I’ve found the experience of watching Chihayafuru 2 a slightly odd one – much more so this week than the premiere. It’s been such a rare occurrence for a series I love to get a second season after that was in doubt that I don’t really know how to watch, in a way. Last week was mostly pure exhilaration that Chihayafuru was back, and relief that it hadn’t lost any of the magic that made the first season such a gem. But oddly enough, I find myself feeling a little possessive about the cast I grew to love so much, and feeling a little put off that the main character of the first two eps has been Sumire-chan. It’s not logical I know, but I learned a long time ago that there’s no point in denying that feelings exist, even if their source doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
There’s no denying that Sumire has been the focus of much of the fan discussion after the premiere, or that making her the focus of the first two episodes is a bold choice. Is it a wise one? Well, who’s to say this early on – I can certainly see a logic in it. She’s an outsider, a seemingly materialistic and shallow person (though we’re already starting to see the other side of her). Since we’ve already seen the journey of the five main cast members – plus the main cast member who’s not a part of the Mizusawa group – that led to their love of Karuta, it makes sense to bring in someone completely new to make that journey a part of the second season’s beginning, just as it was the first. If a new season is going to be a fresh start, it required a character like Sumire to make it happen.
Towards that end, it makes even more sense to pair her off – however briefly – with Harada-sensei. That this meeting should occur as she was stalking Taichi on his visit to the Shiranami Society is ironic, but irrelevant in practical terms – it doesn’t change the fact that Harada-sensei’s answer (“I’ve been playing for 45 years, and I still don’t know”) to that question of hers planted a seed of curiosity in her mind, one that’s already starting to bear fruit. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Harada-sensei was hugely important in fostering a love of the game in Taichi and especially Chihaya, so perhaps he can fill that role for Sumire as well. Sumire also seems to have a certain connection with Kanade-chan – she certainly recognizes the nature of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu faster than anyone else in the club did besides Kanade did – and while her outward focus seems to be very shallow, it does seem that there’s a romantic’s soul inside her that resonates with the ideas contained in the Ogura.
Sumire might prove an interesting addition to the cast in another way too, and that’s as a catalyst to push things forward (one way or the other) between Taichi and Chihaya. Of course if Arata were present the current relationship between the two wouldn’t be possible, but he’s not – he’s in Fukui, and this allows Taichi to continue to delay the moment where he faces his fear of rejection and lets Chihaya know how he really feels. It seems hard to believe that Chihaya wouldn’t know by now, but how many times have we made that statement about shounen male leads – and really, that’s effectively what Chihaya is. Unencumbered by the baggage of S1 Sumire is free to openly focus on romance – so much so, in fact, that she blurts out her feelings for Taichi in front of the other club members, much to her chagrin. While her pursuit of Taichi seems utterly hopeless, it might force him to be more open about his own feelings for Chihaya – not to the point where we see a definitive result, of course, but enough to take the relationship out of the holding pattern in which it currently resides.
As Sumire sorts through her numerous crises, the other new member of the club is formally introduced at last. In fact he’s the only other new member to stick around, which Chihaya blames herself (mostly though perhaps not entirely unjustly) for, the others having bailed once it became clear Taichi was unavailable and two days a week, not even present. The new member is Tsukuba Akihiro (Irino Miyu) and he’s an odd one. His eyes only open when he sticks out his tongue (or perhaps it’s the reverse), and he brings with him from Hokkaido the game of “Second-Verse Karuta”. It becomes clear right away that this is a very different sort of game, and not just because only the second verses of the Hundred Poets are read – Tsukuba-kun uses both hands, beats the floor to intimidate his opponent and generally turns Karuta into a bit of a barroom brawl. He’s also seemingly quite intent on becoming a star at this new style of Karuta, and appears to have the chops to back it up. We don’t get a lot of development about who he is as a person, but given that he’s being played by probably the best male seiyuu under 40, it seems there’s a good chance his character will have a real arc eventually. We can certainly hope so.
In addition to Sumire’s rough introduction to high school, the other major focus continues to be the somewhat tense atmosphere that seems to have taken hold among the five holdover members of the club. At the poles are Chihaya, who continues to dream impossible dreams of Misusawa GO glory, and Nishida – who’s focused like a laser on the upcoming Nationals to the point where he’d obviously rather not be bothered with the first-years at all. Possibly the most rewarding thing about these first two eps is that they’ve shown us real growth in Chihaya at last – not in her powers of observation vis à vis Taichi perhaps (or her spatial awareness) but in terms of her selflessness. Chihaya was extremely inwardly-focused most of the time in S1 when it came to Karuta, to the point where her behavior towards her teammates could be somewhat thoughtless. She’s clearly become a more self-aware person, and in the process a less self-absorbed one – she sees the importance of her role as the best player in the group, and her responsibility as the one who dragged each and every other club member into the club in the first place.
Does Nishida’s decision to take Tsukuba under his wing indicate that he’s finally come to accept his role as a club leader and not just a competitive Karuta player? In any event, Tsukuba and Sumire aren’t enough to satisfy the Empress’ demands to keep the clubroom, and it appears the cast is pretty much filled out – so we’ll have to see where that goes. As for Sumire, it’s Kana-chan who really steps up to the plate and delivers after Sumire’s disastrous unintended confession – while the boys (especially Yuusei) seem content to write her off (in their defense, she did say “I have no interest in playing Karuta”) and Chihaya takes a desk for the team, Kanade chases after Sumire. In many ways these two girls seem so opposite – the modern, social animal and the ultimate Nadeshiko-to-be – but Kana recognizes something of herself in Sumire. With the most memorable line of the episode – “I believe crying in the embarrassment is the sign of a beautiful soul” – she persuades the younger girl to return and face her shame head-on. I’m not sure I agree with Kana on that, but I think saying it to someone else who’s just cried in embarrassment is certainly the sign of the beautiful soul inside Kanade. It was the sort of moment that made the first season such an emotionally powerful experience, and I expect many more of them over the next six months.