Chihayafuru 2 – 17

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I’ll give this to Chihayfuru – more than any series, it’s managed to turn poetry into a blood sport.

After a cruel hiatus due to a poorly-timed recap episode, Chihayafuru is back, and things haven’t changed in the slightest.  Basically, in the first season Chihayafuru was a character drama about teenagers who played Karuta.  This season it’s a Karuta series first and foremost – there’s still plenty of drama but most of it comes from the matches themselves.  Whether that’s an improvement or not depends on what you’re looking for in the series, I guess, but it still manages to be pretty riveting week in and week out (apart from recap eps and creepers with cameras).

It’s a fascinating exercise to watch Chihayafuru exercise all the classic tenets of the sports anime, yet do so for a sport that could hardly be more foreign in concept to a Westerner.  We have team dynamics, personal rivalries, injuries at key moments, head-games – but the subject at hand is a bunch of kids playing Slapjack with thousand-year poems from the Heian Court.  Even Go, the subject of the series which Chihayafuru most reminds me of (and if you know me you know that’s a massive compliment) is conceptually familiar – it’s played in the West, and there are many other games from the same broad family of competition.  For me, there’s no real basis for comparison with Karuta – and the nature of the sport allows Chihayafuru to go to places even Hikaru no Go was unable to venture.

Basically, this episode was everything the second season of Chihayafuru has been, in distilled form.  This has been a season for Karuta geeks – old and converted – and this episode especially seems aimed straight at their hearts.  Not only do we have a famous Karuta reader showing off her craft, but she actually has a role in the dramatics of the episode via her connection to her granddaughter Rion.  What this episode does is manage to portray the magic of the sport at both extremes.  We see the beauty and the history of it – traits always ably championed by the lovely Kana-chan – in both the readings of Serino Keiko and the way Chihaya leans on Kana’s teachings to see the “multicolored readings” of Serino-sama.  And we see the hard, physical grind of it in the injury Chihaya suffers and the way she fights through it, and the hard physical training the Fujisaki players have endured to make them the implacable monoliths that stand before the plucky Mizusawa underdogs.

Truly, it’s remarkable just how fascinating and complex this sport is, and we see that on display this week.  The physical grind is obvious in the difference in condition between the two competing teams.  There are so many ways to approach the game, as we see from Shinobu’s mental gymnastics as she watches the match unfold.  She notes that she can beat Suo in many situations, but with a reader like Serino who “gives too much information” she’d lose to him – with his inhuman “28 one-syllable card” hearing.  There’s the raw speed that Chihaya has leaned on for so much of her career, but which she now yearns to temper with finger-to-the-edge accuracy.  There’s the “gane sense” which Rion shows she lacks by placing the one-syllable card Chihaya has sent her in a place that’s too easy to attack.

And then there’s color.  I think what’s really been on display in the last several eps is how Chihaya is very much a work in progress, and the way she’s become a sponge, soaking up the wisdom of those around her.  From Kana she learns the love of the poems themselves, and the ability to listen to their “color” – which she uses to stem the tide of Rion’s momentum when the game starts out badly.  From Tsutomu the strategy of card placement and understanding her own weaknesses, from Shinobu deadly accuracy, from Suo keen hearing and anticipation.  Chihaya is becoming an amalgam of all their styles, and that will be her ticket to the top – but I think it’s interesting that she hasn’t so much adapted anything from the styles of either Taichi or Arata.  In the latter case she hasn’t seen him play for years, and in the former it seems that Taichi is – as usual with Chihaya – hidden in plain sight when it comes to Karuta.  When she takes on something of the nature of the two people she’s closest to, perhaps that will be when she’s ready to really give Shinobu a serious challenge.

As I watched these matches unfold, it struck me as very likely that we’re going to see Rion be Taichi’s opponent in the Class B final.  Her story bears one very strong similarity to his – the element of “Why is this person still in Class B?”  In her instance it’s because she seems disinterested in any but the finest readers (having been spoiled by her Grandmother) and tends to give up in the middle of matches.  It’s easy to see from her demeanor that she’s not a warm person who feels connected to others, and that she’s somewhat isolated.  In the case of her match with Chihaya, it seems to turn on an injury – Chihaya hurts her index finger when Rion hits her hand going for a card.  Here again we see Chihaya recalling the wisdom of one of her mentors, in this case the one who’s taught her most of all, Harada-sensei – injuries can impact the person who caused them more than the injured player.  We see examples of this in other sports – tennis springs to mind, where very often when one player is injured it messes with the head of the opponent.  And indeed, Rion is clearly thrown by Chihaya’s obvious distress – concentration clearly being a weakness for her – but in the final analysis, Chihaya still has to play with that injured hand.  Though (as usual) Chihaya can’t remember her opponent’s name, she does sense the turmoil her injury is causing Rion.

The usual laser-like focus on Chihaya’s match is broken only in the last seconds of the episode.  Everyone on the team has their own story, and something at stake in this match beyond simply the team winning or losing.  The boys on the team, witnessing the intensity in Chihaya’s eyes and seeing the pain she’s playing with, rise as one (coincidentally) and feel the “fire in the belly” that’s so central to sports (and sports anime).  They’re losing, each and every one of them – Chihaya too – but male pride kicks in hard, especially for Nishida.  Taichi at least has been successful – he’s undefeated – and Tsutomu won the decisive match in the semi-final (and as for Tsukuba, honestly, he’s not expected to win).  But Nishida, the “other” Class A player, has undeniably let his team down and this is his last chance to prove himself.  Taichi’s struggle is mostly to prove his worth to himself, but for Nishida it comes down to the team – he hasn’t held up his end, and surely knows he has no chance in the individual tournament.   This is his Waterloo, and no one has more at stake in this match than he does.  For a character that’s spent most of the season largely forgotten, his moment in the spotlight may finally be here.

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  1. j

    Haha loved the scene where text appeared besides Chihaya saying she couldn't recall her opponent's name. Laughed out loud. Wish this show did that more often, instead of always having some character exclaim like a fool at everything 😛 "Eeeeeeeeeeeh! That's not funny yo!" etc…

  2. H

    They've actually had a lot of text this season, I don't recall it as much last season (if at all) but they've been using it pretty heavily for comedic moments and I'm loving it too. ^^

  3. f

    My gut can't help but feel a teeny bit disappointed by the change in focus in Chihayafuru, but I love sports anime, and this one has the marks of a great one – it made me want to play karuta. The fact that it's possible to play a simplified version of the game with normal playing cards made me really happy. It's a real blast playing even this distilled form of karuta, and I'm starting to truly realise just why Chihaya and the others love it so much.

    I'm hoping they win the team matches. I giggled a little at the "fire in the belly" part, but that really is standard sports anime, isn't it? Gets you pumped like nothing else.

  4. i

    You know how Chihayafuru is a mix of Josei and Shounen-sports right, then how come we haven't seen something very common in most Shounen-sports series: the dirty team/player. I know no one who loves a sport like the mangaka probably does would taint it with those kind of characters but they do exist, if not to the same level of shadiness that manga like Kuroko no Basuka have.

    Surely there are some players that try injuring their opponent to win, as Harada sensei's advice of the week would only work on the naive or honorable. Well may be that's being saved for another day.

    I wonder if this will rule Chihaya out of the individual tournament and thus explains why the team one has taken so loong.

  5. It seems to me that the Class B tournament packed the most potential drama on the individual side anyway, so I don't see this as taking away all that much from the need to show it.

  6. i

    But with Arata back, the elephant's in the room for both Chihaya and Shinobu. Taichi doesn't have any notable foes in Class B, other than Retro, and as we all know he's well above that level so there shouldn't be many difficult opponents for him. Emotionally though we should get a big hit if he graduates but that would only be if he reaches the final again, which considering he managed last year, should be easy. He's beaten A-Class in this team tourney alone after all.

  7. Did you seriously just use the word "easy" and "Taichi" in the same sentence??

  8. i

    Hehe I guess I did. But I mean it should be, shouldn't it? And there's no other way for his story to move forward so on expectation of plot alone I expect him to move up, thus meaning it will be easy for us (as I at least won't be on tether hooks like last year's B-class final) but probably not for him.

  9. H

    Well we kinda saw some dirty playing last season, with the Queen candidate who would challenge everything and intimidate her opponents that way, plus when Tsutomu lined up all his cards in the final and swiped at everything to try and win.

    As for the rest of this episode, that was a really interesting point that Chihaya has started borrowing traits from a lot of the people she's played (even Sudo a little bit) but not Taichi and Arata, although I think in Taichi's case it's because his real strength is his memorization which is not Chihaya's strength. Not that it would be a bad idea for her to add even more tricks to her repertoire….

  10. G

    "There's the "gane sense" which Rion shows she lacks by placing the one-syllable card Chihaya has sent her in a place that's too easy to attack."

    Rion doesn't lack game sense. You're misremembering the show's terminology. Chihaya, Rion, Suou, and other speedy players are those with good 'game sense'.

    "but I think it's interesting that she hasn't so much adapted anything from the styles of either Taichi or Arata. In the latter case she hasn't seen him play for years, and in the former it seems that Taichi is – as usual with Chihaya – hidden in plain sight when it comes to Karuta."

    In the case with Taichi, it's because their playstyles are incongruent. Although Chihaya is less dependent on speed than she used to be, her game is still based heavily around game sense as opposed to memorization, Taichi's forte. Learning to use timing complemented her game sense. Learning to work around her opponents' covers also complements her game sense as this allows for her to use her good game sense to work around other players like Megumu who also have strong game sense.

    With Arata, the instructor at his Karuta society noted that Arata had an exceptional swing and good card placement. Given that having a strong swing can be yet another complement to one's game sense, I believe it is likely that Chihaya will likely aim to have a swing that is not only very accurate like Shinobu's but also very fast (The strength of Shinobu's swing is the straight as an arrow, very precise trajectory).

  11. No actually, I used the term correctly – game sense is more than simply speed. But in any event…

    It seems to me that one if the best ways for any player to improve once they reach the level Chihaya has is to try and adopt skills from so-called "incongruent" players. If it's your weakest area, why not make it a primary focus for improvement? How is Chihaya going to be Queen if she's a player where everyone looks at the draw and says "Oh,well – not enough one-syllable cards, she's in trouble."

  12. G

    I didn't mean to imply that game sense was based on speed but rather on intuition since someone who is fast but frequently commits faults does not have strong game sense.

    There is actually evidence against your claim that you used the term correctly (one such piece of it comes from one of your own blog posts) based on the dialogues/monologues recently found in this season and in the first season as well. Your blog post for the final episode of Season 1 goes against your current claim.

    In the first season, Arata downplayed the significance of game sense to a Taichi who was in need of some advice, stating that what you need to do is get the cards faster than the opponent does, and there are many methods of doing this. Taichi then started to practice on his swing, which was contrary to his previous stance on them (He thought that practicing his swing was uncool). This strongly suggests that attributing good card placement to having strong game sense is incorrect.

    Pulled from your post:

    Suo claims to have 28 one-syllable cards – and indeed, shows an incredible ability to anticipate the next syllable from the way the reader pronounces the previous – he can picture the image in their head when they use the word “Like” for example, and from this determine the next. I don’t know how realistic this superhuman “game sense” is, but it’s certainly true that Karuta players have varying abilities to “read the reader”. This, surely, is why Nishida was so intent on having Chihaya watch Suo, because her game sense is almost as strong as his.

    From Commie's release of episode 11 of Season 2:

    If you're matched up against Kawabe, try to stay calm!
    He's just guessing!

    Is this speed he's using the real thing?
    Normally, I'd have no trouble protecting "The eightfold" at my lower left, but he took it before I heard the "eight."
    Does he have good game sense?
    He's gambling that his card will be read.

    A fault!
    A person with good game sense wouldn't let me goad them into a fault.

    From Commie's release of episode 17 of season 2:

    Coach Sakurazawa:
    Rion's matched against the Mizusawa player with good game sense.

    I doubt you believe that one of Chihaya's strengths is card placement, so this is clearly referring to Chihaya's strong intuition allowing her to anticipate the next syllable that will be read.

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