Chihayafuru – Episode 22

Let’s dive right into Chihayafuru number twenty-two! Last episode turned out to be one of my favorite episodes of the show so far, with both Chihaya’s development as a player and Ririko’s story as her opponent offering strong and emotionally charged drama. “Creating opponents that you also want to cheer for” is pretty much a given when it comes to strong sports drama properties, but by the end of last episode, I was actually tearing up over how Ririko’s efforts reflected her coming to love herself. Ririko’s appearance also made for a clear parallel with Chihaya, her own former play weaknesses embodied in the play style of her opponent.

It was also just very satisfying seeing Chihaya legitimately grow as a player, internalizing the lessons of both her teachers and former opponents, and turning that into a more well-rounded approach to karuta. Chihaya has earned this level up, and I’m excited to see how Chihaya Mk. II plays against her upcoming challengers. Let’s get right to it!

Episode 22

Chihaya’s next opponent is… Yumi Yamamoto! Whoever that is. They’re making a comic bit out of her significance, I guess

Holy shit, she’s the previous queen

Making a little gag out of Yumi’s significance makes dramatic sense. Obviously Chihaya and Dr. Harada would know who she is, but there’s also been absolutely no narrative reason for us to know who she is, so the show turns “obviously Yumi Yamamoto is a big deal!” into a self-aware joke to bridge that understanding gap

“Ayase Chihaya… she’s just as pretty as everyone says. Unlike me, with my plain looks and name. I’m already sick of her.” The episode titles often don’t really have that much significance beyond being card openings, but “Just As My Beauty Has Faded” seems particularly relevant to this opponent

“Why are her eyes shining? That just makes it harder.” That already seems more sympathetic than hateful

I’m pretty happy that we’ve finally arrived at the point where matches are just as much about Chihaya’s opponents as Chihaya herself. It’s much more compelling to see two characters I’m invested in square off, and having reached this point in the story also means that Chihaya’s competitive platform has been reasonably established, and thus the individual mechanical drama of each match will take greater prominence. It also specifically makes sense for this particular show to just now emphasize the personalities and powers of Chihaya’s opponents – after all, it was only recently that Chihaya herself learned to pay attention to what her opponents are trying to do, and meaningfully engage with their tactical choices. There can’t really be any dramatic interplay between competitors until Chihaya learns to actually pay attention to her opponent

Yumi’s “plainness” is conveyed through more minimalist eye designs, nothing more than the upper lid and the pupil

It looks like Yumi was Queen for just one year, and that her win took place in her last year of college

Yumi’s victory is framed in very humble terms – Chihaya remembers that she “refused to give up” and that she “called her teacher’s name.” Yumi seems less of a Shinobu-style genius than the classic scrappy gauntlet-runner, someone who isn’t the actual best, but has worked very hard to maximize her potential through pure effort

“You’ve learned when to give yourself the Go sign.” Even Chihaya’s last match is framed as a key step in her development, the moment where she learned to balance between playing carefully while reading her opponent and just going wild with her tremendous speed

We’re also finally reaching the point where I’m no longer concerned if karuta can support a classic sports show narrative. Chihaya is already a player with enough complexity that it’s inherently satisfying to watch her execute on her abilities

Apparently even the queen has to have an office job. Not much money in karuta, I guess

That’s an interesting thought. There’s a decent number of players who play stuff like Magic: The Gathering full time, between prize winnings and payment for online articles and streaming support and whatnot. Is there not even that level of support for professional karuta in Japan? The fact that it’s such a common club activity would make me assume some people could live off it professionally

Nishida flamed out in his second round too

He fought Sudo, and learned the terror of Class A opponents

Nishida calls Yumi Yumin, which is a very good name. Apparently she’s a very stubborn and tenacious player

The heat is starting to come into play. A good variable to match with an opponent who keeps being aligned with “endurance”

Chihaya appreciates the exclusivity of their current high-tier tournament. Competition continues to fire her up

Yumin gets pissed off at the unfairness of the world. All she has is karuta, and yet these beautiful young girls can steal even that

Lacking Chihaya’s competitive spirit, Yumin is legitimately terrified of the queen. We see a much more self-assured version of Shinobu than the character we actually know in Yumin’s visions

Chihaya actually worries for her opponent, thinking she’s resigned herself to defeat

Yumin’s coach always responds to her failures with “oh, you should have placed better. You have the skills for this.” Nishida diagnoses her fatigue as not based in losing, but in failing to meet the expectations of others

It’s a unique conflict for this show. It’d be very difficult to frame a sports narrative around a central character who’s playing for the sake of others, but it works well for a one-off opponent

So is this going to be a “Chihaya reignites her opponent’s passion” conflict?

Haha NOPE. “I won’t let someone who’s given up take a single card off me!” Ruthless, Chihaya

Obviously she has no reason to help out her opponent here, but it also feels very in character for her to not really understand why someone would be fatigued like Yumin is

Alright, looks like Yumin might be responding to Chihaya’s passion

We cut back to Kana, and get a little segment focused on her affinity for the card reader. Tsutomu mentions that there are actually tests and rankings for card readers, and that only a few people are qualified to read for the Master match. Good guy Tsutomu, giving Kana a karuta goal that perfectly suits her own style of passion

“What’s with these girls? They expect every opponent to be oozing with confidence. I lost my confidence a long time ago!” Preach it Yumin

Chihaya commits a double fault, a failure severe enough to actually put Yumin back in contention

Chihaya’s gotten better, but she’s still a relative amateur next to Yumin, meaning her mental fortitude isn’t nearly as fully developed. Making one big mistake puts her in a negative spin, something that already happened once at their first team competition

Yumin’s coach Kitano passionately opens the window to help the players, but that actually helps Chihaya far more than Yumin, since Chihaya was in a negative mental loop. Whoops

Kitano shouts to play “your own karuta!”, which is then internalized by every idiot currently playing. Yumin’s color commentary is great, I’d be happy to see her show up in the commentary gallery from now on

Yumin is known for “contesting every close call with utmost confidence.” Oh my god, that is the worst possible specialty you could ever have. Why would you ever want your specialty to be “this game somehow doesn’t have judges, so I’m going to abuse the spirit of the sport for every edge I can get”

She apparently stopped because it was unfitting for the queen, but is now back on her bullshit

I am laughing out loud at how scummy this strategy is. You go, Yumin

And now Yumin is just doing general rules lawyering in order to throw Chihaya off-balance. This is also something I’ve experienced in Magic, where it’s considered less a “unique strategy” and more “being a huge shithead”

This episode’s doing some nice visual tricks with shots spiraling out of the characters’ eyes

Chihaya’s lost all her confidence. If she’s going to make a comeback, I’m not even sure she has time this episode

Taichi: “I didn’t realize that mental strength was so important.” Something he desperately needs to internalize for his own play. He’s an anxious wreck every single time he plays

Yumin takes it!

And Done

Oh man, that was a funny episode. Not necessarily intentionally funny, but “huge rules lawyer who contests every play” is just not a specialty I was expecting. If Yumin had been focused entirely on that all episode, she would have come across as a total villain – but instead, her negativity throughout the first half offered some strong color to her character, and so she came off as more endearing than someone you want to smash into a wall. Though I still wouldn’t blame Chihaya if Yumin’s face still finds its way into a wall next episode, to be honest

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