in mind of that this week with one of the scenes involving Tsukuba, a character who – while he’s officially part of the main cast – is still effectively a stranger to us. He was introduced last week but in very superficial fashion, an odd figure played largely for comedy. I can’t say that I ever doubted that with this writer and Miyu Irino playing the role Tsukuba would develop into an arresting character, but that the moments after he’d lost his first match were so powerful is still a surprise, and a testament to just how good Chihayfuru is at making characters real people. In showing us the undeterred adoration of his adorable younger brothers Fuyumasa, Haruomi and Natsusou (Anzai Chika, Sugiura Naoko, Satou Megumi) and Akihito’s despair at having let them down, he immediately became someone we felt we knew and someone we cared about, because those feelings were so understandable (it didn’t hurt that Miyu nailed the scene, as he generally does). Incidentally, I love the Tsukuba family naming systen – Aki (fall), Fuyu (winter), Haru (spring) and Natsu (summer) – is it tradition to do that in Hokkaido (or to teach children to “run into pretty people”)? Of course, Miyu also appeared in the last anime that featured four seasonally-named boys, but he played Haru in that one…
In a way, I suppose, the triumph of that moment adds weight to the argument that Madhouse was right in spending so much creative energy on the new cast members in the first three episodes. Truth be told I warmed up to Tsukuba in this episode more than I have to Sumire so far in three, but there’s no denying that the both of them are indelibly imprinted now. And more than anyone else among the returning cast it was Tsutomu – the unsung hero of the quintet – who was the star of this episode. It represents a lot of trust in this audience to leave the main characters on the sidelines so much for so long, but the fact that these opening episodes haven’t squandered the momentum of S1 vindicates the gamble.
The other thing that’s somewhat striking about this season so far is that it feels as if it’s moving very quickly as compared to the first season. To a certain extent that’s understandable as the structure of the plot was already established, but with the manga ongoing it’s interesting to speculate as to whether this is an adapting choice or wholly a reflection of the corresponding manga chapters. We’re already onto the first tournament of the series, the team championships that were the subject of so much buildup in S1. Competition episodes were a great strength of Chihayafuru in S1, and certainly nothing has changed in that respect – this one flies by in what feels like ten minutes. It’s the first event for the first years, of course, and the initial plan is to let the five experienced members take the lead. Things are a bit different now – Mizusawa is the defending champion, a powerhouse. Sudou-kun has graduated, but Retro-kun declares that Hokuou has a “secret weapon” waiting for Mizusawa in the finals – a match that might not in itself be as crucial, as Tokyo’s region now has enough competitors to earn two teams spots in the Nationals. A Karuta boom to match the one in real life?
What stands out here is the cool confidence on the elite members, and the audacity of Tsukuba – who actually changes the lineup to insert his own name in place of Tsutomu’s. That’s a highly dodgy move, borne out of desperation after telling his brothers that he’d a star for the team that day. It earns him a stern rebuke from Nishida and a whack on the forehead from Taichi, but it’s Tsutomu who makes the big impression. He’s clearly emerged as the master strategist of the club (it’s his lineup that Akihito tampers with), and he comes to Akihito’s aid by suggesting that Sumire be switched in for himself in the first match (against a squad weak against girls) and that Tsukuba replace Kana in the second, against the brash and obnoxious West High (who memorably lost to Mizusawa in S1). His strategy makes perfect sense, but it’s clear that Tsutomu is doing this because he feels something of what Tsukuba feels – he was the weak link last year, the one struggling to find a real place on the team. Tsutomu’s eloquent argument prompts Tsukuba to marvel “He’s so cool!”, and indeed he is. Now if only Kana-chan would get the message.
That both Sumire and Tsukuba should lose is hardly surprising: Sumire was shocked to be asked to play in the first place, and Tsukuba actually drew the one Class A player on West High, who Chihaya was desperate to play herself (he’s so nervous he even messes up the “Fight!” portion of the team chant). Nishida and Taichi are undefeated, but it’s clear that Chihaya has matured as a player just as she has a person – she dominates both her matches with 25 card perfect scores. She’s become a truly frightening player, a real threat to Shinobu. This impresses Winter, Spring and Summer, who flock to the “So cool! So pretty!” Chiahaya after the match only to be recruited into the Shiranami Society. But again, it’s Tsukuba’s dismay at having let them down – and the fact that the boys’ faith in him is utterly unshaken – that delivers the powerhouse emotional moment of the episode. Akibito Tsukuba, welcome to Chihayafuru.
Not to be forgotten is that we had our first speaking appearance by Arata, who loses in the finals of the Fukui tournament to his reluctant hero, Murao. It’s the great paradox of Arata’s character that he’s rarely seen but casts a huge shadow, and even here he’s only on-screen for a minute. His mind, as always, still goes to Chihaya – and to Taichi, for that matter. Yet his appearance also colors the first appearance of Shinobu, thin again and getting ready for the Queen matches. Her reaction when she hears that Arata is back in the game is telling, and it seems to be saying that we’re in for some very interesting dynamics when the two of them meet again – and how they will impact the situation between Arata, Taichi and Chihaya is impossible to predict. There’s also a very revealing moment with The Empress – who appears to be scamming on behalf of the Karuta Club, since she’s not exactly volunteering the information that they didn’t actually get five new members for more than a day or two. She’s become a powerful behind-the-scene ally, both of the club and of Chihaya herself.