This season of Chihayafuru has already surprised me a few times with its narrative choices, to the net effect that it hasn’t really been better or worse than the first season – just a bit different (like the BGM). What we got this week was another pretty interesting twist – both in terms of the Mizusawa team dynamics and the focus of the larger story. Chihayafuru has shown before that it can take brand new one-shot characters and tell compelling stories about them, but this was a bit different – and just maybe a misstep of the order that this series usually just doesn’t make.
For starters, there are some very interesting developments with the Mizusawa squad as they prepare for the group stage of the national tournament. When Tsukuba opens his eyes you know something big must have happened – and indeed it did, as he was picked for the lineup in the first match (and didn’t even have to furtively change the order to make it happen). Really, this part of the story is all about Tsutomu, who’s always been the unsung hero of the Chihayafuru cast. Here he and Taichi have decided to remove him from the lineup for the group stage (though indications are it was mostly Tsutomu’s idea) so that he can concentrate on scouting the opposition (with Sumire’s help). That’s a pretty darn big deal, and it reflects just how selfless Tsutomu is – he’s never put himself above the team.
But it also reflects the fact that Tsutomu is realistic in his self-analysis. He’s the weakest of the five returning team members, and he knows it – just as he knows he’s the strongest at competitive analysis. It was always a realistic possibility that Tsukuba – bigger, stronger, more athletic – might catch and pass him, though one might have expected it to take a little longer. Still, to voluntarily “take one for the team” by stepping down for the initial matches is amazingly unselfish – so much so that I worry that he might be selling himself short (no pun intended). With his mind Tsutomu should have great Karuta potential, and it’s been proved by Amakasu-kun (not to mention that Kana-chan is even smaller than he is) that diminutive stature is not an insurmountable obstacle in Karuta. We may be looking at an acknowledgement of the fact that Tsutomu and Kana will follow different paths than their friends – Kana has already expressed an interest in pursuing being a reader, and maybe Tsutomu will point his energies towards coaching.
The other interesting thing that we’re pretty well punched in the face with is the difference between how Taichi and Arata currently view Karuta. It’s been pointed out (not by me, though I should have picked up on it) that Arata’s admission to Chihaya that he “wasn’t too interested in team matches” might just have been an important moment from last week. Taichi was eerily quiet at the start of this episode – “intense” is how I would describe his mood – and his focus seems more and more on putting the team above all else. Is this a bit of a security blanket against possible failure in the individual tournament? Perhaps – but it seems to reflect a genuine difference between he and Arata in their viewpoints. This could manifest as a plot point in many different ways – it seems to give Taichi something in common with Chihaya that Arata lacks, for one. It also reflects just how lonely Arata has been, I think – his isolation inside the game isn’t entirely a product of his drive to be Meijin. He also associates team Karuta with Chihaya and Taichi – and since he isn’t with them, team Karuta naturally isn’t foremost in his mindset.
Certainly the most awkward part of the episode – perhaps the most awkward sequence in two seasons of Chihayafuru – was the match against the kids from Chiba International School. Let me say up front, I don’t think Suetsugu-sensei (or Madhouse) meant anything malicious here – but I nevertheless found much of the material involving C.I.S. sort of depressing. What’s sad, for me, is that I don’t think the reaction of the Mizusawa kids was especially unrealistic. Even in this age of globalization, there’s still an instinctive wariness around foreigners in Japan that surely has its roots in the fact that this is an island nation that’s been resolutely isolationist throughout most of its history. I see that in Tokyo, where there are many more Gaijin than in any other region of Japan – in places like Hokkaido (where Tsukuba comes from) it’s even more pronounced. Xenophobia is a very real part of the Japanese mosaic – you see it in the rhetoric of men like current P.M. Shinzou Abe, and you see it creep into art forms like anime sometimes too.
Let me be clear that Xenophobia is too strong a word for what we saw here – and for what most Japanese feel towards gaijin. Rather, what was depicted was less insulting than sad. The way the foreigners were depicted as exotic curiosities (sorry, but I think the word fits) and the way the Mizusawa kids panicked just to be close to them was uncomfortably close to the reality on the ground. I found the match between Tsukuba and the young player of African descent especially uncomfortable to watch, dancing far too close to ugly stereotyping. Yet, I don’t think this was malice so much as a reality that I wish was different than what it is – this is simply the way most Japanese look at foreigners (and as we see, even the boy who’d never left Japan still bore the “gaijin” label). The larger message Suetsugu is trying to get across here is one of fellowship around the game all of the kids love – I did like the “He’s lying!” that popped up when Tsukuba thought “There are no black people in Hokkaido!” and especially the moment that Nishida marveled at how “free” the boy opposing him and his teammates were in playing the game. They were unconstrained by the bounds of competitive Karuta – they were just playing a game they love. And I couldn’t help but laugh when Tsukuba thought to himself how odd it was that foreigners loved Karuta when “I mean… Japanese people don’t like it either.” This is a small fraternity, even in Japan – though Chihayafuru itself is doing its part to try and change that.
In any event, the match itself was certainly revealing. In addition to some Mamoru Miyano Engrish (not quite as memorable as this) we saw Chihaya again show signs of real growth – she was the only one not put off by her opponents, but instead thrilled that they loved the game. She was also the one – not Taichi – who turned the match around with her timely “One card at a time, Mizusawa!” admonition. As for Kana she was mostly concerned with her shame that the gaijin were wearing Hakana and Mizuswa wasn’t (a concession to the heat), and with the fact that her opponent was wearing hers tied incorrectly (right flap over left, which is how the deceased are dressed – a very common gaijin blunder). Tsukuba managed his first win, always an important milestone. The foreigners proved themselves human just like anyone else – trying to psych the opponent out with English themselves despite not speaking it very well. And I confess, I never expected to hear the legendary Miki Shinichiro playing a high-schooler in this day and age – much less in Chihayafuru! All in all, it was a strange and memorable chapter in this ongoing saga.
And then there was that ending… Once again, Arata is quarantined to the very end of the episode as a plot device. If I’m to be honest, I find that the triangle involving Chihaya, Taichi and Arata is the only element of the series that feels stagnant. We see the same patterns repeating: Arata pops up briefly at the beginning or end, and Taichi looks crestfallen. Taichi continues to brood over his love for Chihaya in silence; she reveals no awareness of the concept of romance. In truth, things aren’t really going anywhere at the moment and haven’t for quite some time. There’s hope that this might finally be changing – Arata seems to be returning from the wilderness, and next week should finally make an appearance that doesn’t have the start of the ED playing over it. Even more, Shinobu and Arata have finally interacted on-screen (the streams have crossed!) and given that she seems to harbor some very strong feelings about him, there’s every reason to hope her involvement will break the logjam that’s turned the relationship of the original main trio into a muddy backwater instead of the clear, flowing river it once was. No, Chihayafuru is not first a romance series and I refuse to demean the totality of it by treating it as one – but neither is it possible to ignore the reality that the ChiTaiAra dynamic is the emotional eye of the hurricane. The series is better off if that dynamic is, well- dynamic, and it’s been too long since it has been. Hopefully, the pieces are in place for that to change starting next week.