Chihayafuru 2 – 22

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Confession time: I may not have been glad Chihaya lost her match, but I was definitely relieved.

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.

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13 comments

  1. i

    For some reason I think what we just saw was the Class B final and Taichi just trumped Retro-kun big time.

  2. That better not be a manga spoiler…

    If it turns out to be true, it will amount to one of the biggest dramatic screwups by a mangaka of all-time.

  3. G

    Considering how there was no mention of anyone making it to the finals, I'd put money on the Taichi/Retro match being a B-Class semifinal match. It'd be so anticlimatic for Taichi to thrash his opponent like that.

  4. R

    Nah, it's definitely not the finals. Most likely the semifinals, because if you look at the other match in the brief second that it was shown, you'd see Yamashiro Rion who is also in Class B, probably playing her semifinal as well.

  5. r

    Here's my take on why Chihaya's left-handed wins are not totally unbelievable, although admittedly improbable. The cards are read at a fixed tempo. From the many reading we've heard, it seems that rate is roughly 4-5 mora per second (similar to the "one-a-football, two-a-football" count off in seconds familiar to American kids). Call it 0.2 seconds per mora. While I have no previous experience with karuta, I was a competitive fencer for many years and from training with a machine I know that 0.1 seconds from stimulus (sound or light) to hitting the indicated target using a full-body lunge is a very good but not extraordinary time. The movement in karuta is focused more on the arms but still involves the whole body, so let's call 0.1 seconds a good but not amazing time from card recognition to hitting the card there also.

    We have seen both Chihaya and the current meijin (can't remember his name) take cards uncontested simply because their hearing let's them start the motion one mora early. That gives her a one-mora lead (0.2 seconds) plus an opponent's "very good" swing time (0.1 second) to work with. So her left-hand swing can be 3-4 times slower than her excellent right-hand swing, and she'd still win the card against an opponent with a less good ear. In other words, no possible swing speed makes up for starting one mora later.

  6. R

    I had reservations about Chihaya's win last week — I found it forced in setting up the Chihaya/Shinobu match. However, this episode doesn't disappoint — and I like how it makes it a character-focused one.

    I like the Queen a lot. She's very different from many female characters that we've seen, and this episode further proves how unique she is. She's a prodigy (which is rare in anime, especially for a female character), and because of her talent, she leads a path of loneliness. I like the part when she questioned herself how many cards she should have let Chihaya take but then went back to agreeing with her sensei. She's very conflicted that while she takes pride in her superior position in Karuta, she longs for connections with people — and with those who understand and accept her. I think I now understand why she treasures each Karuta card like a precious friend. What an interesting character…and this episode not only adds depth to her character, but also gives her emotions. Love it.

    Happy to see Taichi back…meaning that my hope for seeing Taichi play and make Class A before the season ends comes closer. I think matching Taichi up with Rion at the final makes it all the more interesting. We saw how he beat the Arata look-alike captain. Now it's time to see how he goes against the Chihaya look-alike.

    Some random thoughts…
    – Chihaya lost to the Queen by 23 cards — it's more than her first match last year, and it makes sense with her being injured.
    – I like the lame T-shirt sequence…it's quite hilarious.
    – Which match will Chihaya watch? Arata's, Taichi, or the rest of her teammates? I am betting Taichi's — it's not because I am shipping ChihayaXTaichi but it's one of her goals. Besides, Suetsugu-sensei loves dangling the romance thread around teasing the shippers. We had Arata in the last episode, and this time it may swing back to Taichi… Just trying to play along with Suetsugu-sensei's game…teehee.
    – Here's my speculation. Episode 23, obviously, will be focused on Taichi, and episode 24 will be focused on the Arata/Shinobu match. Episode 25 — like season 1 — will probably be some winding down episode giving us hints on what the characters will do next.
    – As for the Arata/Shinobu match, I think Arata will win. Suetsugu-sensei likes portraying Arata as God-like — the more God-like Arata is, the more Chihaya wants to catch up, the longer Taichi needs to struggle… Like Enzo said, the love triangle is like the elephant in the room — we won't know the answer till perhaps Suetsugu-sensei knows when she wants to end the manga.

  7. Except I don't think Rion looks like Chihaya and I never quite got why people did think that…

    As for next week, given that absence sometimes means focus next week, it wouldn't surprise me to see Tsutomu and Kana take center stage, with the spotlight then turning to Taichi's match and the A final for the last two episode.

    As for who will win that match? Frankly I care less about that than I do the Class B final, but I think it would be more interesting from a character standpoint if Shinobu won the match. Anything that humanizes Arata is good for the character – in my view he's still too idealized, as if the series sees him the same way Chihaya does. I want to see how he responds to being beaten in a match he really cares about.

  8. R

    Hmmm…I probably didn't describe it correctly. It's the way how Rion plays and her hearing ability that are similar to Chihaya's.

    I like your thought of having Shinobu win and agree with you from the character development perspective. At the same time, I have been wondering why Suetsugu-sensei doesn't go about adding depth to Arata — especially knowing how good she can do. Like you said, I love to see his character getting fleshed out and humanized. To me, Arata has been acting like where the plot wants him to, but after waiting for this long, I sometimes doubt if Suetsugu-sensei will treat Arata like she does for Taichi as a male lead…or even the supporting characters, like Nishida or Tsutomu.

  9. S

    I think that it's better for the story if Arata wins, so that he can join Chiyaya and Taichi in Tokyo. Also, Shinobu needs to taste a bit of humility. At least we saw Arata losing to Murao in the Meijin qualifier last year but the Queen never lost once.

  10. I suspect Arata is going to Tokyo whether he wins or not, but that's a valid point. It's just that we've seen Taichi and Chihaya lose important matches, and we've never seen that from Arata – not really, as that Murao match received very little focus. Yeah, Shinobu could use some humility but frankly, she isn't as important a character as Arata is.

  11. i

    That thing with Arata is it for college as in after graduating highschool or for third year and beyond of his education. The latter would be more interesting for me as I don't see Chihayafuru going into college.

  12. Well, according to what he asked his parents it's college. As for whether Chihaya could attend college at all, I think that's a fair question. The point is, wherever she is (most likely a low-end public school) she'd still most likely be in Tokyo, at least.

  13. O

    Arata also lost against Hiroshi from the Shiranami society in season one, but even then Hiroshi said he won "by chance". So it's not like Arata won all his matchs.
    I think what is likely to happen is him losing in a very close match, and not going to Tokyo because the serie likes to keep him away from the main cast.

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