Or rather, it would have been if a commenter hadn’t spoiled this week’s ending after last week’s episode. Be that as it may, always lead with the headline – and the banner is definitely, “Mizuswa wins the title”. In many ways it contradicts the ineffable laws of sports anime to have a team win on their first trip to the big game, so I was rather expecting Fujisaki to defend and be the bogeyman for Mizusawa to shoot for next year. As some have pointed out most of their elite is third-years, but that doesn’t seem to matter to a school like Fujisaki, which is effectively a Karuta factory – they’d already won four titles in a row, after all.
This certainly takes the series’ development in an interesting direction. Rion will be the ace and gunning for Chihaya and Mizusawa in the team competition next year, and may be Taichi’s opponent in the Class B final. A case can be made for either she or Retro-kun – her coach’s “Take the summer and get better” suggests it could be the latter. It also seems to have taken a major goal off the table – really, there’s nowhere for the team drama to go from here but down, since Mizusawa is already at the summit of Karuta Mt. Everest. The element that could see more play as a result of that is the third-years expanding their role as mentors, shifting their focus to leaving Mizusawa with a capable Karuta Club after they’ve left it to Tsukuba and Sumire.
In many ways the final was surprisingly predictable, apart from the actual result. Chihaya won her match, as you’d expect – Tsutomu and Tsukuba lost (though I’d argue Tsukuba fared very well as a Class D against a strong Class A). It came down, as it’s been looking like it would for a while, to Taichi and Nishida. Fortunately those two matches were knockouts, especially Taichi’s. In a way, it’s as if Taichi has been missing in action for most of the season, but this episode was like a throwback to Season One, where his development was so often at the center of the story. All of his demons were in full evidence this week, his self-doubt and fatalism and desperate longing for Chihaya’s love. And as it almost always was last year, it was riveting to watch. Mamoru Miyano hasn’t been asked to do much this season, to be honest, but it was thrilling to hear him step it up this week.
In a very fundamental way, I think Taichi and his teammates are more interesting to watch as Karuta players than Chihaya – or at least just as interesting. So much of what Chihaya does is based on the spur-of-the-moment – not always her raw physical talents (though those are still her greatest weapon, as her win over Rion proved) but even when she strategizes, it’s mostly seat-of-the-pants adjustments based on instinct. As a result I think Chihayafuru has suffered a bit by focusing probably 80% of its Karuta attention this season on her matches at the expense of everyone else’s. Nishida is the most experienced and purely strategic of the bunch, and has more than his own share of self-doubt. Tsutomu brings his uniquely analytical perspective, and Kana is always aware of the spiritual tenor and pure beauty of the moment. And of course Taichi, in addition to his fascinating struggles with himself, has a phenomenal situational awareness. He knows exactly what’s happening in every game, which cards are left and which are read, the tendencies of his opponents. All of these internal monologues are compelling, and this episode really soared when the camera narrowed down to Taichi and Nishida against the world.
We didn’t get as much focus on Nishida’s match as Taichi’s, but it seems to have been quite close for most of the game. As for Taichi we’ve seen him chip away and chip away at Ryouga’s lead, and it seemed as if the mental control in the match clearly shifted to Taichi. Rarely for him, we saw him use a little gamesmanship to throw Ryouga off his game – long pauses before sending cards, icy glares. More than anything, I think Ryouga had a growing sense that he’d undersold his opponent – and it hasn’t been often that we’ve seen Taichi the one with growing confidence and his opponent psychologically dominated. The pressure eventually forces Ryouga into a rare (especially for a player like him) double-fault – he incorrectly touches a card in Taichi’s territory as Taichi correctly captures one in his. This means a two-card penalty, and the match is now tied at three cards each.
It’s here when the drama goes up to eleven and the S2 BGM really kicks in. Nishida and Taichi being experienced and the most strategic players on Mizusawa realize their situation – they’re down 2-1, and either of them winning matters not a jot if the other loses. As Retro-kun and Hokuo (who I’m guessing won their match, as they were well ahead at the last look-in) look on like proud papas, Taichi and Nishida use the card-synching strategy Hokuo used on them against an unsuspecting Fujisaki. This means that when both their matches end up in luck of the draw (which happens just a bit too often in Chihayafuru to be truly credible) they have exactly what they want – winner-take-all. They’ve effectively turned the team final into a coin flip, despite being down 2-1 – as brilliant a move for them as it was for Hokuo against them.
I’ll say this for Suetsugu-sensei – she’s certainly not afraid to kick in the drama, or to torture Taichi. Naturally the one card remaining in the luck of the draw is Yuku e Moshiranu Kohi no Michi kana – “I do not know where this love will take me”. Whether even Taichi with his hyper-senses is aware of the irony of this is debatable, but no poetic moment slips past Kana – as her teammates (especially Sumire) agonize over the tension of the moment, Kana (who’s certainly a Chihaya-Taichi shipper if ever there was one) latches onto the meaning behind the words, as always. Suetsugu pours everything into this moment: Taichi pleads for Chihaya – who’s fallen asleep immediately after match as usual – to wake up and see his moment in the sun. All of Taichi’s teammates – and Taichi – reflect on the fact that he’s never had his card read in a luck of the draw. He even – ominously enough – promises God that if it is this time, he “doesn’t care if it never happens again”. The fact is that even now, Taichi and all of his friends are convinced he’s cursed. “The one card I need won’t be read. It never is. Is that how my life will go? Is everything I do futile?”
It could be argued that there’s a somewhat contradictory message at the end of Taichi’s match. It’s rare in sports manga to see the big moment come down to luck, but there are to be no miraculous faults or stealing the opponent’s card against Ryouga – he’s simply too solid a player. Yet luck it is that finally smiles on Taichi – not only is his card read, but Chihaya wakes up at the crucial moment and sees it all happen. What are we to take away from this – has Taichi’s problem been bad luck all along? As superstitious as Karuta players are that would be a somewhat strange takeaway for a major character, but the fact remains that Taichi has been in this situation before and the only difference between this and, for example the Nishida match, is whose card was read. We know of course that Taichi largely made his own luck here – he clawed his way back from a large deficit against a higher-ranked player, and seized the momentum and psychological control away from Ryouga by sheer force of will. But will Taichi see it that way – especially considering what happens after the match?
After the emotional team hug, the inevitable moment happens – when the team walks into the corridor, Arata is waiting for them. His silence when Chihaya pleadingly asks if he’d watched their match is all the answer she needs, yet she surely misunderstands the meaning behind his absence. She scolds him, but in a sense she’s wasting her words – Arata has already been won over and realized that he’s been depriving himself of an important part of his life as both a person and a Karuta player. How will Taichi react to this instance of Arata once again seemingly intruding upon his rare moments of good fortune – will he curse and fate and believe his curse still stands, or will he rejoice at seeing someone he cares for and realize that everything he wants in his life, even Chihaya, is all about what he chooses to do and not about Arata or anyone else?
The individual matches come now, and with 6 episodes remaining seem likely to carry us to the end of the (knock on wood) season. I would be shocked if Chihaya plays at this point – that would make her injury a Hall of Fame red herring – but she’ll still be part of the drama as Arata (and Shinobu), Taichi, Tsutomu and Kana, and Tsukuba all go to separate tournaments. I have nightmares of Taichi’s promise to God coming back to haunt him as the last card of the Class B final is read, and even with an Arata-Shinobu final looming that’s the storyline that still holds the greatest potential for drama – Ryouga has pegged Taichi as “That guy who’s on his way up” but as he also says, Taichi has been “kicking around Class B” for a year. Remarkably, Taichi has not lost a match in any of the team competitions this season – that he should be Class B is a lead weight on his shoulders, and his arc can’t possibly go anywhere until he takes his rightful place alongside Chihaya and Arata in Class A. I summed up the difference between the two seasons of Chihayafuru this way: “It’s still massively entertaining, but I used to have Chihayafuru on the brain all week long because I was so wrapped up in the characters. Now, once an episode ends I don’t think about it until the next one starts.” This episode marks the first time when I really feel that same sense of anticipation bordering on obsession that I did last season, and next Saturday can’t come too soon for me.