This was so close to being one of the classic Chihayafuru episodes ever. It had almost everything – drama, humor, long-awaited interaction with Arata, classic lines of dialogue, heartwarming emotion. I think the series greatly benefited from a break in the non-stop Karuta action, and a return to the character-driven style of the first season. But no episode with a needless 4-minute recap in the middle can ever be considered a great one in my opinion. I was all set to praise Madhouse for abandoning the pre-credits recap clips, but at least those are generally two minutes or less and don’t disrupt the flow of the episode – this one came just at the crest of a huge emotional wave and acted like a breakwater. It’s a shame, but it is what it is.
There was so much happening in this ep, on so many levels, that in a way it almost felt like it was paying debts that had been building up for 44 episodes. The episode started out in emotional sixth-gear, showing us the awards presentation for the team tournament – the reward for all the hard work Mizusawa has been putting in (and to the audience for staying connected through one of the longest tournament sequences ever). Yet it switched gears in a heartbeat – just as the BGM did – disrupting the awards ceremony with a jolt of pain from Chihaya as she held the victory banner aloft. In hindsight might have been better to have Chihaya hold the certificate and Taichi take the flag…
Once again this week, we saw Sumire take the role she took early on in the season – as the outsider who can say what the audience is thinking because she has enough remove from the situation to see the obvious and enough connection to it to understand the implications. She was the one who blurted out Taichi’s obvious love for Chihaya what feels like years, ago, and here she’s the one who says what the rest of us know – there’s a love triangle between our three main characters. Except that none of them has done what she did and said it aloud – indeed, based on the evidence we’ve seen the only one who even says it internally is Taichi, though it’s implied strongly that Arata feels the same way. It’s been so long since this dynamic was on center stage that it’s easy to forget it’s what drove the series for most of the first season, but it all came flooding back this week – having lost none of the narrative firepower in its arsenal. This is still the big dog from a dramatic standpoint, and when it’s in focus it sucks all the oxygen out of the room, leaving any other thread gasping for air.
The scene between Taichi and Arata will probably be the most-discussed of the episode, and it was like a hot electrical cable from the first moment – danger was crackling through the air. The dynamic between these two is really just as interesting as that between Taichi and Chihaya, and it’s so rare to see Arata actually interact physically with either of his old mates that it feels surreal every time it happens. It’s Arata who drops the first verbal bombs here – his “The only team I ever wanted to be on was the one with you and Chihaya” being one of the most memorable lines of dialogue he’s ever uttered. He also drops the bomb on Taichi – with spectacular results – that he plans to attend college in Tokyo (wherever he can get a scholarship – a gentle reminder that he doesn’t have Taichi’s money).
It’s remarkable how different these two young men are, physically, emotionally, temperamentally. While Arata drops his bombshells verbally Taichi’s are internal (or muttered so quietly that only he can hear them). “Chihaya wants to be on a team with you, but I don’t. You’re my enemy.” (note: this is a perfect example of why translators can impact the interpretation of a work significantly. “Teki”, the word Taichi used, can be translated as “enemy” – which Crunchyroll did – “rival”, or “opponent” – all are correct in this context, and in common usage. How different does this scene feel if it’s translated as “rival”?) It’s startling to hear Taichi utter these words (only we do hear, not Arata) but, unpleasant as they are, at least they’re honest. I think it’s quite possible to feel that someone is both a rival and a friend, and I think Taichi does feel that way here (the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference), but his complex over Arata must be dealt with before Taichi can move forward in his life. Arata isn’t Taichi’s problem when it comes to Chihaya, Taichi is – until he makes his feelings known to her, he can always use Arata as an excuse for why he doesn’t act. Part of that is no doubt the implied code of honor that both boys are observing – Arata as much as told Taichi he was interested (he flat-out asked if Chihaya and Taichi were dating) in S1, and it seems as if both of them are holding back partly because neither wants to act unless both of them are present and able to fight for their cause. But it also gives Taichi an excuse not to move forward, and delays his quest to be “a person who doesn’t run away”.
What this conversation implies going forward is hard to say. If Arata’s request to his parents was to attend college in Tokyo, he could indeed join his Fukui “teammates” on a team for his final year of high school – but what of his comment that no team matters to him but that with Chihaya and Taichi? It’s important to note that Chihayafuru almost never gives us any insight into Arata’s inner thoughts, yet does so with Taichi over and over – with the impression that leaves being that Taichi is a person who internalizes his true feelings and that Arata is transparent. Yet the truth is surely deeper than that, and Arata is surely more than the collection of what he says aloud. We don’t know the full truth about what he feels about Taichi and Chihaya, only what he’s said openly (mostly to Taichi) and probably won’t know it until the three of them finally are together for an extended period (assuming Suetsugu evert stops torturing us and allows that to happen).
Meanwhile and not at all incidentally, Chihaya’s injury is providing drama of its own. Her casual “Is there a hospital open late?” is her first aloud admission that something is seriously wrong, and The Empress treats it with the seriousness it deserves. The X-ray reveals a chip fracture, though the doctor seems surprised there’s not more pain and swelling and recommends a second opinion. She also recommends that Chihaya not play in the individual tournament, a recommendation I heartily endorse – and Chihaya’s ultimate choice to try and compete using her left hand seems the product of good intentions and fighting spirit, but poor judgment. What is there to be gained in doing so? She can’t possibly win that way – though it’s certainly better than trying to win with her right hand, the damaged finger in a splint. My fear is that’s exactly what Chihaya is going to do once it becomes clear to her that she has no chance to win with her left against Yuube Keiko, who destroyed Nishida in the semi-finals. There’s no telling what kind of damage she could do to herself if that happens, and with Taichi in another room for the Class B fevent and Arata engaged in his own match, who will be there to save her from herself?
When she returns from the hospital – with The Empress gamely but futilely trying to hide the seriousness of the issue from Sumire and Kana – Chihaya stumbles into the boys’ room by mistake. Taichi is asleep by himself, the others presumably in the bath. It’s here that the aforementioned recap sequence occurs and it’s a real shame, because it interrupts the narrative at a very touching and revealing moment. Rather than immediately retreat Chihaya crawls into the room and lies down next to the sleeping Taichi, which says so much about her feelings. As she reflects back on what’s happened and worries about her injury that’s where she wants to be – lying next to Taichi, which at the very least expresses her complete trust in him.
In the complicated triangle among the three leads Chihaya’s romantic feelings are the greatest mystery of all, because while unlike with Arata we do see much of her inner thoughts, they betray almost nothing of where her heart lies. It reminds me intensely of the moment Taichi fell asleep in the car, and Chihaya cradled his head on her shoulder. It’s another gut-wrenching twist of fate for Taichi, who seems cursed to sleep through all the moments when Chihaya most openly expresses the depth of her connection to him – if he knew, perhaps his own resolve would be that much stronger. And perhaps it does reveal something of Chihaya’s heart that she might be more willing to openly express it with Taichi when she knows she can do so in secret.
There’s certainly drama to be had everywhere as the stage is set for the tourney to begin, with Chihaya’s stated aim to have Mizusawa win every class (Sumire’s “What? We count?” providing one of the episodes few light moments). That goal is surely one of the reasons she’s pushing herself, as Nishida surely can’t win the Class A event. Will Tsutomu and Kana meet again in the Class C final, a group where both of them should be among the top competitors? Can Tsukuba win in Class D (seemingly a very real possibility)? And we have Arata and Shinobu briefly interacting before the matches, with a fascinating exchange between them that she clearly regards as serious, and he seemingly as a joke. She has eyes only for Arata – in Karuta at the very least – and with Chihaya not a threat, it’s hard to see anyone else breaking up their seemingly fated meeting.
And then there’s Taichi in Class B, as usual fighting himself more than the opponents. His forlorn “Why am I here?” expresses his dilemma and his penchant for self-defeat – as Arata and Chihaya (hopeless and misguided though it may be in her case) stride into battle in Class A – finally “on the same tatami” as she says, which is surely the biggest reason she’s playing at all – Taichi is off on his own, an outsider to their club. There can be no question Taichi is strong enough to play in Class A – he’s defeated a number of Class A players already in this tournament. Yet his “even if I never have my card read in a luck-of-the-draw again” promise of last week continues to hang in the air and cast a pall of foreboding on the Class B final. In so many ways Taichi exorcising his demons has been the most consistent narrative thread in this series, and it’s rarely been on display more prominently than it was this week.