Let’s finish the first season of Chihayafuru! This show has been a wonderful ride so far, building up an incredibly charming cast and methodically establishing karuta as a robust sports drama platform. Its matches have slowly but surely laid the groundwork for battles that are now both totally comprehensible in a tactical sense and also inherent reflections of their participants’ styles and personalities. And at this point, the cast is broad enough that the show can pull off exciting matches that don’t even even include any of the main characters.
The show’s weaknesses are equally clear. On the narrative front, the Chihaya-Arata-Taichi love triangle exists in a wibbly-wobbly shoujo romance space that is just never as compelling as the karuta-related drama. Though the show has worked to humanize Arata, in an immediate narrative sense, he’s still framed as some kind of lofty goal for Chihaya in a way that doesn’t really invite any sympathy for her situation. Beyond that, the show’s visual style reflects its director’s fairly one-note vision, bathing everything in golden light and generally aiming more for “functional” than “beautiful.” But the story being told and the matches being played are so enjoyable that I’m not really put out by Chihayafuru’s various issues. Let’s check out the Master finals, and finally see the mountain our boys have before them!
Right, the Master apparently has a style relatively similar to Chihaya’s. But refined, of course – movement so fast and precise that you don’t even see him move at all, and a seemingly supernatural ear for what the speaker is going to say. Thus he turns many two-syllable cards into one-syllable cards
In spite of her weight issues, Shinobu’s match turned out to be a pretty upbeat affair – Shinobu herself is basically protagonist-adjacent at this point, so watching her win was a happy thing. This episode might be the counterbalance, demonstrating the terror of the summit
“In the world of karuta, we describe this ability as having excellent game sense.” Smart that the show waited until the end of its first season to formally label Chihaya’s ability as something that’s clearly special, but also well established as one potential karuta strength. As the season ends, Chihaya realizes that she’s not some inherently special player, and that she’ll have to continue working hard to shore up her weaknesses as she has for the past several episodes
“Of all the readers, Kyoko-tan loves the Japanese language the most.” This is terrific. Chihaya’s play is largely mechanical, based in her love of competition more than her love of the one hundred poems. During Shinobu’s match, Chihaya realized that even the best female player in the world still had an intimate, Kana-style relationship with the cards – that Shinobu’s friendship with the karuta cards gave her an inherent edge over Chihaya. And here in the Master match, we see that the ultimate practitioner of Chihaya’s karuta style embodies the synthesis of Chihaya’s talent and a personal love of the cards. Appropriately, his love of the cards is tied to the beauty of how they sound when spoken aloud
And of course the Master with this particular skill would have very strong feelings about the various speakers who’re qualified to host his match. The longer he stays Master, the harder it becomes to unseat him, since he only becomes more familiar with the specific vocal quirks of the few speakers qualified to stand here
Taichi is unsurprisingly overwhelmed by the Master’s strength
And then we check in on… Arata’s former clubmate who quit karuta? I’m not really sure where they’re going with this whole thread, but presumably they’re reminding us of him because he’ll continue to be relevant in season two
While Taichi simply sits, bowled over by the Master’s power, Arata is essentially playing out the same match at home. Nice to see such a straightforward articulation of him actively being back in the game, and working to improve. The Master is incredibly imposing, but Arata is like Chihaya: if he sees a mountain, he’s gonna start climbing
“The first opponent is the pressure of sitting on that stage.” Yeah, the Master has such a strong entrenched position. And karuta is so heavily based in momentum that it’d be easy for the Master to crush anyone who isn’t mentally prepared for the stage
“The current Master and Queen have no teacher figures. What a waste.” I hope and expect we’ll get more material with both Shinobu and Suo in season two. It also seems the like the two of them have a pretty funny relationship themselves, and I’ll accept basically any excuse for more Shinobu screentime, so
They’re baiting Tsutomu’s notes visually. I wonder what he got out of those matches
There we go. “Chihaya, you have 20 one syllable cards.” Tsutomu is such a good boy
And now the direct contrast with Taichi, who sees that mountain and only feels overwhelmed
Nice to see Arata can actually offer some support to Taichi now
And Arata’s society dude stops by, finally giving him someone to practice with. So I guess that was the point of that little arc – earning Arata a present-day sparring partner so he can work on his physical skills
“You must have recognized this?” “Only kind of.” Nice that Chihaya has an ally like Tsutomu to crunch all her tactical numbers for her
We also get a little bit of payoff on Chihaya’s journey towards recognizing the people around her. Tsutomu’s tactical breakdown reminds her how much all her friends are helping her, and that she ought to give back in some way. That’s been one of this season’s more subtle threads, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’ll be furthered in season two. It’d be incredibly gratifying to have Chihaya slowly move towards a point where she feels almost as valid of a leader as Taichi, offering the emotional support necessary to carry her team through a five-on-five match
Seen in that light, it actually makes some narrative sense that Chihaya starts off as such a self-focused person. That gives her a ton of room to grow emotionally, and sets up an inherent dramatic payoff when Chihaya reaches that final point. It’ll be much more satisfying to see the team working together perfectly given their starting emotional issues
Chihayafuru’s efforts to establish Chihaya as a “wasted beauty” always seem so half-baked. “Chihaya’s cute, but she’s also… muttering something? Welp, so much for that!”
Kana comes across Chihaya practicing in the hall, and simply stops to admire the beauty of the words with her. Looks like this episode is sort of offering a brief catching-up with all the team members, letting each of them highlight their own unique karuta strengths in turn
“I want to become a certified reader and read for your Queen match.” Kana can do it!
“You have to become a Class A player to become a certified reader!” Oh my god Chihaya you are the worst person in the world. You are terrible. You are a disgrace. Look at Kana. Look at how you crushed her dreams. How dare you be this person
Arata actually had genuinely useful advice for Taichi: “it’s hard to build up a better game sense, but you only need to take cards faster than your opponent, and there are other ways to do that.” Guess it’s Taichi’s turn to get the spotlight
Chihaya’s awful Daddy Bear shirt only somewhat undercutting the tension of this moment
“There goes 10% of her concentration. So this is why Sudo acts like a sadist.” Recommitting for Taichi means clinging to every single edge he can find, embracing tricks like the ones Sudo and Yumin do whenever he can. Taichi is emphatically not a natural, and thus he must be scrappy
“Arata. In your world, there’s no such thing as a genius.” A very inspiring thought for Taichi, who feels overwhelmed by the natural ability of those around him
We even get to see the empress fighting hard for the karuta club. This episode is a victory lap, but it’s an earned and welcome one
So they need to recruit five new members. That… seems like it’s not gonna happen
Ah man, what a fun show. Chihayafuru’s had its ups and downs, but its strong cast and excellent use of karuta as a sports vehicle have made it an incredibly enjoyable ride from start to finish. This episode mostly just reestablished the various journeys and relationships of the core characters, but those journeys are compelling and relationships endearing, so it was a fine time regardless. And it’s not like this is much of a goodbye, anyway – Chihayafuru’s second season awaits, and I’m already eager to dive in. Let’s play some karuta!
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