Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
There’s a certain fatigue factor for me in writing about Karuta tournaments in Chihayafuru, something it feels like I’ve done until my fingers are numb from typing. Suetsugu-sensei still does find nuance in these chapters, but for the most part the ground is very familiar. And if you’re going to write about a series, that can be a bit of a problem.
This chapter is all about Chihaya vs. Shinobu, which is all about which one Suetsugu wants to have face Arata (most likely in the final). My money was on Chihaya because it made the most sense dramatically speaking, but based on form I’m leaning that way even more strongly. She recalls Harada-sensei’s earlier observation that while she might not realize it yet, at 18 her body is “complete” – and as she readies for her match with the Queen, she begins to understand. Her muscles are stronger than ever, her flexibility has lost nothing, and she feels no pain in her knees or back. Physically, Chihaya is at the peak of her life – and the sense is that she knows she’ll never have a better chance to defeat Shinobu.
For her part Shinobu seems put off by Chihaya even more than usual, which is of course because Chihaya stole her thunder and defeated Arata the day before. Its funny that both Chihaya and Shinobu have a view of Arata that’s driven by fantasy, though it developed from a completely different perspective. Shinobu sees Arata as her only friend (I would be shocked if he felt he knew her well enough to agree), and she seems to have little idea of the history between he and Chihaya. What’s more, Shinobu is off form because, for once, she has to consider the player across from her – has to because that player is on her level in terms of skill. The Queen is at her best when the only thing she’s worried about is her own game and her “friends” laid out before her, but Chihaya doesn’t give her the luxury.
The real ace in the hole here, though, is the reader (my first thought was to feel terrible for Kana-chan to miss this, because she’d be in Heaven). He’s a professional, Igarashi-san – and also happens to be the voice on the discs (MP3’s?) played countless times for Mizusawa practices. As a result Chihaya is in perfect sync with his cadence and tone (and so is Rion, interestingly enough). The handwriting seems to be on the wall here – this is Chihaya’s moment, and probably a taste of defeat that will be good for Shinobu in the long run. Thoughts about avenging Arata should be nowhere in her mind when facing a match like this, and she needs to embrace the notion of competing against the player in front of her and not just herself.