What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Sometimes in our anime lives, we have our own fated meetings, just like the characters do – meetings that are destined to change our lives together. This was the first paragraph I wrote about the Chihayafuru anime, back in 2011:
It’s always a little scary waiting for that first premiere of the season that you love – what if it never comes? But it’s also pretty exciting when it does – and for me, Chihayafuru is that series this season. It’s love at first sight.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Chihayafuru was obviously special right from the first moment. So began an emotional roller-coaster of a journey that’s lasted more than two years, through 50 episodes of anime and many chapters of manga. I can’t honestly say I’ve enjoyed every minute of it – few series can make with writhe in agony and make my blood boil with frustration and rage like this one can – but even those are experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. Only a truly great series can make you care as deeply and profoundly for its characters as Chihayafuru can.
When the first season ended, I very consciously made a decision not to read the manga. This was made easier of course by the fact that most of it was unavailable in English, but there was also the fact that a second season always seemed like a pretty decent possibility. The manga is a powerhouse, its sales spiked after Madhouse’s brilliant adaptation, and for a shoujo (though this series is so much more than simply that) it sold decently on Blu-ray and DVD.
So why read the manga now? For starters, while the second season actually sold a little better and the manga hasn’t lost any steam, there simply isn’t enough material for another season and won’t be for another 18 months at least. A third season is a real possibility, no question, but if it happens it won’t for quite a while. There’s also the fact that the chapters depicting what happens after the second season are now all available in English, and within a couple of weeks of their publication (I heartily encourage everyone to buy the Chihayafuru manga – the dual Japanese-English editions are a great tool to learn Japanese). Given the choice of following the story monthly or depriving myself for that long, my resistance simply broke down.
I’m going to spoil some of what happens in the manga after the anime ends (somewhere around Chapter 90), so if you’d rather not know what happens, please stop reading here.
As you’ll know if you followed my episode posts, I wasn’t as fond of the second season on the whole as I was of the first – though “fond” is relative, and we’re really only talking about degrees of love here. And that season ended on an emotional cataclysm, the tectonic plates at the heart the story finally releasing some of their built-up friction in a 9.0 earthquake that left the story forever changed. So really, there was no way I was going to stop and wait.
I’m happy to report that – for me at least – the chapters after the end of the second season of the anime are, for the most part, more exciting and better-paced than the ones that made up the second season. In fact I think they’re some of the best in the entire series – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “I can’t wait to see this animated!”. Madhouse and Asaka Norio have been very faithful in their adaptation, and I think the material that they covered in S2 is actually probably the weakest in the series as a whole (again – relatively). There’s been a ton of character movement, and the Karuta has been some of the most exciting in the entire series. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the matches involving Harada-sensei – yes, he becomes a true star here – are possibly the most emotional and thrilling matches in the series so far.
As this chapter begins, Harada-sensei is preparing for his long-awaited appearance in the Meijin match against Suou-san. Chihaya and Taichi have just played a series of practice matches against the Meijin (and Sudou, also a student there) at Todai (Tokyo University), and Chihaya tells Harada-sensei that she’s found a weakness in Suou’s game (though we’re not told what). Those practice matches were fascinating to watch – Suou has emerged as a great and even sympathetic character, although he seems to have his sights set on Chihaya.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of that session was the fact that Suou told Taichi his game was “nasty” – for though Taichi lost (no one has come close to beating the Meijin yet) he’s the only one who never committed a fault. Suou’s lesson to Taichi – there are “four ways” in Karuta. You can take the card, the opponent can take the card, you can fault, or the opponent can fault. Most players, Suou says – Chihaya, Arata, even tricksy Harada-sensei – rely in the first method. But Taichi is different, and his style “fascinates” Suou. And it takes a lot to actually pique the Meijin’s interest on the tatami.
Yes, Harada-sensei is playing Suou-meijin for the title. Watching Harada struggle through the Eastern Final and the Challenger Final, his knees balking, exhausted, was utterly engrossing. Even his old, hated rival was in tears when Harada won – and yes, he beat Arata in the Challenger Final. A man in his fifties playing a young person’s game, it was truly inspiring – not even Arata putting on his grandfather’s yukata could throw him. That last bit was a bit of controversy, as Arata did so at Chihaya’s (indirect) suggestion – and given that Chihaya is a member of the Shiranami Society and worked to help Harada-sensei prepare, some (myself included) feel she shouldn’t have offered any advice to Arata during the match.
As for our main trio, we’ve come so far, and yet we’re so close to where we started. Chihaya (who’s decided she wants to be a high-school teacher, so she can coach Karuta) is certainly considering her feelings for Arata in a more serious manner than ever. Meanwhile Taichi has announced to Suou-san that he and Chihaya are dating – though he later retracts that statement and admits the truth. And Arata has finally been the one to confess – in fact, he does so just moments after he’s lost to Harada-sensei (on a luck of the draw – which Harada-sensei explains to Taichi isn’t truly luck). There’s been no answer, but Chihaya’s world was certainly turned upside down.
If you’re looking for a clean resolution to that one, I don’t think you’re going to get it for quite some time. I see no indication Suetsugu-sensei is anywhere close to the final stages of the manga, or that Chihaya is prepared to make any commitments. She’s started, I think, to realize that she’s been taking Taichi for granted, and my sense is that she’s becoming aware that he too is in love with her – which is confusing her feelings even more. The game is still wide-open as far as I’m concerned, and it’ll be very interesting to see what Chihaya does if Taichi too confesses openly to her – until he does, he’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back.
As for Tsutomu, he’s admitted – but only to the reader – that he’s in love with Kana-chan. This is one of those pairings that seems so obvious (like Sasayan and Natsume in Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) that the only surprise when the mangaka acknowledges it is that they didn’t do so sooner. Tsutomu, like Taichi, has entangled his own romantic feelings with success in Karuta to a degree that probably isn’t healthy, and he seems no closer to admitting the truth than Taichi does.
Meanwhile, Shinobu is preparing to defend her Queen title against Inokuma Haruka, a former Queen herself and mother of two who breast-feeds between matches. The gang at Mizusawa spend Christmas at the Tsukuba home, where Chihaya plays the role of Santa Claus in a scheme to fool Tsukuba’s younger brothers (successfully, as it happens). And when Chihaya sees the gang happily enjoying the traditional Japanese Christmas Eve dinner of (sigh) fried chicken, she imagines Arata with them – as “a member of the family”, so sorry, more mixed messages. Suetsugu-sensei has her claws firmly latched into our hides now, and I don’t imagine she’s going to be letting go for a good long time.