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It's almost unfair how good Chihayafuru makes crushing defeat look.
Defeat in sports anime/manga is often more important than winning. Winning is good, it gives us happy moments, fun to watch etc. What it doesn't do is provide learning experience for the characters and what's more, it doesn't make us root as hard for them. Chihayafuru has done the winning streak for a while now, so a loss was imminent. Especially when it was a match between Chihaya and Shinobu. A match that got serious the moment admiration of Chihaya's tank top was over.
Never really a question about how it would turn out. Chihaya was injured, played with a taped up finger for most of the game and was against the strongest woman in the world of karuta. She would/should never have won the match, because she already has the team championship underneath her belt and her opponent is the "final boss" of sorts. As such, her getting two cards was more than adequate through which she even proved some gained knowledge - left-handed weakness - against her opponent. A little convenient, sure but a nice way to soften her defeat.
Whilst Chihaya's struggle was beautifully executed, Shinobu's background story was snuck in the most impressive of ways. She's been much colder in this season if you ignore all the Arata moments, so seeing her softer side has done wonders for her likeability. Of course it was beautifully done and went hand-in-hand with all the other emotional moments in the episode. Chihayafuru's drama at its finest.
That wasn't all there was to the episode. Before anyone forgets, the beginning of the episode showed us some fierce match-ups and then we saw a Mashima-Retro showdown ending with Mashima's domination. Following on from the main character's loss, it only makes sense for one of the male leads and in this case the most pitiable male lead to get his moment in the sun. An unexpected upside to Chihaya's loss is the benefit of the characters getting the focus.
In an episode where I held my breath one too many times, I find myself wanting to play karuta. Granted, not the first time this has happened but it just goes to show how good an episode is when you want to play after witnessing a crushing defeat for the protagonist. Chihayafuru really has done wonders in this episode and has three episodes to wrap up the individual tournament.
Chihayafuru 2 - 22 Extra Screen Caps
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An episode this good deserves a few more caps.