“Frustration won’t last forever. Nobody can keep on going without some measure of reward.”
Harada-sensei (I remain puzzled by his absence at this event) thought those words in episode 20 of the first season – possibly the most memorable line of dialogue from probably the best scene in certainly the best episode of either season. The thought was about Taichi, but could just as easily have been about the readers and viewers of Chihayafuru who love the character. And therein, I think, lies the draw of Taichi for so many of us – he’s the one who represents the feelings and thoughts of the audience in so many ways. Chihaya, Arata and Shinobu are wonderful characters – but most people are a lot more like Taichi than they are like any of them.
In a sense, this second season’s final arc has been eminently predictable. On the most basic level, we got the Class A final most of us expected – Arata vs. Shinobu. We got the Class B final we expected, Taichi vs. Rion. We even got the Class A semi-finals I thought seemed most likely in Arata vs. Emuro, with Shinobu vs. Megumu – though those matches packed zero drama as they were completely skimmed over, surprising given the sloth-like pacing of most of the season. There are the other classes too, of course – in Class C Tsutomu makes the final but Kanade doesn’t, and it’s only in a brief glimpse that we see Tsukuba has made the Class D final. If Tsutomu has been ignored by his friends, what level of Hell is Tsukuba at to be ignored even by the director?
The most important predictable element to come to pass, though, was the dilemma that would face Chihaya once the pairings were settled – which finals match to watch. This was telegraphed weeks ago and everything since then seemed to be slowly building towards it. With the Class A finals indeed on their own in a separate room, it truly is an either/or decision for Chihaya (who’s been sleeping it off in the hallway, only Fujisaki’s coach waking her up getting her to any of the matches in time). This was truly the crucible moment both for the season and her character, the looming presence that’s been hovering over everything. What would she decide? In a sense, it was more dramatic than the matches themselves.
The first surprise is Nishida’s decision – he blows off the T3 to watch the Class A final, and urges Chihaya to do the same. His reasoning is solid enough – Taichi is playing like a man possessed, and doesn’t need their support (T2 gets only an aside and T3 doesn’t even merit a mention). More importantly, he tells Chihaya that Taichi himself would urge her to watch Arata and Shinobu play. And the funny thing is, of course, Taichi would do exactly that – as we see later in the episode. And Taichi would be wrong for doing so, just as Nishida was wrong even if his logic was sound. Frankly it seemed out of character to me to have Nishida do this, but I think his development was sacrificed for Chihaya’s – he was forced to act out-of-character in order to make her decision that much more dramatic.
This is truly the watershed moment for both Chihaya and Taichi this season. Happily, Chihaya came through with flying colors. I’ve no doubt that S1 Chihaya would have watched the Class A final – but this is not S1 Chihaya. All of her development and seeming maturation in S2 would have been compromised if she abandoned Taichi now, not just because of her own stated goals at the start of the season but because of what this moment means for him. The biggest difference between Chihaya now and last season is her slow but sure escape from the prison of being totally self-absorbed. She may not have progressed enough in terms of self-awareness to seriously confront her feelings towards Taichi and Arata, but she’s been showing more consideration and concern for her teammates all season. She had to make the decision she did – it’s not about romance, and it’s not about Karuta. It’s about being there for the person she’s been struggling and laughing and crying beside for the last 48 episodes. It’s not where S1 Chihaya would have been, but it’s where S2 Chihaya belongs.
The irony – there’s always irony with Taichi – is that Chihaya’s presence very nearly costs him his match with Rion. He’s been in a zone for the entire Class B tourney, apparently – “totally calm in a match” as his friends and rivals have never seen him, a beast. But as always Taichi’s greatest enemy is himself, and seeing Chihaya unnerves him. He’s shocked – he didn’t expect to see her, and probably feels undeserving of having her watch his match. Rather than stay focused he starts stressing over trying to win the match quickly so that Chihaya can have time to go watch the Class A final – an agonizingly dumb and misguided train of thought that’s just perfect Taichi. He’s largely become the person who doesn’t run away, but he’s still a person who constantly puts roadblocks in front of himself when the path is otherwise clear.
Again ironically, in a season that’s moved at a glacial pace during the tournament Taichi’s match is over all too quickly, and we don’t get even a peek at Tsutomu (never mind Tsukuba). The individual finals last season were in themselves much more dramatic than these – how dearly I would have loved less focus on creepy photographers and stereotypical gaijin students for another episode (or even half) to spend on Taichi’s match. There are external factors to be sure – a reader-in-training (which seems inexcusable to me given the importance of the event) being the most obvious. But as usual most of the drama is inside Taichi’s head. Both players are nervous and struggling with the reader, though Rion’s superior hearing and speed allow her to adjust more quickly and take a lead.
It’s at this point that Taichi settles himself and shows that he, too, has grown during this season. Crucially, it’s when he stops comparing Rion to Suo and starts comparing her to Chihaya that the match turns. He finally admits the truth to himself – he wants desperately to beat Chihaya in a match (it’s not hard to see the symbolic importance of this). He manages to push the unnecessary thoughts from his mind (thinking too much as always being his biggest obstacle) and harken back to what’s gotten him this far. He brings the game back to what he’s good at – memorization and analysis. He sets style points aside and focuses on what makes him the most successful Karuta player we’ve seen this season, the beast that decimated the field in the Class B tournament and crushed Retro by 18 cards. Taichi is what other sports refer to as a “grinder” – there’s no flash to his game, just determination and smarts. And he dominates Rion from this point onward (too quickly really, for dramatic purposes) going on to win by 9 cards.
If you’d asked me when the season started what the most likely landing point for Taichi would be, I would have said he’ll probably win a Class B tournament and make Class A, but Suetsugu will do something to make it impossible for him to fully enjoy the moment. Well, we’ll see what the full aftermath is next week – but in the moments after the final we certainly see both the self-defeating impulses and the reward Harada-sensei spoke of. Even in his moment of greatest triumph, the fulfilment of all his work and frustration, we see the Taichi who tries to run away – he tries to make it about getting Chihaya to Arata’s match, even now. But all Chihaya wants to do is cry because finally, Taichi has achieved his dream. The dominant thought for me as this played out was “Dammit Taichi – just cry already!” This moment was about him – it was the reward at last, after all the frustration. Chihaya knew it – but even here, Taichi had to be dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledging what it meant to him.
All of that, seemingly, clears the decks for next week to focus on the Class-A final – though with only 9 cards left and a hesitant reader for the other classes, I can’t imagine there’s much of it left. It truly is a battle of titans, and while I thought for a while Shinobu was likely to have the upper hand, I’m not so sure now. Arata seems to have gotten into Shinobu’s head in a way she hasn’t gotten into his – she’s much more obsessed with him than he is with her. Arata is, as ever, eerily calm – he even smiles at Shinobu’s comment about neither of them needing friends, which unnerves her still further. Shinobu is arrogant, brash and obsessive – but it masks a fragility underneath that the right opponent can reveal and exploit. And Arata seems to be that opponent. They’re evenly matched for speed, roughly, and his game sense is close to hers. More importantly he plays the way his grandfather did, his quiet demeanor belying his ruthless style of attacking the opponent’s strengths and destroying their confidence.
Both in Karuta and narrative terms, it could be argued that either player will win this match, though I certainly expect it to come down to a card or two. We won’t see the impact this season and even if we ever do it won’t be for a few years, but the question of whether Arata comes to Tokyo seemingly hangs in the balance (I expect him to go even if he loses). If Taichi’s match was the apex of the relatable common man’s struggle, this is Chihayafuru’s “Shounen Jump moment” – the battle between two implacable geniuses whose talent is singular and exceptional. This contrast is one of the many fascinating elements of the series, and it makes the prospect of a Class A featuring all of the main cast an alluring one indeed – not the mention the exploration of the personal side of the story, largely underdeveloped this season.