Fittingly for a series about a card game, the deck seems to have been thoroughly shuffled.
By the standards of the highly dramatic series Chihayafuru has become, this has to count as something of a breather chapter. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of angst here – only that it concerns what must be thought the secondary dramas in the story, and not the central ones. Chihayafuru has always balanced multiple storylines and themes throughout its run, but these days anytime it turns the spotlight away from the Byzantine relationships between the main characters it feels like a (perhaps welcome) drop in emotional intensity.
In fact, I think we’re seeing something of a role reversal going on among those main characters. Taichi – entirely absent this chapter – is focused entirely on himself now, having been crushed by Chihaya so badly that he had no choice but the leave the Mizusawa Karuta Club. Chihaya is thinking about her future and agonizing over the relationship with the one who’s been right next to her all this time. An Arata is thinking about his role as part of a group – in this case the nascent Fujioka East Karuta Club – and seemingly wondering if his resolutely solo existence has robbed him of something valuable.
What impact all of this will have on the series’ eventual conclusion is unclear, but what isn’t is that Arata can sense that the clock is running out on his childhood, both inside the sport and out. There’s a kind of “seize the day” quality in his interactions with the Mitsubayashi Brothers, kouhai who are spearheading the creation of a club at the school. They see it more or less as a pretext to compete in tournaments and get Arata some practice, but Arata shows considerably more zeal than they expect. That Arata has been lonely has never been in doubt – it’s obvious in the fact that it’s he who most often reminisces (in rose-colored fashion) about the 6th-grade trio he was once a part of. If his single-minded drive to succeed and virtual indifference to the feelings of others has helped him rise to the top of the Karuta world, it’s had a cost too – and it seems he’s started to realize that now.
Arata and Chihaya are on an opposite trajectory when it comes to their respective school lives. As Arata passionately recruits in order to turn his group into a real club, Chihaya is completely unfocused to the point where she can’t even beat the arrogant first-year Tamaru. Taichi’s departure and Chihaya’s malaise have caused the club to come apart at the seams – Tamaru (perhaps rightly) seems nothing notable in the performance of the heralded third-years, and (wrongly) pushes to rig the system so that she can not just be a starter, but President. Chihaya finally asks for a leave of absence from the club – and Kanade responds by saying that if Chihaya hadn’t, she would have insisted. Chihaya’s lack of focus is causing ripples of unease throughout the club, and the only way a Chihaya in this state can help is by leaving it.
It’s of course fascinating (if not surprising) to see Kana step up and try to right the ship, though the headline isn’t what happens to the club, but to Chihaya. It’s tempting to try and read the tea leaves and guess where her head is exactly – what her breakdown implies about her feelings for Taichi. But that can’t be said with certainty based on the evidence at-hand, and the explanation that leans least heavily on assumption is that she simply associates Karuta with Taichi to such an extent that she cannot yet distinguish them in her mind. There are surely feelings of guilt here, and perhaps others too – but for now at the very least Chihya needs to give herself a chance to miss the game so that she can remember how much she loves it. Perhaps Taichi is in the process of that too, and perhaps when each of them hears what Arata is up to, that will help rekindle their love of the game, and their pride in the club that they created which miraculously conquered the entire nation.