Chihayafuru 20 ~ but deep down I’m celebrating
February 22, 2012
Another episode that demonstrates why Chihayafuru is the best show of 2012 so far. It made great use of the various characters it had already introduced. It showed a different side to characters we already know and love. It showed growth in certain characters, and contrasted that with the deep-set character patterns of others. It frustrated expectations, pulled the rug out from under characters, but also showed them triumphing in unexpected ways. And of course there is the ever ambiguous love triangle.
Things start out with Chihaya, who is focussed exclusively on Karuta, being refused the right to participate in a tournament by the teacher she calls “the Empress”. Chihaya’s scores are awful, and exams are about to begin. She is forced to sit down with Tsutomu and study academics for a change, while Taichi heads to the tournament by himself.
This will be Taichi’s last chance to earn promotion to the A-Rank, which his Karuta society will only award if he wins a tournament. While Taichi fights his way through the tournament rounds, Chihaya and Nishida are receiving tutoring sessions from Tsutomu. That is until Chihaya sneaks out to cheer Taichi on. At first Chihaya’s action seems very sweet and considerate; she says she wants someone to be with Taichi so he doesn’t have to be alone when he wins or loses. However Chihaya completely forgets about Taichi’s feelings when she arrives, because Arata Wataya is playing. This leaves Taichi alone to wallow in his depression.
On the one hand it is understandable that Chihaya, being the Karuta nut that she is, would find the opportunity to see Arata play irresistible, but just as she seems to have grown up a little, and be showing some compassion for her team member’s feelings, she completely forgets about him. It’s the same old Chihaya. It even makes one wonder if her concern for Taichi was sincere, or if she wasn’t merely running away from her school work.
When he finally walks in to join Chihaya in watching Arata’s match, he is at first deep in his own thoughts. The “camera” tightens to a close-up on his hand clenching into a fist. Suddenly Chihaya’s hands grab Taichi’s arm, and she is revealed to be in tears, overwhelmed because Arata is finally playing Karuta again.
This scene was wonderful for several reasons. One is that it took me by surprise, because I had been expecting to see Arata play again, but Chihaya’s intense emotional reaction reminded me that this is her dream. This is the story that was set up from the first few episodes. I had gotten used to the Karuta club, so I forgot this was the opening premise, that the three of them would meet again if they kept playing Karuta. The second reason this scene really impressed me was that it reminded me of several scenes now where Taichi has tried to take Chihaya’s hand, but didn’t. Here the fake-out happens in reverse. Taichi tightening his fist in frustration is suddenly interrupted by Chihaya grabbing on to him. The third was the way Chihaya’s mood brought out Taichi’s own conflicted thoughts about Arata. He feels intimidated by him, not quite worthy to be a rival in Karuta or for Chihaya’s heart, and yet he is an old friend that he has missed, and he is happy to see him playing Karuta again.
It would be impossible for me to go over all of the great scenes in this episode, but I do want to point out that Taichi and Arata had three great scenes together. In one, they watch the old-timers and seem to realize that one day, decades from now, they could be those old-timers who were rivals from the time they were kids. In another Taichi tries to comfort Arata who has just lost by using the very tsundere-ish, you ddn’t think you could beat our best player when you haven’t been practicing for 18 months, did you? In the third, Arata and Taichi talk about and around their complicated relationship with Chihaya, with Arata asking straight out if Taichi is going out with her.
Speaking of the complicated relationship between Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata, Chihaya is dragged back to the study hall by Kanade, and is even forced to study on the train. Chihaya makes an interesting comment, however. She is reminded of the poem by Lady Murasaki:
Long last we meet only for me to leave hurriedly,
For I could not recognize you,
Like the moon hidden behind the clouds.
Chihaya comments that this poem is like a love poem even though it was written for a childhood friend, and says that it is perfect for Arata. Now it certainly is perfect for Arata in that she sees him only briefly each time they meet. It is also true that he is her childhood friend. Is it perfect that it sounds like a love poem? Her comments here are suggestive, but impossible to use to make anything definitive. Just as she seems to care for then abandons Taichi, only to turn to him to share her joy at seeing Arata play, Chihaya’s feelings for Arata are unclear at best. For example, when she sat across from him, she was imagining Shinobu, the Queen!
It may be hard to believe but I still haven’t discussed the best scene of the episode. This is one of those times when I feel like loading up on screenshots and doing a step-by-step breakdown. I will spare my readers, however. This scene was just brilliant from the way it set up expectations, the way it used Harada-sensei’s internal monologue, and even the way it used the setting.
To set this all up, you can see above that Taichi seems to be lost in thought, and the sun has gone down, so there is a heavy darkness hanging over everything. Harada-sensei is sitting on a bench out of sight in the above shot, and he thinks to himself that the human spirit can be broken if there is no reward for all of one’s hard work. He mentions to Taichi that according to the official rules (as opposed to their Karuta society’s rules) a person who came in second twice, as Taichi has done, would be eligible to advance. As Harada-sensei offers to promote Taichi (and thus violate the society’s rules), an announcement is heard that a train will be coming through without stopping.
Taichi laughs off the offer, and, as the train hurtles by, he explains that his target isn’t to make A-rank, it is to become “someone who doesn’t run away”. This is what makes Taichi a great character. He unquestionably was a coward. He might not yet be everything that he wants to be, but he is willing to go for it, even though he knows he is fighting against his own self. He isn’t fighting against Nishida, or Arata, he is fighting against his own inadequacies. I honestly hope that, like that train, he doesn’t stop, and keeps rolling straight through to his destination.