by Bamboo Dong,
How would you rate episode 16 of
Chihayafuru 3 ?
If there's one thing that sports fans know, it's that success is almost always temporary, and confidence can be as fragile as a house of cards. One day you're at the top of your game, and the next, you're scrabbling at the bottom of the pile with the rest of them. For Chihaya, the downfall is as fast as a stray comment from Suo, who tells her after their dispiriting practice match that she could never be the Queen. Not because she wasn't talented, or hard working, but because she was “pretty, positive, never lost heart, had friends, and even a boyfriend*.” (* Not really, though-- get on it, Taichi!) Basically, she doesn't have what it takes, which partially includes being a quasi-dirty player whose main strategy is getting the other team to commit faults. It's like diving in soccer. You don't really get in trouble for it if you're good enough at executing it, but people know. And deep down, everyone knows it sucks, regardless of how it plays in your strategy.
Taichi, though… he has what it takes. He's shown that he can be incredibly flexible when it comes to play style and adapting new techniques, and he can be ruthless when he needs to be. He's calm and calculated-- which shows in the way he's able to play an entire game against Suo without committing a single fault-- and he's strategy agnostic. Above all, he is singularly self-focused, and we've seen that time and time again this season. It's not a bad thing, per se. He's just hyper-attuned to his own personal goals, with seldom a thought to the people around him. Like the time he snuck off to the championship qualifiers without telling Chihaya. Or claiming to be her boyfriend, which he walked back the moment he realized it was stymying his relationship with Suo. And going back to ask for Suo's advice under false pretenses. It all makes a lot of sense. This is a play style that rewards mercilessness, and Taichi is ready to become Mr. Steal Your Girl (And Cards If He Needs To).
Luckily, despite Chihaya's thorough dejection, she still manages to see through one of Suo's central weaknesses, which will hopefully come to light next episode. I'm jumping ahead a little here, but I'm very excited for the championship matches. Haruka is one of the most interesting and grounded characters that's ever been on Chihayafuru, and Dr. Harada has gone from being a jovial background patriarch to being a bad-ass, powerful force of pure willpower and determination. It's always fun to root for the underdog, and this season really delivers characters worth cheering on. (Also, Suo's new look is a big Yikes, but made so much better by all the streaming netizens' dumbfounded reactions.)
Before that, we get two interstitial scenes, one of which is a very adorable Christmas gathering at Akihiro's house, a character that I keep forgetting is still on their team. A couple episodes back, he bemoaned that his little brothers were starting to doubt Santa Claus' existence. No worries, the club is here to help, with a little makeup magic to turn Chihaya into a cherubic, but still klutzy, Santa. It's a fun little scene, especially with Chihaya's disappointment at bungling her opportunity to deliver some scripted lines, but the best part is the look on Akihiro''s face when he realizes that Santa brought him a gift, too. It's such a sweet moment, and such a great celebration of the club members' friendship. Tsutomu sums it perfectly when he says, “They say the people you wish were there with you are your family.” Cue the slow pan up to Arata's face.
Meanwhile, Shinobu's familial ties lie more with her karuta cards. She talks about them not as syllables or poems, but whatever people grace the backs of the cards. Just like Chihaya always sees her card as a flaming red, Shinobu sees her cards like priestesses and monks. But it seems like part of this may be in the rigidity of her wealthy family, who scolds her about her hobbies, her appearance, and even where she practices karuta. There is a light, though. Her grandmother, the personification of etiquette and class, gives Shinobu her unwavering support by listening to her and allowing her to use the tatami-covered reception room. Tatami mats can be replaced, but support is forever.
Chihayafuru has always been good at the short story formula, where you set up nuggets of info, introduce a minor character dilemma, and wrap it up three minutes later with an emotionally satisfying bow. Usually it revolves around friendship or family, and almost always what it means to love someone. Namely, unconditional support with a side sauce of sacrifice. These little chunklets are sprinkled throughout the series, and really give it much of its heart. They're predictable at times, but they're also the moments that glue the karuta together. It's one of the reasons this show is so good, and also why it's so consistently difficult to explain to people why this series is as riveting as it is.
Next week, though, the showdown begins. Between our veteran challengers and our reigning champions, and also between Taichi and Arata. With the latter out of the picture, this is Taichi's moment to shine. No matter what happens, it's going to be a good match.
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