Oh my – where in the world can I possibly begin?
First things first. Kanade, you sweet, wonderful, kind, perceptive girl – I adore you. You have a heart as big as all outdoors and a soul that’s always reaching for the Heavens. What a shame we didn’t see more of you this season.
In fact, that thought leads me to a couple of other observations about this last episode. First, my favorite term for Chihayafuru 2 – “exquisite torture”. This finale was all about exquisite torture. Exquisite torture for Taichi, and for fans who love the character. And for every fan of Chihayafuru who was presented with this emotional blockbuster, and now has to wait the better part of three years for more anime, if we get more at all (with one small but potentially important exception, which I’ll touch on shortly).
And second – this finale is a stark reminder of what this season could have been, if it hadn’t spent most of its time on one three-day Karuta tournament, and why the first season was on the whole the better. Chihayafuru is almost unmatched when it comes to really emotionally compelling character dynamics, and they’ve been few and far between this season. I love the way it portrays Karuta too, but I don’t love it as much. I understand that this is mostly a result of Madhouse and Morio-sensei following Suetsugu-sensei’s script faithfully, but the annals of anime contain many examples of directors who’ve made changes in adapting manga that made the anime better. Well over half the season on the High School tournament was not the best scenario for Chihayafuru, in my opinion.
Be that as it may, the finale was indeed a whopper – a WMD of emotions that cut right to the heart of what makes Chihayafuru such a wonderful (and agonizing) viewing experience. We started out with the afterword of the tournament, though it was surprisingly brief (I think a good decision, in hindsight). We’re reminded that Arata is 4-0 lifetime against Shinobu. Sakurazawa-san asks of herself whether anyone noticed who the only undefeated players at the tournament were, to which I answer – “Yes!” I most certainly did notice, Sensei. Taichi leaves Arata hanging on a high-five. Sadly, there’s no cut-in on the finale of Tsutomu and Tsukuba’s matches – only a quick notification that they’ve in fact won.
The impression that T2 and T3 have really been shafted is hard to escape, because in addition to their matches being completely ignored, in point of fact their victories are only really important because they set up the narrative needs to move the story to the next level – that Chihaya is the reason the team wasn’t able to fulfil her outlandish promise that Mizusawa would sweep every category. Mind you, what they’ve accomplished is still incredible, in winning every class but one and the team event, and the truth is that even uninjured it’s clear Chihaya would have defeated neither Shinobu or Arata. But still, this serves to further deepen the sense of frustration for Chihaya. She sees Arata and Shinobu on a level far above her. She sees her teammates winning their events, while she falters. She sees the “impassionate” serenity of Arata, and curses her own restless impatience.
This is a crisis of confidence of sorts for Chihaya, and it isn’t helped when her fourth (!) medical opinion tells her she has Enchondromatosis (I’m guessing that Wikipedia page has never been busier) a softening of the bone in the injured finger of her hand. For most people it’s no big deal, but for Chihaya as a Karuta player it’s a problem – and it necessitates surgery to implant firm material inside the bone for support. I’ve never heard of a week’s hospitalization for a finger operation (I suspect the existence of nationalizaed health insurance has something to do with that) but it’s clear the operation is not completely routine. And obviously, this also means Chihaya is cut off from playing Karuta at just the time she’d most like to be obsessively practicing (though this requires the full vigilance of her put-upon nurses).
Sakurazawa-san has proved to be quite an important character in these last few weeks, and it’s she who gives Chihaya a copy of the video of the Class A final, which provides something else for the restless heroine to obsess over in the hospital. The first of the big blockbuster moments comes as Chihaya makes a phone call to Arata after her operation (interestingly, it seems she doesn’t tell him about it). It’s a revealing conversation in so many ways, starting with Arata (who happens to be ogling a photo of Chihaya’s sister at the time – I like anything that shows off his human side). Arata confirms what’s been the dominant theme of his personal journey this season – he’s never felt as connected and at peace as he did during his time in Tokyo. Most especially, of course, the time he spent with Chihaya playing Karuta in his humble apartment. “No matter the match, I always flash back to that room.”
This is a conversation that’s going to be analyzed to death, though there are parts of it that certainly speak for themselves. To me, it seems clear that it awakens a kind of self-awareness in Chihaya that’s been absent up until that point. She realizes that it was those moments that were the pivot-point in her life, and that started her on the journey she’s obsessively (yes, I’m using that word with her a lot, and it’s no coincidence) followed ever since. Once again, we see Crunchyroll make a curious translation choice, which has been a theme with Chihayafuru. They translate Chihaya’s thought as “I’ll always love Karuta, and I’ll always love Arata.” In fact, Chihaya uses the word “suki” – which translates more correctly as “like” – but can also mean “love” in certain contexts.
I don’t want to make too much of this, but I think it’s a fascinating illustration of why Japanese doesn’t always translate well into English – and also a crucial one in the context of the moment. In Japanese, many times translation boils down to context – the same word can mean different things in different situations, and even then it isn’t always clear (as witness Taichi’s use of “teki” earlier, which could mean “enemy” but probably meant “rival” as he intended it). In terms of “suki“, it generally means like – the only time it would normally be used to express love would be in directly addressing someone. In referring to someone in the third person “daisuki” or “ai” would usually be used to express love. Of course, it’s clear Chihaya loves Karuta, and she’s certainly expressing her love for Arata here. It’s also clear in this moment that she has romantic feelings for him. But I think the reason Suetsugu used “suki” here is to express the fact that Chihaya still cannot separate her feelings for Arata and her feelings for Karuta – which I think is a vital theme going forward. It isn’t so much that the CR translation was wrong, but that it – like the later line translated as “receive Arata’s passion” when the far more natural translation is “respond to that kind of passion” – seems intended to convey something definitive when the author probably intended to be ambiguous.
Any way you slice it, this amounts to the biggest lurch forward in the romantic side of the story so far. While Chihaya saying she’s been working hard to get strong enough to “receive Arata’s passion” is another inexact translation that doesn’t tell the whole story, it has very broad implications, and reinforces the notion that Arata and Karuta are inseparable in her mind. During one of their visits to the hospital Taichi and Kana see some poems that Chihaya has been writing (having received scary instruction from Kana-chan) for a school assignment. Kanade, however, keeps reading after Taichi has tilted at how lame the first two were – and sees two poems that express Chihaya’s feelings for Arata in clear and surprisingly articulate terms. It’s a beautiful notion, that Chihaya, still so clumsy when speaking and clueless about her own feelings, finds her voice when using poetry.
Poetry, of course, speaks directly to Kana’s soul – and it’s in this scene and the ones that follow that she has her finest moments of the season. It’s been clear for a long time that Kana knew everything about Taichi’s feelings for Chihaya, and desperately wanted the two of them to be together. I lost it when she lost it – when she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and pounded Taichi’s back, over and over, before exhorting him “You have to try harder – Chihaya won’t be clueless forever!” What a sweet, sensitive and beautiful person she is, and this is the conversation Taichi has needed to have for two seasons. Yes he does know, as he tells her – and this is the ultimate test of his continuing quest to be a person who doesn’t run away.
There’s an almost staggering brilliance in the way Suetsugu connects the big moments in the series the way Shinobu connects herself to the cards – there’s a red string of fate from Taichi’s moment on the train platform with Harada-sensei in episode 20 of season one that leads right to this moment with Kana-chan. This is the most visible and dynamic journey in Chihayafuru, and it hasn’t been a smooth one – there have been fits and starts and self-inflicted detours. But Taichi is progressing – he is moving forward both as a person and as a Karuta player. Now he faces the highest hurdle yet – to declare his love to Chihaya, knowing full-well he might be rejected. “Forward. We can only go forward.” he says, and he’s correct – this is the only direction his journey can go, and this step can be delayed no longer. He’s finally reached Class A, and Chihaya has finally acknowledged him as a rival in Karuta. Now he has to step up and declare his love for her no matter how terrifying that is.
It says something about how incredible this three-way dynamic is that despite being largely ignored all season, it remains the most compelling romantic triangle in recent anime. Arata and Taichi could hardly be more different, physically and otherwise. Taichi is all turbulence and self-doubt and struggle, and Arata is forever the spinning top, moving so swiftly and smoothly that there appears to be no effort at all. In a sense Taichi is right to consider the moment Chihaya acknowledges him as a rival a crucial one, because it’s clear that the path to her heart is through Karuta. If Arata is indeed moving ever closer to being an object of her romantic love (as he surely is) it’s partly because he’s still the God of Karuta in her eyes. Arata’s move to Tokyo (Grandpa’s insurance policy seems to guarantee it will happen – sorry, Dad) is so crucial in every respect because at last, Chihaya will come to know the person and not the God – the reality and not the fantasy. And so, at the same time, will we – for Arata has remained for most of the series a distant presence, only rarely showing us his vulnerabilities. Nothing will ever be the same once that move happens.
This is a cruel time indeed to cut off the series, on the eve of a Karuta training camp Fujisaki is holding, and that Sakurazawa-sensei has invited Mizusawa to. It’s crucial because Kana has engineered it as a two-person trip for Taichi and Chihaya – a chance for Taichi to at last share his feelings, if he can summon the courage. The reality, as I’ve mentioned before, is that there simply won’t be enough manga material for a third season for a very long time – probably the better part of three years. By any measure Chihayafuru is more successful than ever – the manga remains a powerhouse (over 300K in the first two weeks for Vol. 21) and despite a shift to a more expensive format Blu-ray Vol. 1 outsold the first volume of the first season. But will the impetus to move ahead with a S3 still be there in 2016? We’ll see. The wild-card here is an OVA due in September. Normally OVAs don’t deal with heavy canon storylines, but the tea leaves seem to indicate that this one will – that training camp will likely be the subject of the episode, and with it a crucial moment in Chihaya and Taichi’s development.
And with the end of the season comes another dilemma for me. When S1 ended there was no decision about reading the manga, because there were (and are) no translations of the bulk of the chapters that make up S2, and a second season seemed like a better-than-even bet. Now, we’re looking at a long wait if we get another season at all – and the continuation of the storyline in manga form is very much available in English. Do I cave and finally read the manga, spoiling myself for a potential third season? Or do I remain a pure-pure boy, saving myself for a season that may never come? Agony, I tell you – I suppose I’ll take a few days to decide one way or the other.
In the meantime, I can look back on an astonishing year’s worth of anime from Madhouse. What an emotional roller-coaster Chihayafuru is, combining the most stressful elements of shounen, shoujo and josei into an impossibly compelling and frustrating package. I adore this show, even if I don’t love the second season as much as the first. I’e already been quite clear on why – the balance and pacing of the season simply haven’t been as spot-on as they were in S1. Too much Karuta, too much time spent on marginally interesting moments and preliminary matches, not enough focus on the core cast like Taichi, Arata, Kanade and Tsutomu. I would have been fine with Morio-sensei speeding up the tournament some and devoting the last few episodes to the chapters that follow – as I said, I don’t take it as holy writ that directors have to be letter-faithful when adapting manga (look at the wonders Watanabe-sensei achieved with Nazo no Kanojo X by making major changes in pacing and chapter order). But of course if he had, he would have been delaying any possible third season even further – so let’s be optimistic and hope he didn’t because Madhouse fully expects that season to become a reality.
Remembering just how great this show is, even with its inconsistencies, is probably a good way to finish. Watching a well-written show about fascinating and endearing kids you come to care about deeply is one of anime’s greatest pleasures, and moments like that scene between Taichi and Kana-chan can only come with the deep emotional buy-in Chihayafuru has. Thank you sincerely to Suetsugu-sensei, Mori-sensei and Madhouse for bringing us one of the greatest character arcs – and characters – in amime with Taichi. And for Arata’s nobility and class, for Chihaya’s shounen male-lead intensity and emotional vulnerability, Kanade’s beautiful soul and Tsutomu’s self-effacing courage and determination and Nishida’s everyman struggles. For supporting players and opponents and the wonderful coaches and adults like Harada-sensei and The Empress, and for bringing my attention to the strange and utterly fascinating ancient sport of Karuta. Chihayafuru is very, very special, and whether the OVA is the end of the anime or not, I’ll never forget the experience of watching it.
ED Sequence: “Youthful” by 99RadioService