It’s Mizusawa versus four-time reigning champion Fujisaki for the title of best team in Japan, and Chihayafuru’s gonna get a little ... Rocky. It’s the final tournament between the top two teams, and oh does this show know it! In addition to having set an air of awe with such a distinguished reader as Yamashiro Kyoko, the series has already upped the ante on anxiety with Mizusaa having to use Tsukaba in such an important match after Oe sprained her finger. “So what,” I hear you ask. “Fujisaki’s team also substituted a player last minute.” Yeah, but did I mention that she has a bit of an advantage since her grandmother is the reader for the match? Go ahead, gasp; you’re gonna need that breath.
Unlike most of the teams Mizusawa’s played before, Fujisaki members’ eccentricities are there mainly for entertainment and some shallow tension (not that it’s exploited). Tsukaba plays a mirror of his weirdness, Desktomu faces off against a pretty boy in denial about being attracted to a certain other team member, Mashima faces off against the boob-obsessed captain, Porky’s competing against a contortionist, and Chihaya's playing against her younger self. Okay, maybe not everyone’s traits are there for yuks. After all, that match of youth vs. experience (Rion vs. Chihaya) — hearing and reflex vs. insight-tempered senses — is a poignant one, and Rion’s familiarity with the reader’s vocal stylings doesn’t give Chihaya any room with which to underestimate her opponent.
Given the team-first, individual-later focus of this season, it’s also worth noting for drama’s sake that Fujisaki’s karuta club has the respect of the entire school behind it. This stands in stark contrast to how Mizusawa’s team is regarded outside of its kindesses to other clubs. Secondly, Fujisaki benefits from a coach (Sakurazawa) who’d been a karuta player for a long time and knows the importance of proactive conditioning outside of the game, whereas Mizusawa’s coach, while earnestly caring for the team to the best of her ability, is tending to needs reactively, instinctively, motherlyly.
Forced to open the floodgates on her instinctual gameplay, something happens to Chihaya that’s never happened before. This does not come as a revelation but a sizable hurdle. While this severely affects the individual match, the more important effect is the silent rally of every Mizusawa member who senses her distress. But make no mistake; Chiahaya is no passive martyr for the cause. She’s a strong character and player and musters through until she gives out completely. More importantly, she’s active in assuring her worried cohorts of her wellbeing, her determination, and their goal. These interspersed moments of quiet worry and subtle assurance are breathtakingly real.
While her presence at the team tournament feels unreal, I have to admit that Queen Shinobu’s predicament of being stuck at the forefront of an audience dedicated to that which she loathes (team karuta) offers a great Grinch moment. Shinobu’s made to sit up front, as to inspire the players, and finds herself drawn into the matches by pointing out all the obvious mistakes the amateurs before her are committing. But what really intrigues this epitome of the individual is the match between Rion and Chihaya, whom Shinobu is shocked into remembering by a play similar to one in their match last season. This ups the grudge ante quite nicely, foreshadowing the individual tournament to come.
I’m running short on space, but that’s because almost every moment of episodes 17–19 need to be explained. Why, because I know you were blinking, and so much happens in each episode that a blink is a millennia! In fact, that’s what makes 19 the pearl it is. While all the episodes in this match have leveraged the following, 19 masterfully builds up tension via prolonged, emotionally charged pontification (almost prayer-like in some instances), camera cuts and angles, defeats, dead cards (teases), and situational investment. Who won? Watch 17-19. It’ll take ~66 minutes, but I guarantee it’ll feel like a heartbeat and that you’ll be panting as if you’ve just run a marathon.
Before I get to 20, there are some other important happenings to take away from the first three episodes with which this post is concerned: Desktomu gets a personal blow to his ego regarding his notes and then salves said bruise when he sees first-hand his notes benefitting Mashima. There is a lot of focus on individual tactics and strategy, but the cohesive implication is that efforts are for the collective match. And finally, all the episodes concerning each Mizusawa member playing their best to benefit the team culminates in a team maneuver. This is a most important climax as it shows progress through learning as a team.After the ceremony for the winner, the focus almost immediately shifts to the love triangle. Chihaya finally becomes aware of Arata’s presence, and Mashima becomes aware of Chihaya’s awareness of Arata’s presence. After Ayase’s swept off by the coach, there’s a wonderful moment of tension between Mashima and Arata, who reveals his intent to win nationals and move to Tokyo. This is a very effective passive threat. It simultaneously says to Mashima “I’m going to prove I’m the best, invade your turf, and take your girl.” Or at least that’s definitely how Mashima hears it. Unfortunately, there’s no rest for the weary.
So after a brief clip show — which is well-placed and timed but seems all the more infuriating because it’s compiled from episodes that don’t seem that far away — the individual tournament starts! Ayase decides to soldier on despite her handicap in hopes of playing Arata, and everyone else in team Mizusawa is determined to win their divisions. What’s kind of nice about the individual tournament this time around, as compared to first season, is there’s more a sense of who’s going up against whom. The second season of Chihayafuru has done an excellent job in distinguishing competitors just enough to make them memorable, which I hope will go a long way in the coming episodes.
Because you've been so patient in reading my ramblings, here's your (m)Oe moment for this Impressions installment: