I’m even further behind on Chihayafuru than I was with Otoyomegatari, but if I don’t catch up before the spring season starts, I’m doomed. And while the last couple chapters of this series were excellent, there’s still just a bit of dread at the prospect of reading a new one, because Chihayafuru is such an emotionally exhausting experience. Normally I’d never blog four chapters of any manga at one sitting, never mind this one, but I think in this case it’s best to just embrace the angst and yank that band-aid off.
Picking up where we left off, Mizusawa has of course lost their match to Fujisaki. And as was probably very likely all along, Fujioka East has lost to Hokuo, who’ve been the strongest team all tournament. The two ultimate individualists, Arata and Chihaya, win their matches but fail to lead their teams to victory. There a saying in football (soccer) that great strikers need to have no conscience – they need to be selfish scorers to succeed at their role. And that’s how I kind of see these two in a Karuta context – though both have certainly made strides in trying to becomes leaders as well as aces.
Naturally, in the third-place match Arata and Chihaya draw each other as opponents, though to be fair it’s no coincidence – neither side doubts for a moment that the other will play their ace first. Does it mean anything that Chhaya goes into that match against Arata wearing a “Taichi” headband? Who the hell knows. I sure don’t – I’m just exhausted. But the whole headband thing is rather a roller-coaster of emotion, as it turns out Chihaya didn’t realize the Empress had given her Tachi’s headband, and the Empress even made snarky comments about it being bad luck. But then Chihaya went and tied it back in place for the match…
As for the man in question, he’s still on the periphery of the TV special Shinobu has hijacked away from Suou. Taichi as ever wallows in self-doubt – when faced with the reality of the freakish talent the two champions possess, he convinces himself that he’s merely a plodder, a grinder – someone who can never aspire to their level. The most telling moment of this sequence comes when the Meijin tells Taichi “You ignore what you are blessed with too much”, a comment that can (and is intended to) be taken on multiple levels.
I suppose it only makes sense that Taichi would rush to Omi Jingu (he’s just a half-hour away in any case, in Osaka) as soon as his mother tells him Arata and Chihaya are playing. It’s obviously a moment fraught with dramatic potential, but I’ve given up on expecting Suetsugu to have these three-way encounters be definitive in any way. In a sense, I think she’s quite the troll – I mean, all shoujo romance mangaka are in a way, but she takes it to another level. It’s so rare, relatively speaking, for anything to meaningfully change the dynamic in Chihayafuru that when something actually does (it doesn’t in these chapters) it always comes as a huge surprise.
The match of real import here is the title match, but in the flush of the moment Suetsugu proves Karuta is secondary to her character drama by focusing on the meaningless third-place match. Because of course, no match where Chihaya is playing Arata could be meaningless in a narrative sense – not to mention this is the last competitive match these Mizusawa seniors will ever play. There’s a very amusing sidebar where Ooe-san explains to the other moms how to sit in a seiza position (I can vouch for how hard this is, though I had no idea about the men/women thing with the toes) but mostly, the laser-like focus here is on the main trio.
Chihaya has the upper hand in this game from the beginning, opening up a quick five card lead. All the while she manages to act like a real captain, keeping an eye on the other matches and offering encouragement. Things are generally going well for Mizusawa when Taichi arrives – so much so that I wondered if it might throw off the team, but they power through relatively unchecked. The moment when Chihaya – long after the others – finally notices Taichi’s presence is a dramatic one (it comes right after the “Chihayaburu”card is read – and it’s a dead one), and Arata is actually in the midst of a comeback at the time. But Chihaya hangs on, the Mizusawa completes a sweep of the inexperienced Fujioka squad.
So what’s the significance of all this – of Taichi’s arrival, of the dead Chihaya card, of Chihaya finally defeating Arata? Again, who the hell knows – I’m too worn out by now to try and interpret what goes on in this series anymore. All I can really do is sit back and wait for stuff to happen, and given Suetsugu’s history as far as game-changing stuff it’s always a long wait. It’s still a compelling story, and I don’t think when the rare big moments come they impact me any less – I’m just too emotionally spent to think about them before they do. Next chapter should, in theory, be a big one with the aftermath of the Arata-Chihaya match and Taichi reunited with his teammates. But I’ve been burned too many times to expect that to actually be the case. If it is, I’ll worry about it then.