OP: “STAR” by (99RadioService)
I suppose for most of us that love this show dearly there was just the tiniest bit of anxiety going into this week: would the magic still be there? The adaptation is still drawing from the manga, the key staff and cast is unchanged, and Madhouse is still producing – so all indications were that everything would be fine. But until that moment came, we couldn’t be sure – Chihayafuru was so special that I always had a small, nagging worry that somehow the chemistry might be different this time around.
Well, we can put that behind us. Chihayafuru is still Chihayafuru. The visuals are still beautiful, the BGM stirring, the characters are still endlessly endearing, and the writing and direction is still sharp as a tack. I’ve watched Season 1 twice, but it’s been a few months – and it really is striking just how unique and special this show is. This is an anime made with great care and passion, and it shows in every facet of the thing – the casting, the animation, the backgrounds – combining that with a truly great manga gets you a show like this one (but it doesn’t happen very often). The only problem is the schedule change – as “Taichi Tuesdays” was my very first (and only, I suppose) meme, I have a sentimental attachment to the phrase. But what do we use now? I’m leaning towards “Friendzone Fridays” but admittedly, that has a certain despairing ring to it…
There was surely some prime Kobe beef for fans of all types and of all the main characters to chew on this week, but whether merely as a result of timing with the manga or a directorial choice by Morio Asaka, Chihayafuru makes a rather bold move in presenting the premiere mostly through the eyes of a new character. That would be Hanano Sumire (Han Megumi), a first-year who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend. She’s part of the twenty-strong recruiting class of prospective members the Karuta Club manages to attract, but she’s not remotely interested in the Hundred Poets – it’s the Jack of all Trades, Master of None that Sumire is after, as she seeks out the handsomest guy in school as karmic payback to the guy that broke it off with her.
Sumire is a bit of a break from the usual Chihayafuru mold, which makes starting the season with her an even bolder move. She’s pushy, brash, a bit obnoxious and not especially an example of the conventional kawaii girl that dominates anime casts these days. It’s a remarkable introduction to the versatility of Han Megumi, whose performance as Gon in Hunter X Hunter is one of the best by any woman playing a boy in recent memory. There could hardly be a greater distance between Gon and Sumire, but Han-san is up to the task – she nails Sumire’s impulsive braggadocio but undercuts it with enough insecurity and idealism to make her sympathetic. After seeing Taichi she proclaims “I’ve found my man!” and declares that her “slightly above average looks” make her the perfect manga heroine – and that will lead to her victory over the gorgeous Chihaya, who she’s already branded “the enemy”. Sumire is a character that isn’t going to ignored, that’s for sure.
More than just about any recent series, Chihayafuru is impossible to pigeonhole in a specific genre. It combines many plot elements and intricate character development in a way that makes it hard to say just what the series is “about”. That makes it endlessly fascinating for me, and the first episode is a reminder of just how many threads are unwinding in this story. Of course the potential romantic triangle between Chihaya, Taichi and Arata is the elephant in the room – always on our minds though not often the literal focus of what’s on-screen. Arata is a distant figure here, appearing only briefly in the pre-open, but his presence is felt even when he isn’t physically present. The most telling moment on this front comes when Chihaya says her “top priority is seeing Taichi make Class A” – and not only because it feeds the beast in terms of possible romantic developments. Much more directly it represents a sign of growth for Chihaya, who was too often inwardly focused in the first season – and it’s her gesture that makes Taichi think that it might be OK for him to be selfish for a change, and practice at the Shiranami Society instead of the club a couple days a week. As the others – especially Nishida-kun – desperately want to see Taichi advance too, this is no problem for them.
If I did have to pick a theme that emerged as the most prevalent in season one, it would be friendship more than anything else – the bond that develops in the first section between the sixth-grade Chihaya and the boys, and the one that develops in 10th-grade between the five members of the club. In this, the premiere reminded me – not remotely for the first time – of Hikaru no Go. As with that show, the main character was focused like a laser on finding members to form a club at school – but soon enough reached a point where that club really shouldn’t be the top priority. As Hikaru’s competitive skills outgrew his school club, so it is with Chihaya in many ways – she needs to be thinking about the Master/Queen matches, as Taichi reminds her. But what we see most strikingly in this episode is that each of the Mizusawa club members have different goals. Nishida dreams of success for the five elite members – as a team, but also seeing Taichi advance and the three of them succeed nationally. Taichi pushes for Chihaya to focus on her individual goals, Kana dreams of an elite club where everyone respects the form and tradition of Karuta (and of becoming a professional reader), Tsutomu sees the first-years as primarily a means to keep the club going (without five new members, they’ll lose the clubroom, according to The Empress).
As for Chihaya, she’s “greedy” – but in this case, her greed is the most selfless thing we’ve seen from her. She wants everything – she wants to focus on the national team title, on the Master/Queen matches, and to personally teach all the new kids the game – and to leave the legacy of a strong and stable Karuta Club that will continue after she graduates. She even says she’ll come back and coach after she graduates – a pipe dream surely, but a noble notion nonetheless. The hard truth though is that just as she wasn’t the best person to represent the club at the school assembly (despite matching Taichi in the “easy on the eyes” department, she drew only one guy while he drew twenty girls) she’s the wrong person to teach them. She bullies them without meaning to, and worse, her skill is so instinctual that it’s impossible to teach. Great natural talents generally make mediocre coaches – it’s the hard-working journeymen who excel at that, and it seems to me that Taichi and Tsutomu (a fine tutor, as we know) are the best-suited to teach the new members. But everyone’s priorities are pulling them in different directions, and Taichi’s resolve – thanks to Chihaya’s words – to achieve Class A status has to take the top spot for him.
What leaps out for me is how natural the transition to the second season is. This is still very much Chihayafuru, but there’s an inescapable sense of change – and the five regular cast members seem much more mature than the first-year prospective members (who just want to play Bozu Mekuri in the corner and stare at Taichi). They’ve grown up, certainly, and grown apart some as well – which is a sad reality of life. This sense of change is a constant in Chihayafuru, though, and it gives the series an underlying poignancy that sometimes makes it as painful to watch as it is joyful. There’s so much to look forward to here – some of the best shounen-style competition in anime, the most compelling romantic triangle around, a possible second triangle forming around the other second-years (if Nishida’s blush is any clue) and the introduction of the other regular cast member – that one guy who showed up amongst all the girls. He’s going to be played by Irino Miyu, as if there weren’t already enough reasons to be enthused about this season. Chihayafuru is back, and it’s like it never left – and any season with Chihayafuru on the schedule is much better off for it.
ED: 「茜空」(Akane Kara) by (Seto Asami)