Chihayafuru – Episode 3

It’s time for more Chihayafuru! Episode two led us to the founding of Chihaya, Taichi, and Wataya’s original friendship, after Taichi’s jealousy resulted in a pretty tumultuous sixth grade karuta tournament. The episode did solid work for both Taichi and Wataya’s characters, while also offering plenty of sunny Chihaya spirit to counterbalance her alternately gloomy and vengeful friends. The show hasn’t really hit a propulsive stride yet, but it’s still an enjoyable and generally well-realized production. Let’s see what episode three brings!

Episode Three

“From the Crystal White Snow.” Fair enough. Guess we’ll have to see what this title means

Our three heroes set off to a local community center where karuta is apparently played

And of course Chihaya bursts into the room mid-match. Chihaya is always true to herself

“I thought karuta was something people played for fun.” Oh Chihaya, how little you know about the suffering of games

“Karuta is a sport!” Ayep

Dr. Harada is the head here. His voice actor is very familiar, though I can’t place it to a name

“Reviewing positioning.” Interesting. I wonder what tactical choices are involved in how you set up your board – if all of the poems are equally likely to be chosen, what advantage is there to one kind of placement over another? And what are the legal limits of how you can place your pieces?

In a less grounded fantasy series, this would be the kind of exposition/worldbuilding that I’d say contributes very little to a story. But in sports shows, understanding the mechanics of play is absolutely necessary if you want the audience to be dramatically invested in the mechanical plays. Even shows outside of the sports drama can make great use of this sort of careful rule elaborating – Hunter x Hunter thrives on it, for example. But it’s very difficult to make this sort of explanation flow naturally in dialogue/narrative, and so you have to be very careful in how you use it. Explaining powers just so those powers are explained is meaningless – unless these conversations directly apply dramatic weight to future events, they’re useless

Incidentally, even sports shows don’t need this sort of grounded conflict, if they’re more focused on emotional conflicts. There are a variety of ways to instill drama with weight

Harada immediately embraces them, overjoyed to see three potential new players. A very cute scene, and a very understandable one. I can’t imagine karuta has much appeal with the younger crowd

And of course here’s Hiro, the guy who’s talking trash about how he’ll beat the new kids. Pretty much every gaming crew has this guy, and he’s always terrible

Ahaha, I love how Taichi ends up being the reasonable one here, while Chihaya and Wataya are all gung-ho about immediately challenging these people to a match. It’s great being able to see the multiple sides of all these characters – Wataya may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean he’s the most composed or rational one

“Once the cards are placed, you have fifteen minutes of memorization time.” Jeez, this game really is designed to make use of all skills I am absolutely terrible at. Immediate reaction time, rote memorization, avoidance of papercuts…

Chihaya’s reaction is wonderful. She’s such an easy character to relate to at basically all times

It’s actually interesting. Often I find passionate, open book characters kind of frustrating – but I think that’s partially because characters like that are often boys, and so that attitude gets spun in with a kind of brash masculinity that I find really unappealing. Chihaya is passionate and speaks before she thinks, but she’s also very considerate, so her attitude is much easier to take

This strategy meeting is actually great. We’re getting enough information to understand the tactical choices involved in the sport now – how the relative openings of different poems puts them in different categories as far as response goes, and how you can abuse that to make nabbing the right card easier. And Wataya is already leaning into Chihaya’s strength by giving her all the cards that warrant an instantaneous response, her specialty

“I wanted to play as a team.” For once, Wataya is the one pulling them together

Of course, Wataya is actually a million times better than his friends, and he’s rather win than massage their egos, so he ends up grabbing all their cards anyway

“He took my card again. I’m so mad. I’ll get it next time!” That last line is what actually separates Chihaya from most people. Most people would not respond to getting shut out by their own teammate by saying “gosh, I’ll do better next time” – they’d just want to play a different game. The competitive urge that drives people to actually be professional level in anything is an unusual response, and the first prerequisite to actually becoming professional. You have to want it an awful lot, and take every loss as more motivation to succeed

Taichi, on the other hand, has more normal responses. He’s a little resentful of Wataya, and feels less motivated because Wataya is taking his role. That very natural reaction is why it’s important to lead new players into games – it’s not “rational” to expect to win the first time you play, but it’s important to have a positive emotional experience if you want someone to be motivated to try again and improve

Aw dang, it turned out Wataya was trying to help Taichi have a good time all along. Cute stuff

This horn music is wonderful. I keep being impressed by how well this show can elevate the drama of these minor karuta matches

Chihaya’s reaction time finally gets a moment in the sun

And now Wataya’s fired up to beat her, too. They aligned the personalities of these leads nicely – Wataya is actually the kind of self-serious person who’d get super into this by himself, and Chihaya is exactly the kind of person who’d break through that wall

It turns out Wataya’s already an absurdly accomplished player, and has a master grandfather

“You will learn to take the cards you’re most attached to faster than anyone.” The fact that these are little poems they’re reaching for does give this an interesting personal dimension

A tournament’s coming up and one of Taichi or Chihaya has to win. TIME FOR TRAINING

“Chihaya should just keep gushing about how great I am.” Nice sister

I appreciate that Chihaya’s mom seems to have her back, at least

It seems like there’s some baggage with Wataya’s father, too. But we only get a brief pair of shots implying conflict

Wataya is Arata, at last

“Let’s play karuta together forever!” Treasure this moment, kid. In this kind of story, the “idyllic times I wish we could all return to” generally last maybe half an episode. Hell, Naruto mined many hundreds of episode of “I wish we could get back there” out of maybe a couple dozen episodes of “we’re a squad and we like each other!” An impressive ratio, to be sure

Oh my god, I was just saying that, but literally the next scene is Taichi being accepted to a middle school that’s Somewhere Else

Yeaaah, this timing is just… not enough. I actually am eager to skip ahead to the high school part of the narrative, but giving the characters maybe half an episode of “the good times” makes it very hard to believe in those good times as meaningful motivation, especially when all the characters have been separated from that era by the entirety of middle school. People change

Aaand Arata’s heading back to Fukui, to live with his grandfather. Times are tough

That classic situation where your friends are taking an upcoming separation with much more maturity than you are, and you can’t stand it

Ooh, cool wipe transition with Chihaya tearing down the previous scene, leading to her ripping pages of notes from her bedroom walls

Yeah, this episode’s trying to build drama a bit too fast. There hasn’t been enough time to feel invested in this trio playing together

That said, they are jumping straight to the tournament. I suppose abridging this whole segment is alright if it gets us where we need to go. Not ideal, but storytelling sometimes involves compromises between incompatible narrative demands

I also like how consistently family is emphasized in this show

“I’m still mad at you guys. But I’m not the only one who feels lonely, right?” A very nice line

And we are POWERING ON THROUGH the rest of their grade school time

Aww, Arata finally breaks down. What a lovely moment. This we’ve earned – Arata’s emotional distance and underlying loneliness have been central to his character from the first episode, and so there’s plenty of audience investment in seeing him admit how much he enjoys this time spent with friends

And Done

That was a… largely respectable episode. This episode had pretty close to an impossible challenge laid before it – get all the way from “the three leads have finally become friends” to “the three leads must make a tearful goodbye,” explaining their mutual passion for karuta and giving them a meaningful in-episode conflict along the way. The episode just didn’t have enough time to make Chihaya and Taichi’s investment in this situation feel meaningful, and so the emotional experience suffered a bit. That said, it accomplished the majority of its goals, and Arata’s moment at the end was very good as well. Failing to sell the meaning of their karuta bond is frankly a bit of a problem, given the tone of the high school material so far, but hopefully the narrative we’re returning to will offer its own dramatic tentpoles soon enough. I’m still very on board!

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