Chihayafuru 2 – 08

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Don’t worry, I’ll get to what happened at the end – just keep your shirts on for a minute…

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.

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  1. G

    I can't stand Tsukuba the freshman. He schemes to get in to the games at every chance he can and then falls apart. To me he sucks all the life out of every scene he is in.

  2. Hey – he won his game.

  3. A

    Easily my favorite show from Winter 2013. I can tell this by how I time the release and how quickly I watch it.

    Hopefully, the Chihaya/Taichi/Arata triangle is finally busted up by next week, as you said, because it's too much of a drag on the series.

  4. K

    I highly doubt it will be. It's probably going to stay ambiguous until to close to the end.

    On another note I really want one of those "Caruta T-shirts." I know they exist because the seiyuu had them, I am just not sure if they are for sale.

  5. Nope, it definitely won't be resolved – but I'm hoping we'll at least see movement.

  6. T

    Enzo – I see exactly what you are talking about in terms of the episodes' treatment of "gaijin" (quotation marks, since technically they aren't, given they grew up in Japan and know Japanese better than their "native" languages…).

    Nonetheless, this episode seemed much better than many series when addressing this problem. The simple fact that it shows non-ethnic Japanese speaking fluent Japanese and embracing their culture is a way to confront this sort of ethnic stereotyping. Though the xenophobia of some of the characters is shocking (including the Chiba media treating them as curiosities), I find it a remarkably realistic depiction (including its depiction of a non-ethnic Japanese feeling alienated in his own country).

    Anyway, thanks for considering this issue in your review, and I just wanted to give my two cents on it.

  7. Thanks, Michael. That's really not far off from how I see it too.

    One indication as to just how deep-seated this issue of foreigner identity is in Japan is that full-blooded Japanese kids who have lived overseas are effectively treated as ill when they return home. They're often sent to special schools to help them "unlearn" all the foreign influences they've picked up, and often subjected to terrible bullying in regular schools for not "acting Japanese" (bullying is still a terrible problem here generally speaking, sadly). In fact it's often described as being harder for ethnic Japanese who aren't Japanese enough than it is for true gaijin and for non-ethnic Japanese who grow up here, because those people are expected to not fit in.

  8. d

    WWWWHHHHYYYYY!!!!! is all I have to say for that ending. Is it me, or did Shinobu look like a lioness that caught her prey lol? I have to say though, that was dam smart of Chiba International School to play the foreigner card. The part that stood out the most was when Mizusawa squad was taking the cards in unison. That was a beautiful sports moment. I can't wait for the next episode as my favorite Karuta player is in the house, Shinobu, hehe XD.

  9. i

    I think Shinobu x Arata is more of a rivalry than love, one meant to push all three of the friends to become better. Arata to overcome her, Chihaya to get Shinobu to recognize her and Taichi to catch up to the level where he will be seen as a rival by Arata

    I also think the love triangle (with Chihaya should we even call it that) is pretty stagnant but I suppose it will be until Arata is allowed to interact more with Chihaya then he currently does and I'd expect to stay in status quo until the plot brings all three to the point where they fight each other for the titles and mainly the meijin/queen battles.

    Isn't Shinchiro Miki the go to guy for a long haired gaijin character (Kurz Weber, Lockon Stratos, Allen schezar)? In fact it would be weird if he wasn't the one voicing the CIS Karuta club leader.

  10. But he's way, way too old, and he sounds it. I just think it's funny that he's playing Oji-sans now and here he gets plucked to play a kid. I love Miki-san – he's in my top 10 seiyuu of all time, comfortably – I just think this is silly.

  11. i

    Me too, definitely a favourite.

    Thing is if this was hollywood and I watched a movie with Clint Eastwood or Billy Bob Thorton play a highschool kid, I'd think it was a joke. I mean there are tons of teenage boys that the latest generation of 12 year olds are ready to swoon over.

    But the anime industry, the demand for male seiyuu is so small in comparison to female. So isn't easy for them to just get an experienced one who can quickly get into the role, do a good job and will surely not sound bad to an audience that recognizes him. The only reason I don't watch LB is because I feel that the female seiyuu cast is awful and grating. I would much rather have the likes of Miyuki Sawashiro, KanaHana etc. do them because I'm used to them and they won't sound grating.

    And another thing is that I think male seiyuus have to balance between GAR for guys and moe for girls in their career. Take Miyano Mamoru, he has roles like Setsuna and Light but also Tamaki and Zero. He has to be not hated by guys by being cool but loved as pseudo bishie by girls (I think everyone knows what happened when it was revealed he's married)

    I just don't think its feasible or easy to blood new male seiyuus into anime like it is with feamle ones and so we have no choice but to rely on the brilliant Shinchiro Miki.

  12. B

    As an unapologetic Chihaya x Taichi shipper may I just say that Arata and Shinobu would make a cute couple, hint hint wink wink nudge nudge say no more.

    I find it fascinating that a culture can be so xenophobic in some ways while completely embracing foreign influence in other ways. I've spoken with many musicians who say… and keep in mind that I'm not talking about the freaking Red Hot Chili Peppers or anything here, these are dudes from relatively small bands… who say that foreign musicians are treated like gods when they play in Japan. Certainly, McDonalds has a significant presence there. Hell, by all accounts I've heard the animation style of anime developed because they were originally trying to copy Disney. Weird that they can be so willing to let other cultures in but then be so unwelcoming when it comes to the actual people.

  13. Japan is nothing if not a study in contradictions. The entire culture and history is imbued with them at every level.

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