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.