In which Suetsugu Yuki displays an unprecedented level of sadism.
In my last Chihayafuru post I alluded to the 2009 British Open as a model for what was playing out. For those of you not sports fans, that was the event in which Tom Watson was one hole – one putt – away from winning his sixth British Open at the unheard of age of 59 (he would turn 60 the following week). That would have shattered the record for the oldest to win a major championship by more than 13 years. It would have been one of the biggest stories in the history of sports, but fate intervened – a bad bounce on a well-struck 8-iron, an indifferent approach putt from below the green and a nervy missed par putt forced a four-hole playoff with the spectacularly uninteresting Stewart Cink.
There was never a doubt in my mind how that playoff would turn out – Cink won easily – and the overwhelming feeling was one of anti-climax. And that’s exactly how this chapter felt to me. Seeing Harada-sensei lose the decisive fifth game by 12 cards was certainly not unexpected, so to say there was a lack of drama there is almost unnecessary (indeed, Suetsugu seems resigned to the fact and makes no effort to fight the inevitable). But there was a similar anti-climax to the cliffhanger when Arata walked into Omi Jingu just as Taichi was approaching Chihaya in the hall. We’ve been down this road before – was there any reason to suspect that we were actually going to see real progress or even interaction between the three of them?
As much as Suou-san has grown on me (a lot), as I mentioned last time I was still pulling hard for Harada-sensei when the chips were down. But I got my sadness out of the way long before reading this chapter, because Harada lost when he faulted on that luck of the draw – the fifth game was pretty much a formality. We’re told that the five games took 10 hours, and it’s quite a testament to Harada’s strength of will that he managed to hold out that long. But a defeat is still a defeat, and this has to sting – knowing how close he came, and how he’ll never get another chance. He has a nice moment of consolation with his wife, but all of the panels with Harada-sensei have a bereft feeling to them this time around.
As for Suou, the first surprise he pulls is that he shaves his beard and moustache and ties his hair back – which is pretty much noted by all as an ominous sign that he’s taking the final game completely seriously (which is obviously bad for Harada). A show of respect it may be, but it closes the door on his opponent those fast few inches. In his terse post-match interview Suou confesses that playing Harada-sensei was exhausting – but also fun. It’s not hard to imagine that Suou-san hasn’t had fun playing Karuta for quite some time.
If all that was inevitable, I was at least somewhat hopeful for more satisfaction from the younger set. Indeed, Suetsugu takes a scathing stab at shippers by having Kana and Sumire imagine what Taichi, Arata and Chihaya are saying to each other – that is, that they’re getting to the point already. Of course the truth is that they’re doing nothing of the kind, because this is Chihayafuru and we just don’t do that sort of thing in Chihayafuru. Instead there a short discussion of Harada-sensei’s condition and of where Arata will watch the final match from (Chihaya’s comment about “lots of tickets being available” and the business with no TV coverage seems to be an expression of concern from Suetsugu-sensei about the state of Karuta) – Arata insists he’ll watch from the gallery and loudly coughs as explanation. And then the three of them creep off to peek at Harada in his waiting room, and that’s that.
Not content with her jape at the expense of shippers Suetsugu turns her sights on shounen manga next. Arata interrupts Suou-meijin’s interview by pleading (interspersed with a lot of coughing) that he not retire, so desperate is Arata to face him. And Suou rather shockingly agrees to stick around for another year, prompting the Niconico peanut gallery to exclaim “What is it, a shounen manga? Wow!” I suspect Suetsugu-sensei is well aware that her manga bears many strongly shounen structural features, so there’s more than a little self-parody involved here.
Plainly speaking, I’m not crazy about this development. I’m not crazy about Arata doing that in the first place (his actions of late increasingly suggest an unconscious belief that the world revolves around his needs and desires), and even less so about Suou saying yes. Winning this fifth title and going out on top really felt like a deserved and fitting close to his storyline – it was one of the strongest developments in the “post-anime” period and to me at least, it seemed like it had achieved closure. It feels to me as if he’s being strung along now as a dramatic device when he’s already fulfilled his role in the story – as an active player anyway. We’ll see.
The close of the chapter certainly doesn’t have the feel of resolving anything. Everyone goes their separate ways, with Chihaya and the Mizusawa gang boarding the Shinkansen back to Tokyo – but Taichi isn’t with them (and no one, including Chihaya, notices until they’re seated). He hasn’t missed the train as Tsutomu and Nishida initially believe – in fact, he’s gone off on his own to the Takamatsu-Nomiya Cup tournament, and only told Kana about it. Chihaya is shocked – shocked because he’s getting a “head start” on her. It’s disheartening, really, that Chihaya is still, after all this time, so disconnected from Taichi’s true feelings. In effect, Taichi seems increasingly to be invisible to Chihaya (more than usual, anyway) – and there’s been a growing sense over the last few chapters that he was becoming isolated from she and the others (though not Kana, interestingly) which is why I speculated that he might end up being mentored by the retired Suou-meijin in his quest to become Meijin himself.
I guess by now I should realize that Chihayafuru just doesn’t dish out many satisfying, closure-filled moments. There’s been quite a few fans of the manga starting to chirp that it might be time to start the final act, that things were becoming repetitive – a point of view that up to now I haven’t really shared. But this sort of chapter does spark the feeling of being strung along (that phrase again) as a reader, and I do wonder where things are going. I keep flashing back to that internal monologue of Harada-sensei’s on the train platform with Taichi in Episode 20 of the anime – the most powerful moment of the entire series – and I’m starting to see it as if he’d been talking about the readers, too. Being a fan of this series is really hard work.