「はなそむかしのかににほいける」 (Hana zo Mukashi no Ka ni Nioikeru)
“The Plum Blossoms Still Smell the Same”
This formula of alternating between relationship episodes and Karuta episodes was already working quite well, but I was especially pleased by the unexpected turn the tournament took this week.
While we got wall-to-wall competitive action this time, some of the familiar themes we’ve seen throughout the series continued to be front and center. As this was a Karuta ep, it’s only fitting that the Karuta themes were dominant – and foremost among them is the fascinating study of how each Mizusawa player approaches the game in their own way – and what they can learn from each other. This is one of those episodes where I wish I understood the sport better than I do, because some of the nuance was surely lost on me. Nevertheless the thrust of Chihaya’s problem is obvious enough even to me, and her opponent this week really brought it into focus.
Needless to say I was surprised to see a tournament episode where Chihaya lost in the first round (her very first Class A match) and the other four club members all advanced to the finals. I welcome the focus on the others, but it’s not as though Chihaya got short-shrift, and while her half of the episode was low-key it was nonetheless memorable. Most of that is thanks to her opponent, Sakura Kanai (Kanai Mika), who’s quite unlike any of the opponents Chihaya has faced. A middle-aged woman with two kids, Sakura-san has been playing Karuta for 35 years and still dreams of being Queen, though she knows now it’ll never happen. While the most memorable and funny exchange of the ep regards Chihaya’s reaction to Sakura’s clothes – “You’re adorable!” “Yes, I l know.” “Oh – she knows!”) Sakura had a lot to teach Chihaya about what Harada-sensei was trying to tell her – speed kills. Sakura used Chihaya’s speed as a weapon against her (Lucky!), literally shrinking the competitive area of the ring to reduce the young girl’s advantage in reflexes, and generally taught Chihaya the difference between timing and speed.
Basically, losing to Sakura was a win for Chihaya for a couple of reasons. It confirmed everything she’d learned from Harada and Tsutomu, and helped her understand it. She also took the loss (six cards) extremely well, clearly viewing it as a learning experience and even thanking Sakura after the match. Some might have found Sakura a little annoying – there’s no doubt her cuteness got a little strained when it became tinged with arrogance – but I rather liked her. And she most certainly let Chihaya know that Class A wasn’t going to be a walkover for her by any stretch of the imagination. The road to facing The Queen (and Arata) is going to be a long and difficult one indeed.
Everything kicked up a gear in the second half, though – louder, tenser and more exciting, with Taichi facing Nikuma for the Class B crown and Kanade facing Tsutomu for the Class D crown. As Chihaya herself said, this will never happen again – the stakes are huge, and two of the club members will be promoted as a result of their final match. While she did fret for a moment about being upstaged, Chihaya at least threw herself into the matches, the main difficulty being which one to watch. And she – and most of the episode – surprised again by looking more closely at the Chibi Bowl, while Retro-kun (who impressed me by sticking around to learn from the winners despite losing in the first round to Taichi, even after all his teammates had left) watched the Class B struggle.
It’s hard to get a read on that match as we didn’t see much of it, but Kana vs. Tsutomu (it was like the Puppy Bowl all over again, 48 hours later!) is a fascinating battle. Kana seems not only to have adopted Chihaya’s suggestions about posture (hard to say if the eavesdropping Tsutomu did as well) but seems to draw a competitive advantage from playing in a Hakama (“My obi supports me!”). Tsutomu, meanwhile, calmly falls back again on his exacting research, using it to dissect Kanade’s game and anticipate her patterns. This one is art vs. science, a classic approach of styles that proved fascinating to watch. My feeling is that from a dramatic standpoint it makes more sense for Kanade and Nikuma to win these matches – Tsutomu is the one with the simmering inferiority complex, and Taichi is the one who’s been questing during the entire series, and both those elements would be undercut by their triumphing too soon. I can’t predict with certainty though, especially in the Class B match – if Taichi is to have an eventual match with Arata in the anime, this might be his only chance to set it up. Where is there more potential drama – in Taichi winning this match, or losing?
The other interesting element to all this is what impact it might have on the chemistry of the team itself. Karuta in the Chihayafuru context is always dancing the line between team and individual sport, and it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some hard feelings on the part of the loser in each match. While I’m sure no one will blame the winner for winning, to sit across from that person in practice every day thinking about how they outrank you can’t be easy for anyone (especially if you’re crushing on that person). What seems clear is that what’s true in chess and tennis is true in Karuta – the best way to get better is to play people better than you are, as long as you pay close attention. Mizusawa (Fight-o!) is the living proof of that, and they should be a formidable team if their competitive (and romantic) passions don’t break them apart.