I swear, when I wrote last week’s post I had no idea that Tsuboguchi Hiroshi was going to have by far his most screen time in this episode. Hell, Madhouse even used the same screencap I did when referring back to that moment from last season where he broke down in tears after – in his own mind – letting Harada-sensei down. It’s just another example of how no detail is too small for this series, and no character unimportant. That was a key emotional moment in the first season, and it was a perfect lead-in to the surprising turn this episode took.
I won’t deny that while I love this series in almost all of its many faces, I personally feel Chihayafuru is often at its best when it focuses on Taichi. Because his character arc has been the most well-developed and because – for me at least – there’s more pathos in his situation than any of the others characters’, the episodes that center on him tend to be the most emotionally intense. And this was certainly no exception – as good as the first three eps of this season were, this blew them out of the water in terms of pure firepower. There’s no series I know of that can combine the emotional heft of a great character drama with the adrenaline-inducing thrill of great sports shounen like Chihayafuru can, and an episode like this one gives the show a chance to really show off just how gripping it can be at its very best.
While this ep was the first of this season that was centered almost exclusively on the core cast of the first (and I include the superb Harada-sensei in that group) it did continue to focus on some of the same themes as the first three eps. One of them has been “the elephant in the room” – the things that are obvious to us as an audience, but rarely acknowledged inside the fourth wall. Sumire-chan can say “It’s obvious that Mashima-san is in love with Ayasa-san” because she’s an outsider, not a part of all the agony and ecstasy of their relationship. And the ladies from the Shiranami Society can say what many of us have thought – Taichi really is a victim of terrible luck. Arata showing up at a Class-B tournament and surprising him just when he’s getting in the zone. Broken air conditioners. Emails that arrive just as he’s about to get closer to Chihaya than ever before. The now-legendary run of cards at the end of his match with Nishida-kun.
There’s a saying in sports – “You make your own luck”. And that’s just the problem – whether your luck is really bad or not, believing that it is gets in your head. I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, and I can speak first-hand of the power of believing in a “curse” – in this case a silly tale about an angry barkeep and a goat that supposedly kept the Cubs out of the World Series since 1945. It didn’t, of course – but I still have nightmares about the NLCS in 2003 against the Florida Marlins, when the Cubs were 5 outs away from the World Series with a 3-0 lead. There’s so much pressure on the Cubs that comes from so many decades of failure and so much hope and expectation that the players get to a certain point where they’re expecting things to start going wrong (like the “Bartman” incident, for example). Taichi’s problem is the same problem he’s always had – he thinks too much. He thinks about the team, he thinks about how he’ll look if he fails, and worst of all, when things start to go wrong he thinks he’s not good enough. That’s not luck, that’s a personal demon that only he can conquer – but it doesn’t help that the guy (like the Cubs) never seems to actually have chance favor him when the chips are down.
Having Hiroshi-san show up as coach of the unheralded Homei High team certainly wasn’t a stroke of luck for Taichi, or Mizusawa generally. In addition to teaching his kids outstanding Karuta skills, he knows the Mizusawa players – two of them, anyway – inside and out. And his strategy is perfect, if cold-hearted – go after Taichi by making him think he’s going after Chihaya. Tsuboguchi knows that once the match starts Chihaya can be utterly-single-minded, but Taichi will obsess over what’s happening with the rest of the team (Chihaya especially). To compound matters, the air conditioning breaks down and the newly-certified reader isn’t performing up to snuff, his rhythm off. As any sports fan will tell you, randomization always helps the weaker team because it levels the playing field – and these sorts of randomizing events clearly hurt Mizusawa more than Homei. It’s here that Taichi, as always “too aware of his surroundings”, urgently needs to think on the sage advice Harada-sensei gave him – “An individual match is a team match, and a team match is an individual match”. The implications for today’s tournament are obvious soon enough, but Harada-sensei intended that advice for when Taichi continues his lonely quest to finally make Class A – and I suspect those words will come into play in that context before the season is over.
It’s pretty rare, in Karuta or otherwise, that Chihayafuru grants Taichi a victory in a crucial situation, even a match against an unheralded player that he should probably beat anyway. It’s rare for him to have a moment so unspoiled by “Yes, but…” qualifiers as the one where he captured the final card from his opponents side of the board to close the match in glory – all the more so because in effect, it was really Hiroshi-san he was defeating. So there’s no question that his match was one of the most uplifting of the series so far, starting with the moment where he asked for a towel. It’s played for humor of course – Taichi has no more trouble garnering the affections of adult women than he does giggling schoolgirls – but it’s the fact that Chihaya was watching him and responded immediately in his moment of need that really hit home. The irony here is the envy directed at him by the other males in the room, including his teammates. Superficially Taichi seems to have it all – he’s rich, popular with the girls – but in fact he’s he most isolated person in the cast, constantly alone with thoughts he thinks no one else will understand. He’s also burdened with the reality that Retro-kun is probably right – Taichi does have more talent than most Class-A players. He’s got a superb memory, he practices at a Class-A level, and no one works harder – yet he can’t advance. And the more the weight of expectations – both internal and external – piles up, the harder achieving that goal is going to be.
In the end, Mizuasawa’s talent does carry the day, and who else should await them in the finals but Hokuo. Sudou-kun is gone, but they’re still a powerhouse – the only two faces I recognized were Retro-kun and Nayuta-kun, but there’s still the matter of the “secret weapon” we were warned about. Meanwhile, as seems to be the trend this season, we’re teased with just a glimpse of Arata and his Harajuku Girl phone in the pre-open – but this time, there’s something of substance to grasp onto. He says he has a request to make of his parents if he wins the national high school championships – we’re not told what it is, but the mind does wander. Hearing Arata talk of the “misty bridge” that connects he and Chihaya is about as overt a declaration of intent as we’ve seen in 29 episodes of Chihayafuru, and there’s no aspect of the series that won’t change dramatically if the pair at the center of the show becomes a threesome once more. There are a lot of elephants in this room, but Arata might just be the biggest one of all – he might be out of sight most of the time, but he’s never out of mind for us, for Taichi or for Chihaya.