Chihayafuru 2 25, the last episode for a while, was one of the few in recent memory where there was nothing at stake, yet, like most other episodes, it was fun as hell to watch.
I always like it when shows take a breather after an intense story arc, and everyone on the team should be taking some time after their accomplishments. In fact, the show takes a breather from Desktomu and Tsukuba as well, almost ignoring altogether the fact that they won C and D, bringing it up at all because it made it almost a sweep for Misuzawa. See you next season, guys, I hope. Instead, after the brief celebration bits and a moment of failed communication between Chihaya and Arata, we turn to Chihaya’s injured hand and the surgery she gets for it, and her rehabilitation.
There’s the physical part of it, of course. She can’t play Karuta for a month, the longest length of time since she learned the game. This frustration leads to the passionate review of the finals match, kindly sent her by Sakurazawa, whom I suspect we’ll see a lot more of next season, despair that she doesn’t seem to be improving as a player, and phone calls to Arata, where the show finally begins to work on the love triangle it’s been ignoring since season one. Arata tells her that in a match he always pictures himself in that room where he and Chihaya used to play as kids. Upon hearing this, something seems to unlock in Chihaya, though she’s too dense to figure out what it means apart that she loves Karuta and Arata as kind of the same thing.
While those moments are nice, I more enjoyed the other side of it. Kanade reads some of the poems Chihaya’s writing for summer homework and realizes she’s writing about Arata, and what that might mean. Walking home from the hospital with Taichi, there’s a lovely moment where she tries to warn him about his rival–by slamming him in the back repeatedly. A tall, handsome girls’ heartthrob getting smacked for his own sake by a diminutive bookworm with three eyelashes. I’ve never liked Kanade more. And so it ends for now. Last time it took two years to get a sequel. Will it take that long this time? Season two was just as good as season one. This series is a textbook on how to tell a story about a competitive sport, and if you thought a match dragged on too long or didn’t like how they handled the romance, such as it is, it’s not because the creators screwed up; they made choices. It’s maybe the classiest anime franchise that hasn’t found an ending yet. Just don’t make us wait another two years.
With Chihaya out of it and Taichi victorious and now class A, I thought maybe Chihayafuru 24 would let up a little. Heh.
It might not have had the emotional weight as the matches starring our team, but the Arata/Shinobou match is as intense as any match they’ve shown in either season. We get to it fairly late, after finishing up the Chihaya/Taichi scene they left us with last week, and a nod to the two remaining team members. Arata has a lead but it’s not insurmountable. We watch as he stretches it a little, only to have Shinobou roar (or swoosh) back. Two of the cards are so extraordinary that we get several instant replays of them both. The first demonstrates Arata’s blinding speed, there’s even a blowback that rustles Shinobou’s hair, and the card nearly pierces Chihaya’s forehead (good stop, Taichi!). The second shows off Shinobou’s remarkable accuracy, where she picks off the one card out of four that Arata clobbers a millisecond later, causing cards to fly in two directions.
Everyone watching knows this match is something special. We get the usual commentary from several people, and they’re mostly full of awe. Naturally, we also visit Shinobou’s calculating head. Oddly, we don’t visit Arata’s. Everyone is watching from outside him, and it gives him an aura of invincibility, especially when he smiles, unconcerned. The closest we get to what he’s thinking is when an old coach muses about his past. And when it’s over, he remains exactly the same, even diagnosing Shinobou as having a fever. True or false, it gives her an excuse that she will never accept but makes us shiver. She was playing SICK? Meanwhile, Chihaya watched with her mouth open the entire time. A couple of times I thought her narrow focus on the match might disrupt it. And I’m wondering whether Chihaya can really play at that level. We’ll have to wait for another season to find out, alas.
Toaru Kagaru no Railgun 11 is a double-treat for fans of the franchise, assuming we haven’t read the books.
We could easily guess what happened during the bouts with ITEM but we didn’t know the details. It was a little pocket of events where we could only watch and wonder if she was going to win or lose, get hurt, get out unscathed … We just didn’t know. But this week we start off with something so familiar that we’ve already watched it: the famous vending machine scene. I watched the Index version again last night and tried to find differences, but apart from some body language I couldn’t find any, only that it’s being told from Misaka’s point of view now (though some people who haven’t seen Index might be bewildered by Touma’s reactions, not knowing that in-between Railgun 1 and 2 he lost his memories and has no idea who Misaka is anymore). Most entertaining of all is Kuroko. She originally comes off as mockingly polite, not the reaction we’d expect from her. Now we get to see her what she’s actually thinking, ridiculous as it is, trying not to piss off Misaka but getting a good look at this “ape” who might be her boyfriend. Good stuff.
Anyway, the sister who intrudes on the vending machine scene shows up, Misaka drags her away, out of that happy moment in both series and back to the depressing plot. The experiment goes on, Misaka is at a loss what to do. And I frankly don’t remember what she does, apart from deciding to commit suicide by going after Accelerator, but that comes somewhat later, so we’re back in that pocket of plot uncertainty now. We do get Touma’s meeting of another sister (happily omitting how he told her and Misaka apart), so that side of plot will keep moving forward. But in the meantime, what’s Misaka going to do?
In Chihayafuru 2 23, with Chihaya no longer in it, we switch at last to the other players, well, two of them. For two interesting matches.
They contrast each other. Arata and Shinobou are going for the A level championship while Taichi and Rion tangle for the B, and if Taichi wins he’ll become an A player at last. A and S are two otherworldly players who play coldly and efficiently, while at the start T and R have a competition over who can bumble the most. T and A are playing mind games with each other, well, I don’t know what Shinobou’s mind is all about. She mutters things about how it’s best to play alone, and she’s rebuffed by Arata simply smiling at her. T and S’s mental battles are with themselves.
Which is more interesting? That’s a dilemma for Chihaya, too. She would love to see Arata play and study the queen some more, but it’s her steadfast friend Taichi in the other match. That she chooses Taichi says a lot about the possibly-nonexistent love triangle, so much so that when Taichi sees her come into the room he loses his sense of purpose for the first time all day. Luckily for him, Rion is facing issues of her own. Her team resents her success because of her failure earlier against Chihaya, but she regains her purpose when they turn back to her side, and soon it looks like another failure for Taichi, who hasn’t beaten five players in a row before. But, as we learn, neither has Rion.
Taichi is undone partly because he wants to finish early so Chihaya can watch the other match (not that there’s room for her), but when he finds his answer and finally gets the monkey off his back, we get one of the most moving scenes in the season so far. He grabs Chihaya by the arm to drag her upstairs, but she collapses in tears. He’s Class A now. She’s unbelievably happy. Meanwhile, Taichi had forgotten all about the rankings in his attempt to do what he thinks is best for Chihaya, maybe only now realizing that watching him was what she most needed to do. Well done. Next week we’ll get the tail end of the Arata/Shinobou slugfest.
Something interesting finally happens in Red Data Girl 11, and instead of mailing in the conflict like every other one, they actually do something interesting with it. That is, eventually. First we have more cultural festival scenes, where the kids enact the fight for the castle in, er, cultural festival ways, such as a backgammon tournament for the generals match, and capture the flag for the soldiers and in the latter we got a lot of ghosts from the original battle standing around looking unhappy. Among our main characters Izumiko is somehow entranced by Takayanagi, so subtly that I was saying “What the fuck is wrong with her?” while Miyuki runs around frantically looking for her. This works because the manipulation is subtle, no special effects, and because we don’t like anyone messing with Izumiko’s head. So it’s more satisfying when she snaps out of it, whipping up the wind around her, and, so she thinks, totally ruining any chance she has to become a normal girl. I guess that’s what the finale is all about.
Chihayafuru S2 22 didn’t draw out the Chihaya/Shinobou match at all. We even had time to watch Taichi stomp Retro-Kun. I’m relieved. I was worried this one would take two or three episodes to wrap up. It was also an odd match to watch. The mood was different, resigned and bittersweet. The music was quieter and gave an introspective feel. Also, there was less thump-thumping. Shinobou is too precise for that. Instead it was swoosh-swoosh as she took card after card.
And there was what was going on in their heads. I thought it an odd reflection of what Nishida experienced last week, except that while he kept crying out “Why? Why?” in despair, Chihaya kept thinking “How? How can I win?” And she tries. No panic attacks this week. This is the most determined Chihaya I’ve seen yet. Figuring that her bandage and finger brace were slowing her down she took off the lot–and paid the price. She shifts cards because she sees that Shinobou is left-handed (though why that isn’t basic, no-brainer strategy I don’t know). She does everything she can, and she gets a couple moral victories, but she’s no match for Shinobou. Maybe it was her injury, but you get the feeling that the Queen really is that much better than her. That might be the reason for the odd mood the show gave off, like it was resigned to the outcome. As for Shinobou, we get another glimpse of her isolation and loneliness. The fact that Chihaya comes up to her after the match and says “Let’s play again!” has foreshadowing written all over it, both for their progress through the later tournaments and as possible friends, or friendly rivals, something Shinobou has always been deprived of. … Well, Chihaya did win the battle of dorky shirts.
Meanwhile, Misaka’s struggles in Toaru Kagaku no Railgun S continue, as other ITEM members show up, fresh and full of fight. Well, one of them is. Mugino, the Meltdowner … Honestly, I’m used to the weird names in this franchise, “Imagine Breaker” and the like, but “Meltdowner” isn’t an inspired nickname. Look at Misaka, she’s called simply “The Railgun,” and it’s cool. They don’t feel obliged to add something to the end and make it “Railgunner,” or “Railgunnerer,” do they? It just makes it sound stupid. “Accelerator” is the exception, but he’s an exception to other things as well, like being a smug, smirking bishie I actually like. Which brings me back to Mugino, another smug, smirking character who bores me to tears. Hmm, maybe I just don’t like smug, smirking characters in general.
Anyway, Mugino fires away at the fleeing Misaka with the help of the third member, Takitsubo, who comprises the other half of ITEM’s great level 5 and 4 combo says Frenda (who thankfully can’t speak, but alas can still think out loud). Takitsubo takes drugs to make her AIM Stalker (another regrettable nickname) abilities work, so at the end it’s just exhausted Misaka and still-smirking Mugino left. Really, Misaka ought to flee, but it’s clear she’s intent on sacrificing her life to destroy the facility. Too bad it won’t be enough. Shinobou, working on espionage on her own, knows this. Too bad she’s caught by yet another AIM member, who doesn’t have a dumb nickname but has an “offense shield” or something and insists on adding “super” to every sentence, making her as annoying as the rest of them. Well, whatever, it’s looking pretty bleak for the good guys right now. I’m just wondering when Kuroko is going to show up.
As we expected from the previews, Toaru kagaku no Railgun S 8 features Misaka against a formidable enemy. A pity that this enemy is a smirking loli.
We’re introduced to ITEM, a quartet (at least) of supergirls-for-hire, as they’re given the job of covering the two research facilities that Misaka hasn’t destroyed yet. And while it’s nice of the show to give us an early glimpse, before the fighting, it didn’t do much to humanize them and thus make the story more interesting. The only other reason to introduce them so early would be because they’re recurring characters. We’ll see about that. Anyway, Frenda, the loli, asks to defend one of the places herself and so we get a, er, man-to-man battle that isn’t as exciting as it should be.
It looks good on paper. Misaka we know about. Frenda is apparently powerless, but skilled in espionage and mayhem, while Misaka isn’t. So we get bombs and fiery trails befuddling Misaka at first, until she figures a few things out. It helps that, not for the first time, Misaka’s opponent underestimates her. And so the battle goes back and forth for awhile until Frenda cons Misaka into not using her electricity and gains the upper hand. Seriously, at this point Misaka ought to be dead. Fortunately for her, Frenda’s a smirking loli who likes to say gloating things in between attacks, giving Misaka a chance to avoid further damage. Unfortunately for us, it also means any momentum the battle manages to build up gets frittered away whenever she opens her mouth. To be fair, the same happens when Misaka has a voiced thought, and some of Frenda’s antics WERE funny. But I’d much rather have had Misaka up against one of those other girls. They look like they can keep their mouth shut and fight. Happily, it looks like that’s what we’ll get next week.
While Railgun had its moments, it didn’t really live up to expectations. Meanwhile, Chihayafuru S2 21 was a great episode.
We had the usual side points but most of the time was spent watching two matches. First, Chihaya, trying to figure out how to play Karuta at a high competition level with her left hand–during the match, against a player bent on revenge for her team. Okay, her winning was a tad improbable, but Chihaya’s finding a way to win was the series at its best. There are setbacks (at the beginning she can’t even figure out how to sit right) and then discoveries, like how her opponent, like most people, isn’t used to playing against lefties, and a moment that I found terribly funny but perhaps the show didn’t, that she hadn’t thought to reverse her card layout. There’s a reason to love Chihaya: beautiful, determined, brilliant at karuta, but stupid at practical things. So she survives this match and wins the next, though it’s an afterthought, as in round two we switch to Nishida’s match against Arata, or “The Agony of Porky.”
Arata scored more than a perfect game in the first round and isn’t about to lose here (because, you know, the plot …), and Nishida’s confidence and high spirits come crashing down as the guy who beat him again and again growing up beats him yet another time. In spite of Nishida’s constant practice and determination, he’s simply not as talented as Arata and never will be. All he can do is keep fighting, which he does, and which only gives him a moment or two of respect in Arata’s inner monologue between executing dazzling moves that leave Nishida dumbfounded. Not only that, Nishida’s failures in the team matches the previous day leave him convinced that he’s let the team down–never mind the victories in the finals–and that he is the worst-motivated player among them. Utter bullshit, but losing a little can do that to you. It will be interesting to see if the series gets back to that. They won’t have time this season, in fact, since next week will certainly be Chihaya/Shinobou, I don’t know how much we’ll see of Nishida or the other teammates after this.
Meanwhile, Red Data Girl prepares its big story arc and leaves me hopelessly confused. It’s not the fact that I don’t know shit about Japanese gods, spirits or legends, but it’s all explained so poorly in this show that I don’t know what’s going on. In the story the school cultural festival is gearing up, and everyone in the know talks about it either as a school doing a warring states theme about defending an old castle, or about some contest between rival spiritual forces, since just about everyone in the school is infested by one or has one as a buddy. Much is made about Izumoko unbraiding her hair for costumes, which might unleash the himegami, unless it doesn’t. When the himegami DOES show up she does so with no glowing (boo!), just Izumiko in her school uniform, braided hair, only some overdone, tacky makeup to let us know, that and her haughty tone of voice. The Hime talks about humanity ending, or her ending, her powers, and other things to poor hapless Miyuki, and at the end comes on to him. Hmph, some goddess. But it makes you think that maybe being endangered is a good thing, if they’re going to act like that.
After several intense episodes Chihayafuru S2 20 finally comes up for air, and we have an episode with no match, apart from the first two cards of the individual match, which naturally don’t go so well for Chihaya. Her finger is injured enough (small fracture, or a chip, or something) that going for cards is intensely painful for her. Naturally, she decides to go left-handed … well, you can predict the result, though as I said, they’re only two cards in. So will this NOT be the year Chihaya faces Shinobou? At this point I don’t see how it could happen. Elsewhere we get the award presentation, a flashback scene, a strained meeting between Arata and Taichi (strained on Taichi’s side. Arata is oblivious), Sumire being goofy over Arata, lots of shots of other school’s players getting psyched up, and Shinobou being her wonderful, aloof, eccentric self. The usual.
The Sisters arc in Toaru Kagaku no Railgun S should be heating up, but you couldn’t tell it by episode 7, where the attention is divided into two parts, Misaka trying to take down the labs where the Sisters are being made, and everyone else being worried about Misaka. The former isn’t very interesting not because we know the story, but because it’s mainly happening offscreen, and the bad guys seem too bored to put up much of a fight, or rather, they’re waiting for the people who can put up a fight to show up. Unfortunately, that won’t happen until next week. The latter story has Kuroko obviously worrying about Misaka going out not telling her why, which makes Uiharu and Saten to worry about HER, sort of a subset of the original set of worry. It gets so pointless that they bring in a little girl searching for lucky cards and wind up searching for four-leaf clovers. And so, the episode is pretty much wasted.
Chihayafuru 2 19 takes the tension it’s famous for creating and stretches it farther than I could have imagined, and it didn’t break.
To do this, it cuts back. Last week they showed us every single thing that was going on in that room, with every player and every viewer. No time for that this week. The three games still going on are too important. The episode limits itself to Chihaya, Taichi, and Nishida, and their opponents, with only minor reaction shots from others. And the episode made some interesting choices. Chihaya wins almost as an aside. Oh, we go in her mind, but all she’s doing is trying to focus. Her injured finger isn’t mentioned, like it never happened. It builds to a nice final moment, lightning fast shots of faces in the room and from her past, and then it’s over (wait, did Rion double-fault? I didn’t quite get that), and after that, well, it’s Chihaya: Zzzzzzzzzz …
The focus switches to Taichi and Nishida. The former is playing through bad luck, the latter has something to prove. I was surprised that we got less of Nishida. He seemed to be due for a big moment, or some revelation or insight that gives him an advantage, but instead he catches up through experience and guile. As he says, he’s been playing longer than anyone else still in the tournament. Not very dramatic, comparatively (I mean, if this show WANTED to it could make Nishida scratching his ear the most dramatic thing you’ve ever seen), but it gets him even with his opponent. Instead, we get a lot of Taichi and his bad luck and weak self-esteem, and finally his decision, as Desk-kun says, to change. Also, and I wondered when the show would come back to it, the two boys work together to synchronize their remaining card, making it a 50/50 chance at the end (Retro-kun can’t believe it). Later, Chihaya tells Arata that he’s wrong about team Karuta, but this moment alone demonstrates how wrong he is. When the match is over it’s as if the show was too exhausted to make anything more out of it. It’s almost perfunctory. Or maybe the creators used up their allotted tension or are saving it up for the individual tournament next week. You don’t think we’re actually going to get a breather, do you?
Toaru Kagaku no Railgun S 6 worked out as I thought it would. A scene full of menace followed by reiterations of the series’ main themes.
There was no chance that Misaka would be able to put a dent in Accelerator, even if you hadn’t seen the arc in Index it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out. The question was whether Misaka was going to take a beating or not. There was no mention of it before, but we don’t know exactly how it played out. And it wasn’t until that Army of Sisters showed up to interrupt the battle that we had an answer. In the end we got what we expected. Misaka throws everything she has at Accelerator and he laughs it off. She’s no match for him. What comes afterwards, though there is no violence whatsoever, is just as interesting.
Misaka herself seems to have trouble treating the Sisters as actual people; they consider themselves guinea pigs (Shinobou also uses this image, though she says she’s changed her mind and now actively opposes the experiment) and seem to have no free will, making the theft of Misaka’s ice cream a contradiction, but it looks like she’s momentarily forgotten the details. I always thought it strange that she never befriended any. Well, this is more or less an aside. Misaka is a decent human being; besides, it’s her fault, she thinks, as she looks at a hundred of her selves. … Er, Misaka, couldn’t you just have followed them home? It would have saved you some snooping.
But Railgun is grounded in other things than clones and monstrous experiments. Her friends are worrying about her, and this means lots of phone calls from Kuroko to and from Uiharu and Saten, and a meet-up where she lies about where she was and no one believes her for a second. They make the point made often in season one: they’re her friends and they’re there for her. And at the end Misaka brings up another old theme: the senselessness of going off to fight battles alone. Looks like she hasn’t learned anything from season one.