There have been 30 episodes of Chihayafuru in total now, and since the vast majority of them have been excellent (or better) the series has obviously done a lot of fantastic things. But I’m not sure there’s been an episode that was as inspiring as this one when it comes to the sport of Karuta itself. Like Hikaru no Go did with its obscure (to Westerners) Chinese board game, this show has always managed to make Karuta seem interesting even if one didn’t really understand it. But through the Empress’ eyes especially, and through the excellent use of the Hokuo team as a competitive foil, this episode really brought out the magic of the game and made me understand at least a little why people like Suetsugu-sensei love it so much.
Another thing Chihayafuru has always excelled at is making the opponents interesting – in every case, pretty much – and likeable in most. We knew a couple of these Hokuo players from the first season, of course, but the graduation of Sudou has clearly changed a lot. It was surprising at first to see Hokuo’s resident shota, Amakasu-kun, as Captain – but as their top returning player I suppose it makes sense. Before last week we last saw him being liquefied by Shinobu in Nationals, but this was the first time we’ve really had the chance to see him grow as a character. He seems like a path of least resistance sort of kid (we’ve seen a lot of those among the Class A players in this series), not wanting to push himself or work too hard, though much of that seems to come from a fear that he’s not good enough to compete with the real powerhouses of Class A (including Harada-sensei, in his mind). With both teams assured of a place in the Nationals there’s not as much pressure as there would have been and Amakasu seems content to build a strategy around Retro-kun’s predictions for the pairings, leading to an easy 3 wins over “Glasses Boy, Boobie Girl and Mashima”, but Retro’s pride and the arrival of his “secret weapon” seem to spark Amakasu’s competitive fires quite a bit.
Retro’s fires need no stoking – he’s always been among the most passionate Karuta players in the series, and seems to view Taichi as his personal rival. Retro has quietly had quite an interesting and extensive character arc, and we saw that bear fruit this week as he changed the order (Tsukuba tried to do so again as well, irritatingly enough) so that Hokuo would be taking on Mizusawa in a straight-up battle – all the more important to him because Sudou has arrived on the scene as the reader for the finals. I was a bit skeptical of this plot twist, to be honest – it seems odd to me that they’d allow a just-graduated high-schooler to be the reader for such a critical match, never mind the fact that he graduated from one of the competing schools. The fact that he’s apparently been studying readers for years (inspired by the Master, Hisashi Suou) makes it a little more feasible but it still feels a bit like a plot contrivance. In any event he’s at least competent at his job – so much so that Kanade is able to match her rhythm to his almost immediately – and his presence seems to put more pressure on Hokuo than on Mizusawa anyway. As for Tsukuba’s gambit (Nishida nabbed him in the act again) the most interesting offshoot was the reaction it inspired in Taichi – a rare moment of praise for his mother (and a rare moment of physical contact from Chihaya). Her “Men never say “but!”” advice is pretty revealing as a component of Taichi’s makeup, and why his struggle to – in his own words – “be someone who doesn’t run away” is so critical to him.
These tournament episodes always seem to last about five minutes, and this one was no exception – it was over in a flash, stopping at a most critical point. There were a lot of storylines to follow here. We had Nishida’s sister showing up as Retro’s girlfriend (I would have thought Amakasu was more her type), and though she wasn’t Retro’s secret weapon she seem to have had quite the impact on Nishida, who was also freaked out by his opponents hairpin. Retro and Taichi’s match seems likely to go down to the end (it always seems to), and we don’t see enough of Tsutomu’s match to gather any notion of just how it might be going. Kana-chan seems to be dominating her match, and Chihaya is several cards down to Amakasu – to whom she seems to be paying very little attention, her focus on correcting her mistakes in technique to get closer to the Queen. And all this is playing out to the backdrop not just of Sudou’s presence as reader, but the Mizusawa players using the tasuki that the Empress made for their kimono (a boon for well-endowed players like Kanade and Nishida) – further cementing the notion that she’s fully come around to being just as much a fan of the Mizusawa Karuta Club as millions of anime viewers and manga readers.
To be honest, I’m kind of torn on who I want to win this match. While there are seeding issues at stake I’m sure, the fact is that this match is mostly about pride – and I think the long-term rivalry between Mizusawa and Hokuo is probably more interesting if Hokuo restores their pride by winning this match without Sudou as an anchor. It would also be nice to see Retro and Amakasu glean some reward for the progress they’ve made as characters, especially Retro’s decision to change the order and battle straight-up. On the other hand it’s tough to root against Chihaya and Taichi, and they’re obviously going to have to win if Mizusawa is going to get through this match. And it would be nice to see the Empress rewarded for her hard work with the tasuki, in the form on a team victory (though the collective bow the team spontaneously gave her was certainly heartwarming, and perhaps reward enough).
There’s a lot of tension for what’s basically a preliminary, but it’s as Harada-sensei said – every team match is an individual match. These matches are critical for everyone on the team for their personal development – Taichi’s desperate flailing for Class A, Tsutomu and Kanade trying to make Class B and become formidable in their own right (Kanade seems to have moved well ahead), and most especially Chihaya. If there’s a theme to her arc this season, it seems to be “I want it all!” She’s wants to pursue her individual goals while still focusing on growing the club, and those personal goals could hardly be higher – not only is she trying to catch up to Shinobu (and Arata, if we’re honest) but trying to do so by adapting elements from both Shinobu and Suou’s playing styles. I like the fact that Amakasu is pissed off that Chihaya is disrespecting him (though like every other time she’s rude, it’s cluelessness rather than malice) by basically ignoring him during their match to focus on her own mistakes – it shows some real pride, and he’s a player with serious talent whose success has lagged behind it due to too little confidence and motivation, and anger can be a remedy for both. But it’s hard to imagine he can hold off Chihaya when she really gets serious, as she surely will now after Nishida’s big loss. My guess is that the match will likely come down to Taichi and Retro, and that would be fitting as I suspect they’re the two players in the battle who most desperately want to win their match.