Here I was thinking this was going to be an episode that was relatively light on the dramatic side, and “Boom!” – that was one hell of a broadside the ending delivered. To be honest it felt a bit out of nowhere, as there really wasn’t anything in the episode to suggest it was coming, though there’s no denying that surprise enhances the impact. In point of fact, this was an episode that felt quite different than most in the series to me. To be honest, this was really the first time Morio Asaka’s direction seemed a little too busy. I like all the distorted faces and written-word thought bubbles and such that he uses to liven up the classically beautiful and traditional look of the series, but I’d apply the same rule to the surprise ending here in reverse – when they happen as often as they did this week, they become less effective. Even though the episode wasn’t all that briskly-paced the hyperactive direction made it seem – in Kana’s own words – more frenzied than impassionate (ironically so). My hope is that this is a one-week phenomenon and not a trend.
Taken as a whole, though, the first seven eps of this season do seem rather briskly-paced to me. We’ve already had the Tokyo regionals and we’re off to the Nationals? It’s quite astonishing how much has happened, especially as compared to the first seven episodes in season one. I’m sure this is manga-faithful for the most part and a function of not having to do the heavy lifting of the initial scene-setting, but it’s definitely a noticeable change. Given that I suppose the fact that the last few minutes of the episode provided such an earthquake in the non-Karuta side of the plot shouldn’t be too surprising, but there were some interesting diversions before that. Specifically, a revisiting of some themes that haven’t really been touched on for a very long time, starting with Chihaya’s family.
There was some interesting discussion of the role Chihaya’s family played in her life in the aftermath of several S1 eps, and I came down on the side that her mother especially seemed to be coming dangerously close to emotionally neglecting her. Elder sister Chitose never really got the chance to develop into anything more than a self-obsessed diva in the short screen time she had, and nothing we saw here would offer evidence to the contrary. What bothered me wasn’t so much that, but the way Chihaya’s Mom focused on Chitose’s career to the virtual exclusion of Chihaya’s life altogether – thank goodness Dad kept that little scrapbook next to Chitose’s multi-volume opus of clippings. Well, we heard Mom’s excuse today – she was so confident that Chihaya would be OK because of Karuta that she felt free to worry more about Chitose with her “unstable career choice”. To be honest that excuse sounds like just that, to me – and her decision to finally show a glimmer of interest in her younger daughter’s life and buy her a kimono of her own plays like an attempt to assuage her own guilt – and win Chihaya’s affection – with a financial gesture. Better late than never, but I’m still not really buying it.
To be blunt, I don’t really care too much about Chitose and her problems because I don’t think we’ve been given much reason to, and there’s so much in Chihayafuru that I do care about that I’d just as soon not see much screen time spent worrying about them. The scenes with Chihaya’s parents were involving in a slightly tragic way, though (they always are) and brought Kana and Oe-san into the story. That’s where things started to get more interesting, along with a subplot involving the eternal struggle with the school band for club room space. As it has a rare ability to do, Chihayafuru made us see the stock enemy as something much more here, showing us the band’s problems through the perspective of their advisor – eternally frustrated that he lacks the influence the Empress has. Let’s be honest – the Karuta Club didn’t live up to the deal she agreed to (five new members) and they’re keeping the clubroom anyway, while the band struggles with insufficient space. It’s not that the Karuta kids are the bad guys here, but that the band and their advisor aren’t either – and that’s the whole point. And Chihaya again shows us real signs of growth by proposing that the band get the second floor space above the Karuta clubroom, at least for storage if not performance. Sure she has ulterior motives – trying to steal some good karma – but it’s still awareness of the needs of others. What’s that, actual character growth from one season to the next? This is Chihayafuru after all – and the reward for Chihaya’s gesture is a surprisingly emotional moment when the band plays all four verses of the school song to send the Karuta Club off to Nationals. Chihaya’s tears were fine, but it was Nishida’s “This is the first time I’ve ever been supported by anyone outside Karuta” that really hit home.
There are two other moments that really stand out in this ep, one being the aforementioned ending. The other is Kana-chan’s explanation of the difference between “Impassioned” and “Frenzied”. This included some overt fourth-wall breaching – “It’s already the second season and you still don’t understand the title?!!” – again with the busy direction – but the gag hits home here. It’s one of those quirky moments this show is so great at delivering, and shows why Kana is such a great and unique presence. I loved the imagery she used – the top spinning out-of-control vs. the one spinning so fast you can’t even tell it’s moving. It’s a fabulous nugget of writing by Suetsugu-sensei and perfectly delivered by Morio-sensei, and it could really be taken as symbolic of so much of what happens in this series – not least of which Chihaya’s Karuta itself.
If you’re a big Arata fan, you could pretty much watch the pre-open and the last two minutes of every ep and so far this season you’d be golden. This time at least Arata’s appearance doesn’t feel like an omake, but is interwoven with the rest of the plot. More than ever I’m convinced Sumire’s main function is to act as the catalyst to drive the romantic storyline forward, the naïf who can blurt out what everyone else wants to say but doesn’t dare. When she does just that in the girls’ room at their hotel near Ome Jingu, asking Chihaya who she likes, the first thought it we’re getting another Chihayafuru troll when Chihaya talks about Shinobu. But then she immediately thinks, “I wonder what he’s doing right now – I want to see him.” I don’t see any way not to interpret that as significant – nor the fact that she immediately sneaks down to the lobby and calls Arata.
Bluntly, that’s the closest thing to an overt declaration of romantic interest by Chihaya in 32 episodes, and it’s about time – but for Taichi, as usual, the timing couldn’t be worse. He overhears her conversation and as always, is overcome with what surely must be feelings of utter hopelessness. The sad part for him (well, it’s all sad but…) is that he really can blame only himself if indeed Chihaya and Arata end up together – despite his efforts to be “a person who doesn’t run away” (which have succeeded in many respects) he’s still in full flight when it comes to Chihaya. He refuses to make his feelings known to her and risk rejection, despite knowing that in Arata he has a potential rival who brings it in every respect – looks, personal history, talent, and a shared passion for Karuta that Chihaya doesn’t feel on the same level with him. Arata hasn’t said anything openly either, of course, but he has a valid excuse – he’s hundreds of miles away. Without doubt there’s an element of mutual respect between the two guys here in not making their move – Taichi because Arata isn’t there to fight back and Arata because he wants to give Taichi his chance to take his shot. It’s mostly unspoken but has been overtly acknowledged at least a little on occasion, but this is an uneasy truce that grows more and more unfavorable for Taichi over time – and the guy code may be as much of an excuse for him not to confront his fears than an honest reason for his tentativeness. This surely won’t be resolved when the three are reunited at Nationals, but what happened here thanks to Sumire is just as surely a sudden lurch forward – what will be interesting is to see where things settle afterwards.