Justin: I think by now everyone who has watched Chihayafuru 2 has realized a lot of things, but one thing is definitely obvious: Madhouse has somehow managed to juggle a number of different plot elements in every episode and make it come out almost relatively clean. Episode 8, for me, was a culmination of their ability to manage important plot elements while not either lessening one scene from the other or going so fast that we lose sight of the core of the episode.
That core involved switching things up for Nationals this time.
A few weeks ago, at about the end of our discussion of Chihayafuru 2 Episode 6, we had asked what do you know about karuta, and in it, I basically wondered if maybe there’s just something more we have to do to truly understand karuta and its nuances. Then, for the first opponent for Misuzawa, they end up facing the Chiba International School of Information Sciences. As it turned out (despite their efforts in speaking English), the five people as part of their school’s Karuta team lived in Japan their whole lives. However, they obviously aren’t strictly Japanese, and while living in Japan probably was an influence, it was refreshing to see a different type of team appear in Chihayafuru with a desire to play karuta. I didn’t expect to see that, and I also didn’t expect to see how everyone on Misuzawa would react. Needless to say, it varied (with Chihaya believing the game has suddenly gotten so popular), but in the end, this was probably the perfect first round matchup for Misuzawa. Not because it was supposed to be an easy win, but because it was a reminder of how the team got to where they are now, and it was only because they chose to play karuta competitively. To see a team that can be seen as outsiders to Japanese people because of how they look manage to love the game and want to play competitive karuta can only remind Misuzawa of how much they value karuta, and also show that maybe this card game can be pretty global. Tsukubu may have brought reality to the situation with this:
“How can foreigners like karuta? Not even Japanese people like it!”But I wouldn’t like to say that’s true. No, karuta may not be all that popular, but of course there are those who like it. In fact, some may love it just as much as the main character of this anime. And as for the foreigner bit, I can only convince myself that maybe, just maybe, that line was directed to someone like me, who is now interested in just playing karuta because of this show. I can’t really say I like it because I haven’t played it, but I am most definitely interested in karuta, despite the language barrier.
Muse: Having the Chiba school be Mizusawa’s first opponent brought an interesting dynamic that the show hasn’t explored before. A lot of people, myself included, have expressed our amazement at being able to get wrapped up in a show that is completely based in a unique aspect of Japanese culture that most of us had never even heard of before the first season aired. The nuances, references, and cultural value of the game caused us to question how much we could really understand it, since we’re American and not Japanese, resulting in the main question from the “How Much Do You Know About Karuta?” post. But this episode took the notion of not being “Japanese enough” to enjoy karuta and turned it on its head.
I will not pretend to be a cultural expert, but Japan is not really known for its openness towards foreigners. Sure, they’ll be polite and let us be tourists and all that, but there is a big part of Japanese society that judges you on whether you’re an “outsider” or not. For example, look at the Chiba team. They state that they’ve lived in Japan their whole lives. They speak Japanese fluently. They’ve been born and raised in Japan. Yet, they’re not considered “Japanese.” They’re still “foreigners,” and by extension, “outsiders.” This is a pretty different viewpoint from that’s held here in America, where if you’re born and raised here, you’re American. End of story. Another example from the episode is how a news team has followed the Chiba team to the tournament, clearly trying to find a human interest story. However, the underlying theme of them not really belonging is still present when we hear the news anchor state that he wanted a story about a “blond samurai.” They’re banking on people wanting to watch because they’re different. “Hey, look at these foreigners try to fit in.” This underlying point is what defines the interaction between Mizusawa and the Chiba team, and how the episode crafts their story.
The “blond samurai” Anthony lets the audience know in flashback that thanks to the fact that he’s not “really Japanese,” he’s been mostly ignored by his peers his whole life. He’s been looking for a way to become “more Japanese,” and thought that karuta might be it. Of course, like Tsukuba said, karuta is not exactly wildly popular, and he was still left alone. However, he found that same love and passion that each of the Mizusawa team members have, and followed that love anyway.
It’s assumed that the other team members have the same story that Anthony has, since at the beginning they bank on their appearance and subpar English skills (which Taichi calls them out on... although he’s not that good himself...) to throw off their opponent. They know very well how “real Japanese” react to them, and it was good enough to get them to nationals. This strategy works... to an extent. Aside from Tsukuba’s hilarious irrational fear of his opponent, Mizusawa was really just baffled, since they have no context for someone not Japanese playing karuta. Chihaya is the only one with an immediate positive reaction, thinking that karuta has gone global. Kana falls between the two extremes, only mad that her opponent is wearing her hakama backwards (which I didn’t know was possible. Thanks, Chihayafuru!)
Anyway, the emotional heart of the episode comes in two parts. First, when the Mizusawa team players realize that despite their beginner’s skills, it’s the Chiba team’s genuine love of karuta that has carried them this far, not their distraction tactics. They really want to just enjoy the game, and against opponents who are expecting polished competitive techniques, it’s really refreshing. They haven’t had years of being told about form or what to do. They just follow their instinct, and it serves them well. On that level, the entire Mizusawa team recognizes them as good players, even though they’re not really nationals material. Which leads up to the second point, when they write on the white board:
“We want to play a game with you again.”And in English to boot! (With Kana’s hakama note at the bottom.) I thought that this was a beautiful moment. They didn’t care about whether they were “outsiders” or not; they recognized and remembered that love from when they first discovered karuta, and reached out to them. For a group that’s been ignored for so long, I think that gift of recognition was better than winning or being slyly made fun of on some news show. And it answered my questions about karuta once and for all: when you get down to it, all you really need are Japanese language skills. Everything else comes down to passion.
Justin: The Misuzawa team managed to showcase how they have managed to change bit by bit through the previous few episodes, but it was a wonder how much they have changed since their defeat in the High School Championship to Hokuo. Well, immediately, the obvious change stems back to why Chihaya wanted to have first years on the team -- more flexibility! Again, Chihaya can only look like a genius since she was so determined to keep every possible first year while everyone else didn’t even want to bother, but the payoff showed in this episode. Ok, this was mentioned in prior episodes, but, in reflecting on their last trip to Nationals where Chihaya fainted due to the heat and the pressure, no longer would they have any sort of problems where that can occur. In fact, instead of having any problems, they instead can do more: they can decide who goes and plays in a match, but while they go do that, they can have others scout out the competition. It’s basically a win-win.
Of course, I pondered how would having Tsukuba and Sumire on the team affect how Nationals would play out, and as it turned out, it didn’t take long for it to happen. While Sumire goes out to scout the competition, already Tsukuba managed to get his way and participate in a match. Of course, this was decided by someone who nearly quit karuta in Tsutomu. We haven’t exactly talked about Tsutomu too much in Season 2, as chances are we know what to expect: he’s analytical in his approach to the game, when playing and when not playing. It does make sense for him to take one for the team and decide to check out other opponents, but as he mentioned, it’s not like Tsukuba was exactly better than him when it came to playing. But there’s no need to get into arguments when it comes to this. It’s time to get serious. Tsutomu felt like this was the best way for the team to do well, and while he doesn’t get the recognition, I think his role is great for what the team needs.
But well, I needed to throw a shoutout to him. After all, he’s at least managed to appear a lot longer in each episode. Especially when compared to some dude named Arata. At this point, I’m just not sure what Madhouse is up to. The good news is it’s not like they’ve lessened Arata’s impact to the point where they make him feel useless and unimportant to the story, and at SOME point, we will get an entire episode devoted to him (surely! I mean we did get one with just Sumire); but I’m always baffled that just when it seems the episode has run its course, in comes Arata. It’s almost like the real plot doesn’t start until Arata shows up. And in this episode, what in the world can one interpret from Arata meeting Shinobu? Well for starters, it’s revealed Arata is impatient. So much for seeing them tomorrow, instead he would surprise them that day. I wonder exactly how Chihaya and Taichi’s reaction would be if they see him. I would also wonder how their reaction would be if Arata was with Shinobu, but we won’t go there yet. Instead, the focus is on Arata and Shinobu since the last time we saw them together, it was at the end of Episode 3, and merely a sort of flashback. This time all she does is touch his shoulder. In other words, what does this mean? How well do they know each other? Are they secretly together? Could they just be distant relatives?
...I’ll just bet on the fact that they are just rivals. And be wrong.
Muse: I’m starting to become convinced that there’s some sort of rule about Arata’s screen time that only allows him to be on for a certain amount. Just wait, all of his matches will take place in the minute before the ending (I kid; I really hope that doesn’t happen). But yes, this particular ending really teases us with the undefined relationship between Arata and Shinobu. I’m still assuming that they’re rivals, but who knows with this show.
There is one other thing I wanted to talk briefly about: the introduction of a character named Megumu. She comes up during Sumire’s scouting and gets an interesting amount of attention within the scene; enough that I’m expecting her to come up at some point in future matches. She’s also got an interesting group of fans, the kind which we haven’t seen in the show before this point. I know at the moment that the topic of idol culture is getting a lot of criticism (and rightly so) and this isn’t exactly what’s going on here, but I don’t have any other way to term it: Megumu seems something like a budding “karuta idol,” with the way her fanboys obsess over her every move and take tons of pictures. There are people that are definitely famous within the karuta circle (Shinobu being a good example) but none have gotten this brand of attention. It doesn’t look like she’s asked for it either, with her harsh statement against them, but it doesn’t put them off at all. We don’t get to see her play, so who knows how this will affect future matches. It felt like the show was trying to get an introduction out of the way early. We’ll have to wait and see what they do with it.
Images from Crunchyroll.com.