The passage of a week’s time hasn’t changed by view that last week’s developments in Chihayafuru were a bit of a stumble, both narratively and in the larger context of its realism as a Karuta series. I’ve seen a lot of tortured explanations for why Chihaya could possibly win against Class A opponents playing left-handed for the first time in her life, and find none of them remotely convincing. I could see a chess player who broke their right-arm and had to move pieces left-handed overcoming the unsettling strangeness of it and beating a strong opponent in their first left-handed match, but Karuta is not chess. Chihayafuru spent 46 episodes poignantly and persuasively arguing that Karuta is a real sport, and did a fair bit of damage to that in 22 minutes last week.
But that’s done, and at least there were no even-more preposterous miracles this week against the Queen. On the narrative front, it’s more a question of an entire episode focusing on Chihaya being less interesting intrinsically than a more balanced one. I’ve thought about why Chihaya isn’t as compelling as some (I might even say most) of the cast of this series, and I think it boils down to this: Chihaya is a “what” character. Taichi, by contrast and for example, is a “why” character. Chihaya (and to a lesser extent Arata) are defined by their actions, and what we think we know of their emotional workings must be extrapolated backwards based on that. With Taichi – as well as Kanade, Tsutomu and Nishida a lot of the time – we get the “why”. We’re privy to the frustrations and anger and hopes and dreams, and we understand the path they’re walking because it feels as if we’re walking it ourselves. I think why characters are usually more interesting than what characters, and for me that’s true with Chihayafuru as well.
There are other elements to this too, and they largely tie into Chihaya’s function as effectively the lead of a sports shounen. She’s a natural, both freakishly gifted and frighteningly single-minded and focused, and that also can make her harder to relate to. In a sports series it often has to be enough to accept that such characters are how they are and their actions make sense in that context, and when Chihayafuru is in ensemble mode that generally works wonderfully. But when the camera narrows its focus to Chihaya at the exclusion of almost everything else, the emotional well can run a bit dry. There simply isn’t enough “why” in her story to carry an episode to the heights of emotional resonance we saw in episode 20 – the team dynamic is so firmly established and so compelling that it alone can drive an episode to greatness, as it did there (never mind the three-way dynamic between Chihaya, Arata and Taichi that was added at the end). Absent that and any of the more engaging personalities in the cast, episode 21 felt a bit sterile by contrast.
So why then did this episode – also focused primarily on Chihaya – work so much better than the last one did? For me the answer couldn’t be simpler – because she was sharing that narrow focus with Shinobu. And Shinobu, despite her relative lack of screen time, is a “why” character. She’s neither warm nor friendly as a person, but she’s very interesting. And not just interesting – because we’ve been allowed to see what made her the way she is. We’ve seen her as the friendly little girl who wasn’t well-treated by her parents, and whose brilliance at Karuta caused her to be intentionally isolated from children her own age. We’ve seen how desperately she longs to be understood, and how she pushes people away with her harsh exterior despite her loneliness. And Chihaya is never more interesting than when we see her in context of how she fits with Shinobu, because each reveals elements of the other that aren’t visible otherwise.
It doesn’t hurt, naturally, that things are more or less set to rights on the tatami. Shinobu beats Chihaya by 23 cards – and is angry at losing two to an injured opponent. Anything less would have been a further blow to the series’ credibility, but there are nevertheless elements of this match that stand out as memorable. The first is when Chihaya reacts angrily – as well she should have – to Shinobu’s condescending offer to play with her right (off) hand. Chihaya is out there giving her everything despite her exhaustion and injury, and she deserves better than to be dismissively mocked for it. Fortunately Shinobu responds exactly as she should have to this – knowing she was wrong, she lowers her head and sets about destroying her opponent as quickly as possible. The only cards she loses are one when Chihaya uses the intel she gleaned from playing left-handed and positions a card where she now realizes it’s difficult for lefties to attack, and one card immediately after Chihaya removed the last gauze wrap from her finger. It so happens to be “Since I could not hide”, the Queen’s best card – no small irritation for her, though a small moral victory for Chihaya.
Sadly for Chihaya, the euphoria of that moment which carried her to one pain-free swing evaporated as soon as she tried to pick up the card and felt a jolt of agony. It pretty much goes without saying that playing with her right hand at all – never mind after removing the wrap – was a dumb move, but it was very much in character for the maniacally single-minded Chihaya. We can only hope she hasn’t done herself lasting damage (judging by the Empress’ reaction I’m concerned). Her reaction after the match – tearfully thanking Shinobu for not easing up on her (a theme in Shinobu’s life, to be sure) was also perfectly in character. Again we see Shinobu’s aching desire for a rival who can interest her, but also someone who can understand her. For now the former looks to be Arata rather than Chihaya, though there are moments of connection between the two girls that suggest they may just become not just rivals but friends too – in time.
I’m also relieved Chihaya lost, to be honest, because it frees the camera to focus on matches which are possibly more compelling than watching a crippled Chihaya either defy logic by winning or being trounced. There’s much happening elsewhere – of the eight quarter-finalists in Class A three are Fujisaki third-years: Emura has drawn Amakasu-shota from Hokuo (I’m glad to see Amakasu validate his ability by getting this far). Manata Suzuki – pissed and rightfully so at being benched in the team final – is the sacrificial lamb who’s drawn Arata. And Yamai has drawn Megumu. If I were betting I’d pick Megumu to win and draw Shinobu in the semis, with Emura facing Arata – but it seems beyond inevitable that the final is going to be the one we all expect it to be. Of Class C there’s no mention, but we do see Sumire surprisingly advance to the quarters before losing, while Tsukuba advances to the semis. And in Class B, we finally touch base with Taichi – just in time to see him trounce Retro-kun by what appears to be roughly 15 cards. Wow.
It’s obviously in that last division where the main Mizusawa drama lies, though not only there. Taichi beating Retro by that margin indicates just how far his game has come (as far as I remember he’s in fact unbeaten for this entire season). Who will he play in the final? Suetsugu and Morio-sensei don’t let us have a close enough look at the other semi-final to be sure, but Rion seems the best bet (as she always has). This, it seems to me, is an intensely critical watershed moment for Taichi. He seems deeply driven and genuinely angry that he’s continued to get in his own way and prevented himself from reaching Class A, where he’s obviously more than good enough to be. His promise to the God of Karuta from the team final hangs over the Class B final like a miasma, and I suspect Taichi’s faith in his own will is going to be tested – as is Suetsugu’s ultimate view on the role of luck in the lives of her characters.
Also of interest is the audience – where the Empress and Nishida are watching, rapt. Nishida has become an incredibly loyal and impassioned teammate, especially where Taichi is concerned. Absent (from view at least), of course, is Chihaya – her whereabouts unknown. The potential drama of which match she watches in the final remains a compelling one – though of course if last year’s script is followed all the finals matches will be in the main hall – but I wonder if it’s a red herring, and she might be in the hospital or some such. It gutted me a bit to hear her moan that her “summer is over”, while her teammates continue to struggle on, trying to advance. And it’s hard not to feel for poor Tsukuba, left bereft and alone by Sumire as she fled to watch her beloved Mashima-sempai. Surprisingly in-focus for the first arc of the season, the first-years seem to have faded far into the background as it draws to a close.