Without any question, this has been the Karuta season on Chihayafuru – as a percentage of screen time, competitive matches are about 4-5X more prominent this season than they were in the first. So it’s hardly surprising that the season should close out that way, or that it should do so by focusing on the biggest match of the year in terms of talent (though I haven’t given up hope we’ll see one or two seconds of T2 and T3 playing their hearts out next week).
While it’s not as egregious as the Class B final, I think a case can be made that the battle of the titans was over too quickly. Again, I harken back to entire episodes focused on – let’s be honest – relatively unimportant and uninteresting (by Chihayafuru standards) opponents and matches, while the two most important matches of the season (neither of which involve Chihaya, interestingly) are over in less than an episode. Unlike Taichi’s apotheosis moment, though, at least the Class A final was in-focus for most of the episode – and while it was arguably too brief, in terms of dramatics it felt perfectly paced.
While Taichi’s match was fascinating in terms of seeing him carve out an identity as a true Class A threat, it was even more interesting because of the ever-present internal battle going on in his head, and what the match meant to him. There were certainly personal dynamics exploding in the Arata-Shinobu match – not least the obvious white-hot sexual tension between them – but it was the Karuta itself that was most compelling. Especially, it seems, because compared to the other major (and some minor) characters in this series we’ve seen relatively little of Arata in action. And he is, in a word, scary.
Arata is a very odd character in minor ways. He’s the undisputed third corner of the main triangle at the heart of this series, but in screen-time he’s probably not even in the top 10. He’s the very face of Karuta for Chihayafuru – and Chihaya, to whom he still seems to represent the God of Karuta – yet we’ve seen very little of how he actually plays the game. As I’ve said before he’s the dark matter of the Chihayaverse – even if you can’t see him, his influence can be seen in every nook and cranny. I’ve noticed a curious effect over the two seasons of this series, which is that readers and viewers who like Taichi tend to also like Arata, but those who prefer Arata tend to loathe Taichi. And I think that’s because Taichi’s fans love him because of his faults, and how human he seems as a result. Arata’s presence is, yes, almost God-like – and those as imperfect as Taichi can only be met with disdain by those who love him.
In truth, of course, Arata isn’t perfect – no one is – but the irony is that while there seems to be an instinctive lashing out against pointing out any of Arata’s imperfections, it’s those very imperfections that make him more endearing as a character. Arata’s role in the series itself still seems very much the same as his role in Chihaya’s life – as an ideal rather than as a reality. He’s the ever-shifting goal posts, the impossible standard, the tower of perfection – and it’s only in bits and pieces that Suetsugu-sensei has allowed us to see the cracks in the facade. Only when Arata is removed from Mount Olympus and placed among the mortals can Chihayafuru really go the next level as a series, and Arata as a character. That’s why his request of his parents to move to Tokyo is crucial on so many levels. In practical terms it offers the promise of actual interaction with Chihaya and Tiachi, which has been virtually non-existent since the time skip. But it also reflects the very human acknowledgement on Arata’s part that he’s lonely. He realizes the connections he had with Chihaya and Taichi were stronger than any he’s had since, and that he needs to become a more connected person if he’s going to achieve real growth. It’s that self-awareness that shows Arata to be in a healthier place than Shinobu, who’s still reluctant to allow herself to feel anything for a fellow human as strongly as the bond she feels with the cards.
In a way I wish Suetsugu hadn’t given Shinobu an out by giving her an anime cold, because I think the results of the Class A final shouldn’t have to be taken with an asterisk. Arata won, plain and simple – and I don’t think a fever was the reason. I think the momentum was clear last week, and while part of me certainly thinks it would have been more interesting for Arata’s development to see him lose rather than see the legend build, I found myself rooting for him. Every major player in this series has established an identity on the tatami, and Arata in many ways seems to be the most balanced of all. He has no weaknesses: while his hearing may not be as superhuman as Suo or Chihaya, it’s superb. He doesn’t have the raw speed or accuracy of Shinobu, but his acceleration largely makes up for it. He can’t memorize cards like Taichi, but he’s able to consistently stay one step ahead of Shinobu by perpetually shifting his cards in sadistic fashion (indeed, Arata is certainly an “S” in the game of Karuta).
As Nishida says, though, what seems to be Arata’s greatest strength is his demeanor. He’s perpetually unruffled, even smiling at the height of the tension – and nothing unsettles and pisses off competitors more than seeing the opponent calmer and less stressed than they are. This clearly had an effect on Shinobu, who still managed to ride her wave of anger into closing the gap in the endgame. Yes, tactics become less important and speed and hearing more so as the cards disappear, but this is the magic of Arata – there’s no phase of the game where he’s less than excellent, even if he isn’t the best. He can compete in any situation, the consummate all-rounder with nerves of steel. In this sense he has a commonality with Taichi – the essence of the strategy is “get to 25 cards”. And he gets there ahead of Shinobu not because she’s sick, or because he’s synched with the reader, or because of the luck of the draw – he’s simply better, start-to-finish. On this day, anyway. And losing this match will likely be the best thing for Shinobu, who desperately needed something to rekindle her competitive fires.
It’s interesting to speculate on potential matchups in light of what we’ve seen in the last few weeks. I confess to a good deal of frustration at not seeing Suo in action at all this season, when it seemed as if he was being set up as a significant character for the series’ future. Instead he’s been held out there as a sort of abstract villan (the “I’m the bad guy??” graphic was quite on-point) when it’d be much more interesting to get to know him. It was certainly clear from the Class A final that both Chihaya and Taichi have a long way to go to catch up with either Arata or Shinobu, but it seems to me that if – and it’s a huge if – Taichi could keep his emotions in check, he could be a very challenging matchup for Arata. Stylistically at least his game seems well-suited to face Arata, whereas Chihaya’s strengths seem to play into Arata’s hands more. As for the still-distant but seemingly inevitable matchup between Arata and Suo, I’d argue we simply haven’t seen enough of Suo to know whether Arata would have a chance – but it’s fair to say we’ve never seen anyone give Suo even the slightest hint of worry. He even matched his scores in the Meijin final to Shinobu’s, just to annoy her (and it certainly did).
On the personal side of the equation, while that can never be separated from the Karuta in this series, it remained solidly in the background for one more week. There are crucial moments, the first of which is when Chihaya breathlessly declares Taichi a rival. It’s easy to see in his reaction just how important that is for him, and easy to see why if you’ve been watching the series. I honestly don’t feel all that much at Sumire’s heartbroken reaction at seeing Chihaya and Taichi run off hand-in-hand, because there’s not enough invested in her character to carve into the core drama of the big three, but I did love her comment that Kana-chan “dispenses poems like candy or remedies.” We have the usual three-way angst between our heroes – which really hasn’t changed in terms of substance for a very long time. Chihaya still sees Arata as the perfectly serene spinning top, moving so fast that it appears motionless. Taichi still tortures himself when he sees the way she stares at Arata, while he should be taking comfort in the fact that he’s always the one standing right next to her. The moment when Arata whacked a card (naturally) right at Chihaya’s face and Taichi blocked it was especially fascinating, and (as always) infuriatingly inscrutable and subject to interpretation.
What can we hope for and expect from the finale? Chihayafuru remains a compelling story, but it infuriates as much as it rewards. What I really want, more than anything, is an actual conversation between Chihaya, Taichi and Arata – without gimmicks or interruptions or distractions. After 50 episodes I think Chihayafuru owes us something that’s more that inference and symbolism on this front. The funny thing in the dynamic is that Chihaya has viewed Taichi primarily as the guy who’s always by her side, while her view of Arata is always tinted by Karuta. Now Taichi is Class A and if Arata moves to Tokyo, those distinctions can start to blur – which I think is what’s needed to push their hopelessly stagnated three-way dynamic forward. And yes, as much as I want a reflective finale I really would like to see Tsutomu and Tsukuba get some due next week. I don’t find it especially funny that only The Empress noticed Tsukuba had made (and was one card from winning) the Class D final – I think it’s damn sad for him that despite all the talk of team and the fact that he’s worked his ass off, not only is no one watching him but no one even cared that he was playing. At least Tsutomu – who’s been an unsung hero since he was introduced – has his match acknowledged by the others. Chihayafuru isn’t a democracy, certainly, and all characters aren’t created equal. But if we can get 22 minutes on condescendingly portrayed gaijin and two full episodes on Megumu, those two certainly deserve better.