Chihayafuru – Episode 18

Let’s get back to Chihayafuru! It’s been a full one and a half episodes since the show’s last tournament, so given our prior pace, I’m guessing we’ll be getting back into the action soon. Last episode was necessary, though – Chihayafuru has established Chihaya’s play as binary in a very specific way, and interrogating her speed-focused play was a smart way to provoke her into growing as a player. Illustrating a sports hero’s weaknesses is just as important as illustrating their strengths, since if we’re to invest in their growth as a player, we need to see a solid progression from stage one to wherever they end up. In a show where the tactical mechanics of competition are critical to the stakes of the drama, characters can’t just grow in an emotional sense – they have to level up in a clear tactical one as well. I’m excited to see how the show illustrates Chihaya balancing out her skill set, and can’t wait for her next confrontation with the Queen. Let’s get to it!

Episode 18

Looks like we really are off to another tournament! Chihayafuru certainly doesn’t waste any time

Kana and her mom are excellent hakama salesmen

This is Chihaya’s first Class A match against a non-high school field, and she actually is nervous. That’s rare for her, but not unexpected. We’ve had plenty of evidence that Chihaya’s general confidence is somewhat brittle, and that she can easily get into nervous loops. In those situations, her general single-mindedness doesn’t help her, and she often needs the help of others to get back in the right mind state. It’s a perfect personality to facilitate “my friends believe in me” last-minute reversals

A procession of perspective shots get us right in her head. Time to fight!

The hakama are a nice indicator of our leads’ protagonist status, but I’d also like to see Chihaya fight in more of her very silly t-shirts

Though I guess the hakama also make for a nice contrast with Shinobu’s dissheveled appearance

Chihaya’s opponent is pink incarnate. “You look adorable.” “I know.”

Sakura Kanai is our first opponent. Good to see Chihaya is holding on to the first lesson of last tournament, and not taking early wins for granted

Aaand Chihaya faults on her very first play

Sakura’s entire persona is designed to emphasize her age and self-awareness relative to Chihaya. An opponent like this can’t compete with Chihaya on speed, but this fight is deliberately designed around Chihaya herself trying to avoid relying on speed. She’ll have to meet Sakura in her own field

Sakura keeps saying “lucky,” but her play and demeanor both contradict that. Her choices are very measured, and her aesthetic is a facade

“I get to play a girl who has only speed!” Sakura is the kind of character that in most shows, you’d be intended to hate but couldn’t help love. A good type

Dead cards ratchet up the tension as Chihaya attempts to get momentum back

They also play into Chihaya’s attempted style shift here. Chihaya bases her style around moving as fast as possible, and holding back for dead cards epitomizes restraint

Sakura dunking on Chihaya helps regulate the tension of this match. This should be both fun and tense

And now Chihaya finally starts to see the opponent’s tactical choices as they’re being made. Sakura is minimizing Chihaya’s strengths by sending her the cards she hopes to steal, and also taking all the cards she can out of Chihaya’s far-left strike zone. By slowing down and not entirely focusing on speed of execution, even if she’s losing, Chihaya is able to see much more of what is actually happening

The Queen was assuredly also fighting Chihaya in this tactical sense, but Chihaya didn’t have the perspective to recognize it. She thought she was just fighting the Queen in a speed battle, but that was only true because she automatically ceded the tactical battle. Being able to see why you’re losing is a critical step towards improving

Chihaya decides to physically move back from the cards, forcing herself into a more methodical style of attacking

And now she’s actually having a conversation with Sakura through their exchanges, which is what Sakura was hoping for. Sakura probably doesn’t have the reflexes or stamina to become the absolute best, she’s here to have fun matches with opponents who present interesting tactical puzzles to solve

“Three syllable timing.” By closely examining Sakura’s play, Chihaya unlocks a potential route for improving at the three syllable cards, a natural weakness of her reflex-heavy play

This match is a pretty terrific narrative device. This is essentially still Chihaya undergoing a “training arc,” but it’s integrated gracefully into an active competition, with Chihaya continuously learning new tricks just slightly too slowly to beat her opponent with them. I suppose the fact that karuta tournaments happen so often, and aren’t all equally important, means Chihayafuru has the unique ability to turn competitive matches into pure training exercises, where winning is less important than finding a key to improve your play

Sakura has two equally adorable daughters

And now Sakura gets a nice segment dedicated to her own long-term karuta goals. It’s pretty much expected within the genre, but I still always like how much sports shows tend to humanize their opponent characters

“I had no idea that I was about to experience the worst moment of my life.” Well jeez

The Class B finals are Nishida and Taichi!

THE CLASS D FINALS ARE KANA AND TSUTOMU!!!

These dramatic horns for Chihaya’s hysterics are great. Chihayafuru can lean into a somewhat self-serious style, particularly in its use of music, and so undercutting this scene with melodramatic horn embellishment is a nice sendup of its own dramatic affectation

I was worried something actually terrible was going to happen, but this is adorable

Retro also shows up to spectate. Chihayafuru has established a reasonably deep bench of secondary competitors. I’ll be happy to see Sakura at future tournaments

Some lovely shots of Kana as Tsutomu analyzes her play. I don’t care about Chihaya getting with either of her suitors, but these two better get together at some point

Kana actually plays better in a hakama, because growing up in her family has taught her to maintain excellent posture while wearing formal dress. That’s a very cute and totally believable play quirk

She’s also acting as an excellent salesmen for these kimono just by looking so good in them

“Kanade isn’t necessarily beautiful…” YOU TAKE THAT BACK, KANA-MOM

Tsutomu’s mastery of Kana’s psychology verges on unbelievability. He knows what she knows about the card stories, and can take advantage of the fact that she is emotionally invested in the narrative links between the cards. Tsutomu strong

Kana’s style of play makes for a very unique conflict here. Kana responds to cards based on their imagery or historical significance, which isn’t a good tactical choice, but is a very evocative one. Kana will never be the best at this game, but her matches offer a different kind of appeal

And Done

Another great episode! We dove right back into competitive matches this time, with both of this episode’s fights offering new dramatic priorities and new rewards. Sakura was a very fun opponent, and Chihaya’s growth over the course of her match felt clear and impactful. Kana and Tsutomu’s match might have been even more satisfying, offering welcome illustration of their strengths and giving Chihaya even more to learn. Chihayafuru has hit its page-turner stride, with each new episode demonstrating another facet of sports drama excellence.

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