Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chihayafuru 2 - 03

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There are many anime of recent vintage that I love, but there’s nothing that feels quite like the experience of watching Chihayafuru.


There was an episode during the first season of Chihayfuru – in fact, it was episode 23, the penultimate Master/Queen qualifier ep – that nearly brought me to tears with a scene involving a character who’d barely appeared at that point, Hiroshi.  He was so heartbroken after losing in the finals and – in his mind – letting Harada-sensei down that he was overcome with grief.  It’s pretty remarkable for a series to pack such emotional punch when focused on a second tier character and one that most of the audience wouldn’t have been able to pick out of a police lineup, but that’s the magic of this show – it’s so grounded in emotional reality that everyone in it feels like a real person. Chihayafuru is often praised for having no villains, but it’s just as notable for having no Saints either – everyone in this cast is flawed and has their moments of weakness, but that’s what makes them so relatable.

I was put in mind of that this week with one of the scenes involving Tsukuba, a character who – while he’s officially part of the main cast – is still effectively a stranger to us.  He was introduced last week but in very superficial fashion, an odd figure played largely for comedy.  I can’t say that I ever doubted that with this writer and Miyu Irino playing the role Tsukuba would develop into an arresting character, but that the moments after he’d lost his first match were so powerful is still a surprise, and a testament to just how good Chihayfuru is at making characters real people.  In showing us the undeterred adoration of his adorable younger brothers Fuyumasa, Haruomi and Natsusou (Anzai Chika, Sugiura Naoko, Satou Megumi) and Akihito’s despair at having let them down, he immediately became someone we felt we knew and someone we cared about, because those feelings were so understandable (it didn’t hurt that Miyu nailed the scene, as he generally does).  Incidentally, I love the Tsukuba family naming systen – Aki (fall), Fuyu (winter), Haru (spring) and Natsu (summer) – is it tradition to do that in Hokkaido (or to teach children to “run into pretty people”)?  Of course, Miyu also appeared in the last anime that featured four seasonally-named boys, but he played Haru in that one...

In a way, I suppose, the triumph of that moment adds weight to the argument that Madhouse was right in spending so much creative energy on the new cast members in the first three episodes.  Truth be told I warmed up to Tsukuba in this episode more than I have to Sumire so far in three, but there’s no denying that the both of them are indelibly imprinted now.  And more than anyone else among the returning cast it was Tsutomu – the unsung hero of the quintet – who was the star of this episode.  It represents a lot of trust in this audience to leave the main characters on the sidelines so much for so long, but the fact that these opening episodes haven’t squandered the momentum of S1 vindicates the gamble.

The other thing that’s somewhat striking about this season so far is that it feels as if it’s moving very quickly as compared to the first season.  To a certain extent that’s understandable as the structure of the plot was already established, but with the manga ongoing it’s interesting to speculate as to whether this is an adapting choice or wholly a reflection of the corresponding manga chapters.  We’re already onto the first tournament of the series, the team championships that were the subject of so much buildup in S1.  Competition episodes were a great strength of Chihayafuru in S1, and certainly nothing has changed in that respect – this one flies by in what feels like ten minutes.  It’s the first event for the first years, of course, and the initial plan is to let the five experienced members take the lead.  Things are a bit different now – Mizusawa is the defending champion, a powerhouse.  Sudou-kun has graduated, but Retro-kun declares that Hokuou has a “secret weapon” waiting for Mizusawa in the finals – a match that might not in itself be as crucial, as Tokyo’s region now has enough competitors to earn two teams spots in the Nationals.  A Karuta boom to match the one in real life?

What stands out here is the cool confidence on the elite members, and the audacity of Tsukuba – who actually changes the lineup to insert his own name in place of Tsutomu’s.  That’s a highly dodgy move, borne out of desperation after telling his brothers that he’d a star for the team that day.  It earns him a stern rebuke from Nishida and a whack on the forehead from Taichi, but it’s Tsutomu who makes the big impression.  He’s clearly emerged as the master strategist of the club (it’s his lineup that Akihito tampers with), and he comes to Akihito’s aid by suggesting that Sumire be switched in for himself in the first match (against a squad weak against girls) and that Tsukuba replace Kana in the second, against the brash and obnoxious West High (who memorably lost to Mizusawa in S1).  His strategy makes perfect sense, but it’s clear that Tsutomu is doing this because he feels something of what Tsukuba feels – he was the weak link last year, the one struggling to find a real place on the team.  Tsutomu’s eloquent argument prompts Tsukuba to marvel “He’s so cool!”, and indeed he is.  Now if only Kana-chan would get the message.

That both Sumire and Tsukuba should lose is hardly surprising: Sumire was shocked to be asked to play in the first place, and Tsukuba actually drew the one Class A player on West High, who Chihaya was desperate to play herself (he’s so nervous he even messes up the “Fight!” portion of the team chant).  Nishida and Taichi are undefeated, but it’s clear that Chihaya has matured as a player just as she has a person – she dominates both her matches with 25 card perfect scores.  She’s become a truly frightening player, a real threat to Shinobu.  This impresses Winter, Spring and Summer, who flock to the “So cool!  So pretty!” Chiahaya after the match only to be recruited into the Shiranami Society.  But again, it’s Tsukuba’s dismay at having let them down – and the fact that the boys’ faith in him is utterly unshaken – that delivers the powerhouse emotional moment of the episode.  Akibito Tsukuba, welcome to Chihayafuru.

Not to be forgotten is that we had our first speaking appearance by Arata, who loses in the finals of the Fukui tournament to his reluctant hero, Murao.  It’s the great paradox of Arata’s character that he’s rarely seen but casts a huge shadow, and even here he’s only on-screen for a minute.  His mind, as always, still goes to Chihaya - and to Taichi, for that matter.  Yet his appearance also colors the first appearance of Shinobu, thin again and getting ready for the Queen matches.  Her reaction when she hears that Arata is back in the game is telling, and it seems to be saying that we’re in for some very interesting dynamics when the two of them meet again – and how they will impact the situation between Arata, Taichi and Chihaya is impossible to predict. There’s also a very revealing moment with The Empress – who appears to be scamming on behalf of the Karuta Club, since she’s not exactly volunteering the information that they didn’t actually get five new members for more than a day or two.  She’s become a powerful behind-the-scene ally, both of the club and of Chihaya herself. 

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16 comments:

  1. I also feel its rushing a bit, but considering that is the middle of the story, with no new main characters or main rivals, more secondary characters and a few no new allies, I think dragging it out is worse.

    Another thing is that I was always scared to read the manga. I had a hidden fear that it was the brilliance of Madhouse that made Chihayafuru so amazing. Now though I can say that it isn't just Madhouse who are brilliant, they aren't even the most brilliant one, not by a mile. The manga is just as beautiful as the anime, and every panel I like at I can almost see and hear how Madhouse are going to adapt it, if they keep the same OST.

    Banzai

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    1. Agreed. That's why I actually decided to follow the manga instead. It's just as good, I can dedicate my time in short spurts and it's more up to date. Sure, I lose out on the voice acting and BGM, but it's a price I could justify paying, considering I have to balance work with play, and a single seating for a 1/2 hour anime ep is a bit too much compared to a few manga chapters that I can read at my own pace.

      My main pickle with this anime/manga is that they sometimes tie the character development into the whole Kurata thing a bit too much. Sure, it works when we're talking about the kids as Kurata players, but doesn't work quite as flawlessly when we're seeing the kids as teenagers growing up. I realize that Kurata is the whole point of the show, but it's still a card game in my opinion, the stakes aren't really that high to a passer-by (viewer), hence it seems over-dramatized at times. But I suppose that's the reason why Enzo and some others love it as much, since it gives off that shounen-sports anime/manga vibe at times (thankfully they don't have Popeye forearms), so more power to ya. I'm mainly in it for the growing up and romantic parts.

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  2. It was indeed a fast paced episode. But the main theme of this episode, truly reflects what this season has in store for us. Second chances. A second chance in proving ourselves. A second chance to grow from our failures. The character development of Tsutomu and Tsukaba was beautiful. I think you captured the essence in your post as always :)

    I'm quite curious with the Shinobu and Arata dynamics. Why did the news that he would be playing in the individual matches affect her?

    I wanted to pick up the manga because I want to read ahead but there's no scanlations for the middle parts. :( Anyway, the anime experience is still different. The OST and the narration just can't be replaced. Those really set the vibe of this anime.

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  3. "Now if only Kana-chan would get the message."

    What do you mean here Enzo? Kana already respects Tsutomu. If you are implying something sexual, well there isn't a message to "get", she either feels that way or not.

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    1. I understood it as "I want Kana and Tsutomu to be a couple" , but if you want to be offended by it, be my guest. Nobody wants to get into an argument with someone who finds sexual implications out of nowhere.

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  4. Great writeup for a great show, Enzo. Just a heads up, the link to Shinobu's reaction goes to the wrong picture.

    -Aluvine

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  5. I was somewhat surprised that Tsukuba survived for so long with that class A player. Doesn't that mean the class A player faired a lot worse than Taichi, & Porky? or that Scary-licking-face-kun was better than both their opponents? Also, Mascara-chan took a great deal of cards, not just the ones that were freebies. I guess all it suggests that a lot happened between ep 2 and 3.

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    1. Yes, and Tsukuba mentioned this is his internal monologue - "Hey, that means Taichi and Nishida are way better than this Class-A." Retro-kun also says that Taichi is "way more talented" than Nishida, though the veracity of that statement is still a matter of opinion.

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  6. Tears welled up in my eyes again. Damn it, stupid Chihayafuru. Always making me feel this way. It looks like Shinobu's been laying off the ice cream this time around. I can't wait to see the next karuta match, since those always leave me at the edge of my seat.

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  7. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode not only for the great character development that GE illustrated in his writing above but the comedy. I was laughing throughout the entire episode. From the moment Kanade was overjoyed to finally have a second female player on the team, Sumire's opponent being happy from touching her, to Chihaya's jealousy of not being able to play another Class A player, and finally Chihaya's stab in the back to Nishida by recruiting Tsukuba's younger brothers.
    As for Tsutomu, man is he a scary guy. Just imagine him in another anime that involves military action. He would be the star of those shows. As strong as Nishida, Chihaya, and Taichi are, I don't think the team will manage to get as far as they did without Tsutomu.
    Finally, I wonder if we will be getting a four way romance with that ending to the episode. Man, talk about how many lives Arata influenced. That guy is a walking catalyst.

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  8. Even if it did feel fast paced, I feel that there is nothing to gain from watching Chihaya, Taichi, or Nishida play. All this was already done in S1, and it is far more worthwhile to explore the new first years. The first years will not get a chance to play in later stages of the tournament, when the stakes get higher, so now is the best time for them to be in the spotlight. The 4 seasons brothers have a remarkably strong bond with each other, contrary to what their first impression implies.

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  9. I had been wondering how they'd deal with the requirement for five new members. I'd not expected anything quite that devious, especially from The Empress!

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  10. Shinobu is back, yay!

    This was a good episode, I'm glad that Tsutomu found a way to incorporate the first years into the lineup so they can feel like part of the team without also screwing up their chances to actually advance. I suspect that was the real reason he did that and not because "this team is weak against girls" or whatever. That was a smokescreen to justify it IMO because he had to know that even with advantages like that they still weren't going to win.

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  11. You'll surely be happy to know that Australian company Siren Visual has acquired the first season of Chihayafuru! Obviously there's enough of a fandom south of the equator.

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