These episodes fly by, and I definitely didn’t see that coming. What I thought would happen – five episodes for as many matches focusing on individuals goals’ – seemed a perfect way to balance out a team-focused season. But no, these episodes defy those expectations and extend the team vs. individual theme!
Instead of using opponents established in the team tourney to hasten the individual matches, these episodes make Mizusawa members’ advances throughout the rounds of the individual tournament but momentary mentions (with regards to importance). The real focus is what goes on in-between matches, inside the heads of the players (memories and introspection) as well as the weight of choices. Thus the focus shifts from the playing of cards to the motivations behind the dedication to karuta.
There are, however, moments within individual matches worth mentioning and that contribute to character growth. How and that Chihaya surmounts her handicap seems a bit too easy, but what is inspiring is the degree to which she can analyze her own movements (we’ve seen how capable she is at analyzing others’). Realistically, Chihaya’s run should’ve ended sooner than it did, but the stopping point allowed for some much more potent conflicts of interest. This starts with Chihaya’s decision regarding her handicap versus Shinobu.
Ayase’s been saving her utmost, her encumbered, instinctual skills, for her match with Arata. But upon being paired against Shinobu, Chihaya’s proverbial and (loosely) literal gloves come off. While this may come across as just one part badass and one part hasty selfishness, what this match actually portrays is the underdog who represents the team spirit tackling the epitome of the individual. The outcome is rendered irrelevant, as what counts are the blows dealt, the lingering effects, and the respect gained.
After her match is over, Chihaya’s inner conflict between who to watch – team members or Arata – is significant. The series makes Porky the heavy, however, the moral scapegoat who opts to not support the team in favor of watching a separate match. With that selfish side of Chihaya projected onto Porky, her other side (and embodiment of this season), the team player, is free to sit on the sidelines in support of Mashima.
Later on, and with physics being the pain they are, Ayase still cannot be in more than one place at the same time. So like the cop-out with Porky, she has to decide whether she’ll attend Desktomu’s match or Arata’s. There are two bugbears in this instance that make it particularly offensive. First is the use of an at-capacity room to deny Chihaya, as led by Mashima, entry into Arata’s match. The two were then all set to go watch Desktomu, because there’s nowhere else to go – a little degrading to the team mentality. Second is really the same issue of using a fall guy gal. This time it's Fujisaki’s Sakurazawa, who uses her influence to squeeze herself and the lingering Mizusawa members into the room. While the issue is the same, the fact that the series compounds its offense via repetition gets under my skin. It can be viewed as two teams working together, but that’s stretching the theme out of its established focus.
Following through on team vs. individual, the match between Arata and Shinobu tells much. Not only in the winner, but in suppositions bantered between the players during the game and the fact that Arata considers himself a part of the Chihaya-Mashima-Arata team. In fact, this is the place wherefrom Arata draws his inner calm, which speaks volumes for what supports his motivations, versus Shinobu, who gets a piteous back story of guided isolation that evokes strong sympathy for her character.
That back story perfectly rationalizes Shinobu’s relationship with karuta, but it also speaks to something greater. Her intense attachment to the cards, to the poems. Her treating them as friends harkens back to the very first episode of this season, where Chihaya pleads with freshmen to make friends with the poems and fall in love with karuta. This likens Chihaya to the queen on a fundamental level. Until now, we have only seen how karuta has affected the newbies and amateurs. How Shinobu has been affected by the cards extends the reach of the game, of the poems, personally and deeply into the circles of professionals. The solace Shinobu takes in the cards is paralleled by a wonderful scene early on in episode 24.
That Oe “brings out poems like they’re candy or remedies” is wonderful in itself, but that this implication is recognized by newbie Sumire after Oe recites the initial line truly speaks as to how much Sumire has internalized the poems. The level of observation tempered with such a reserved response is almost a poem in and of itself. Oe says something without saying anything directly and to great effect.
This has been a wonderfully tense and swift season. Chihayafuru 2 portrays the distinctly Japanese sport of karuta and those who play it with adrenaline and heart, respectively, without miring the balance with overly intricate jargon or melodrama. The sport itself is one of endurance but without constant action, a test of mental strain and physical acuteness. These 25 episodes, at every turn (minus recaps), manage to make every aspect of that not only apparent but relevant and dramatic.
... and here's your final (m)Oe moment of the season:
Seasons 1 and 2 of Chihayafuru are currently streaming on Crunchyroll.