NOTE: This is the second part of my review on Chihayafuru. If you have not already, please read Part 1 first.
IV. Chasing Idols & Ideals
When I first set out to write this section, I was thinking that Arata was chasing his grandfather, or at least his grandfather’s legacy. But as I thought about it more, I realized that while that may have been true once, it is no longer the case. Chihayafuru never really articulated what Arata is playing for after he returned to the game beyond the simple goal of being the new Master, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. Arata may be working to achieve a goal, but he’s not chasing anyone. He’s entirely self-contained in his ambition in a remarkably humble and cheerful way. In fact, his exchange with Chihaya at the end of the second season, as she gapes (almost terrified) at his freakishly pleasant demeanor in the midst of his match with Shinobu, highlights how truly distant he is from Chihaya and why he is the idol Chihaya is chasing.
You can’t really be an idol while chasing after an idol yourself, because to do so humanizes you. Humans have desires, goals, risk not being able to catch up. Idols bear none of those burdens, at least in the eyes who idolize them. There’s no question that Arata is something of an idol or ideal for Chihaya (which is, incidentally, the main reason I’m convinced she can never love him—you can’t love a concept, only a person), and that his personal security in his motivations for playing allows him to be so calm and warm in the midst of a match.
Chihaya maybe be single-mindedly focused on becoming the best karuta player in the world, she may love karuta, but Arata is the ideal she sees as that goal. Chihaya, in some form, wants to become like Arata, perfectly confident and competent in her playing of the sport. Arata is her incarnation of such a state. It makes sense; playing for an abstract concept of “being the best” is tough to do for a long period of time. But if you (ironically) humanize that concept into an idol, if you turn it into a person that can been seen and touched and heard, you give yourself something to chase.
This is a profound observation on human nature from Chihayafuru, especially in a medium that so often provides us with characters seeking “justice” or “good.” It’s not bad to fight for abstracted concepts like that, but few people can truly sustain themselves on ideals without idols. An article I read recently for work talked about a survey done at DuPont, where the employees were asked to note what the greatest motivators were in their professional lives. The top two answers both dealt directly with acknowledgement from and interaction with other human beings.
Shinobu’s loneliness also highlights the natural human instinct to seek for ideals and idols. Shinobu is lonely because there is no one who can challenge her; in other words, there is no one after whom she can chase. She is a lonely idol, with nowhere to go. The best, she is robbed of both Chihaya’s ideal of becoming the best (a state she has already achieved) and of any potential idols. And when Arata comes cutting through the water into her world, she is loathe to let him leave without at least playing him once.
And then, of course, we have Taichi, who is chasing not only the girl he loves, but also her idol. He’s fundamentally mistaken if he thinks he can earn her love by replacing Arata (and I don’t really think this is what he is trying to do)—his new state would be no better than his current one. Is it better to be loved as statue, or ignored as an onlooker? No, Taichi is wisely seeking something else entirely, but he is chasing someone to do so.
V. Taichi Mashima
And so, we come to Chihayafuru‘s best character, Taichi. There are a lot of things to talk about with Taichi, but I think the best way to start is with the title jokingly applied to him during one of the recap episodes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
Taichi has chosen to inhabit a world of freaks, of people buried in an art-sport that he has only just begun to embrace. It’s a very real situation to be in—in high school, being reasonably talented in a bunch of things is usually enough to put you at the top (or near the top) of any activity you may chose to pursue. That’s the kind of life Taichi has been living until Chihaya ropes him into the karuta club. The world of karuta he enters in his pursuit of Chihaya is not a place where just doing “good enough” is works anymore. As he says in one episode, “I can’t complain. I haven’t put in the work. But it still hurts.” Playing against massively talent people and people who have been playing longer and harder than him, Taichi is finds himself in a really difficult situation. And, for a long time, he falls prey to a mindset I know all too well: “I’ll never be as good as them. They’re just more talented than me.”
It’s hard. It’s difficult to do anything where the benchmark is so far distant from where you stand. And it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s nothing you can do. They’re simply better than you, and nothing you can do will change that. But when Taichi rejects Dr. Harada’s offer to let him pass into A-Class by overriding the society’s rules, he also rejects one of the first lines he utters in the show, “I could spend my entire youth on karuta and never surpass Arata,” and says…
While he’s still unconsciously plagued by the mentality that he’s not talented enough, Taichi’s conscious decision to battle his own limitations, rather than taking the easy way out, is a critical moment for his character. He’s choosing the hard path, even when he knows it might not lead him to the place he wants to go. That’s an incredible decision to make—I don’t think the implications of Taichi’s decision were fully explored in the remaining episodes, but what is clear is that he’s chosen not to give up, even if never makes A-Class (which he does, thankfully).
Is that a wise decision to make? Is there a point where you should, as Taichi’s mother would say, “not play if you can’t win?” That’s not an answer either Chihayafuru or I offer (although I think Chihayafuru leans more towards playing anyways), but the significance isn’t in the wisdom of Taichi’s choice, but in the strength of character that it represents.
In essence, this decision becomes the new staple of Taichi’s character—in both his karuta career and his love for Chihaya. Even when faced with the pressurized existence of Arata in their silent competition for Chihaya, another battle in which Taichi has already all but lost, Taichi refuses to give up. Here, I suspect, Taichi doesn’t intend to just work his way through the journey. This is a game he’s playing to win and I, for one, hope everything he’s learned from karuta will help him win this one, too. After all, I tend to agree with Sumire…they do look good together.
VI. Talent, Hard Work, Effort, & Losing
The most consistent message that comes out of Chihayafuru is a profoundly realistic one: you can work your hardest, do your best, be talented, and sometimes it still won’t be enough.
If this is a depressing statement, it’s because we all most likely know from sad experience that it is true. There is always someone who’s better than you, more talented than you, works harder than you. Taichi is probably the best example of this (until the second season tournament in which he doesn’t lose a match—humanity triumphant!), but almost all of the characters in Chihayafuru deal with this reality at least once. Chihaya faces defeat far more often than your typical protagonist, and she doesn’t just shake it off either. Nishida loses a ton of matches in the second season, Hana and Komano both lose frequently, Akihiro finds himself drastically outmatched at mainland karuta—even Shinobu discovers this in her match against Arata.
However, my favorite portrayal of this comes near the end of the first season, after the Shiranami Karuta Society’s Tsuboguchi loses in the Mejin Challenger Finals. Chihaya, and Taichi find Tsuboguchi, a genuinely cheerful and nice guy, all smiles after his defeat, with only petty complaints about the heat, his opponent’s skills, and the length of the game. And then Harada walks in, an Tsuboguchi breaks down in the arms of his coach. Because it’s dreadfully, horribly painful to have done all you can to succeed and still fall short.
But there’s still something wonderful, as I said in the first part of the review, about pouring all of yourself into a single goal, into giving your best effort, into being fully human at one particular moment in time for just one instant of success. It hurts, it’s hard, and it’s always easier to just give into the fears that you’ll never get there because of everyone who stands in your way, striving for their own goals.
On a personal level, Chihayafuru asked me if I was happy with living my life the way I was. It asked me if I had ever truly given my best shot at anything before. It asked me what I thought about trying for something I might never get. Those are challenges I haven’t yet answered. But the world Chihayafuru displays, one in which you can devote your entire being towards something even knowing success might never come…well, the show makes it seem pretty appealing.