“Glaring hole”, indeed.
We’re in a funny sort of Purgatory in Chihyafuru right now. There’s obviously not just someone but something missing. Suetsugu-sensei acknowledges this openly in the writing, as it’s obviously an intentional development – yet the fact that it’s missing is no less glaring. Right now the series just isn’t getting much weight behind its punches.
What we’re getting is stuff like Mizusawa playing preliminary tournaments with secondary characters, focus on the heartbreak of losing teams we’ve never heard of, Tsuboguchi-san and his Houmei team, and Shinobu looking for a part-time job. In a vacuum it’s all interesting enough and Suetsugu is certainly a strong enough writer to make it entertaining, but the sense that she’s marking time here could hardly be stronger.
If Suetsugu’s trying to make a point about how the absence of Taichi profoundly impacts the narrative, it’s surely been made. When Sudou-san notes that Taichi’s absence leaves a glaring hole in the middle of Mizusawa’s team, he’s right – but he might as well have been talking about Chihayafuru as a whole. Arata too, but the difference there is we’re used to not seeing him for long stretches – his role is basically as the dark matter of the Chihaya-verse. Taichi’s presence however is sorely missed, because he brings so many things to both the story and Mizusawa that no one else does.
As for matters at hand, it does seem that Suetsugu is becoming more reflective about Karuta, and her role in the state of the sport in Japan. When Shinobu ruefully wishes that winning Karuta tournaments involved prize money because it’s so hard for her to find part-time work with her limited hours and the general lack of public awareness of what she does, is that the mangaka making her opinion known? When a losing player notes that Mizusawa’s surprising success has sparked a boom among high school Karuta clubs (and thus forced changes in the qualifying rules) is she really talking about the impact Chihayafuru has had?
Thankfully, most of those silly “speed up the game” rules have been ditched for the final 4-team qualifying round, which is tweaked from what we saw last year but still recognizable. Chihaya’s return (she’s mortified no one told her to wear a hakama) has indeed pushed Tsukuba to the bench, but Nishida has slid into the captain’s role due to his steady presence and knowledge of the team. Chihaya doesn’t seem to care, blitzing her first opponent from Houmei (a Class C player) 23-0, but it’s clear she still basically functions as an individual player in a team event.
The truth is, no one has stepped up to fill Taichi’s shoes – and the problem is, I’m not sure anyone on Mizusawa can. Chihaya, Ooe, Komano and Nishida can each bring a piece of what he brought – but that’s not the same as having a real leader who can embody all of it. I don’t see Taichi coming back anytime soon, so for now things are looking pretty uncertain for Mizusawa and Chihayafuru both.