This series has delivered the goods with astonishing consistency over the last 31 episodes, but the last two might just be as good a stretch of Karuta-themed eps as it’s ever had. I guess you could say the series’ shounen side really stood out, because seeing athletic competition depicted this well is so rare, you just can’t fake it. Just as Hotta Yumi clearly loved both Go and sports shounen, I think it’s obvious that Suetsugu Yuki is a similar case with Karuta. And the subtleties of this very strange and ancient sport have never been more alluringly presented than they have been this season (as is apparent in the effect they have on Tsukuba and Sumire).
A lot of the themes of this post will be similar to last week’s, because the episode very clearly built on the pleasures of the last one. In that vein, I have to marvel once again at Chihayafuru’s ability to turn seemingly minor characters into worthy subjects to build episodes around. Amakasu-kun was a throwaway character last season if ever there was one, but the message from Suetsugu – as is often the case with the best sports series – is that everyone has a story, even the people we pass by in life without so much as a second thought. The only really notable thing about him at first glance was his size – but now we see that it was this that pushed him into Karuta in the first place, after a lifetime of rejection by other sports. His reluctance to put himself on the line was sorely tested, and he passed with flying colors – I was really rooting for him against Chihaya – not to win, necessarily, but to find the strength to overcome his doubts and fight her with all his strength. And so he did, in a match that ended up being as close as it’s possible for a match to be.
That competitive balance was pretty much the theme of the entire Hokuo-Mizusawa final. Just as I felt last season that it made more sense from a dramatic standpoint to have Nishida defeat Taichi in their Class B final, it seemed to make sense for Hokuo to win this – and so they did, but what an amazing ride it was to get there. With only Nishida’s match having ended early – and he agonizing over it – the other four were agonizingly close. So close, in fact, that it spelled impending disaster for Mizusawa – but at first, only Nishida saw it, being able to focus on the entire playing field and not just his own match. When the four matches all (somewhat incredibly, truth be told) came down to “luck of the draw”, we were introduced to yet another subtlety of Karuta strategy – splitting cards.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this tactic, which Harada-sensei calls “borderline illegal”. I’ve never cared for the term borderline illegal, because it generally means something isn’t illegal but rather looked down upon by the person applying the label. My sense is that what Hokuo did – sending cards so that the team had two of each of the remaining uncalled cards, theoretically guaranteeing a split of the 4 matches and a 3-2 win, was actually not just legal but quite established (if not, why would all four Hokuo players have immediately spotted the need to implement it?). Tellingly, the two Mizusawa players who catch on first are the mnemonic freak Taichi and the analytical strategist Tsutomu – Kana doesn’t see it coming, but it’s Chihaya’s tunnel vision that proves the most crucial. As always she’s focused like a laser beam on the cards in her match to the exclusion of everything, and by sending her card before Kana’s opponent sent his card she allowed Hokuo to implement the seemingly foolproof strategy.
Far-fetched though this development might be, it certainly sets the stage for some inviting drama. This is Amakasu’s great crucible, the test of him both as a competitor and as a leader. It shows Chihaya’s true fierceness as she refuses to accept that Mizusawa has lost – they merely have to steal a card from under the opponent’s defense (as we saw in the Taichi-Nishida match, nearly impossible). And it’s that match that provides the most poetic justice for this one, for it was perhaps the most obvious example of Taichi’s seeming cursed luck and his tendency to blame it for his failings. Taking inspiration from Chihaya he joins her in practicing offensive swings, putting mental pressure on Retro-kun – so much so, in fact, that when one of the dead cards is read Retro reacts to the first syllable and touches his own card – thus faulting and losing his match. With his triumphant “One win for Mizusawa!” Taichi is effectively saying “F* luck!” and giving some closure to the “bad luck” storyline that began in episode 4.
That Hokuo does end up winning after all seems almost irrelevant – it’s the intensity of the competition that really matters. The next card is the one that decides it – Kana defends hers and so does Tsutomu’s opponent, and it all comes down to Chihaya and Amakasu. She very nearly manages to beat him to his own card, but he claims to have touched first – and Chihaya protests, but not that she’s done so herself. She insists it’s a tie – which means Amakasu wins the match, as the card was on his side. For Chihaya it’s important enough that the truth be known, even if she loses anyway – and while this is a sobering moment for Amakasu, he’s still grown enormously over the course of the match and stood tall at the end, regardless of his height.
If there’s one element of this series I confess I find slightly irritating, it’s the tendency to use Arata as a plot device at the very start and very end of episodes – it feels a bit gimmicky to me. Irritating yes, but still effective – he continues to cast a long shadow, and the impact his rare communications have on Chihaya continues to bring every self-doubt in Taichi to the surface. He manages once again to somehow choose the exact right moment to say exactly the right thing – asking Chihaya if she enjoyed the matches, just as she was reflecting on how they were the most fun she’s ever had playing Karuta. The most painful, too, but I suspect it’s the fun part and not the pain that brings on her tears – because it recalls the memories of the fun she had when she (and yes, Taichi) were together with Arata. It’s a moment that’s rich with possibilities for interpretation, but I prefer to let it stand on its own for now.