Chihayafuru – Episode 19

Let’s get back to Chihayafuru! It’s been a few weeks since I watched Chihayafuru on my end, since, well, I burned through both my monthly covered episodes within a week. And even now, I’m technically writing this a few days before my next month is covered, and dipping into that month’s prospective episodes. But here’s the thing: Chihayafuru is good, and I enjoy watching and writing about it. Every episode is so much fun that it can sometimes feel impossible to stick to my two-episodes-a-month structure. So damn the schedule, and let’s watch some Chihayafuru.

Last episode saw Chihaya learning some much-needed humility, as she found herself defeated by an opponent with slower hands but a much sharper tactical sense for the game. Following that, we saw all four of our other teammates pairing up, and right now we’ve got Kana and Tsutomu engaged in a brutal head-to-head battle. Let’s get right to it!

Episode 19

A nice late afternoon outdoor shot with some rich greens and oranges. Chihayafuru’s overall color palette can feel extremely limited at times (apparently a consistent issue for its director), so I appreciate basically any shots that extend its visual range

A brief moment in Taichi’s head, as he celebrates taking a particularly quick card. Poor Taichi – this is his big moment, and Chihaya’s busy watching the noobs

Taichi’s matches actually tend to be the most interesting. Not only does he think about karuta in a very tactical way that lends itself easily to audience understanding and investment (as opposed to Chihaya’s speed, which is basically just a magic power as far as we’re concerned), but he also plays like every match is the last match of his life. Karuta doesn’t actually seem like it’s a fun thing for Taichi most of the time – he likes improving and winning, but he’s not one who plays for the thrill of the game like Chihaya

That’s also a contrast that extends to far more subjects than just karuta. In basically any discipline, there will be those who love the act itself, and those who love the fruit of that labor. I personally fall into the second camp – I can enjoy writing, but it mostly tends to be work for me, and I’m far happier having written something I’m proud of

Tsutomu has made two faults to Kana’s zero. It makes sense to me that Kana would be the more careful player – Tsutomu is naturally high-strung, and would definitely be more worried about not reacting quickly enough

“I realized while playing Sakura that faults can be fatal against someone who doesn’t make mistakes.” Chihaya herself isn’t a particularly natural choice for color commentary, but the fact that she just learned this lesson last episode makes this work here

And yeah, Tsutomu has definitely lost his cool, and is concerned about “making up ground,” which will only cause more hasty play

More emphasis on how crucial momentum is in this game. Things move too quickly and the stakes are too consistently high for players to get much time to mentally reset

And now Tsutomu sends the wrong card, one of his better ones. Woops

It appears we’re finally reaching the point where the show has established enough karuta fundamentals that it can jump between karuta “action beats” without having to explain everything. Something like “sending the wrong card” has a clear emotional and tactical implication, letting a theoretically esoteric piece of game play carry dramatic weight all on its own

Tsutomu can only think about how far behind he is, but then Kana’s sweat reminds him that everyone here is exhausted. And so he calls for a timeout to move his cards, resetting his mood and putting himself back in his tactical comfort zone

Oh my god, that goober. He put all of his cards on the left-hand side, so since almost every card left is one of his, he can just slam the pile the moment he recognizes the name

Hah, the audience doesn’t like that trick either. I’m glad we’ve reached a point where a tactical choice can so clearly read as underhanded and reckless

And now we get Kana’s perspective! She’s obviously intimidated by Tsutomu’s gambit, but wants to counter it by playing like her mentors – straight and swift, right at the correct card

Kana’s interior world is unsurprisingly more evocative than Tsutomu’s

“I’ve gotten better at the cards my friends are good at.” KANA IS A GOOD GIRL

Kana takes it! They call one of Kana’s two remaining cards before the rest of Tsutomu’s. His gambit was effective, but couldn’t carry him to the end

And Kana is overwhelmed. The two are bathed in golden light, but it fades to pink in honor of Kana’s win. Tsutomu offers the first congratulations. These two are wonderful

Oh my god, Chihaya’s evil spirit faces when she remembers the other match

These melodramatic horn cues to bring us back into their match sure are something. The show also makes strong use of its consistent vertically-oriented shots to do an ambitious camera spin. Combining the 3D architecture of the floor with a smart shift to a full top-down perspective allows the camera to slide between the two competitors and then pull up into a spin without requiring constant redraws

With both Taichi and Nishida playing defensively, the finals come down to which of their two cards is called first

Oh my god, Taichi’s strategy sessions always stress me out. With two cards left, he’s able to mentally read off every single other remaining dead card, and from there acknowledge the fact that Nishida’s card has not yet been turned into a single-syllable card. Every single skill involved in this sport kills me dead

Taichi refuses to let it come down to luck

And now we get to see in Nishida’s head. Nishida is closer to Chihaya than Taichi – he plays more off physical skill, though he’s certainly more well-rounded than her. But that means that while Taichi currently has an iron-clad tally of exactly when “The tail” becomes a one-syllable card, Nishida has to scramble through his memory to try and recall if all fifteen of the other “The” cards have been read. This I can relate to

Oooh, I love this cut where they hold steady on one shot, right at Nishida’s side, and then read through two full cards in a row. It’s great to get a better sense of the actual pace of this battle, since this is a true duel at high noon. When the show cuts to reactions and commentary after every card, the sense of urgency can easily get lost

And they keep reading off dead cards. It’s like a pitcher and batter running through a series of fouls. This “luck of the draw” showdown is an extremely potent dramatic conceit, and it makes sense that they used it here, for a match that was mostly skipped. Kana and Tsutomu’s match was a constant back-and-forth with shifting tactical interplay, but all of the drama of this match was smartly concentrated in the final card

Another smart trick using the floor to shift perspective. The camera starts at Nishida, pans down to his card, spins, and then pans up to Taichi. The illusion of movement is again created through leaning on the floor, which can be spun and have its angle of perspective altered relatively freely, since it’s designed as a consistent 3D object

And now a traditionally strong cut of animation, following Taichi’s arm as it attacks Nishida’s defense

Taichi can’t overcome the mechanics of the duel. He’s just not fast enough to reach Nishida’s card before Nishida, and Nishida’s card comes first. He can’t win the way Chihaya wins

Oh man, it burns. There was still another “The” card left, and Nishida didn’t even realize. If that one had been called, he’d have faulted, and Taichi would have won. Taichi lost in spite of completely outplaying his opponent in the final round

Taichi initially gets bitter, but he’s a smart and self-reflective guy. He knows he could have made a million other choices earlier in the match to not let it get to that point. Chihaya gets competitive about defeats on an instinctive level, but Taichi is different – he’s taught himself to not get bitter and refuse to learn from failure, but it always hurts

This is just a phenomenal Taichi episode in general. Close to his best

“You’re the only one who calls me Nishida.” Aw. And also fuck the other club members

Oh wow. Chihaya hears how Nishida doesn’t like his nickname and actually adjusts her behavior. Holy crap, we might make a considerate person out of you yet

Both Tsutomu and Kana get to advance to Class C

Chihaya leans Taichi’s head on her shoulder. If he was awake he would die

Nishida calls Chihaya out on trying to be nice, and says he has no expectations for her anyway. Oh my god Nishida

And Done

That episode was so, so good! Maybe it’s just because I’ve been Chihayaless for a while, but… no. No, that was just a phenomenal episode. It managed to pack two of Chihayafuru’s most thrilling matches yet into one well-paced episode, and smartly built on so many of the things the show has established in both a tactical and character sense. All five members of the team got great material, and they collectively came together in a very believable and emotionally rewarding way. Holy crap, this show has gotten so good.

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