I can’t say I felt entirely confident about which way things would go this week on Chihayafuru, though I was certainly hoping the match with Akashi Girls Academy would be settled one way or the other without further delay. What I definitely didn’t expect was the insert scene with Arata and Shinobu, as she wowed his “teammates” with her focus and breath control and he turned all his good-boy skills towards writing the best punishment essay ever. There were some fascinating elements here, not least of which was her “casual” challenge to “play a match to kill time” – one Arata pointedly refused. “I can’t play – this is a day for team matches.” Arata definitely walks the walk when it comes to doing things properly – it might be taken to a slightly ridiculous extreme but he is who he is. To Arata the notion of playing Karuta to kill time is unthinkable – and a reflection of just how bored Shinobu is with her lack of competition.
But the main event, of course, was the semi-final match – the Mizusawa-Akashi one to be precise, as the other one proved far less dramatic. Hokuo loses decisively – and somewhat anti-climactically, truth be told – to Fujisaki, by a 4-1 score (no word on who their one winner was, though it seems likely to have been Amakasu-kun). Even Sudou’s eyes have been on the other match, where the white-hot tension that was so palpable last week carries over to this episode.
For me, when Chihayafuru spends extended stretches of time focused on Karuta match play, the series is far better off when the camera focuses somewhere besides Chihaya from time to time. As dramatic as her matches are (and Megumu’s match was no exception) there are five of them out there, and not only do I care about all of them, it’s not realistic to have every team match always come down to Chihaya’s individual one. Thankfully, as the two aces continued their duel to the death, we did get our focus elsewhere at least a little. Nishida lost quickly, as seemed likely, but Kana-chan quickly got that point back, and Taichi followed up with his own win soon after. Interestingly, for all that self-doubt seems to be dragging him down this season, Taichi has been Mizusawa’s best and most consistent player – as far as we’ve seen I don’t believe he’s lost a match either at the Tokyo qualifiers or the Nationals at Omi Jingu.
With that it all comes down to two matches – the aces, and the unheralded. The fascinating element about Chihaya’s match with Megumu is that each takes the cards the other is strongest at – Chihaya actually loses the “Impassionate Gods” card, remarkably, and it comes as she’s built a tiny lead in the endgame. It seems obvious that with Megumu, it’s all about motivation. She has tremendous talent, but unless there’s something urging her forward, she plays down to the level of the competition. Having her pride wounded both by her teammate’s usurpation of the leadership role and by Chihaya attacking her comfort zone, Megumu showed why she was the West Representative – and why Chihaya, for all her progress, still has room to grow.
That applies to Chihaya as a teammate as well as a player, as she briefly lapses into the self-absorbed self-pity she often showed in S1 – and it’s only the intervention of Taichi and Kana that brings her around to realize that the entire tournament has come down to Tsutomu’s match, which itself has come down to a luck of the draw. It’s great to see Tsutomu take center stage with the match on the line for a change, and he wins it in style by throwing caution to the wind after all the dead cards are read (I suspect only he and Taichi knew that was the case) and attacking his opponent’s card rather than protecting his own, and hoping. Why? Because his observations tell him that a “The” card comes up slightly more than half the time in a luck of the draw situation. Hand it to Tsutomu for being fearless and believing in his methods – in truth, it’s really an issue of small sample size because in reality, a 50-50 is a 50-50 and there’s nothing more to his success than guessing right and getting lucky.
What I love about a team match like this is that it gives us the chance to see the complicated emotions at play in such a situation. Megumu has just won what’s surely the most intense match she’s played in months, yet her team has lost – in her last match with them. Chihaya has just been vanquished and on her precious personal card to boot, beaten with raw speed – yet her team has scored a glorious win. Megumu is angry that she’s as sad as she is, and Chihaya dismayed that she’s not happier – yet their reactions are completely understandable. This leads to the best moment between Chihaya and Taichi all season, and maybe the best moment period, as he clasps her hand – the one she’s clenched so hard that she’s digging her nails into her palm – and slowly, firmly unclenches it. No words pass between them and he never even looks at her – it’s just another silent reminder that he knows her better than anyone and that she’s never, ever far from his thoughts.
So now we have a final between Mizusawa and Fujisaki, who’ve been set up as a kind of monstrous bogeyman of a team. We know almost nothing about them except how feared they are, but we know they were able to beat a Hokuo team that beat Mizusawa, and to do so easily. If this were a true shounen series of course, there’s almost no way Mizusawa could win the team final – the heroes are all second-years, after all, and must meet the requirement that they come close, fail, and come back to win as seniors. Will that apply to Chihayafuru? On paper, it’s hard to construct a realistic scenario where Mizusawa could beat a team as strong as Fujisaki seems to be, especially given that Kana is so exhausted that she seems ready to accede to Tsukuba’s suggestion that he replace her for the final. But the remarkable thing is that Mizusawa has just won a match 3-2 in which both their Class A players lost. They’re a strange group, and seemingly capable of pulling off the seemingly impossible – but both the empirical evidence and dramatic precedent seem to indicate that Fujisaki should carry the day.