gallifreyians: When dealing with stories in a high school setting, the norm is to disregard the specific time frame that schools operate on in favor of building the narrative, which lends a sense of timelessness (but also an air of vagueness) to the events of the plot. An example that most immediately springs to mind is The Vampire Diaries, who — despite having four seasons under it’s belt — is still taking place circa 2010. The way time functions in that series is short and indefinite, making the events of the show nebulous and not allowing the writers to actually build up a sense that time has passed. Having a sense that time has passed for the characters within a universe is critical; it inherently allows for character development to take place — thus without it The Vampire Diaries has a hard time making us feel that Elena, Stefan, Caroline, or any of the other characters has actually gone through anything to make them grow since everything appears to happen at once. Chihayafuru however uses the set cycle of high school to it’s advantage to create a sort of cyclical narrative that it uses to highlight the key development of its characters and the key changes in the structure of the show.
The first season of Chihayafuru starts at the beginning of Chihaya’s high school career and then progresses through the events of the entire year: reconnecting with Arata, the beginnings of the karuta club, training for regionals, regionals, nationals, the Omi Jingu tournament, the team developing their karuta style, and the Queen and Master matches. The second season follows suit1 with building up the karuta club, regionals, and now nationals with the Omi Jingu tournament to follow. Obviously Chihayafuru is not like Naruto or One Piece with a clear and delineated arc structure to it, but it is important to realize that Chihayafuru is somewhat subdivided into story arcs based around the calendar of the high school/karuta year, meaning that the plot of the second and first season do run parallel to each other.
A year is both a deceptively long and deceptively short amount of time during which no one can say how much things may change or how much they may stay the same. The time between last year’s nationals and this year’s nationals seems to be short to me, but the parallel plot reveals just how much things have actually changed with Chihaya and the team since the last time they played in the group Omi Jingu tournament.
Episode eight had some very over-the-top opponents and just as many over-the-top moments, but what I take away from it comes just from one small moment in the episode. Chihaya — in her quiet, steadfast calm — tells everyone that they will win the group tournament, and Tachi’s internally realizes just how serious she is about winning. The contrast here is a nuanced one; Chihaya did also want to win the tournament last year, but her volition and her earnest are separate feelings. As Chihaya herself said in episode ten, she is not the high school first year she was. This time at Omi Jingu, Chihaya is all business, approaching the tournament with as much conviction as possible as with less of the carefree Chihaya that we are all used to. Chihaya’s conviction does appear like this during those special moments in her matches where everything fades away and all that is left is her and the cards, but it has never before permeated the other aspects of Chihaya’s demeanor; for this to have changed signals a true deepening of Chihaya’s love of karuta and her own emotional maturity. And while it’s less like development and more like genuine characterization, episode nine also does wonders for Arata’s character.
Rather because of how our view of the world of Chihayafuru is generally constricted to Chihaya’s eyes, our view of Arata is also constricted to Chihaya’s view of Arata; that is a view of Arata as a distant esoteric karata God. Although one of the first things Chihayafuru did was to try to shatter Chihaya’s view of Arata, after his appearance in episode five of the first season Arata as a character was largely left untouched and faded into the background as more of an idea than a character. Luckily Yuki Suetsugu seems to know what she is doing and now is branching off from her Chihaya-only perspective and including more moments from the point of view of other characters; in episode nine this means Arata.
In episode eight he told Chihaya that we was only going to go down to Otsu for the individual tournament at Omi Jingu and not watch the group tournaments, but episode nine proved this to be a lie when Arata did show up (a tad bit late I may add) specifically to watch Chihaya and Taichi play. Before he could do that however, Arata chicked out and ran away with Murao-san, which then started Arata on the complete misadventure that episode nine is devoted to. Before even that however, Arata was stopped at the gate of Omi Jingu by none other than Shinobu. Then had a nice, albeit strange conversation on the steps of the shrine that, while introducing their shared history, also introduced the question central to episode nine.
When inquiring as to why Shinobu was at Omi Jingu when the individual tournaments were the next day, Shinobu explained that she was there to pay her respects at the shrine before going to watch the annual “Lake Biwa Birdman Rally”. Arata then expressed surprise that she wasn’t going to watch the team tournament after coming all the way out to Otsu, to which Shinobu responded, “Team tournament? That’s for players who don’t love karuta.” This question really takes on an importance when Arata’s old school mate Shoji ropes him into taking the place of their missing team-member Tajiri on the three-memember team representing Fujioka West. The interesting thing is though: Shoji didn’t want Arata there to win, Shoji only wanted Arata to take the place of Tajiri just so they would have an opportunity to play and wouldn’t automatically lose; Arata didn’t have to do anything. In fact, Shoji took away Arata’s glasses so that the judge wouldn’t recognize him as Wataya Arata, effectively meaning that Arata couldn’t do anything. It’s from this position of helplessness that Arata is able to really appreciate the experience he was having.
In a moment where Arata instinctually took a one syllable card on his side, he remembered back to his childhood with Chihaya and Taichi: when Chihaya took his spot in the match against Taichi, Taichi giving him back his glasses after the match and crying, playing the team match with Chihaya and Taichi and their subsequent group cry session; it was these memories and the harsh words of Shinobu that made Arata realize the fun and magic of group matches, and how he has to give it his all here and now. The Fujioka team, their opponents, they deserved his participation and his respect in the group match, because he of all people knows how it feels to play, to win, and to lose with your friends. Arata realized that Shinobu was wrong: people who play in the team tournament love karuta in a way she can’t even imagine; and because of that he has to play as Wataya Arata even if it means that he is disqualified in the individual tournament. [Which luckily Arata wasn’t.] This gives us our first look into Arata himself; not the relationship between Chihaya and Arata, not the idea of Arata through the eyes of Chihaya, but the actual character of Arata. It truly shows Arata’s own unique love of karuta and the integrity of his character. Not only this in fact, but episode nine as a whole really helps to highlight the importance of his childhood friendship with Chihaya and Taichi and his actual character traits (which were mostly emphasized in his conversation with Shinobu) like his awkwardness and tendency to speak his mind to the point of rambling.
One thing that hasn’t changed however is the show’s sense of humor and dedication to making the “opponents of the week” both memorable and meaningful. While far from being a comedy, Chihayafuru makes me laugh in the little things it does: the over-the-top reactions no one seems to notice, the hilarious internal character dialogue, the little side-notes that occasionally pop-up on the screen, I could really go on. Some memorable examples from these episodes include:
As for the opponents, well, look not further than the team from Chiba International: they are a group of non-Japanese Japanese high school students who tried to pretend to be foreigners in order to intimidate their opponents pre-match. While that was hilarious when it first happened (and especially hilarious when Taichi spoke Engrish to tell them that he knew they were Japanese), I feel that underneath that was a really meaningful message that karuta isn’t just “a Japanese thing”: it is a passion transcendant of heritage. The Chiba team, despite losing to Mizusawa, didn’t love karuta any less than Chihaya or Kana or anyone else. Then we jump over to the Yamaguchi Mioka team, who (for the most part) don’t love karuta — save for Chihaya’s opponent Nakayama — and are more interested in quiz games. Strangely though, during the course the Mioka’s match with Mizusawa, something changed in the Mioka players. They didn’t lose because their opponents memorized the board better, or because their opponents were more accurate; they lost because their opponents were playing karuta. After the match, the Mioka team ended up crying together with their coach about the karuta loss, and vowing to “avenge” it by playing karuta next time.
A lot of things have changed in the last year — Chihaya and everyone else have come so far — but ultimately everything has been less than a change and more of a transformation. We are still going through the cycle of the school year, the cycle of time, but along the way the characters have grown as people while the show continues to deliver everything I’ve ever wanted out of it and even then some.
Next Time: Steven and Natasha frantically play catch up and try (and fail) to get out a review for episode eleven of Chihayafuru out as soon as humanly possible.
- It it important to note that the second season has no parallel to the reconnecting with Arata arc of the first season as the function of that arc within the first season was to introduce the main characters and to set up their motivations; to include a parallel to that in the second season would be superflous as it only needs to be done once.