Chihayafuru 2 – 24

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Enter the dragon.  Or should I say, dragons.

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.

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  1. r

    "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."

    Funny that you noticed that too. I frequent the forums in mangafox, and it's fair to say that just by reading both fans comments, what you've said is really a fact. Most of Taichi fans really likes Arata and most of Arata's fans really despises Taichi. They even question why and how come Taichi has more fans than Arata who is almost perfect in every way whereas Taichi have a lot of flaws that for them is… can I use the word "sickening" or "unacceptable"?
    I'm a huge Taichi fan, and I can honestly say I also like Arata but I love Taichi more. Maybe because of the way his character was portrayed. I did not fall in love with him at first sight but his character really grew on me. Maybe you're right. It's because of his human flaws that made him a very relate-able character. But for me, I find his character journey the most interesting to watch and ponder among the three main leads.

  2. R

    I noticed that as well — feels unfair to a character that is so well-written and -developed. I am a fan of Taichi and think that he's the link between the story and the viewers' hearts.

  3. r

    Agreed. On a side note, whenever Taichi becomes the topic of discussions, either pros and cons of his character and even his purpose in the story, the forums rains a lot of post! They kinda love dissecting him! Me included, but I'm more on the pros side. lol 😉

  4. K

    My favorite was some Arata fans saying Taichi is only more popular in the West but Arata was more popular in Japan.

    Of course I posted a fan poll that showed how wrong that is, since Taichi is actually leading but his lead was so miniscule that if anything it shows just like the love triangle you can't tell who is more loved Taichi or Arata. If anything I think what we are shown is Chihaya loves both Taichi and Arata and we the viewers/readers are also supposed to love them both.

  5. I've never seen a fan poll anywhere that showed Arata ranked ahead of Taichi, East or West.

    There's a lot of denial on this topic, but the proof is in the pudding and phenomenon is really blatant at RC. There's such a violent reaction to any comment that calls Arata's Godliness into a question, and a mob of people who negrep any comment that praises Taichi and rep any comment that interprets irrelevant events as proof that Chihaya loves only Arata. It's a fascinating thing to watch.

  6. f

    That really hits home the fact that this site seems to have its own distinct culture. Since I don't go to RC or any of the big forums for Chihayafuru discussion, I actually had no idea there were people that love Arata and despise Taichi. I guess it makes sense, though–there are always people whose opinion of a character is based solely on how "perfect" that character is, and whether or not the character has any depth is irrelevant. I remember being baffled at the amount of Kira and Lacus fans there were back when Gundam SEED Destiny was airing. I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now.

  7. R

    Yeah, I have seen how people insert their imagination to the story and the character. I would say that the reactions were a bit emotional. I once accidently bumped into a blog that was really bad — people were using vulgar language when bashing Taichi and there was no logic in any argument. It felt so negative — if not bullying — that I left after reading a couple of pages and decided to erase it from my mind. I am sorry that I couldn't remember which blog, but I can still remember the bad feeling.

    I think it's absolutely fine to — or not to — side with any of the characters, and everyone has the right to present his/her reasons — or even simply to admit that there's no particular reason for liking a certain character. The key is really to have the respect and to agree to disagree. That's why I find it more safe here to speak freely.

  8. R

    Wiping off her tears gently, gripping her wrist firmly, caring for her deeply… The first 4 minutes completely had my heart melted away. Love the closeness.

    I speculated that Arata would win, but now that it became a “reality”, I can’t say that I feel satisfied, especially for a male lead that plays such an integral role. This episode only made Arata even more two-dimensional…in fact, I don’t even know his personality to begin with. I appreciated the little flash back and understood what it’s trying to say — Arata works hard, and he remembers his grandfather’s teaching to enjoy Karata and have fun for staying calm — but it only adds to portraying him as a perfect character, and I am starting to disengage when he smiles. I am no expert in analyzing characters, but I personally prefer — even for geniuses — round characters, ones that have many facets, layers, growth, aspirations, frustrations, strengths, flaws, feelings…all to make a character feel like a person. I like Arata and don’t mean to offend those who like him. Perhaps I just don’t have the intelligence to interpret — or imagine — what Suetsugu-sensei is doing with the character.

    The big shipping question… I admit — I am a ChihayaXTaichi shipper and do want to know the answer although my mind keeps telling me that it’s just a bait — Suetsugu-sensei will probably keep us guessing till the end of the story. While I haven’t read any of her previous work, I dug around a bit. She likes to make her characters struggle a lot before giving them the rewards at the end. Both Suetsugu-sensei and Arata are from Fukuoka, and in one of her work she made the male lead — who ends up with the female lead — a perfect guy. I really don’t know but can only say that it’s Suetsugu-sensei’s story. However, it’s too common in anime/manga to base a romantic relationship on physical attraction or admiration of a person’s talent — which is only a part of a person and not the complete package. To be honest, idolization feels a bit shallow, but this happens a lot, and it’s rare to see a romantic relationship in anime/manga that is built on understanding, trust and care. I mean a relationship becomes more loving, deep, and long-lasting when your partner accepts who you are, understands and cares deeply about you, spoils you, depends on you when things become important, makes you feel so safe and comfortable when you’re at your most vulnerable… This is what ChihayaXTaichi presents to me — although it’s still one-sided. Well, this is just my wishful thinking — at the end of the day, it’s Suetsugu-sensei’s story, and we won't know till she unveils the answer.

    Enzo, I thought about your "Shounen Jump moment" analogy, and it’s so right. I love the character drama of season 1, but season 2 — or for whatever manga chapter that it starts adapting from — does feel more like a shounen jump series. I am thinking that this may be an editorial change for expanding the fanbase to make the manga last longer and commercially more successful. The show is still of high standards, and I still enjoy it a lot, but it’s kind of losing the charm slightly. We only have one episode left. Do I want to see a season 3 if it will have the same direction as season 2? Yes…because of the high standards — it’s entertaining — and not because of the “so wrapped up in the characters” or having my heartstrings tugged kind of way.

  9. R

    Whoops…so sorry to take up so much space. I just feel safe to say what I had in mind here. Sorry for the rambling.

  10. b

    I totally agree with you, it really bugs me that they keep giving tiny hints of romance but then nothing comes of it. Its like they are just stringing us along to thinking there will be some kind of romantic development when its actually just a sports anime.

    Chihaya seems to think about Arata all the time,but only in relation to karuta. When they actually get a chance to speak in person nothing really comes of it. Now that i think of it Chihaya and Taichi never really talk either. There is actually shockingly little interaction between the 3 characters that isnt related to karuta, no conversation,no jokes,nothing.

    I enjoy the show but its just very frustrating to be strung along when nothing ever comes of it

  11. i

    Well Chihaya is a Karuta baka, kinda nullifies any meaningful conversation with her. I'm sure Taichi and Arata will however have one, a blockbuster one that sets the story up for when he finally arrives.

  12. S

    I don't feel sorry for Tsukuba at all. He still hasn't redeemed himself for the stunt he played during the regional tournament. He is a bit of a self-centered jerk. I am glad that Suetsugu "punished" him by being ignored.
    At least Hanano helped the team by taking notes on Fujisaki…

  13. i

    I doubt we'll get shown Tsutomu's or Tsukuba's matches but I think they'll win. Remember Chihaya's goal was to own the tournament, winning everything for Misuzawa. Her teammates achieving that while she did not and would not even if she were healthy, will probably drive her on till the Queen qualifiers. Hopefully the talk between the three pillars, natural talent Chihaya, perfectionist Arata and perrenial underachiever Taichi will happen next week. And then the inevitable hope for season 3 begins.

  14. l

    Really good writing there, Enzo. Definitely one of your best Chihayafuru reviews.

    Especially enjoyed your description of Arata – his strengths, his flaws. Also liked the way you wrote about his card-playing qualities (hearing, acceleration, memorization) being a cumulative thing – none are benchmarks on their own, but put them together and his ability is astonishing when combined with his overall stability, which verges on the absolute. It kind of reminds me of how automative journalists used to write about rally-bred homologation specials (Subaru 22B STi, Evo VI Makinen Edition) and why Italian supercar owners would sh*t bricks at the sight of one of these on winding country roads.

    Chihaya acknowledging Touché (that's what I affectionately call Taichi) as a rival was probably the highlight of the episode. A bit cheap, but that's probably the only way the author could've beaten any sense of realization into Touché's character. Also feel for Tsukuba. He's sort of treated like that kid Maria ran away with (see, I can't even remember his name anymore) in Shin Sekai Yuri.

    Definitely one of my favourite eps of this second season.

  15. Mamoru.

    And were you channeling Jeremy Clarkson there for a minute?

  16. i

    If Summer 2013 bombs you could always blog top gear's series 20. Might be fun considering how out of line those three are sometimes.

  17. S

    You astound me, Enzo, what with being able to write up such a huge chunk of excellent writing in such a short time. All I could think of after that episode was "Kyaaaa, Arata is both badass and cute at the same time!!!"

    And I'm a dude.

    I'm also curious how they wrap this up, and a nice, proper talk between the three would be a fantastic episode ala "Grail Dialogue" from F/Z. The ships within the series is also starting to blur, just as we are to reach the finale.

    Strangely though, I felt they didn't fully take advantage of the title poem. It was my favourite poem and episode from Utakoi (episode 8).

    Ps: Any writing tips? Like framework or mindset or something?

  18. Have no life whatsoever and be obsessive compulsive…

  19. S

    Heh. I think I remember you saying that in the past.

  20. i

    Enzo you do realize you are reaching, if not already reached, Divine level of aniblogging. Not sure if that's something to be happy about but still think its an amazing achievement.

  21. I'm not sure if it is either, but it is a… something.

  22. K

    "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."

    I notice this too actually. But I can't say Taichi fans are free of sin since a lot of them will bash Chihaya.

    Taichi is my favorite character in the series but I also love Chihaya and Arata. I think if you hate any of these characters you are completely missing the point of the series. I also have a problem with character bashing which is why although I love to discuss Chihayafuru sometimes I have to stay away from certain corners of the Internet or I can get really angry lol.

  23. J

    I <3 Chihaya I really hope we see a lot more interaction b/w the big three when Arata moves to Tokyo. I want to see what happens when Taichi and Arata address the Chihaya issue.

  24. R

    Nice blog; good to see that there are plenty of other anime viewers out their posting their thoughts.

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