If you’ve been watching, you know pretty much what to expect out of Chihayafuru this week – another intense, riveting episode spent entirely following events on the tatami. That’s all well and good, but there is a sort of sameness to it after a while. On the positive said you could call is “consistency” and this has certainly been a consistent season, especially for the last 8-10 episodes. But ultimately a lack of real variety and the fact that competition-driven episodes – apart from the final one – by their very nature lack satisfying closure make this season a less fulfilling experience for me as both a viewer and a blogger.
I keep going back to that “exquisite torture” description I used a few weeks back, because it probably comes closest to capturing how I feel about watching Chihayafuru 2. In S1 this show was more like Cross Game in the sense that the competition eps acted as a sort of bridge between developments, and the biggest drama was the character dynamics. But I’m hard-pressed to remember even a hard-core sports shounen like Major or Ginga e Kickoff that’s spent such a huge percentage of its time inside the chalk as this one. Chihayafuru has come to be defined by its Karuta, and of course the flip-side of the exquisite torture label is that it really is exquisite at depicting the sport. It’s turned this esoteric and ancient game into something truly fascinating. This episode, like most of them over the last two months, was exciting and felt like it lasted half its actual length (and the increasingly long recaps at the start of the episodes don’t help matters). And if you go by the rule of “always leave the audience wanting more” the show certainly has a leg up – the cliffhangers are agonizing. Or, dare I say it, torture.
One thing that’s been limiting is the laser-like focus on Chihaya and her opponent for most of these matches, which has effectively reduced the role of her teammates. We did see that start to change a bit at the end of this episode, with welcome results – I think the drama really picked up when the camera turned to the other four matches. It’s ironic, really, that when the major theme of this extended Omi Jingu arc has been the profoundly meaningful nature of team play – and the way not being part of it has isolated Arata and especially Shinobu – the focus of the series has almost been exclusively on one individual, main character or not. These are, in fact, team matches and two or three minutes total per episode really isn’t enough to do justice to four matches which each have their own intense story.
In fact, the most interesting developments this week might just have come from the two principals not involved in the tournament yet. It seems clear that Arata is destined to join Fujioka West in the next year – the hints being laid out certainly suggest it. Arata is generally a rather undemonstrative kid, a rarity in this series of dramatic facial expressions (a Madhouse specially) so you have to glean a lot from his body language. It was fascinating to see the subtle longing in him as he looked at the closed doors of the competition room and listened to the sounds of the game – Arata has always seemed to be a boy who’s comfortable in his own skin but spends perhaps too much of his time alone. It’s also interesting to see just how much he’s come to think of himself and Shinobu as kindred spirits, sharing many of the same dreams and frustrations. That notion is obviously fit to bursting with potential development on the character side of the story, should the series ever decide to get back to it.
As for Shinobu, she’s obviously much easier to read than Arata. She seems never to have a thought that’s unexpressed on her face, and we’ve spent more time getting inside her head in the last few weeks than at any other time in the series. In her case, isolation seems not to have been a choice as it debatably was with Arata, but an imposition – the notion (which she eventually bought into) that being around children her own age could only make her weak and dilute her competitive fire. While it’s clear she’s dealing with strong emotions in watching the team competition (The Empress has had to warn her three times to move back) it’s hard to say which ones are dominating. Indeed, I’d say she wouldn’t know herself – but frustration is clearly a big part of it. I think she’s frustrated that she has no personal buy-in to the human drama playing out before her, and frustrated with herself for caring. Shinobu may be lonely but she’s become an expert at denying to herself that she is. The only people she seems strongly connected to are Suo – who represents both an ideal and a personification of everything she despises – and Arata, who I think she likewise sees as a kindred spirit (and other things, besides). And she’s starting to become more interested in Chihaya, as well.
As for Chihaya, she at last notices Shinobu watching her match – surely a watershed moment for her, though the main factor continues to be her injury. With pain shooting up her wrist it’s obvious she’s done more than jam her finger – most likely there are ligaments damaged – and I suspect the path we’re headed down is that she’ll be unable to play in the individual tournament. That has its own implications – it even more shifts the dramatic emphasis to the Class B tournament, but it could also present a moment where Chihaya has to choose between watching Taichi or Arata play. If Taichi were in the Class B final and Arata were playing Shinobu in the Class A final, what would Chihaya do? That’s a potentially huge moment but still theoretical – for now what matters is that Chihya’s injury has gotten her thinking that the team match is her last shot, and she has no reason to hold anything back. Rion, for her part, is proving that despite her great natural ability she’s still too easily thrown off her game – and Makoto’s stalker-like obsession with her puts even more pressure on her. This is and always has been a game Chihaya should win, the only match on the board that favors Mizusawa on paper – and I expect Chihaya to take care of business.
As for the others, the predictable has happened – both Tsutomu and Tsukuba have lost. I would have liked more focus on their struggle but they simply weren’t given enough screen time, and their endings were rather abrupt. But assuming Chihaya wins her match (she’s fought back to even) that leaves the final where it always looked as if it would be decided, with Taichi and Nishida. Both trail with 8 cards remaining – Taichi by four cards and Nishida by either two or four, depending on the unseen results of the last card. Nishida was basically ignored this ep after the promising teaser last week, but Taichi at last got some focus at the very end. As always he’s doubting himself, and as always the others are bemoaning his bad luck – five cards in a row on his side when he desperately needed to attack. Though Ryouga is really nothing like Arata the superficial resemblance has given Taichi another pretext for doubting himself. “Arata – I’m happy when I forget you. But I feel encouraged when I think of you. I’m no good – I’m bad at forgetting.” As always, Taichi’s main opponent is himself, and as always, he seems to draw the worst possible physical opponent to exacerbate the problem. Even Ryouga’s implacable (he doesn’t even seem to sweat), balanced style reminds Taichi that he’s afraid to play the same way, and compensates by relying on memorization. They’ve gotten much less attention this season, but Taichi’s personal demons remain one of the most compelling threads in Chihayafuru – and if Mizusawa is to pull a miracle comeback in the team match, it seems inevitable that his conquering them will prove the climactic moment.