For better or worse, I’ve never been able to predict just where Chihayafuru was going from week to week this season. It’s fair to say that 10 episodes in, not one of them has gone precisely as I’ve expected. From the initial focus on Sumire (especially) and Tsukuba at the expense of the returning cast to the unusual tournament opponents to Arata getting his own episode with no Chihaya or Taichi interaction whatsoever, nothing has gone predictable. So while I assumed we’d be getting our grand reunion this week after a short delay, that it should prove otherwise shouldn’t in itself be much of a surprise.
I’m guessing (though maybe not) that I’ll be in the minority in saying Arata should be suspended for the individual tournament. And I give him full credit for saying so himself – Arata is nothing if not scrupulous about the integrity of the game his grandfather dominated. The fact is that while Arata’s cheating didn’t materially affect the outcome of a match, that’s not to say it couldn’t have – and the fact that he was goaded into it really doesn’t factor into the equation because he still should have known better. It was a very serious violation (one committee member said it had “never happened before”) – and the fact that the tournament committee pretty much went straight to favoritism as a pretext to give him a slap on the wrist proves it. Suo is an embarrassment to them with his politically incorrect and very un-Japanese individualism, so unfitting for the face of a sport so rooted in the old traditions. Arata is a shining beacon of hope, a clean-cut and handsome descendant of a beloved Meijin. Clearly, it’s important to the world of competitive Karuta that he do well.
But you know, none of that really matters, and Arata knows it better than anyone. He should be subject to the same punishment as anyone, but we don’t live in that sort of world. I was more impressed with Arata this week than I have been in a while, not just for his honesty with the committee but with himself. He admitted what’s been obvious for a while – his aversion to team play is mostly a matter of jealousy and loneliness. He simply can’t associate team Karuta with anyone but Chihaya and Taichi – for now at least. I admire his reaction to his own mistake but I suspect Shinobu’s blackmail will seal the decision in his favor. She’s yet another factor trying to draw Arata back into connectedness with the world, which is certainly more important in the long-run than anything that happens here. Her motives are obvious in the sense that she clearly sees Arata as both a rival when she has few who interest her and a target for some payback. But it’s hard not to imagine there’s something more there. As for the Queen herself, she continues to be used as a bit of an outlandish figure in bizarre situations this season – often to very good comic effect, but not offering much in terms of real development for her character.
As for the Mizusawa gang, they continue to be at the center of much drama. The weird opponent this week is a gang of straight-laced, glasses-wearing brainiacs (“Five Desk-kuns!” thinks Kanade) from one of Japan’s top academic high schools, Mioka. In fact Taichi recognizes three of them as the winners of a televised quiz show for high-school students – the reason, in fact, that they became involved in Karuta was as practice for such events. But their ace, astronomy student Nakayama-kun, has fallen hard for the romance of Karuta and now plays it for his own sake. These guys aren’t as iconoclastic as some the opponents we’ve seen lately, but they are odd enough to consternate the still-inexperienced Mizusawa gang. They rely on their memorization and deduction to win, placing their cards randomly and moving them after virtually every card is read.
The two parts of this match that are most interesting are the reactions of the Mizusawa kids to this challenge, and the interaction between the Empress and the Mioka advisor. At first she’s a bit star-struck, but soon realizes he sees Karuta as nothing but a training tool for “more important” things – and her admiration quickly turns to righteous (if hidden) outrage. What’s especially telling is how the players react, as we’re given yet another lesson in Karuta strategy. The strategy that works in quiz shows – hit the buzzer in the middle of the question, because you’ll get another syllable (at least) for free before the reader can stop – “lag” – works in Karuta, too. But as you would expect, Nishida with his experience and Taichi who relies on memorization and strategy to win are least effected by these tactics, and win rather easily. Tsukuba is rattled and seemingly exhausted, and loses handily – and surprisingly, Kana, though she devises a strategy to avoid trying to memorize placements, loses a narrow match.
It all comes down to Chihaya and Nakayama, and while she’s the strongest of any Mizusawa player she’s naturally the most thrown off by this strategy. When the board is full of cards, the constant movement throws her already dicey memorization skills into disarray and nullifies her speed advantage. But as the board shrinks, more and more cards become one-syllable cards and memorization becomes easier and easier, and she begins to turn the tide in her favor (and her astronomical sex appeal doesn’t hurt either). Again, we see a surprising (and welcome) increase in self-awareness for Chihaya this season, even if it doesn’t extend to romantic feelings. She becomes aware of what’s happening to her, and manages to control her discomfort with Nakayama’s playing style and be patient enough for the game to turn around. Which, of course, it does – and though the 3-2 margin was closer than one might have expected, a win is still a win and Mizusawa moves on to the elimination round.
We’re still faced with some serious questions heading into that next phase. There’s the matter of whether Arata will be allowed to play, and now Sumire has unwittingly tipped off Chihaya and Taichi that he’s present. Taichi’s motives for so fiercely admonishing Chihaya not to worry about Arata while there are matches to be played are obviously complicated. He’s jealous, certainly, but also quite right in thinking that Arata’s presence is capable of causing a major distraction – Arata thought so too – but is he more worried about himself or Chihaya? Then there’s the matter of the lineup, which seems a non-issue especially after Tsukuba asks to be replaced by Tsutomu. But Nishida, surprisingly, argues that the team should keep the same lineup, which means leaving Tsutomu out. It’s always seemed possible that we were headed towards Tsutomu being a non-factor as a player, but I’m surprised (again) to see it potentially coming to a head this soon. I’ll be very interested to hear Nishida’s reasoning, since the evidence on the ground – Komano-kun’s experience, Tsukuba’s weariness, and the fact that Tsutomu can do more with the information he’s scouted than anyone – seems to support the notion that he should be playing. Is it possible that Nishida is casting doubt on Tsutomu’s desire as a player?
*I saw this cute little fellow all over Otsu during my trip in January. He seems to be a mascot for the local tourist association.