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...
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?
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.
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.
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.