After four straight matches in the regional team championship, it’s Hokuo vs. Mizusawa: redux. Episodes 5-6 are spent on one match, and tactics are taken to a new level. The shift in focus between Season 1 and Season 2, from personal to team-based play, is evident in the four-way luck-of-the-draw scenario in episode 6. Hokuo uses a technique called splitting their cards as to ensure the team’s victory despite what seems a 50/50 chance. To highlight this as a cohesive tactic, Mizusawa is shown, by comparison, as individuals so focused on their own matches that they don’t initially comprehend the serious threat facing them as a team.
Actually, each Mizusawa team member comes to realize the impending danger separately — notably starting with Porky, who only notices because he’s already lost and watching the remaining matches as a whole. Of course this sets up a David vs. Goliath apex that those who have been watching Chihayafuru will recognize as the delight and edge-of-your-armchair torture of knowing that the outcome is actually 50/50. Portrayal of pressure and focus on contestants on both sides is immaculate, with much more than a representative bead of sweat or over-narration. Season 2 is definitely a different beast than Season 1, and this can be seen outside of team Mizusawa as well.
These episodes flesh out the caricatures of select ancillary characters for a little more three-dimensional feel, especially regarding team Hokuo. Retro-kun wants a totally random match on the up-and-up and gets it by sabotaging his team. Specifically, he withholds his uncanny ability to predict the opposing team's lineup. Amakasu is given a sense of unease at being new team leader. Even the dynamic of Hokuo being watched by its former leader (who also happens to be the reader for the last match) adds depth to the team dynamic while illuminating aspects of individual players.
Benefitting from the previous season, Chihayafuru 2 finally starts letting Chihaya leverage her inherent talents as well as experiences in previous matches to give herself more weapons with which to confuse and topple her current opponents. Here, the evolution of the individual does not completely halt in favor of showcasing a team dynamic. Also, Chihaya learns to hear “the sound that comes before a word forms,” which may sound silly but actually equates to intent. This means that Chihaya has grown from listening to a syllable to listening to how a syllable is said. That is to say she’s now listening for context, which means she’s tuning herself to the content of poems rather than just their sound. This marks a greater degree of internalization than the previous series and also increases narrative tension.
The difference in character development and lack thereof can really be seen by how swiftly time progresses. Humanistic development is meant more for the newbies, whose skills are glossed over or mentioned on whim, while more of a tactical maturation is on the menu for established characters. The former hurts given instances such as Sumire being chosen to scout other teams. The situation's just illogical given how rarely Sumire is shown developing her understanding of karuta. Sure, they may be relying on the parallel to her introductory note-taking scene, but the depth simply doesn’t translate. This is a shame given how wonderful a character she could be if fleshed out properly. So the rushed pace, while promoting its amazingly enthralling action actually ends up doing harm to the show’s overall roundness by plopping in new characters and having them ready to go without making viewers invest any real time with them.
The last scene I feel I must mention is in episode 8. For the first match at the national championship, Mizusawa faces a team comprised of what appear to be foreigners, most likely intended to represent the USA (and possibly one Southeast Asian country), who play karuta “their own way” with regards to tactics and internalization and posture. The meaning behind their love of and reasons for playing karuta, as well as the results of the match, would have been so much stronger had the team actually been comprised of foreigners. Instead, Chihayafuru 2 has the competitors say they “grew up in Japan and fell in love with karuta.” So in essence the team is made out to be a gimmick, one that posed an interesting challenge to Mizusawa but a gimmick all the same. And I prefer my Chihayafuru without such emphasis on two-dimensional monters of the week. Overall, however, this more blatant bit of storytelling does continue the theme of Chihayafuru’s wish for everyone to fall in love with karuta and provides a rather touching ending to that effect.