Without a doubt, one of the most appealing aspects of Chihayafuru is that it can entertain, enlighten and emotionally engage in so many ways. One might say that is both a great strength and a great weakness, and further that the material adapted during the anime’s second season could have used a little more focus on what was really important. But for a series that balances the sports and the character elements beautifully, it’s in very select company.
That said, if you’d told me that Suetsugu-sensei would ever be able to make me waver in rooting for Harada, I’d have said you were crazy. His win in the Meijin qualifier actually moved me to tears (only two matches in the series have done that) and his quest to fulfill his lifelong dream has been one of the most inspirational in a series full of quests.
However, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Suou has been the most interesting character over the course of the last ten or so chapters. I’ve noted before that he seemed poised to stake out a larger presence in the series, but the speed and breadth of that change has been a little breathtaking. Couple that with the fact that the sheer ferocity of Harada-sensei’s desire – and what it drives him to do – is a bit disconcerting, and you have a passel of mixed emotions, at least for me.
At long last we have the backstory on Suou that’s been teased forever, and while it’s mostly in-line with expectations it does a lot to make him that much more sympathetic. A member of a prominent family, forced to move in with the main family after undisclosed issues with his parents. It seems Suou Hisashi was a bit of a socially awkward kid even then, and bonded more with the head of the family, Yukiko, than the other children boisterously running about. Yukiko has an eye disease – the same one now afflicting Suou, where the photoreceptors prematurely degrade, narrowing the field of vision slowly but surely.
This changes everything, really. I’ve always bristled at the unvarnished contempt the Karuta elites held Suou in – rather than respect his brilliance, they bemoaned his unorthodox manner and playing style. Suou, it seems, never claimed to love Karuta, not even to himself. But it filled what he saw as an “empty void” in him, one he tried to fill with a variety of hobbies, always ventured into for the purposes of impressing a girl (as was Karuta, at first). He was good at all of them, but soon lost interest – but at Karuta, he was more than good. And when he received his own diagnosis, it’s clear he resolved to do what Yukiko tearfully begged him to do when he left home for Todai – “make something of himself” – using Karuta as the means.
And boy, has he ever – though you’d never know it from the lack of respect he gets. Even Harada-sensei disrespects him – he says “Karuta is weeping” with Suou as Meijin. That Harada loves Karuta is a given, but he clearly doesn’t understand Suou and doesn’t care to – at the moment, Suou is nothing but an obstacle to be cleared. And to do so, of course, he’s employed a strategy targeting the weakness Chihaya pointed out to him – Suou’s peripheral vision. And clearly, to good effect. Ironically the “disrespectful” Suou clearly respects Harada-sensei for his maniacal determination and desire, but the feeling is largely unreciprocated.
There’s a lot in this situation that makes you feel, and a lot that makes you think. Would Chihaya have told Harada-sensei of this weakness if she’d known the cause? Should she? And would Harada-sensei be justified in exploiting it if he knew? It’s a tough call – Suou is a four-time defending Meijin, and he plays the game by choice. It’s clear his preternaturally good hearing comes at least in part from his weakening vision. All’s fair in love and war, as they say. But emotionally, it’s a hard thing to watch.
What of the Queen match? Nothing, not in this chapter. Suetsugu chooses to focus entirely on the Meijin match, and without a doubt it’s by far the more compelling of the two. And it’s a testament to how good Chihayafuru is that the Meijin match is as compelling as I expected it to be, but for a very different set of reasons.