Episode nine follows Rei after his surprise meeting with Kyouko, as he heads for the Shogi Hall and his match with Mr. Matsunaga. He’s conflicted, and naturally so, considering what’s on the line for Mr. Matsunaga along with Matsunaga’s unrivaled age and experience. The man is sixty five years old and has played Shogi for forty years. Perhaps if Kyouko hadn’t mentioned the possibility of Matsunaga’s retirement should he lose, Rei wouldn’t be so conflicted about the match. How could anyone effectively kill someone’s shogi career without feeling a little bit of hesitation?
Rei spends the train ride thinking back on Kyouko’s comments and Mr. Matsunaga. He can only imagine the experiences of a man who’s played shogi for forty years, but what he finds is a bit unexpected. Unlike the assumption that with age comes wisdom and respect, Mr. Matsunaga is quite the funny man. Not only is he praying to God to let him win, he draws a fortune slip too and gets distraught over its results. This is not the Matsunaga I was expecting, and neither was Rei. I had expected a calm and collected sage, but I was instead faced with a panicking old man. This baffles Rei as it should, almost nullifying all the inner conflict he had on the way there.
When Mr. Matsunaga arrives in the Shogi Hall, Rei is prepared for the match. He’s interested in the knowledge behind forty years of shogi, but Mr. Matsunaga panics and slips up the match, leading to an easy albeit confusing victory for Rei. Although it was rather comedic at first glance, the episode later reveals the true thoughts in Mr. Matsunaga’s head. Mr. Matsunaga was fearful of Rei, believing him a Grim Reaper of sorts to end his shogi career. The memory is muddled by a black haze of sorts, reflecting Mr. Matsunaga’s dread for what he thought to be his final match. However, once he saw Rei, his dread was wiped away. In its place came acceptance that someone like Rei was a fine candidate for his final match, but deep down Mr. Matsunaga didn’t want to lose. Winning feels amazing, but losing destroys him, and when asked if he loves shogi, Matsunaga cannot answer. But I think the fact that he chose to keep playing, the fact that he was pushed to tears as Rei asked him that question by the riverside, proves that Mr. Matsunaga does love shogi. Something that Rei understands perfectly.
Beyond the passionate shogi lover in Mr. Matsunaga is an lazy, endearing old man. He forces Rei to treat him to an expensive eel dinner, which looked amazing by the way, and later goes on drunk tangents about the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate and Fukushima. He complains about doing chores at home and guilts Rei into submission. It sounds horrible, but I found it quite adorable. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the one in Rei’s position, but Mr. Matsunaga is a snappy old man I can root for. He may not be the wise sage one I expected, but the goofy gramps he turned out to be is in a way, even better.
Episode 10 follows the idea of episode 9, introducing Rei’s next opponent through Kyouko and following Rei himself to the actual match. Unfortunately, it isn’t as pleasant as the experience with Mr. Matsunaga was.
Under the guise of forgetting her watch, Kyouko meets up with Rei once more to inform him of all the rumors revolving around Mr. Yasui, his next opponent. Kyouko describes him as a bad loser who takes out his frustrations through gambling, much to the disappointment of his wife and daughter. Now facing divorce, his match against Rei is what Kyouko deems to be the deciding factor of whether Mr. Yasui’s last Christmas with his family will be a happy memory or a terrible one. This is a terrible burden to place on Rei’s shoulders, and it’s toxic of Kyouko to not only do it once as she did with Mr. Matsunaga, but to do it twice. It’s almost as if she’s testing him, pushing his buttons and trying to see how far Rei will stretch before ripping apart. Rei himself even describes her words as “dripping in poison,” and honestly Kyouko’s voice actress nails that part completely. Hidden behind the beautiful Kyouko and feigned ignorance is a pool of bitterness that leaks through from time to time.
As a once again conflicted Rei heads towards the match, Kyouko’s words repeat themselves in his head. When he finally meets Mr. Yasui, those words only grow louder. The “Merry Christmas” bag in Mr. Yasui’s hand a grim reminder of the stakes, and the faint smell of alcohol in Mr. Yasui’s breath an omen for what’s to come should Yasui lose. Nevertheless, Rei plays the shogi game as he always does, for the win. When I first met Rei Kiriyama, I may have assumed he’s the type of character to throw these games to help his opponents, but I’m glad to see that’s not the case. After defeating Mr. Yasui, who gave up extremely easily, Rei’s pent up frustrations explode out. He runs into a park and screams his brain out, releasing all his feelings, calling out his opponents for being weak and forcing him into these branching roads where he has to make the hard choice each time. It’s a huge outburst that nothing really from earlier on in the series compares to, and it reveals that Rei wants to win. No matter the situation, there is something inside Rei that pushes him to grasp for victory, rather than settling for a loss. He has everything to lose because Rei thinks shogi is all he has. Perhaps the Kawamoto family will change that, but for now, shogi is his life.
The match with Mr. Yasui itself was a pleasure to watch, with just the solid music accompanied by the visual cues. Mr. Yasui’s frustrations and eventual resignation are visibly clear thanks to Shaft’s wonderful work in both cinematography and body language. Hell, even their drinks represent their different levels, with Mr. Yasui finishing both bottles while Rei only downs one.
Overall, the episode was great. I enjoyed the match and watching Rei let it all out was cathartic for me as well. Looking forward to more!