Every time I think I’m out…
I guess it’s no coincidence that the last two times I’ve opened a post with that “Godfather” quote, it’s been a sports series that’s to blame. It’s no secret that my ardour for Chihayafuru has cooled a bit in the last several months – I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop loving it, but I feel as if I’m stuck in one of those relationships where even though you love the other party, being with them is just too exhausting to really be enjoyable any longer.
Well, Suetsugu-sensei has a way of sucking me back in whenever that happens (though it’s never gotten quite this bad before), almost as if she knows she’s stretched the rubber band as far as it can be stretched, and finally decides to let it go. The tournament that never ends still hasn’t ended, but thematically, I think Chihayafuru has moved on at long last. And it’s not a moment too soon.
Respite in these chapters comes from some expected sources, and some perhaps less so. I found the focus on Tsukuba and Nishida’s matches especially rewarding, because they’re chronically underdeveloped members of the Mizusawa core. Suetsugu has a quality that can be both a weakness and a strength in that she can write secondary characters compelling enough to make us yearn to know them better, but she ends up with too little time to develop them. That’s certainly happened with Tsukuba, who’s role since his introduction has mostly been to lose on queue. But he’s tired of losing and I don’t blame him, and his desire to grow into the leader who can make Mizusawa into a perennial Karuta power is a noble one.
Nishida has of course had more screen time than Tsukuba, but he’s the least developed of the original five. He too mostly loses the big matches, but as the most experienced Class A player on the team that’s especially galling for him. The way he literally throws himself into his match with Rion as it nears its end is really moving in its way – he casts pride and self-doubt aside and decides to do whatever he can to prevail. Nishida has, clearly, gotten too comfortable with losing – and it’s nice to se him get past that at least briefly.
However, Mizusawa does in fact lose to Fujioka – by 3-2. Chihaya won her match, so at this moment we don’t know who the other Mizusawa winner was – but we do know that for Chihaya, Nishida, Ooe and Tsutomu this is the end of the road as high school Karuta players at Nationals. As to what’s happening in the other semi-final Arata has unsurprisingly trounced Retro-kun, but that was always the plan – he always falls on his sword. I would expect Hokuo to win that match, but when Suetsugu’s crush Arata is in the mix all bets are off.
The best and most powerful moments of the chapters, though, unsurprisingly don’t come from the matches. There’s Nishida’s flashback to the heretofore unmentioned karaoke session he shared with Tsutomu and Taichi after Taichi was rejected by Chihaya. It made me long for the days when the gang was still together, and spectacularly highlighted something Suetsugu is brilliant at depicting – the power of friendship. Tsutomu and Nishida’s reaction when they discovered Taichi was still playing Karuta (at Toudai) epitomized that. They love him, they miss him – but as long as he’s OK, they’re OK with it.
And then, finally, we have the bombshell that Chihaya was wearing the “Taichi” headband during the tournament (it’s interesting that The Empress even made one). I’ve been down this road too many times to attach any overt significance as far as you know what to this – as far as I’m concerned that ship has sailed. But it is a heartbreaking reminder of just how much has been lost, and how Taichi’s absence has left a hole in the Mizuswa team that’s impossible to fill. Even if it’s just by reminding us how much we miss the series Chihyafuru used to be, Suetsugu still manages to provoke a more powerful emotional reaction than any she has in a long time.