When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
– Shakespeare, Sonnet XV
Shakespeare’s imagery of the world as a stage was immortalized in words in the play As You Like It. He brings up the same imagery with Sonnet XV, this time adding another layer of fate, that the alignment of stars dictate the passage of time, and with it, the coming of old age for man and woman, for they are the stage’s players.
In Chihayafuru episode 4, we are brought back to the present, distant from the memorable flashbacks to which we were subject. Time has taken its effect on the characters, and without the setup of the first three episodes, the meaning behind we see this week would be lost. Karuta is the stage for Chihaya, and through some fantastic writing, she wages a war against the fate that has driven the three of them apart.
Taichi is the cornerstone of the entire first half of the episode. Starting the episode with one final flashback, he declares that when the three of them meet again, he will be the meijin, the grandmaster of Karuta.
Time makes fools of us all, and Taichi is not spared from such trickery. In the present, he not only has all but given up on the game, but has a girlfriend of his own! Rubbing salt on Chihaya’s wounds, he is affectionately called Ta-kun. Chihaya’s vision of her ideal future is threatened by time, and she fights it by declaring to Taichi her intentions to bring karuta back into his life:
Arata: Taichi! If I win the tournament on Sunday and make Class A, you have to help me start a karuta club!
Additionally, she vows that she will “make him pay for getting himself a girlfriend.”
Taichi takes up on her offer by attending the tournament, and meets remnants from his past, one of them being Dr. Harada, the karata society’s advisor. Harada is also taken aback by time, joking that he’s grown pubic hair and calling him Mr. Eyebrows. I’m feeling some neat vibes with a pair of neat parallels with FLCL, with Taichi being called Ta-kun (Takkun being the nickname given to Naota, FLCL’s main character, by Mamimi, one of Natoa’s romantic interests), as well as Eyebrows (referring to Amarao ). It’s no coincidence that a major theme of FLCL involved adolescence growing up.
The first counter-attack on Taichi’s outlook on life comes from Harada, who encourages to come back to karuta, and by extension, back to Chihaya:
Harada: You don’t want to turn into a two-timing bastard or you’ll never become a Master!
Taichi: Stop it. That’s not my goal.
The use of “two-timing” here is pretty neat, as it refers both to leaving karuta for soccer, and leaving Chihaya behind for some random girl. It’s not his fault, however, since there were reasons behind it, on multiple levels as well:
Taichi: But I always knew, deep down, that I could spend my entire youth on karuta without ever becoming better than Arata.
Did he give up at trying to beat Arata at karuta, or at winning Chihaya’s affection? The running parallel between love and games flows very well in this series, and it only gets more intense when Chihaya is inserted into the equation. She wants to win him back, but the only way she can do it is through karuta. When Taichi watches her spirited play in the early rounds, his excitement is being drawn out. The way he looks at her, combined with a fantastic musical score in this episode, feels like Chihaya is starting to take hold. Here’s my favourite line in the entire episode, coming from the card mistress herself:
Chihaya: Taichi. Sorry about forcing you into making a karuta club with me. But watch. I’m going to win, so watch me.
She tells him to watch him. Twice. This isn’t a mistake. He’s already watching her, but she’s telling him to look at her even more, perhaps the same way he looked at her when they were kids. She wants to defy the changes brought on by time, and she can only do so through her play.
Her finals match against a fellow B-class player is another fantastic event in terms of gaming anime. The stakes are absolutely high on both fronts. An A-class spot is up for grabs, as well as Taichi’s favor. She needs to win both, and she handles herself remarkably well.
The game itself is played out even more strategically before, centering around the passing back and forth of the Chihayafuru card between both sides. In competitive Karuta, each player begins the game with 25 cards in their own zone of play, and aim to be the first to clear their zone of cards. They do this by grabbing the correct cards, either from their own side, or their opponents.
It is a favourable strategy to take cards from the opponent’s side, because at the beginning of the game, each player is allowed to arrange the 25 cards in his or her own zone in the way that they want. It allows for easier memorization, thus faster clearing of cards in their own zone. By taking cards from an opponent’s zone, you are able to transfer a card from your own zone to theirs, making yours smaller, while having cards that you have better memory of in the opponent’s zone.
This is the strategic basis of the game that Chihaya played with her opponent in this episode. Zone control with the Chihaya card was her strategy, and when the moment of Deux Ex Chihaya came (that being the lucky draw of the Chihaya card for the winning play), it added another level of strategic depth in the game, making for an exciting match for the viewer, with the help of side commentary by Harada. The match is so fierce, that Taichi feels the thrill that Chihaya is experiencing in that game:
Taichi: It looks like you’re having fun, Chihaya. Is it because you’re the one who’s playing? Was it fun because we were the ones you were playing with?
Story-wise, this is a fantastic line because he harkens back to older times, as Chihaya planned all along. The flashback to young Chihaya doing the same karuta swipe pose is absolutely impeccable, and was brilliantly done.
When Chihaya wins, she knows she has won the battle against Taichi, and she leaps through the window with an embrace, making for a huge moment for TaiChi shippers. But what good is a battle without a formidable opponent? Just when Chihaya feels that she is catching up to Arata in skill, she gets shot down in the worst way possible, at the very last moment. She thinks about him longingly when she calls him after the match, but is brought down to earth by his response:
Arata: Could you stop? Sorry, but don’t call me again. I stopped playing karuta.
Combined with the really quick flashbacks from the previous episode, this moment is utterly devastating for the viewer, and it was made possible through the development of the characters as youngsters. Without those flashbacks, the effect of Arata’s abandonment of karuta is lessened. We know how much he loved karuta as a kid, and we know how much his passion towards the game means to Chihaya by extension. It completely justifies the pacing of the show so far.
Chihaya: I always thought that the three of us would be reunited. I thought that we would never change.
War stories are great in that they are told through its individual battles, and despite victory or defeat, it’s difficult to tell who will truly win at the end. Although Chihaya managed to get into class A through her inspiring play, her thoughts and feelings towards Taichi and Arata are as clouded as ever. She may have won in Karuta battle, but she has accepted her defeat in the hands of Time.
I feel that her loss won’t change her view one bit. She’ll keep going. Karuta is all that she has, and she will use it to build back the friendship that she once had, and perhaps building something greater than friendship.
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.