Whatever your feelings about the direction Chihayafuru has gone this season, in the last two weeks I’ve think we’ve seen the worst and best sides of that change in focus. Coming off that rare stumble that made me feel more than ever than Chihayafuru had well and truly lost a step this season, this episode marks a return to form – not in a harkening back to the series as it was in the first season, but an example of the very best it can be as the show it’s clearly become in the second.
It’s funny that my initial reaction was that ep was a kind of official declaration that Chihayafuru was now a full-on sports shounen, because the series it most reminded me of this week was Ookiku Furikabutte. That, of course, is another genre-straddling series that looks like a shounen, plays like a josei (or even shoujo) and is classified as a seinen – and seinen may be the one major genre tag I’ve never seen applied to Chihayafuru. And you know, it kinds of fits – there are definite seinen elements to this show – but more than anything Chihayafuru remains a series that can’t be limited by any genre classification.
In an avalanche of series premieres this week it certainly feels good to immerse myself in a show that I know as well as any, where I feel as if the characters are family. While I could have done without the 3-minute recap and the irritating cutaways to the loser trio with the cameras, everything else was spot-on – this episode was blisteringly tense and loaded with great character drama. Megumu really blossomed as a screen presence this week (continuing S2 Chihayafuru’s Oofuri-like trend of intense focus on the opposition) as her situation began to take on a nuance and shading it hadn’t before. There were three lines of dialogue that I felt especially framed her character’s role in the story:
“I’m not interested in becoming Queen.”
“This is a team event. So why am I the only one saying anything?”
“I have to beat you now.”
Just who is Megumu, and what drives her? I was very interested to hear her say she wasn’t interested in being Queen – that indifference towards ambition seems to be a common thread uniting many of the elite players in Chihayafuru, a reflection of the intense pressure trying to rise to the top of such a mentally demanding and fundamentally lonely sport requires. Yet she plays on a team that was basically founded in the first place to showcase her talent and help her become Queen. She obviously feels the weight of that on her shoulders, her teammates constant deference only adding to it. And just as obviously we see her motivated by the newly unflappable nature of Chihaya – and by her talent as well. It’s Chihaya’s unspoken “I will be Queen some day” demeanor that finally goads Megumu into committing all of herself to crushing her opponent.
But this is a new Chihaya, a player who doesn’t allow herself to be buffeted constantly by the currents of emotion and surges of momentum around her. She still lacks subtle analytical skills, but she’s far more self-aware than ever before – and aware of her opponent as well. She’s stronger in every way, and calm in the face of intense pressure is the greatest source of increased strength. She’s able to step back and see the vulnerabilities in Megumu’s game, the minute hesitation her lack of commitment causes. “Megumu-chan is me.” she whispers to herself. “She’s the player I’d be if someone hadn’t taught me better.”
The matches play out with a magnificent sense of tension, the momentum flowing back and forth like a Newton’s Cradle, urged along by the brilliant use of BGM (much of which is newly composed for the second season). Most of the focus is on Cihaya – with Harada-sensei right behind her – and Megumu’s battle, which comes complete with intense disputes over cards (Chihaya proves she still hasn’t mastered the skill, yet she has mastered the ability to get past those unnerving moments). As has been too often the case this season there’s a sadly lacking focus on the other players, but the sense is that most of the matches are close. Nishida is struggling badly against Akashi’s other Class A player, who finally steps up to vocally urge her team forward when she sees Megumu struggling – which, ironically, pisses Megumu off and drives her to reassert her own dominance.
The one gaping hole in the drama is Taichi, who continues to be far outside the major events taking place and seemingly more and more plagued by self-doubt. At this rate any recovery for his arc this season is going to be difficult to pull off without feeling contrived, because he’s been an unimportant character for almost the entire season. There’s an interesting moment between Tsutomu and Sumire, though, as he proves his resourcefulness by actually figuring something useful out from her inane scouting reports (though this brief moment is the only focus his match gets), and a spark of something seemingly flies between them when their eyes meet (hurry up, Kana!). There’s also a very quiet but truly magnificent moment when we get a close-up of Akashi’s coach having one of his frequent breakdowns and the camera catches The Empress’ face as she reacts – so subtle yet amazingly real, Madhouse showing off their truly superb talent with facial animation.