Chihayafuru – 23

Since Chihaya lost before Sudo, she’s obligated to shave her head, but Harada beats Sudo to negate the bet. His student Takemura moves on to win the Master Challenger match, while Yumin wins the right to a rematch with the Queen. Oe notices that Taichi is in love with Chihaya. Arata also loses, and regrets running from karuta. He tries to convince his elder Murao not to run, but isn’t successful. The Karuta club members attend various Christmas parties, and Chihaya decides to call Arata.

No club members had a match this week, and the episode didn’t focus on the matches, but the characters; a smart, well-timed move. Too many strictly “match episodes” can grow tiring, especially since it essentially sidelines most of the cast. Chihaya shuts herself in a closet, devastated by this loss like no loss before. Taichi waits for her to come out on the other side, seeing the same pain in her that he felt, but without the guts to make the very obvious and overt declaration to her that, well, he’s in love.

It may be true that Chihaya only has eyes for Arata, a guy she hardly ever sees, which explains why Taichi hesitates. Chihaya’s denseness is almost a comfort to him, which is bad. He’s used to her ignoring him like a karuta player gets so used to losing, he’s nothing but an empty, aimless husk. Deference to a guy Chihaya pays more attention to is not worth what Taichi’s doing to himself. An aside: we’re liking how the characters are using more karuta poems to describe their states of mind.

Rating: 3.5

Chihayafuru – 22

Chihaya has a Class A match against Yumi Yamamoto, who was the Queen before Wakamiya Shinobu. She is a cold, calculating, persistent and stubborn player, but early in the match, she falls behind to Chihaya’s energy and confidence. The tables are turned when her coach Kitano opens a window to let fresh air in the stifling room, and she starts vehemently contesting close cards, throwing Chihaya out of whack and making her uncomfortable every chance she gets, and finally beating her. Chihaya is too shocked to even thank Yumi.

So this Yumi…pardon our French, but…oh my God, what a fucking bitch! At times we wanted to slap her in her extremely plain face. Who does she think she is, treating sweet little Chihaya like that and being a loud nuisance? Oh yeah, she’s the former Queen, and not someone to be trifled with, even – nay – especially if she appears weak or it seems like she’s given up. Her internal dialogue is extremely bitter and condescending. Chihaya is prettier, younger, and faster than she is, as was Shinobu, the girl who beat her just one year after she won the crown, something Yumi’d been working for for a decade. So she has every right to be bitter, and we daresay a right to beat Chihaya and face Shinobu in a rematch. After all, her beef with the new Queen is older than Chihaya’s. Get in line, little girl.

Also, as annoying and bitchy as Yumi was, she didn’t exactly win. Chihaya lost this match. She lost big time, by letting her opponent gain the upper hand, by letting passion take over, and by spending too much time obsessing over her opponent’s behavior and not enough time closing out the damn match. Chihaya also lost by conceding contested cards to Yumi. She was probably surprised and caught off guard, as this part of the game is still new to the still-green-when-you-think-about-it Chihaya. As far as we’re concerned, if the card is in your hand, it’s yours, period. End of story. Yumi disagrees? Tough. Yumi’s contesting would have fallen on deaf ears, were it me. But it totally worked on the kind, respectful, an easily-frazzled Chihaya…which is why before the match began, we predicted Yumi would win.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 19

Kanade takes the lead in her match versus Tsutomu thanks to the latter’s faults. Ultimately he couldn’t make up the deficit and Kanade is victorious; both advance to Class C. Meanwhile, the match Chihaya had been ignoring is down to one card each, which is a luck of the draw. Taichi tries to increase his odds by going on the offensive, but a long chain of dead cards and Nishida’s defensive play end in Nishida winning and advancing to Class A. Taichi is devastated, but Nishida thanks him for being president. Having seen how much stronger the team is, Chihaya proposes they return to group play.

With Chihaya duly humbled, this week was all about the remaining four members of the team better by playing one another. The last minutes of the two matches are about as tense as matches have ever gotten, particularly the Taichi/Nishida match. We have to admit we were feeling a little fatigued by so much pure, uninterrupted karuta playing, starting with last week and continuing throughout most of this episode. But the matches ended, and then came the fallout.

Taichi is without a doubt angry and disappointed in himself, and spends a little time angsting to himself. It’s moments like this when he should be sharing his feelings with Chihaya, but no, he keeps it all bottled in, along with his perfection complex. We liked Chihaya moving his sleeping head from the van window to her shoulder, and the fact that she’s now checking herself before calling her teammates Porky and Desktomu after, Nishida called her an airhead…out of affection.

Rating: 3.5

Car Cameo:
Kanade’s mom shuttles the team home in
Oe Traditional Clothing’s spacious Nissan Vanette.

Chihayafuru – 18

In her first Class A match Chihaya faces Sakura, a mother of two and 35-year veteran of karuta. Chihaya wants to win, but not with her speed, but lacking a plan or strategy, she gets flummoxed, and notices that Sakura is watching her play, analyzing and strategizing on the fly. Though she loses by six cards, she learns a lot. She then witnesses her four teammates face off against one another in the class B and D finals. Watching their intense play, she realizes she’s there not to cheer anyone on, but to learn from them.

Baseball is replete with failure. A .300 average – Failing to get a hit 70% of the time – is deemed tip-top. There isn’t a lot of room for failure in karuta. If you whiff too much, you’re going to get beaten. You have to be fast and right, not one or the other. And most importantly, you have to know who you’re playing, learn how they play, and devise a way to win. Don’t just play against the cards, play against the opponent. It’s a lot to take in. Rather than surging to queenhood, Chihaya is back in Karuta 101, a victim of her own phenomenal reflexes and hearing.

Suddenly losing those crutches and having to slow down and play a different kind of karuta is about as difficult for Chihaya as unscrewing a jar of pickles her mouth, predictably, but she can’t hope to beat Shinobu if she isn’t a complete, balanced player. That point is driven home by watching all her teammates advance to the finals to face one another – and it’s great to see Kana and Desktomu go at each other, no longer novices, but really finding their own respective niches.

Rating: 3.5

Chihayafuru – 17

Despite winning a club relay in an upset, the Karuta Club fails to recruit any new members, so they focus on individual goals – advancing in class, in the case of Taichi, Porky, Desktomu and Kanade. Taichi sneaks off to Kanazawa to try to achieve class A in time to face Arata, but he meets Porky there, and they both get beaten. Meanwhile, Harada tells Chihaya something she’d never imagined: she has to stop using her speed to win. The challenge flummoxes her, until Desktomu and Kanade lend her their unique perspectives on the game.

Speed speed speed. It’s all Chihaya has known. All her eggs are in that basket, and the resulting omelette is an unsatisfying and not particularly nutritious mess of faults, openings, and ignorance. She’s been so concerned about perfecting her speed, she’s totally neglected her weaknesses, which are still many. Shinobu didn’t beat her because she was faster; she beat her because she was a far more complete player. Chihaya may be able to toast lesser players, but if she wants to be crowned the queen, she needs to make some fundamental changes to her game. We like how two of the keys to her evolution are right there in the kurata club, and here is where the two class Ds really prove their worth.

Desktomu looks at the game like no one else in the club, taking detailed notes of every game he plays and finding the patterns. Kanade believes the whole point of the game is appreciating the history and beauty of the poetry itself – her outrage when Chihaya tells her two cards that were written two centuries apart are “almost the same” reveals her intense passion. If Chihaya can learn a fraction of what Kanade knows, she may be able to recognize more cards by the color she connects them to in her head due to the imagery of the poem. Kurata isn’t just a sport, it’s an art and a science too. Like breaking up with your girlfriend on the phone in less than ten words…

Rating: 3.5

Chihayafuru – 16

This was a 99% clip show documenting all the big events of the series thus far, interspersed with omake skits that asked the characters questions, like which girl would they rather date, or give your colleague idiom nicknames. They also included another instance of Chihaya being a doormat for her sister. We basically skipped the bits that we’ve already seen and were left with about five minutes of original material.

(No Rating)

Chihayafuru – 15

After a hard-fault battle, Chihaya manages to take five of Shinobu’s cards, losing by twenty, which vexes her to the point of forgoing her postgame nap to obsess over how to improve. Meanwhile, Desktomu, Kana and Porky are all out of the running, but Taichi is locked in a battle for the Class B crown. His mind is fine but his body can’t keep up after six matches, so he loses too, by only three cards. Having all tasted defeat, the club trains all summer to improve their stamina.

So Chihaya got into a mini-groove, but it was too late to catch up to Shinobu. Despite the fact the queen mopped the floor with her in anyone’s book, she is really pissed that Chihaya took any cards from her at all, and means to crush her next time. She practices alone in the dark, while Chihaya practices with her teammates and friends. We’re glad the series stayed realistic and didn’t let Chihaya beat the queen on her first go, especially after trailing so much.

A nice surprise was Taichi’s showing, going even further in his class than Chihaya. Everyone hopes that if they can keep their spirits up, they can will him to win it all, but it’s not to be, as he’s too physically winded. His thought process is a lot more complex than Chihaya’s. as he checks off every possible verse he can take. When Porky watches him lose, it brings back memories of him doing the same; second is no consolation for losing. But the biggest news this week is Arata, going to Kuriyama to join the Fukui Nagumo Society, which means a match between him and Chihaya is all but inevitable.

Rating: 3.5 

Chihayafuru – 14

The Individual matches begin, and the team is split up by class, with Chihaya alone in A. In the second round she has to face the current queen, a rather odd girl named Wakamiya Shinobu, who has been class A since the fourth grade. At first, Shinobu’s impossibly fast, highly defensive style utterly overwhelms Chihaya. She starts to lose heart, but once she remembers winning her first card from Arata, she regains both her composure and her power, tying Shinobu on one card, then taking two in a row with authority.

Of all the action series we’ve watched recently, there’s still nothing quite like the explosion of Chihaya taking a card. They’ve really gotten good at building up the anticipation. This week, we didn’t have any doubt that Chihaya’s first encounter with the queen would result in a major drubbing, but it surprised us that she held in there, remembered that karuta is about not having mercy and never letting losses get you down. Both she and Taichi know Chihaya can be as fast or faster than this queen; it’s a matter of believing in oneself and drawing her ability from within. She certainly made a statement in front of a lot of people.

She also showed this Shinobu girl something she hasn’t experienced in a long time: a chalenge. Someone who didn’t just shrink before her relentless, seemingly infinite talent, but settled down and fought back. First of all, kudos to the writers for finally giving us a left-handed anime character! We’re left-handed, and were wondering if anyone from Japan was. We know it can be a slight advantage in many sports; so why not Karuta. Shinobu also looks to be a very interesting character. Like Chihaya, she has her quirks (they share an affinity for tacky t-shirts, for instance) and we could even see them becoming friends. But at the end of the day, Shinobu is in Chihaya’s chair…or we should say throne.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 13

The day of the national karuta tournament arrives, but the conditions prove too much for Chihaya, who cannot focus and faints in the middle of the first match. Meanwhile, as Arata makes his way to the match, he rememices about the past, including his grandfather’s stroke and subsequent dementia. He is able to meet briefly with Chihaya until she goes to the hospital. When she wakes up, Taichi has present from him that assures her he’ll play her in a match next time.

This was another excellent episode, but it didn’t feel like the end; perhaps there’s more episodes in store? If so, that’s news to us, but we certainly wouldn’t begrudge a continuation. While the regional matches were comprehensively covered, the nationals end about as soon as they begin for poor Chihaya, who has to forfeit for, shall we say, unspecified illness, exacerbated by the crush of people, the heat, and of course, all the pressure on her elegant shoulders.

Chihaya is one to punish herself for letting people down, but when she awakens in hospital, her teammates aren’t down at all; Desktomu even won his first two games, and everyone is in high spirits, eager to play more. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Arata’s part in this episode. His scenes with his deteriorating grandfather are very moving. You know he’s moved too when a karuta official tells him he plays like his grandfather. His teachings live on in Arata; wasting them wouldn’t be cool.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 12

With the regional trophy in their hands, Chihaya starts to fear the upcoming nationals at Omi Jingu, worried she’ll disgrace Tokyo if they lose badly. Taichi snaps her out of it. Chihaya’s family appears totally transfixed on her sister Chitose, making it hard to bring up her own recent achievements. She’s relieved to see her father also keeps a scrapbook for her. Their faculty advisor, Mrs. Miyauchi, who originally was going to blow off their tournament, sneaks a peak at what the karuta club is really up to. She changes her mind and accompanies them.

We’re nearly at the halfway point in Chihayafuru, as the Nationals come next week. This week was all about preparation, both practical and mental. The upcoming tournament will be a far tougher challenge than anything they’ve faced, but they can’t face it with wavering wills. A degree of fear is healthy in any competitive exercise, but it must be controlled. Taichi proves yet again that he’s the motivational glue that keeps the team cheerful and confident.

This week also featured to parties that were previously utterly indifferent both to Chihaya and to whatever it was she was up to: her family, and her teacher. When her dad sees her in the paper, he saves the clipping, as he has saved clippings of her ever since she started on the karuta road. Chitose is definitely a big bright star in which Chihaya is often lost in the glare, but Chihaya’s family still loves and supports her, even if quietly. As for Mrs. Miyauchi, she was fortunate enough to look in the window of the club just when they were about to put on a hell of a show, which utterly convinced her that karuta is not just some silly obscure dalliance. It’s serious, beautiful business.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru will continue in January 2012. 

Chihayafuru – 11

Team Mizusawa moves on to the Regional Finals, and must face Hokuo High, who can claim two Class-A players. Porky’s opponent is someone he remembers from years ago, but unlike him, he never stopped playing. Taichi has to play Retro-kun, and Chihaya has to play Sudo, who immediately proceeds to play mind games to throw her off. Oe and Desktomu lose first, putting the others on the spot, but by supporting one another and concentrating on their strengths and not weaknesses, Porky, Taichi, and Chihaya defeat their opponents and the team moves on to the Nationals.

More brilliant, suspenseful drama this week, far more than we could have expected from a game we only barely understand. It’s good to see the team gel so well after a rough start last week. They work out the best layout, with Taichi in the middle to keep the team focused and motivated with his words, Porky and Chihaya at the ends where they can concentrate, and the noobs in between. It works, as the center and bookends managed to take wins from very tough opponents. This episode underscored that a win was important for Hokuo too…but they’re not the focus of this series, so we didn’t expect Chihaya’s team to be tripped up by failure so soon, and they weren’t.

We really didn’t care for Chihaya’s opponent Sudo for the majority of the match, but even he was softened and humanized by the end…not to mention humbled by Chihaya’s innate skill at grabbing her Chihaya card, no matter where it is or when it’s called. Hell, she grabs it before a whole syllable is uttered. It’s literally her trump card; and she’s drawn to it like a magnet. She owes that connection to the card to her name, but also to the games she played with Arata, who makes an appearence this week, but is stuck at work and can’t go watch. We have a feeling he’ll show up for the nationals.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 10

The Mizusawa Karuta Club is competing in the Tokyo regionals for the High School Karuta Championship, and they’re wearing hakamas, as per Oe’s instructions. But trouble brews when Desktomu cannot win a single card in the first round, even as fellow novice Oe wins a game. Desktomu sits out the semifinals, believing they don’t need him, but that throws Chihaya off her game. Taichi has to bring the team together in the face of serious competition, and Desktomu returns when he hears they’re in trouble to lift Chihaya’s spirits.

After intense training and practice, it’s time for Oe and Desktomu to jump into the pool of competitive Karuta, and it very nearly goes pear-shaped but for some assertiveness from Taichi. We’re pleased with how far his character’s come from that petty, cheating bastard of yore. But as least part of Arata’s assertion that he’s a coward may still hold true, in that he cannot yet come out and confess how he feels to Chihaya. Her texts to Arata obviously irk him, but he has the power to make things happen, and yet he merely stews.

However, he isn’t distracted by these problems wihle playing in the tournament; in fact, it’s Chihaya who briefly loses her edge and nearly chokes under pressure. Their competition are a bunch of gung-ho loudmouths, constantly communicating and yelling support and intimidating the other side – we were a little surprised all that noise is allowed in a game where listening to the poems being recited is so crucial. But once Chihaya snaps out of it, her killer instinct kicks back in, and she’s flicking cards before a syllable is uttered. A good team effort throughout.

Rating: 4

Chihayafuru – 09

The Karuta club becomes official, with Taichi presiding and Chihaya as the Captain. She has lofty goals for her five-man team: to reach the national tournament. To that end, she plans on pushing the rookies Oe and Desktomu hard, facing them both herself in order to toughen them and give them valuable experience. They arrange a weekend camp at Taichi’s house, but his mom returns prematurely, and in any case the rooks are exhausted. Returning home guilty she pushed them so hard, Oe gets a text and races to a riverside park with Chihaya in tow for an impromptu celebration of her sweet sixteen.

Just an episode removed from finally becoming complete, the club Chihaya and Taichi have founded is already hummin’ along very nicely. Taichi is incredulous at first when Chihaya announces she’ll be the rookie’s first opponent, but having played her first game against Arata, she’s well aware of how valuable getting creamed is, as you get to see the person creaming you going all out, as she does. Oe and Desktomu are understandably dubious of their abilities, but by the time Oe snags her first card from Taichi, she’s addicted to playing and getting better.

Aside from getting the club up and running, the primary substory in play throughout is the increasing romantic tension between Taichi and Chihaya. Neither say anything to this effect, but the couple moments where they’re close or touch speak volumes, and are very well done. Chihaya could finally be starting to see Taichi as more than just that bratty little kid from her childhood. Taichi meanwhile is already quite far along in his longing, and of course a golden opportunity is snatched from him when Arata texts with birthday wishes for Chihaya. As for the birthday: while random at first, it was the perfect way to brighten Chihaya’s spirits. We don’t think it would have had as strong an effect if we’d known about it beforehand.

Rating: 4