Let the games begin.
It’s a double release of Chihayafuru this week – in translated form anyway. And the form the story itself takes should be very familiar to viewers of the anime’s second season, because these chapters take place almost entirely in tournament mode.
As always with the Queen/Meijin finals (and indeed with most Karuta episodes in this series) we have two matches taking place at the same time. Shinobu is taking on the four-time former Queen Inokuma (dubbed “Mama Kuma” by the hilariously Karuta-ignorant commenters on the webcast). And of course we have Harada-sensei – who’s emerged as the heart and soul of this part of the story for me – taking on the increasingly fascinating Suou-meijin.
I’m not certain whether Suetsugu-sensei is trying to make some sort of larger statement about the state of the game by having the lack of live TV coverage of the finals be a plot point, but the fact is that she’s single-handedly done more for the popularity of Karuta than anyone else in a decade at least. Because Arata is ill with a bad cold, he’s forced the watch the live stream on the net, presumably Niconico with the requisite non-stop stream of inane comments. As for the others they’re all at Omi-jingu, though Kana-chan insists that those not directly connected (i.e. the Shiranami Society members) leave the seats in the hall to their elders and watch on the screen outside.
As usual we don’t get much more than obfuscation from Suetsugu on the elephant in the room – Chihaya saying to herself that she’s been “feeling strange” since Arata confessed, and that if she saw him she “might burn up alive“. It’s certainly suggestive but in the end, we’re left to feast on pretty thin gruel here. For Taichi’s part he continues to sit on his hands, perhaps suspecting what’s happened between Arata and Chihaya (again, Suetsugu equivocates and we’re left to guess how much he knows) but whether he does or not, still not feeling sufficiently motivated to lay his cards on the table and risk being rejected if he does. It’s frustrating to watch, but Chihayafuru fans should certainly be familiar with frustration by this point.
While both the title matches are interesting in their own way, for me the emotional heft is almost entirely with the Meijin match. Thus, I share the Niconico jackals frustration that most of these two chapters are spent on the Queen match. Former 13-time (!) Queen Warai-san (the “Queen of Airheads” according to Nishida-kun) is on-hand to comment on the matches, and dubs the final a battle between Shinobu’s speed and precision and Inokuma’s super hearing and anticipation. And because there is no true “challenger” here – both players are Queens and not intimidated by the setting – each plays their own game, ensuring a tight match.
Indeed, that’s just what we get – a see-saw affair that goes down to luck of the draw (an important plot point in the Meijin match as well), which falls to Shinobu. I’m of the opinion that it would actually be better for Shinobu if she were to lose here – I think she’s in a bad place in her life at the moment, and a break from being Queen (and maybe even from Karuta) for awhile wouldn’t be a bad thing for her. She’s only 17 after all, and the presence of Inokuma and the 57 year-old Harada-sensei should be all the proof anyone needs that Shinobu has plenty of time to pursue more titles before she’s done.
On the Meijin side, things are much less clear-cut. Before the match Chihaya catches Suou on his cell during memorization time, and she’s furious – but it’s obvious there’s something deeper going on with Suou than she’s aware of. His character may have been developed more in the last 10-15 chapters than anyone else in the cast – he’s a fascinating enigma, this one. He steals glances over at the Queen match during his own, and when the Meijin match too goes down to luck of the draw everyone (except one person, Taichi) assumes he’s up to his old tricks – arrogantly trying to match his score to the Queen match. Of course luck of the draw is something not even Suou can control, and this one falls to the challenger.
Clearly, though, there’s much more to this than meets the eye. Sudou (who’s acting as the “card boy” for Suou) reflects that he seems totally unmotivated. There are hints from Suou that he’s contemplating his future without Karuta, given that he’s pledged to retire if he wins his fifth and “Eternal” Meijin title. Taichi suspects that Suou is determined to make Harada-sensei play all five games (unlike the best-of-three Queen final, this is best-of-five) on those balky knees of his (how much good can his wife’s state of the art “performance high-rebound” cushion really do him?). But Suou also lets slip a thought that “it might just be difficult… this time.”
I’ve no doubt that Taichi understands Suou as well as anyone right now – those two definitely shared a moment at Todai, and they seem to connect on some basic level. But I almost wonder if Suou isn’t hoping he’ll lose this match – perhaps to give himself an excuse to keep playing, but with a renewed sense of purpose. Maybe – thought it seems unlikely – he’s actually struggling with Harada-sensei as an opponent (don’t forget we still don’t know the “weakness” Chihaya supposedly uncovered, and communicated to Harada-sensei). Or perhaps he really does simply want to toy with his prey and make the old man suffer for as long as possible. That doesn’t sound like the Suou we’ve come to know of late, though.
Whatever the truth, Harada is incensed when he too puts the pieces together and assumes Suou is mimicking the Queen match. Such behavior is reprehensible to him – disrespectful both to him, and to the occasion and indeed the sport itself. But how will that righteous indignation impact Harada-sensei’s play? He’s already so intense and so amped-up that further motivation seems like the last thing he needs – if anything, it might overload him and cause him to burn himself out too quickly. Even in the best-of-three final against Arata Harada-sensei needed to pace himself, and he forfeited the middle game (though that was at least partly because he preferred the other reader).
Given the way Suetsugu-sensei has paced Karuta matches of late, I suspect we’re going to be here for quite a while, so strap in. As usual, the main event will largely be on-hold while this drama plays out – but in Harada-sensei’s quest especially she’s found a rich vein of emotional gold to draw on while she continues to torture us.