In the immortal words of Azuma Yuhei, this is getting complicated.
Life with Chihayafuru was certainly easier when Suou was someone we knew little about and were given no real reason to like, and we could unabashedly root for Harada-sensei with a clean conscience. But as any fan of Hunter X Hunter will tell you, it’s more interesting when the sides aren’t all that simple to define.
I’ve had my eye on Suou for quite a while now as someone who was poised to stake out a larger role in the story for himself, a fascinating enigma. And frankly, it always pissed me off to see the old men in charge of the Karuta Federation badmouthing him and whining about how he was “bad for the game”. That certainly didn’t stop me from rooting hard for Harada-sensei, who’s been the best character in the series for the last 30 chapters or so. But it’s certainly getting more difficult to root against Suou.
If there’s anything in the last three chapters that irks me a bit, it’s Suetsugu-sensei’s determination to focus exclusively on the Queen matches for long stretches at a time (the irony is Arata complains about NicoNico doing the same thing) at the expense of the Meijin matches. The latter is frankly much more compelling, at least for me. I’m also a bit irritated at Chihaya, who keeps insinuating herself in other players’ matches. She helps Arata against her own sensei. She helps Shinobu against Inokuma. If this is all about the spirit of the battle, shouldn’t these players be figuring out how to help themselves? For that matter, I’m not exactly thrilled with Chihaya for dashing out of the Shrine hall after Shinobu while Harada-sensei’s third match was in progress, missing most of it in the process.
Then again, Chihaya did help Harada-sensei with that teaser piece of advice about Suou’s “weakness” at the end of Chapter 123. We finally hear the rest of it here, and it’s something that’s been hinted at for a while – his eyes. Indeed, the evidence seems to suggest that Suou has a degenerative eye disease of some kind, and that’s likely why he’s announced he’s leaving Karuta. Not only that, but it seems to be hereditary and effecting at least one other member or his family even more severely. Suou obviously has a complicated and painful family situation, but he’s not the sort of person to share his private details with others or seek their support.
The upshot of all this is, Harada-sensei has devised a strategy around Chihaya’s observation, committing himself to playing “dirty Karuta” and doing whatever it takes to win. Some of his strategy is quite straightforward – committing Suou’s placements to memory, and relying on the attacking and memorization mantras he’s always preached to his students. What he’s doing so far amounts to “a mild breach of etiquette” – things like moving his cards after dead card readings at the start of the game – but his plan is to constantly send Suou cards that he’ll likely place at the corners of his formation, where his weak eyesight will be most problematic. “Attack…disturb.” Over and over, Harada-sensei repeats this to himself.
Is it working? It’s hard to tell exactly, because it still seems as if Suou-meijin is fixing his scores to match the Queen matches (which means losing the second game by 4 cards, as Shinobu did). And when the Queen matches take a break, he dominates Harada-sensei in the third game by 17 cards – but you can’t go by that either, as it turns out Harada-sensei threw the game intentionally, intent on saving his stamina and going all-out in the fourth game. Harada-sensei is a hard man – this is his last and only chance and he knows it, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to snatch his dream and make his wife proud. It’s a gripping battle to watch play out, that’s for sure.
On the Queen side, Inokuma takes the second match in what turns out to be a bit of a meltdown for Shinobu. I find it a bit hard to empathize with Shinobu, to be honest, as she’s the very definition of self-absorbed. So even when she has a very good reason to be off her game – which she does here – I don’t feel as much as I should. What’s upset her is certainly valid – her mother has told her that she’s her Grandmother’s “pretty billboard” and nothing more – good advertising to help her political career. As Shinobu has always looked up to her grandmother this is a bit of a blow, and the alchemy of her game is so fragile that it doesn’t take much to knock her out of alignment.
Frankly, I think Inokuma has a much better reason to be off her game – she’s pregnant with her third child and still breast-feeding her second. While she’s obviously far younger than Harada-sensei she says (to Rion, who’s visiting her between matches) that for her, too, this is the last chance – and it’s easy to believe she’s right. I’ve been of the opinion for a while now that in the long run, the best thing for Shinobu would be to lose the title while she’s still plenty young enough to work her way back. On the tatami she could use a dose of humility, and off it she needs something besides Karuta and Snowmaru (Daddybear doesn’t count) in her life. Maybe that something could even be an actual friendship on equal terms with Chihaya, which would certainly be more possible if they were both challengers together.