「(もれいづるつきのかげのさやけさ」 (Moreizuru Tsuki no Kage no Sayakesa)
“Moonlight, Clear and Bright”
I don’t want it to be true, but it is – this is the last Taichi Tuesday. I’m grateful to have had the chance to watch such a superb, heartfelt and thoroughly wonderful anime as Chihayafuru.
I won’t lie to you – I’m pretty drained emotionally, and I haven’t even written this post yet. Mondays were amazing this season, and I’ve had to summarize my farewells to four really excellent and totally different series in the past 24 hours. Natsume Yuujinchou Shi delivered the strongest emotional hit with its superb finale, but there’s the likelihood that there will be another season at least. Chihayafuru was always going to be the hardest ending for me – and it was. I actually delayed watching the finale for a few hours, just because I didn’t want to face the prospect of it ending.
So as it stands, the dominant emotion for me is this: I simply don’t want it to be over. These are my friends – it’s rare that an anime can make you feel that way, but this one did. These are wonderful characters and I’m going to miss them terribly. Even though there were no overtly emotional crescendos in this episode, I was on the edge of tears for the entire second half – every gesture, every smile, every group shot was a lump in the throat. To be honest the last anime I felt that way in watching the finale was Cross Game, and in that case I knew, at least, we’d be getting an ending. Not so here – but as it turns out, the episode was very satisfying without needing to manufacture one.
I really wasn’t sure what Asaka-sensei and Madhouse were going to try and do here. I know where things stand in the manga, and while I won’t go into details it’s 90 chapters in and not close to concluding – so any true “end” would have to be original. That never really felt right and I didn’t truly think Madhouse would go that route, and I’m glad they didn’t. But even so, there was no obvious stopping point, and the risk of an emotional letdown based on the relatively flat penultimate ep, with the focus on the comparatively detached Master/Queen matches. Well, they got those out of the way pretty quickly, with the main point this week to show us the true power of the Master, Hisashi Suo – and the impact he has on the main cast. He seems cold and cruel, and to delight in toying with his opponents like a cat with its prey. But there’s another side to Suo, a face he doesn’t show – a deep love for the Japanese language that seems to drive his ability to link his soul to that of the reader. But this is not a face that the Master cares to show the world.
Suo claims to have 28 one-syllable cards – and indeed, shows an incredible ability to anticipate the next syllable from the way the reader pronounces the previous – he can picture the image in their head when they use the word “Like” for example, and from this determine the next. I don’t know how realistic this superhuman “game sense” is, but it’s certainly true that Karuta players have varying abilities to “read the reader”. This, surely, is why Nishida was so intent on having Chihaya watch Suo, because her game sense is almost as strong as his. And little Tsutomu comes through in the clutch here, intently studying his notes and determining that Chihaya herself has 20 one-syllable cards – though of course, she herself didn’t know that. Chihaya is deeply touched (so was I) that Tsutomu worked to hard to do this, just for her, but that’s the bond that’s grown between the members of the Mizusawa Karuta Club.
Watching the Master impacts the others, too. Perhaps the emotional peak of the episode of the episode for was when Taichi called Arata after the Master final – it was such a beautiful full circle moment, and an acknowledgement of how much those two share, how much there is about the other that no one else could understand. Arata shares some wisdom from his grandfather, that “You don’t need game sense to play Karuta. You just need to take cards faster than your opponent.” For each young man those words hold their own meaning, and as Arata settles down to a game with Maruo – who I sense is back in the game primarily to help Arata challenge the Master, and not for his own chances – Taichi remembers the admonishment from Nishida about not practicing his swing (and embraces the importance of gaining a mental advantage). For him, it’s about embracing the weakest part of his game, and to become stronger in the process.
As Chihaya wrestles with what Tsutomu has told her, Kana dreams her own dreams of becoming a Class A Reader and working the Queen matches one day. She surprises Chihaya as the latter is muttering Tsutomu’s notes aloud (“It’s all spoiled when she moves!”) and Chihaya breaks the news to her – in order to even begin acquiring reader experience points, you have to become a Class A player. So for now, Kana’s dreams intersect with the rest of the group, and they all share the same quest. And they have a true advocate in The Empress, who’s turned into a Lioness when it comes to her Karuta cubs – the orchestra professor has designs on their clubroom. After fiercely touting their successes and defending their status, she agrees to a stipulation that if they can recruit five new members in the new term, they can keep the room. And so we end as we began, with Chihaya – still dressed in track pants and a skirt and confusing and frightening besotted boys – putting up posters, and inviting us to come play Karuta…
There’s not much left to be said about Chihayafuru that I haven’t already said in blogging 25 episodes. I love it – I love it to pieces, and I’m gutted that it’s over. The series is a mortal lock to make my 2012 Top 10 list, even if we were to have a monster year like 2007 (which I sincerely doubt will happen) and who knows, it might even be #1. Why? Read the posts, it’s all there. This is the very best of josei, with deep, complex characters and a rich emotional palette, merged with what’s effectively the best sports shounen since Hikaru no Go. That combination is every bit as powerful as it sounds on paper, if you’re the sort of anime fan I am.
There’s the very basic stuff, too. Madhouse have done a wonderful job adapting Suetsugu Yuki’s manga (about half of it, anyway). I absolutely adore the backgrounds here – the scenes in the snow, the cherry blossoms, the lovely depictions of Omi Jingu Shrine. The music is a constant pleasure, a perfect complement to the visuals. And the character designs are my favorite of the year – so much depth of feeling in those faces, the beauty of youth and the wisdom of age, all brought to life by Madhouse’s animators with some of the most lively facial expressions you’ll ever see. If it lacks the fluidity of KyoAni or the stunning detail of P.A. Works, Madhouse’s visual effort here is – like the anime itself – a sweeping triumph. The job of any adaptation is to retain the look of a manga and improve on it, make it come alive – and they’ve done it.
For me, animes are always primarily about the characters, and no matter how splendid a series is it cannot achieve greatness in my eyes unless the characters are exceptional. And happily this is foremost among Chihayafuru’s many strengths, and this was apparent from the flawless premiere episode. We begin with a brilliant three-episode flashback featuring Chihaya, Taichi and Arata as 12 year-olds, and then rejoined them four years later as they entered high school. And amazingly, they grew up as much over the next 22 episodes as they did in that long time-skip. While Arata was physically at a remove for most of the series, his spirit was always present – gently influencing everything that happened in Chihaya and Taichi’s lives even as he struggled to find his own path, losing his way for a while before finding his way back to the game and the friends he loves.
Of Chihaya and Taichi so much has already been said, but they were an incredibly engaging pair (I can’t say “couple”, alas) at the heart of the series. Chihaya was in many ways tasked with the thankless role of the shounen lead, the driven and freakishly talented but emotionally clueless hero, but there was so much more to her than that. I would argue that Chihaya changed the least of all the major characters in the series, both inside the game of Karuta and out. Her game is still a child’s game, athletic and instinctive, but at last through her time with the others she’s learning how to grow as a player – through Kanade a love of the poetry, through Tsutomu an understanding of analysis and preparation, from Nishida the importance of strategy, and from Taichi’s own growth the importance of toughness, of never giving up. Emotionally she’s still a child too, romance never really entering the equation in her mind, unaware of the impact her insensitivity has on those around her. But here, too, being around the others in the club – being embraced by the camaraderie and affection that’s built between them – she’s coming out of herself, and becoming a whole person at last.
You certainly know my feelings about Taichi. Miyano Mamoru was my seiyuu of the year for his work in Steins;Gate in 2011, and he’s the early favorite for a completely different role in 2012. In terms of growth and change, Mashima Taichi has had one of the greatest character arcs in modern anime. While Chihaya was the main character, it was Taichi who did the emotional heavy lifting in this series – where she was wrapped in herself, Taichi was an emotional open book, sharing all his pain and ambition with the audience. Is he flawed? Yes, absolutely – and all the more interesting and sympathetic for it. Taichi changed more than anyone in the cast, and it all played out in the open where we could see it happening and hear what was roiling in his mind. For all the depth of feeling I had about the potential romances in the show, the emotional high-point of the adaptation for me was the scene between Taichi and Harada-sensei on the train platform in episode 20. In that moment was encapsulated everything that had happened to Taichi in the series – all the frustration, all the pain, and how much he’d grown as a person. And in Harada-sensei’s face was all the love he feels for his students, and how personally he takes his role as their mentor. It was emotionally a perfect moment, a bull’s-eye.
Speaking of Harada-sensei, he was arguably the best among an amazing supporting cast which featured no throwaway characters, even in small roles. Rivals, opponents, it didn’t matter – there were no villains, just people. Sudo and Shinobu were scene-stealers from their first appearance, but even a minor character like Retro-kun was a lot more interesting than he needed to be. The anchor of the supporting cast along with Harada-sensei were of course the club members. Lovely, idealistic and artistic Kana-chan, dedicated and deceptively sensitive Tsutomu, and the brash and passionate Nishida. Each of them had their own journey over the course of the series, and each of them taught the others something valuable. The gradual strengthening of the bonds between the five Mizusawa stalwarts was one of the very best things about the series, and perhaps that bond is the thing that I’ll miss the most.
I guess the elephant in the room is the romance side of things, and it must be mentioned – though I was pretty certain it wasn’t going to get much play in the anime finale. Perhaps we can all agree, at least, that Tsutomu and Kanade are adorable together – and I think genuine feelings developed between them. Of the main event, I think we’ll know nothing until Chihaya grows up, and finally knows herself well enough to start thinking about the boys in her life as more than friends and rivals. They’re each very special to her in different ways – Taichi is in many ways her alter ego, and surely her closest friend and the one who knows her best. Arata is the kind, gallant and heroic boy who changed her life with their brief encounter in childhood – and as the anime ends he still exists half in the mythological world, the “God of Karuta” and that heroic boy she remembers. She loves them both in their way, and they her in a romantic way – but of where Chihaya’s heart ultimately takes her, I don’t think anyone can say. She may decide that neither Taichi or Arata is the man of her dreams, as important as they both are to her. Or she may see it otherwise, especially if one of them takes the initiative and shares his feelings. She would do well with either, it seems to me – they’re both exceptional people, and both would treasure her in a way she can’t yet understand. Someday, perhaps, we’ll know how it all turns out. But not today.
So there we leave it, at the end of this amazing six month journey. The characters are still chasing their dreams in their own way, in Karuta and in life. For us, there’s the manga, and I intend to follow it as best I can. And there’s also the Blu-rays and DVDs. I rarely talk about campaigns, concerted efforts to influence the industry on behalf of a series. But I feel very strongly about the following – if there’s any justice in the world, Chihayafuru will have a second season. It deserves it and it’s earned it, and perhaps as fans we can do a little by ordering the discs from Japan, by purchasing the manga (there is a Japanese-English bilingual version) and by asking for a licensing of the series. The latest volume of the manga was the #1 seller during it’s first week in Japan, with over 212,000 copies sold – so there’s hope. I encourage you to do everything you can do to show Madhouse and Kodansha that you appreciate manga and anime that do everything the right way – intelligent, emotionally honest and original. This series is a beautiful and rare thing, and I appreciate having had the chance to experience it. I’m going to be greedy and ask for more, but I’ll still take a moment to be grateful for what we’ve already been given.