What would happen if an anime did an entire Karuta tournament in real-time? That’s what this team competition is starting to feel like. No one is a bigger fan of the buildup episode in sports anime than I am, but wow – not a single card slapped in anger this week? The difference in pacing between the first two seasons of Chihayafuru really is remarkable. In some ways it feels like a different show, but there’s no denying that the essence of what makes it great has been mostly preserved.
The thing is, as it almost always does, Chihayafuru executed this build-up episode superbly. That’s the torture – I want so much more than what we’re getting, but most of the time I love being denied it. I think anyone watching this season must be an “M”. This obsessive detail over every aspect of the team matches is quite something, and given everything else we’ve seen it shouldn’t come as a surprise that both Fujisaki and to the 3rd-place match between Akashi and Hokou should be the subject of considerable attention.
With the episode covering events effectively in real-time, it affords the opportunity to focus on a wide variety of themes, and there are a lots of things happening simultaneously – in fact, one of the best parts of the episode is the way that despite the grandness of the moment, pretty much everyone on both teams’ thoughts are a mad adolescent whirlwind. Kana-chan is agonizing over her missed opportunity to play in the final – revealed to be caused by a previously undisclosed sprain to a finger on her right hand – all the more so when the Reader for the final is revealed to be the legendary Yamashiro Kyouko (real-life 6-Dan and Reader legend Keiko Serino). Arata and Shinobu are still going back and forth about the merits of team Karuta, as his “teammates” urge him to sneak in and watch Mizusawa play (Retro-kun has tipped Arata off to what’s happening). Arata, naturally, sticks to his guns – for fear of pissing off the Gods by blowing off his slap-on-the-wrist. Meanwhile he urges Shinobu – who’s been messing with the minds of Fujioka West by changing in front of them (pink Snowmaru panties!) – to go watch in his place, to show support for the teams competing.
Then, there’s Fujisaki. Their coach Sakurazawa-sensei, is a seemingly ice-cold hard-ass who thinks nothing of taking out one of the third-years for the final because she’s more concerned with grooming the team for the future than a match she’s sure she’ll win easily. The second-year inserted into the lineup is Yamashiro Rion (granddaughter of Yamashiro Kyouko), who seems as emotionless as her coach – and whose presence in the final is deeply resented by Yamai Makoto (Saiga Mitsuki), the third-year rival for Taichi’s eyelash supremacy who may be in love with her. Nishida’s opponent is Suzuki Kanata, desperate to avenge his benched brother (Nishida, meanwhile, is desperate to avenge himself). Sacrificial lamb Tsukuba’s rival is fellow fox-creature Ichimura Mitsuki, and Tsutomu is up against Makoto.
Perhaps the most compelling matchup, though, is Taichi facing off against his fellow captain, Emeru Ryouga. It’s a matchup that Taichi insisted on once Tsutomu revealed that he could predict the Fujisaki order with complete confidence, and it’s not coincidental that Taichi sees a strong resemblance to Arata in Ryouga – and, no doubt, an opportunity to confront his internal demons. Ryouga may share a broad physical similarity with Arata, but his personality could hardly be more different. He dismisses Rion because she’s “flat as an infant”, laments that he couldn’t play Kana and “see those H-cups bouncing around” and reveals that his default plan for matches it to fantasize about Sakurazawa-sensei letting him fondle her boobs. None of this is known to Taichi of course, or would matter to him if it ways – the most telling line of dialogue from him is when he thinks to himself that in team matches, he’s “not afraid of anyone – even Arata.” When Ryouga takes his measure and seemingly dismisses him, though, you can see that it scores at least a glancing blow on Taichi’s confidence.
It’s hard not to see the final coming down to that match, assuming Mizusawa is going to keep it close. Chihaya is playing a less-experienced player and should win, but even if Nishida can prevail it’s hard to imagine either Tsutomu or Tsukuba having a chance against Class-A opponents. The key is that it was was Taichi who insisted that he, not Chihaya, face the opponent’s ace. Tsutomu has indeed predicted nearly every aspect of Fujisaki’s behavior, right down to the four third-years leaving the field to stretch during memorization time. Even if he has, as he says, “done all he can” and doesn’t expect to win his match, if Misuzawa pulls out a miracle it will surely be Tsutomu’s tireless preparations that are largely responsible.
There’s one last surprise in store – Shinobu shows up for the final, after all. If any of the Mizusawa players are effected by this it would seemingly be Chihaya, so it will be very interesting to see how she reacts. The board seemingly doesn’t favor her – only one 1-syllable card, and no “Impassioned” anywhere to be found (not to mention that she’s facing the Reader’s granddaughter). But we’re seeing a new Chihaya this year, and this one will, I think, rise above the distractions and take care of business. It’s Taichi’s match that will ultimately be the one where demons are stared down – as Retro-kun (who’s emerged as a character of real depth and sensitivity) says, Taichi longs to move up to Class A even more than he does. Taichi is all about deeply-felt desires largely unexpressed and the accumulation of frustrations, and the pressure he places on himself is probably greater than any external pressure the others are feeling.