This ep was pretty much everything about season two of Chihayfuru in a nutshell. It was all Karuta, exciting, frustrating as hell, and left me irritated with a cliffhanger I care about despite all that frustration. And it definitely tied a bow on Taichi’s “Why am I here?” comment from last week, because it made it absolutely clear that once the team tournament is over and done with, he’s very much frozen out – out of the spotlight in the series, out of the center of the Karuta world, and out of Chihaya’s consciousness.
In fact, the star of this episode for me – and it’s really the first time since his “Immelmann Turn” barrel roll winning move last season – was Nishida. But the main character of the episode was Chihaya, and once I again I find that the series can struggle a bit when it focuses too exclusively on her. Chihaya for me is simply harder to relate to than some in this cast – most notably Taichi, but also the likes of Kana and Tsutomu – she has the sometimes thankless shounen lead role, the ridiculous talent chasing the ideal of her sport. Because Chihaya isn’t one who reveals a lot of emotional depth and because her Karuta is so instinctual, I tend to find her less interesting under intense scrutiny than I wish I did – her motivation is harder to identify with.
A more immediate problem for me this week is one of credibility, though. Simply put, I think it’s a real stretch at best – and an insult to Karuta at worst – to expect us to believe Chihaya is capable of winning two matches against Class A opponents playing left-handed for the first time since she actually learned how to play. Admittedly this is one of those times where my lack of knowledge about Karuta limits my ability to grasp the mechanics of events in the series, but I can say this – I know a decent amount about a good many sports, and there’s not a one of them where such a thing would be remotely possible. Frankly, to even suggest it would be flat-out silly. Is it possible Karuta is that much different from every other athletic endeavor? Sure – but it’s not the most likely possibility. And the opponent she beat in the first round, Yuube-san, was no slouch – she trounced Nishida in the semi-finals. The whole thing feels pretty absurd to me, a dramatic device for it’s own sake.
But that, as they say, is what it is – and Chihaya is through the last 8, still pursuing her never-ending quest to catch up to Arata. She’s been promising to save her “one right-handed match” for him – but when the draw reveals Shinobu in the quarter-finals, the bandage comes off. That Chihaya would be dumb enough to actually risk her career playing right-handed is actually much more credible for me, and not just because we’ve seen shounen heroes do such things many times – she’s young, single-minded, an intense competitor and desperate. I think it’s a terrible mistake (and I’ll be anxious to see if The Empress tries to stop her) but it’s not out of character. My instinctual reaction is that Shinobu should certainly win, but after the absurd spectacle of Chihaya defeating Class A players lefty I’m not assuming anything. Maybe she’ll upset the Queen while playing blindfolded.
As for the two big dogs of Class A, they’re predictably dominant in the first round. Shinobu wins by 25 cards, and Arata actually tops her – he doesn’t just shut out his terrified opponent but wins by 27 cards, as he induces two faults. This sets up the best part of the episode, Nishida’s second-round match with Arata. Nishida is feeling confident for once, having won his team match in the finals and his first-rounder here – but he effectively admits defeat as soon as he sees Arata’s name. Nishida’s “Why is he better than me?” is the best and most heartbreaking line of the episode, the lament of a kid who knows that no matter what, he’ll never be the best – and that’s why his effort isn’t always 100%. The best he can do against Arata is not give up – a hollow victory at best, but he does at least give Arata a tough match. There’s more than a hint of condescension in Arata’s words to Nishida after the match – “Are all Mizusawa players like you?” – but Arata is so removed from the world of Karuta mortals that coming from him, it was simply honest surprise. Nishida is fated to forever come up short in Karuta, whether it be Shinobu, Arata or Chihaya who leaves him in the dust.
Arata has more than his share of interesting moments in this episode as well. The funniest came with the reveal that his parents – who The Empress was so impressed with in their heartfelt dedication – were actually rooting for him to lose, so they won’t have to find the money for him to attend college in Tokyo. This was actually the first time Arata has seen Chihaya play in years, of course, and while the circumstances were undeniably irregular to say the least, it re-established a link between them that’s been dormant for a very long time. There’s no indication, frankly, that Arata has spent anywhere near as much time wondering about her style of Karuta as she has about his, but he’s suitably awestruck by the force of her will if nothing else. For me some of the drama was leeched from the moment because of the sheer unbelievability of Chihaya’s match – it would have been much more meaningfu if he’d seen her playing in her usual fashion, especially given that so much of their relationship at the moment is based on fantasy rather than reality as it is.
Of the rest of the Mizusawa team there’s nary a sight. We do get updates from The Empress’ sumaho: Tsutomu and Kana win their matches, Tsukuba wins in a bye, and – surprisingly – Sumire wins her match. But ominously, not only is there no mention of Taichi’s match, but no sign that she’s remotely concerned that she hasn’t heard from him. I don’t want to read too much into this, but needless to say it would be vexing in the extreme if Taichi were to have lost in the Class B tournament ignominiously and offscreen – a real disservice to the viewers who’ve been following the series for the past 46 eps. More likely, I think, is that he’s pissed off at himself and the world that he has to play in Class B while Chihaya and Arata leave him behind and isn’t in the mood to email anyone his results, but even in an episode where he’s entirely absent Taichi’s psychology remains one of the most interest elements for consideration.