I’ve been struck more than once that Chihayafuru feels just a bit different this season than it did in its first two-cour run. In much the same way that the last couple of seasons of Natsume Yuujinchou differed slightly from their predecessors, I don’t think this is a qualitative difference so much a change in tone and focus. The two things I can point to that are different this year are that Chihayafuru is dealing with a much larger cast, and so far it’s much more heavily focused on the game of Karuta itself.
So how does that manifest itself for me as a viewer? Well, one of the remarkable things about this series is its innate ability to transcend genres and specific styles, and that’s certainly been on full display this season. You could talk to five viewers who love Chihayafuru and they might give you five different answers about what they love most (indeed, that would be true of Natsume as well). For me, the series feels just a bit less special than it did because I miss the focus on the core characters, and on their character arcs. We’ve seen the camera all over the map this season, focusing on new characters and previously little-explored old ones, on opposing teams, and much more on the sport itself. Chihayafuru is pulling all this off beautifully, as you’d expect, but there’s less emotional heft for me when Chihaya and especially Taichi have become relatively minor players in many episodes. Whatever you may think of him Taichi had the most intense and dramatic arc of the first season, and as a result of his reduced prominence that arc feels rather stagnant at the moment.
My suspicion – at the very least my hope – is that all this broad focus we’re seeing is an investment in the long-term, developing the story and the rest of the cast because they aren’t going to get as much attention when the series returns to its essential nature in the second cour. And I freely admit that just as it was with Natsume’s subtle shift from being centered on its title character’s youkai world to his human one, this is a matter of personal preference and not a change in quality – I still love Chihayafuru and it’s still brilliant. And I certainly applaud the decision to build an episode around Komano-kun – hell, I’ve been crying out for it – because I’ve always felt he was a real unsung hero in this cast. I don’t want to call Tsutomu a forgotten man, but it does seem very often as if he’s taken for granted – his skills not quite on par with his teammates, his personality not as flashy, his main focus always on the team rather than himself.
As I speculated at the end of last week’s post, the cliffhanger was indeed all about Nishida calling Tsutomu’s desire as a player into question. And it’s hard to blame him, really, when Tsutomu showed little desire to fight for his position. Chihaya passes it off as fatigue, recalling an instance when Harada-sensei (why isn’t he here?) told her that watching a Karuta match intently was more exhausting than playing in one. And there’s something to that, as we see when Komano-kun falls asleep as the others begin their match (only to be thoughtfully covered up by “The Empress’ Jacket of Love”). But I think there’s something to what Nishida said, and Komano knows it. At Karuta, he’s the fifth-best on a five-player team. As a scout and analyst, he’s in his element – that’s his home turf and he’s unquestionably their best. We’ve seen this insecurity in him from the beginning, when he refused to play a match in a pout; just as we’ve seen his selflessness when he more than once tried to tweak the order so he’d be a sacrificial lamb against the enemy’s strongest opponent.
This whole episode with Nishida was quite eye-opening, I think, in that wonderful way Chihayafuru has of making events not just plot-drivers, but character-arc drivers as well. I think Tsutomu-kun needed to hear what Nishida said to rekindle his desire as a player, though in the long-term I still think the direction we’re headed is Tsukuba as the regular starter. I was pleased (for obvious reasons, heh) to see Kana be the one to most vociferously stick up for Tsutomu at what she saw as an attack. Chihaya once again shows just how much she’s grown as a player, stepping in when Taichi hesitates at deciding the order and calmly assessing the situation. The Empress made a very telling comment, that Taichi was “under too much pressure” – indeed, that’s how it’s seemed all season with him, that he was on edge and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The quarter-final match is against Shoyo (“Show You!”) a team from Kyoto – and I couldn’t help but laugh at Taichi’s comment that all their players looked like “ancient Karuta officials from textbooks”. Maybe it’s my fanciful Gaijin imagination but I’m always struck by how different Kyotoite faces look from folks in the rest of Japan – they really do resemble what I’ve always imagined Heian nobles look like. In any event Mizusawa does indeed go with the same order from the group stage while Tsutomu sleeps it off, and they win after a bit of an early struggle, thanks to his notes (we’re never given the individual results) and some world-class feminine wiles from Kanade. For the semi-finals (Hokuo has advanced, too), though, Tsutomu does indeed step into the picture against Akashi Girls Academy – and it seems as if Tsukuba really gets shafted here, as everyone rushes to embrace Tsutomu without a thought for his own efforts in helping the team advance. Akashi features Ousaka-san, the reigning Western Japan champion – and the issue here is Chihaya’s burning desire to take her on vs. the logical notion of trying to match Chihaya against one of Akashi’s three weaker (though still Class B) players. Again she shows her maturity – volunteering herself to follow that plan. But Taichi decides to stick with the same order on the guise that Mizusawa doesn’t want to duck their opponent, though he – and Tsutomu – know full-well that Akashi has been riding the same order because they’re saving any potential changes for what they perceive to be stronger opponents.
Next week should prove interesting indeed, as Akashi seems to be taking Mizusawa for granted and this looks like it might finally be the match where Chihaya loses and everything comes down to the other members (dare I hope, maybe Tsutomu) to save the day. Meanwhile Arata (Shinobu is currently wearing his pants) has indeed gotten a slap on the wrist – his punishment is to skip watching the team tournament and write an essay on what he did wrong. If that somewhat laughable sentence is the last we hear of the incident it’ll be a bit of an anti-climax, given that I thought Arata’s open admission that he deserved to be suspended from the individual tournament was quite admirable, and this seems like a victory for favoritism (and blackmail). Nevertheless this does offer the first realistic possibility of Chihaya and Arata playing in a meaningful match, though I kind of doubt that will happen this early in the season. But then, it isn’t really all that early – after we finish the team and individual stages the season will be more than half over, there’s still presumably the Meijin and Queen tournaments to be covered and we’ve seen very little focus on Taichi’s quest for Class A or on any of the personal lives of the characters. And that does make me a little sad, if I’m to be honest, as much as I love the supporting cast and the Karuta episodes.