Those Snow White Notes – 08 – Modern Maimai and Her Fantastic Friends

The Matsugorou Cup’s team division marches on, Team Umezono’s time on stage grows near, and Shuri is scared. Yui encourages her to focus on getting the first notes right and the rest will fall into place, but only adds to her anxieties by announcing this will be the one and only time she plays on stage.

While Mai waits her turn in the green room, and a braggadocious Arakawa Ushio blows past the rest of his team with his signature twang, the sheer audacity of his performance makes Rai jealous, angry, and fired up, spooking Shuri and Yui upon returning to them. Let’s just say everyone’s face game is in top form this week.

I’ll just get this out of the way: our Power Rangers-colored team doesn’t take the stage this week, which after not doing so last week feels at times like the show is intentionally stalling. It nearly overplays its hand, were it not for some great character development that goes on in between the other performances.

For one thing, we finally get a look back at how the dynamic between Yui, Kaito, and Shuri began, with Yui taking responsibility for protecting the “idiotically kind” and guileless Shuri from the real world (and Kaito’s teasing). Back in the present, when Shuri sees that Yui is just as nervous as her, she curses herself for only thinking about herself.

She believes Yui has every right to hate her for that, but of course Yui doesn’t feel that way at all. She’s angry at herself for talking so big only to be terrified of taking the stage out there, and if she fails, she knows everyone will hate her for the “mean-spirited, ugly woman” she is. Shuri shuts down that kind of talk with a big hug and she won’t let go until Yui lets herself cry, promising to help share her worries from now on.

Meanwhile, as soon as Mai hears where Setsu’s team is prepping, she storms there to “declare war” before her performance, only to walk in on him and the others striking energy-releasing (read: goofy) poses, and slinks away. Honestly I wished she had gotten to actually speak to Setsu there.

That’s because when she takes the stage, she puts on nothing less than the best performance yet in the competition. Her sound is alluring, charming, powerful, and wonderfully modern without coming off as tacky or gimmicky like many of the other groups.

Additionally, while her group is called “Her Fantastic Friends”, there’s a much more cutthroat dynamic in her group where she goes off and does her thing and dares her teammates to try to keep up. It’s at this point that I’m starting to seriously consider Mai to be the show’s Best Girl, though she continues to face stiff competition from Shuri and especially Yui!

Mai’s performance also sinks Kaito, Yui, and Shuri’s motivation to new lows, only for Setsu to stand up tall and proud and say his motivation is at its max after hearing Mai. As they prepare to take the stage, Yui notices Kaito’s parents have turned out to see him, and assures him no one (aside from her perhaps) worried about him more after his soccer career-ending injury.

She gives him an encouraging punch to the face, for which he thanks her by patting her head and assuring her that she’s kind and not ugly. This turns her face as red as her samue. After placing a calming hand on Shuri’s shoulder, Setsu smacks both Kaito and Yui on the back and tells everyone to go out there and do it, after having consulted with Rai in secret about doing “something unorthodox” in response to Mai’s performance.

I can’t wait to see what he came up with, and I know the show isn’t going to be so cruel as to let them make fools of themselves out there. With Setsu leading the way and having had more than adequate time to sort through all their smoldering emotions, it’s finally time to play…next week!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Those Snow White Notes – 07 – All Together Now

When Setsu leaves his tenement house bound for the Matsugorou Cup in Asakusa, Sakura has a special lunch prepared for him, even though he says there’s no need. Of course, need’s got nothing to do with it; Sakura simply wanted to make him a lunch, so she did, period. As she and her dad see him off, Setsu notes how Sakura is more of a mom than Umeko.

When the team arrives at the Cup venue in Asakusa (a throwback Tokyo district best known for its giant lantern), they’re all a bit caught off guard by how goshdarn EXTRA it is, which comes as no surprise to Setsu, since it’s a reflection of his extra mom. And yet, Yui presents the team with special competition outfits that give each of them way too accurate Super Sentai colors!

As expected, Yui’s online friend Maimai is Tanuma Mai, who demands to be placed in the Individual competition when she belatedly learns Setsu is in it. She’s got it in her head that it matters whether her dad acknowledges her, and that the only way to do that is to beat Setsu. But the officials don’t budge, and her mother Sayuri scolds her for being so gauche.

Then Umeko catches wind of Mai’s attempt to use her second-place finish in a past competition to muscle her way in…but Mai’s mother isn’t about to let the strutting peacock like Umeko bash her daughter, so the two moms engage in some ultra-fuckin’-high-class trash talk while Mai gets the fuck out of the way.

Yet, when you analyze the content of their discourse—Umeko mocking Sayuri was a fool and a naïf to marry the man she did, while Sayuri accuses Umeko of drinking the blood of the young—it ultimately comes off pretty trashy! I absolutely loved it.

Setsu goes off on his own for a while, and revels in the sound of so many shamisens in one place. Wakana may later accuse Umeko of “torturing” Setsu, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Setsu is, as Brian Cox often hums in McDonald’s commercials, lovin’ it, even if some of the musicians are a little sharp with their B’s.

To his surprise, someone else tells them this and they retune their shamisens correctly. This lad, Tanuma Souichi, then approaches Setsu with eyes unclouded by hate. Instead, Souichi is elated to meet someone who speaks with the same Aomori dialect, and believes that automatically makes them friends…even if Setsu isn’t quick to agree.

Meanwhile, Yui finally encounters Mai, who happens to be in a sour mood after getting caught between two tiger moms. I love how they recognize one another by matching each other’s auras to their avatars. Poor Shuri is afraid she’ll have to try to break up a fight, only for Mai and Yui to join hands in giddy friendship.

The Cup finally gets underway with an opulent opening reminiscent of the 2004 Athens Olympics opening ceremony, with Umeko mimicking the role of Björk, who wore the whole world as a gown. From there, the Groups start to perform before the judges. Some are traditional, others are trying to grab attention with rock chords or an idol aesthetic.

As this is going on, Setsu’s teammates grow increasingly weary of his absence, and when he finally arrives, he pooh-poohs any thought of practicing before their performance. This once again draws the ire of Kaito, who assumes Setsu is looking down on them (him), doesn’t want to play with them…but he’s wrong. Setsu headbutts him, cowing him in the process, saying he “knows his own quirks”.

After some gimmicky units that put Umeko in a foul mood (leading her to go “powder her nose”…which I’m guessing means do some coke), a group from Osaka comes along that puts everyone on notice.  Led by the mild-mannered Takaomi Kaji, whom women love and men want to be, the six-man ensemble practices perfect posture, form, and near-hypnotic synchronization, summoning a crisp cool wind that courses through the venue. Even Umeko is impressed.

Wakana apologizes to Setsu’s teammates on his behalf, assuring them that if you were to ask who his little brother is playing for, it’s for all of them, and if you asked why he was doing it, it’s because he wants to win, and win with them. It’s just that hearing a sound of Kaji’s group’s caliber “maxed out” his emotions, making it hard to do normal human interaction.

Now he simply has to find a way to channel that energy into his performance, not leave his team in the dust, and save enough in the tank for the Individual competition … his first ever. No pressure!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Chihayafuru 3 – 03 – Up to Fate and The Times

Sorry for doing these out of order, but I wasn’t aware Chihayafuru 3 was airing two episodes at a time last week (and this week!). Nevertheless, it’s instructive to see the match that came before Chihaya’s promising quarterfinals match, because it’s when she truly gets her groove back.

Same with Taichi, who has a pre-match brush with Arata that, while cordial and even friendly, still steams his beans just because…Arata just does that. He’s in Taichi’s way on two fronts: karuta and Chihaya (whether he knows it or not), and hearing that he wants to start his own school club is yet another thorn in Taichi’s side.

Few know Chihaya’s game as well as Porky, so even when she seems to be doing well, he can tell, for instance, if she hasn’t quite come back from her injury. He’s also a great analyst of her game, and when she is up against a former Master runner-up (Takemura, who lost badly to Master Suo), he notices that there’s a reason she seems slower and less forceful, and it’s not because she’s still recovering her game.

In fact, Chihaya has absorbed a lot of pointers from Shinobu, Rion, and others that it’s not all about power. Playing left-handed also turned out to be beneficial to her, as it gave her more experience and insight into a side of the cards she was weakest against. Since she could never move as fast with her left hand as her right, she compensated with accuracy and efficiency, which she’s carried into her right-handed game.

Taichi has some trouble with his quirky opponent, Shiroyama from Hokuo, and is particularly irked by his opponent’s ability to take cards despite being, well, slow. He eventually realizes Shiroyama is playing a true team match, focusing on wearing Taichi down rather than winning quickly. Once Taichi realizes what’s going on, it’s like a weight off his shoulders, and he puts Shiroyama away.

Chihaya beats Takemura, who is admittedly out of practice after taking a whole half-year off following his brutal defeat. But he sees how big a mistake that was, as youngins like Chihaya are no longer nipping at his heels, but surpassing him with relative ease. Contrast that with mother of two and former Queen Inokuma Haruka, whose passion is such that even two kids, including a still-nursing newborn, can’t keep her out of the tournament.

While no one questions her prowess in previous years (nor the shape of her eyes, which give Chihaya’s a run for their money), there are questions about whether she can make a comeback; questions that are answered in the positive in this round. But during the match, both she and Chihaya snatch the “Impassionate” card at the exact same time, such that their cards collide. That incident is all too fateful, as they end up facing off in the quarterfinals.

Before the match, Miyauchi asks Sakurazawa if Chihaya has what it takes to be Queen. She’s worried about the future of an academically average-at-best student, but would be less worried if she knew Chihaya could ascend to the top of karuta. All Sakurazawa can tell Miyauchi is that in order to reach that height, Chihaya will have to do what she could not; defeat someone like Inokuma Haruka.

P.S. Yamashita Kousuke’s music continues to be one of the many great things about this show. Earbuds don’t really do it justice; I’d recommend watching on a system with some nice powerful speakers for full effect. I continue to be amazed by how exciting watching kneeling people swiping at cards can get, and the music is a big part of that.

Chihayafuru 3 – 04 – One Tough Mama

The quarterfinal matches are set. Chihaya, Taichi, Dr. Harada and Tsuboguchi, all of the Shiranami Society, made it through. They face off against Inokuma, Sudo, Murao and Arata, respectively. It’s a battle between rival societies, youth and experience, fire and water, et cetera.

There’s an elite reader, and the proceedings carry a familiar and intense electricity and tension not seen yet in the show until now. This is the Chihayafuru I know, love, and keep coming back to. There’s just nothing quite like the exquisite energy that fills those silent moments between stanzas.

Everyone on Team Shiranami, with the possible exception of Dr. Harada, has improved their games greatly. Inokuma may be a mother of two who was recently away from the game on maternity leave, but she’s also a former queen, and has a unique style of play in which she never rearranges her cards.

She also already knows about the different pitches of the reader Chihaya is just starting to figure out (thanks to Rion). The difference is, Inokuma also knows all the other ways to listen to a word before it’s fully uttered. Like Inokuma, Chihaya was away from the game in a sense due to her injury, but if she’s going to realize her dream of queenhood, she has to be able to topple a Queen.

Despite playing right next to Chihaya, and subject to mind games from the merciless Sudo, Taichi keeps his cool—even when Sudo correctly diagnoses that Taichi is in love with Chihya—displaying a mental fortitude that was lacking before. It can’t hurt that he got to beat Chihaya a couple of times to build his confidence…and Porky helped him out by exhausting Sudo in the previous round.

The best games in pretty much any sport are ones that are balanced between great offense and defense, but also deliver a lot of action and excitement. Karuta is no different, and the surging passion on display serves as fuel for all eight players, resulting in four very close matches. The episode ends on a high note, with no one in a deep hole or soaring too high. Anything can happen, but whatever happens, everyone is having a shitload of fun.

P.S. It seems I skipped episode 3, while episode 5 is out now! I’ll watch and review both when I can, thus visiting both the past and future of this tournament.

Chihayafuru 3 – 02 – Small Actions Building Up Good Fortune

At his high school in Fukui, Arata stands on stage with accomplished athletes as they are recognized for their achievements, in his case winning at the Nationals. The problem is, he won in individual tournament. If he’s going to do his part to keep Karuta alive and thriving, he’ll have to attract more players.

To that end, he uses his brief time on stage to put a call out for anyone interested in starting up a school team. Alas, everyone who approaches him isn’t personally interested, they just know someone who is. For now, he has to be content with simply spreading interest.

It’s back to school, which means it’s back to the Karuta club for Chihaya and Taichi, joining Hana, Porky, Desktomu, and Sumire. Everyone has improved, and Taichi continues to beat Lefty Chihaya at every turn, leading him to warn her not to get too comfortable playing with the wrong hand.

Chihaya is pitted against Sumire, but even here, she’s somewhat thrown off guard when the Class D player tells her she’s taking karuta seriously now, which we know from having access to her thoughts is because she’s committed to keeping up with Taichi until he looks her way.

When news comes that the school trip will overlap with the dates of the Queen and Master qualifying, Chihaya starts to wonder if the gods of Karuta are cursing her. Kana, sternly scolding her for not straightening her shoes after taking them off, tells Chihaya she has to think of small things she can do to built her good fortune back up.

Sure enough, after two months, the doctor removes the bandages and clears Chihaya for use of her right hand. Suddenly unleashed, she’s back to beating Taichi, but the others can tell she still lacks the same boldness she had before the injury. Chihaya must sense this too, and so in order to get into shape for the qualifiers (which everyone assumes she’ll miss the class trip to attend), she enters the inter-society, A-and-B-only Yoshino Tournament.

Taichi, Porky, and Desktomu also participate…as does Arata, whose presence Chihaya quite suddenly notices. Arata has the good sense to compliment Chihaya for her hakama, and hopes she won’t lose, because this is a mixed-gender tournament. All she has to do is win all her matches and she’ll likely get to face Arata, which is probably why she entered into the tournament in the first place. No better test of whether she’s ready for the Queen qualifiers than if she can have a good match against one of the best.

Desktomu is taken down a peg after being throttled in his first match, but thankfully the ever-caring Kana is there to stop his his compulsive face-slapping. Chi and Taichi win their first matches, and while Porky loses, he wears out his opponent Sudou Akito, hoping to make matches easier for his teammates. It’s in this way all individual matches are team matches and vice versa: everyone is fighting to help each other out, win or lose.