Once again Chihayafuru clocks in with a deceptive chapter – one which seems like a relatively low-key change of pace, only to amp up the stakes exponentially in the final few panels and leave you feeling a bit breathless and on-edge. Clearly, this has become something of a Suetsugu specialty.
There’s a theme of beginnings in this chapter – or perhaps re-invention might be closer to the truth of it – but it’s not as upbeat as that description makes it sound. Almost the entire chapter is focused on Arata’s new Fujioka East Karuta Club – their meeting with Fujisaki, and Arata’s struggles to adapt to the rhythms of team competition. And it’s (of course) beautifully written, and quite different in tone from what we’re used to seeing in Chihayafuru. But by the end we’ve come full circle in more ways than one, and the focus could hardly be more squarely on the very heart of the story.
This is absolutely a role reversal Suetsugu has given us here, and no doubt it represents an opportunity for some much-needed character development for Arata. Too often he’s been an ideal, an abstraction as seen by others (as I’ve contended in the past, I think Suetsugu writes the character as if she’s in love with him herself) rather than a fully realized person. Seeing him stumble and “put himself in the shoes of a beginner” as Sakurazawa-sensei puts it is a positive step – and there’s no doubt that Arata is as a child in this role. He has no clue how to encourage others, how to lead his team while focusing on his own match – hell, he’s never even considered the notion of playing order.
The nice thing for Arata here is that he’s enjoying this challenge, and it’s easy with the benefit of distance to see why. “Why am I always the one so far away?” is the question he asks himself, and while it was his family that moved him ¥back to Fukui, Arata is alone largely because he chooses to be alone. And that’s always served him well enough, up to now. But to his credit he seems to have realized that it’s not enough. And the circumstances make his even more keenly aware of distance – just as he’s finally embraced the path he’s chosen, Chihaya and Taichi have left it. And Arata has no idea why.
Perhaps now Arata will have a little more appreciation for just how great Taichi’s accomplishment was – to build a nascent club up from scratch while still turning himself into an elite player. Sakurazawa-sensei recognizes the nature of Mizusawa – “A great leader and a great egotist” – because she has something of the same dichotomy on her current team. But the leader and the egotist are gone, and Mizusawa is a mystery without them. Arata is the one now who sends the mail urging his friends to “Meet us at Omijingu”.
With that mail, the switcheroo is pretty much complete. And the reactions of Chihaya and Taichi are telling. Chihaya says exactly what Taichi once said about Arata – “he’ll definitely be back, so let’s get stronger and be ready for him”. Perhaps this signals she’s ready to return to the club, but Taichi certainly seems to be fully immersed in the lone wolf role now. When he receives the mail he’s with Suou-san, and if he’s indeed now the Meijin’s disciple that pretty much by default makes Taichi the dark knight in the storyline – the distaste the Karuta establishment has for Suou probably destined to be transferred to Taichi once the Meijin finally does retire.
As always, it seems to be Taichi who’s following the dark path, and now for the first time he’s doing it without Chihaya at his side. I’m interested to see where Suetsugu is going with this but unsettled, too – I don’t want to see Taichi “rescued” by Chihaya and Arata when in fact he’s simply taking charge of his own destiny at last. I think being the rock and anchor for all his friends while his relationship with Chihaya was steadily killing him has left Taichi thoroughly exhausted and empty – and if it’s the right thing for Arata to come out of his isolation and out the interests of others above his own, I think it’s best now for Taichi to leave the burdens of the Mizusawa Karuta Club behind him and figure out what his path is going to be.
This story has gotten considerably huge, and Suetsugu’s reluctance to tie-up the many loose threads she leaves dangling legendary. Though the focus of the story is back on the Mizusawa team here, there’s not a peep about the aftermath of Komano’s confession to Kana. There’s barely a word about Taichi’s situation. I hope Suetsugu-sensei has the wherewithal to hold everything together.
In fact, we’re back in the realms of competitive Karuta again – the Tokyo qualifiers start at the close of the chapter. And if past history is a guide, when Chihayafuru goes into this mode it tends to stay there for an extended period of time. Of course that means the personal relationships tend to get pushed onto the back burner – though it isn’t as though they can be truly separated from the Karuta side at this stage.
Harada-sensei makes his first appearance for a while, and he’s understandably shocked to hear the news that Chihaya and Eyelashes have quit their club. His remedy for Chihaya is clear – savagely dominate her in a Karuta match – but his idea to “Invite Matsuge out for some karaoke” meets some resistance. Chihaya is obviously rusty, and the cards look “black” to her – but fundamentally, I think Chihaya is a simple and straightforward person who sees the world in a straightforward way. I’m not overly worried about her relationship with Karuta.
There is an important distinction to be made that I’ve been glossing over – Taichi “quit” the club, but Chihaya took a leave of absence. And the lesson she’s learned from her period of intense cramming is that in the end “one sound is enough” for her. She can improve as a student if she has to in order to chase her dreams, but only Karuta fulfills her. That’s not surprising, and thus her return (as hinted in #143) only a matter of time. But that return is a bit complicated for the club, which has been struggling and suffering in her absence for many weeks. Especially the way Chihaya stages it – showing up unannounced at the qualifiers in her hakana.
Obviously, the club – well, her three fellow seniors anyway – will welcome Chihaya back. But should they – in the sense that they immediately displace one of the underclassmen who’s been busting their ass to try and get better in order to allow Chihaya to play? Frankly, my answer would be no, they shouldn’t – if Kana, Komano and Nishida want to maintain a sense of authority, they shouldn’t simply move Chihaya to the head of the line after she left them of her own volition. That’s a hard call, because they obviously become much stronger with even a rusty Chihaya as their ace – but in the end I think it’s the right call. For now it seems to be a compromise – she’s added to the roster, but as the 10th member of 10 – though just what that means about her participation I have no idea.
It’s certainly going to be interesting to see what happens next. We know that Tokyo gets two qualifying schools to the nationals, and that’s even before the revelation that so many schools have entered that they’ve been split into two qualifying tournaments (gee, what could have caused a Karuta boom I wonder?), so it seems likely Mizusawa could make it through this stage without Chihaya. Fujioka East, on the other hand, really shouldn’t make it past the qualies with only Arata as an experienced player. And what of Taichi – is he truly done with team competition? I’m skeptical that Mizusawa could possibly win Nationals again without their backbone, their heart, their moon – but right now we don’t even know if they’re going to have to try.