You gotta love sports!
In the midst of the most sports-heavy schedule in recent anime history (certainly at the top of the quality spectrum at least) Chihayafuru weighs in with what I’d call a “straight sports” chapter, a reminder that it can tackle this material with the best of them (and of what we’ll get if we ever see a third season).
As far as I was concerned, the second season of the anime was too preoccupied with this sort of material – as good as Chihayafuru is at the Karuta, the majority of the season spent at one tournament was too much. And very few of the matches had the inherent drama that this one has (well, there are two going on but you know which one I mean). But Harada-sensei vs. Suou-meijin has developed into arguably the most compelling Karuta match in the entire series, with a fascinating backstory on both sides and a fascinating battle on the tatami.
With this chapter, though, Suetsugu-sensei seems to have decided that the dynamics of the matchup have been fully explored – we know what’s at stake for both men involved. So this one focuses almost entirely on the match itself – on the strategic back on the forth, and the contrast in styles between the two players. There are continued reminders of what Suou is going through, and I find myself no less conflicted than I have been for the last few chapters. But it was pretty riveting stuff, and finished with the unpardonable cliffhanger you just knew it would.
In a sense, I think Harada-sensei has already won this match because he’s forced Suou-meijin to do something he’s never had to do Suou is ignoring the Queen match (I sort of wish Suetsugu was as well), abandoning his usual approach of trying to solicit faults and just trying desperately to take cards (and survive). Some of it is due to his deteriorating eyesight, no doubt, but I think Harada-sensei has genuinely challenged him as few have before. I love the focus on Harada’s strength here, partly as seen though Chihaya’s eyes – his focus on basics and relentless attacking. “Karuta is simple” he silently tells the Meijin. “Because I’ve been doing nothing but sending you the cards you’re not good with.”
You can visibly see Harada-sensei growing in confidence as this match progresses, even as his lead is whittled away and things progress towards what seems like an inevitable luck of the draw. He’s proven to himself that he can hang with Suou, trouble him, without tricks or the Meijin’s shenanigans. Harada even speculates that he might be physically stronger than the Meijin because Suou isn’t used to playing long matches – but this has an air of bravado to it. The most emotional moment of the chapter, surprisingly, comes via Harada’s old foe Kitano-sensei from the Suihoku Society – at a key moment of the match he tosses a floor cushion at Harada-sensei as a gesture of support. It’s ludicrous yet quite touching – as witness the reaction of Kitano-sensei’s students Nishida, Komano and Kana.
Naturally enough it does come down to luck of the draw – and naturally, that’s where Suetsugu chooses to leave things. There’s a wrinkle, though – each players protects a “Nani” card, and (we know because as always, Taichi remembers every card that’s left unread) there are three “Nani” cards remaining. Each side with a “Nani” card to protect, plus a dead card, with a single fault meaning the end (there would still be a fifth game if Suou wins, but I wouldn’t fancy Harada’s chances – it feels like Tom Watson going to the playoff after missing the putt to win the 2009 British Open on the 72nd hole). In Karuta terms, that’s the ultimate cliffhanger.
As for the Queen match, it does indeed finish – but as if realizing where the real drama is, Suetsugu allocates only a few pages to it. I always assumed Shinobu would win, and I still feel as if it would have been better for her in the long run to lose. But be that as it may, I’ve never felt a keen sense of intrigue about this match – Inokuma is interesting enough, but she’s always seemed destined to be a one-off character, pushed to the side when it was time for Chihaya and Shinobu to seriously renew their rivalry. She certainly gives a good account of herself, but Inokuma’s most important contribution to the story is probably that she actually got Shinobu to enjoy herself during a match, and that was nice to see.