It’s no exaggeration to say that Arata is a highly unusual character in anime, close to unique in the sense that while he’s universally acknowledged as one of the three main characters in Chihayafuru, his screen time has been extremely limited for nearly the entire series. There may be no greater gap between the volume of a character’s physical appearances in the story and their impact on it (and the fans’ perception of it) than there is with Arata. It’s a testament to Suetsugu’s skill as a writer that she’s been able to sustain that for as long as she has, but for me at least it was beginning to have a drag effect on the series in general, and especially on the aspect concerned with the relationships of the ChiTaiAra triumvirate.
For one week, at least – and almost certainly two – we’re given a reprieve from that. But as it has so often this season, Chihayafuru surprises in the choices it makes – giving us not a dramatic reunion of Arata with Taichi and Chihaya, but an entire episode focused on him, with only brief appearances from the Mizusawa collective. For me, this is a welcome turn of events because Arata has become more of a symbolic presence than an actual character, the dark matter of the Chihayaverse – we know he’s there because everything is different because of him, but we really don’t know much about him. After the timeskip in season one his moments in the spotlight were few and far between, but he always managed to make an impact. It’s about time we got inside his head and re-acquainted ourselves with this young man who’s going to be so critical in how the series progresses.
As expected, that brief comment in the phone conversation with Chihaya – “I’m not too interested in team tournaments” – definitely has legs. There’s not so much to be inferred from Arata’s decision to witness the team competition itself, as that can be attributed to simple interest in and loyalty to Chihaya and Taichi, but what happens once he gets there really beings to explore the implications of that statement. First, there’s the brief encounter with Shinobu, in which she reveals that the last time she lost was to Arata four years earlier – and it seems he made a habit of defeating her in tournaments in the first round. There’s obviously a lot of potential in this relationship, and it’s hard to know the precise nature of Shinobu’s feelings for Arata yet. She’s at Ome Jingu not to watch the team event but to pay her respects before heading off to the Biwa Birdman Rally in Hikone (as Tsutomu keenly observes later, great Karuta players are pretty much all oddballs) but before she goes, she makes an even more cutting statement than Arata’s – “Team events are for players who don’t love Karuta”.
If we stop and assess the meaning of that – as Arata certainly did – it’s quite an interesting statement. This concept of team vs. individual Karuta is definitely emerging as a main theme this season, starting with Harada-sensei’s (why isn’t he here yet, BTW?) comment to Taichi that “every team match is an individual match, and every individual match is a team match”. We’ve seen the impact on Taichi in a team setting and I’m 100% convinced we’ll see it in an individual one, but Arata is at the heart of this dilemma as well. To a great degree, Arata as we know him is fundamentally alone. There’s no evidence of close friends, and his closest comrade in Karuta is Murao-san, who’s much older and whose own interest in the sport has waxed and waned at least once that we know of. When Arata thinks of camaraderie and friendship, he thinks of sixth grade – which is pretty sad for an 11th-grader – and he has no associations of Karuta as a team sport apart from Chihaya and Taichi. Yet it’s clear that those memories are still very important to him, and perhaps what happens in this episode will be what reconnects him to the notion of Karuta as a team sport. I believe Taichi is concentrating too much on team Karuta at the expense of his individual goals (as a sort of safety mechanism) but Arata is too focused on the individual side, and he’s giving something up too.
It’s clear that it was Arata’s intention to watch Mizusawa discreetly, as he was perfectly aware that his presence might prove a distraction (though whether he was more worried about Taichi or Chihaya it’s hard to say). Murao’s greeting nearly foils his plans, but he manages to sneak away before he’s spotted. It’s clear the impact even the possibility that he might be there has on Taichi – it really is bordering on a complex at this point – and once again Chihaya proves she really is maturing as a player, warning Taichi to keep his head focused on the next opponent. Meanwhile Tsutomu’s scouting has turned up a potential opponent with 5 Class-A players (more self-confidence carnage on tap for Taichi), including a very odd boy who expresses a rather feminine appearance and likes to balance matches on his eyelashes (could Taichi even be getting NTR’d in the eyelash department?). Meanwhile Fujioka West from Fukui (Arata attends Fujioka East) has arrived with a 3-man squad – and one of their members is stuck in traffic. It’s a bit too convenient as a setup for Arata’s character development just when it was called for, but I won’t deny it’s an effective one.
Because one of the boys on the Fujioka squad knew Arata from middle school (he was the one Arata punched) he drafts Arata into competing for the squad, because with only two players they wouldn’t even be allowed to play a match. This means a disguise (mask, no glasses – the mask part would be a lot harder to explain in the West), which of course takes Arata back in his mind to the last time he played without his glasses – and the aftermath. Maybe my impressions were influenced by that but seeing Arata without his glasses was a real throwback – he looks much younger without them, and in a way it felt as if we were seeing him in a way we hadn’t since he was 12. Being involved in a team match – even one where he’s helpless because he can’t see – shows Arata a world he hasn’t seen in such a long time that he’s almost forgotten it. He’s struck by the passion of the players on both teams, by how much this experience means to them – the frustration of his opponent that he isn’t fighting back, the agony of his teammate when he loses his match. Arata in effect chooses the integrity of the sport over self-interest by putting his glasses on and playing to win, despite knowing that the sensei at his Karuta society is watching. The fact that he only does so after Fujioka West is guaranteed a team loss (with only three players, they start out with an 0-2 deficit) is fortunate, but it’s interesting to speculate what Arata might have done if the result of the match depended on his game.
Sadly for Arata, his ruse is discovered by his sensei – whose own integrity compels him to turn Arata in. This could potentially mean a disqualification from the individual event, as his actions blatantly broke the rules (which would be especially interesting for Chihaya, as it’s suggested that Shinobu might skip the individual competition to watch the Birdman rally, delayed for a day by rain). I think this would be a battle lost but a war won for Arata, as he really needed this to shock him out of his isolation and reintegrate him into a world where social interactions are more than texts and one-minute phone calls twice a year. It’s interesting to speculate what this might mean for Arata long-term – we know he has a standing request to his parents, which I’d assumed was to move to Tokyo for his senior year – but perhaps he might decide to stay in Fukui and help either his own school or Fujioka West field a team that might threaten at Nationals next year. I rather hope he doesn’t go back to being an occasional accessory and plot driver, because things between Taichi and Chihaya can’t really escape their rut until Arata is fully part of the picture again. As for the team tournament, it’s clear that Mizusawa has their hands full with several tough opponents standing in their way – I expect the series to be at Omi Jingu for several more episodes.