Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…
I was pretty defeated after the last chapter of Chihayafuru, which was really the first time I felt so acutely that the series was stagnating and that we were really being strung along as an audience. It’s not as if those feelings never cropped up before, but this was really the first time I seriously considered the possibility that it wasn’t simply a matter of Suetsugu-sensei not offering any closure or satisfying moments, but that she was unwilling or unable to do so – period. And as a reader, that’s not a good place to be.
It’s Sumire who muses to herself “Why does it feel like things are ending?” in Chapter 133, and it’s not the first time in the last few that we’ve had what felt like characters addressing the audience directly (or acting as stand-ins for them). Thank goodness for Kana, really, because there are times of late where her level-headed determination is the only thing that’s kept me going. As Chihaya agonizes over Taichi “getting a head start on her” by staying behind for the Takamatsu-Nomiya Cup, Kana sternly orders her to “Keep thinking and wondering” about his reasons for going off on his own. “Why he did what he did, why… Please keep asking yourself that.”
In one sense it feels Quixotic for Kana to do this, because Chihaya could hardly be more clueless when it comes to Taichi. But maybe it’s some tiny measure of progress that Chihaya has figured out that Taichi simply can’t tell her why he goes off on his own, even if she can’t figure out the seemingly obvious reason why. I’m not going to allow myself to hope we might see actual growth in their relationship, but it’s a measure of just how parched this desert is that this tiny drop of water feels like a refreshing oasis.
Meanwhile back at Omi Jingu, once it’s known that Arata and Taichi are playing in the same event it’s a given that Suetsugu is going to match them up against each other. And no matter how much I might want to resist the pull, it’s the nature of Chihayafuru’s hold on me that I can’t help but be compelled at the prospect. As if that weren’t enough, Suou pops back in to pick up his trophy and ends up watching their match, which is a semi-final. And to say he’s an interested spectator is something of an understatement.
This is a fascinating duel, no doubt. It’s telling though not surprising that Suetsugu frames almost the entire game from Taichi’s perspective, spending more time seeing it through the eyes of Suou and Arata’s sensei than Arata himself – it perfectly fits the way she writes each of them, and their role in the story. Taichi has worried beforehand that he won’t be able to keep his cool if he plays Arata, and so it is – though the tension bubble is popped a little when both of them are so intensely focused on each other that that end up sitting on the wrong side.
Arata is a big mountain for Taichi, no doubt about it. Taichi still struggles with self-worth, and Arata is utterly serene in his own – his world-view is tightly focused on himself, and that makes him a tough opponent. Of course he looks down on Taichi, and Taichi senses this and is angered by it. As long as Taichi is obsessed with Arata he’s at a huge disadvantage when it comes to moving forward both in Karuta and in regards to Chihaya, because Arata is certainly not obsessed with him.
But there is resolve here from Taichi – resolve to contest every card, and to play the attacking style of Harada-sensei. And most interestingly of all, Taichi asks Arata during the match if he “said something” to Chihaya in the Fall – and the normally implacable Arata is momentarily flustered as he says he did. Taichi immediately sends Arata the “Chihayafuru” card – stating internally that because he’s an offensive Karuta player, “I would part with the things I want most, and I would into a fight with the resolve to get them back no matter what.” There have been times of late when it seemed as if Taichi has given up, but this is the most definitive statement of resolve we’ve seen from him yet when it comes to Chihaya – not that Suetsugu is ever going to let him have anything but abject misery for more than a fleeting moment.
Of course Arata wins (off-screen) – at this stage in their character trajectories, there’s no way Taichi can win (and besides, well – misery), though Arata does lose the tournament to his sempai Murao. And back in Tokyo Chihya defeats Sudou for the title in the New Years Tournament, as poor old Retro-kun (who’s been voted club president) loses to an annoying player named Tamuru, whose equally annoying older brother is already A-class. But most interesting is that Suou and Taichi are riding the same Shinkansen back home, and there’s a whiff in the air that their Karuta relationship may just be about to deepen considerably.