I stand by what I said before about Subaru and the team of Fukuho working better as thematic devices than actual characters in the story of 2.43. But I never really meant that as a drag, and once the show actually gets going in showing the volleyball and bouncing that illustrative effect off of the actual focal characters in Seiin, the Subaru Crew fulfill their purpose quite nicely. We're finally into that hyped-up tournament match with this episode, and for all my grumbling about the delays and detours we had in getting here, I have to admit, it does seem to have been worth it so far. It's almost astounding that so much can seem like it's actually happening in this show when it feels like committing to that energy.
On the one hand, for the first few minutes of this game you'd be forgiven for thinking Seiin was just a random opponent for Fukuho to step on in their journey here, near-total focus that the latter continues to receive. But on the other hand, holy cats, we get to see an actual volleyball game really played in 2.43! There's a focus on the plays that lead to each point scored and everything! It doesn't last, of course, as the depiction does eventually accelerate and skip to the end of that game to show Fukuho indeed winning that first set. But it's accompanied by supplemental flashback material to just-earlier clarifying events, which continue that dancing interplay of player motivation with the feeling of ongoing game-time that 2.43 loves so much.
There's almost something funny about the point that Ochi's pivotal injury from the very end of the preceding episode gets revealed as less and less serious every time they look back on it here. We don't even see his state in the hospital as the rest of the team convenes there after the event, but then additional material later in the episode shows he only fractured his arm, and was sitting up just fine in the ambulance giving last-minute advice to Subaru, even apparently getting ready to come back to the auditorium before the tournament match is over. 2.43 has of course never been shy about exploiting any and all scenarios for maximum drama (more on the Seiin side than their golden-boy rivals in Fukuho here), so this fits with that, and does create an effective irony for the audience: What happens when you have the ‘Good Guys’ in a story, the ones with a pivotal narrative reason for taking victory, who aren't actually the ones favored to win by the plot at all? Everyone's the hero of their own story, but in real life someone has to lose. As a way to communicate the more ‘grounded’ sports style of 2.43, spending all this time setting Fukuho up this way does help drive home that idea.
Weaving that drama in with the actual volleyball-playing creates more of an arc to the game than I think 2.43 would commit to otherwise, and thus does give me more of a twinge of curiosity about the outcome of this match than I admittedly had previously. The sports element of this show gets by more on the sense of momentum and shifting tone than depicting specific pivotal winning plays. I don't know if that's a concession of the series to its abilities or a pure narrative choice, but in this particular moment, it works: I found myself engaged, really interested in this big tournament game. It's not just about Seiin trying to overcome the storied abilities of Fukuho, they're needing to surpass their own assured sense of narrative importance as well. That's an interesting, well-communicated hook, even if it can somewhat comically come off like the sides needing to compete via their own escalating drama. Sometimes that means Haijima having a brief, noted relapse into his bullyish ways before he course-corrects with the backing of Aoki, and sometimes it means Kuroba sustaining his own game-threatening injury with that most hallowed of volleyball-anime events: Getting smacked in the face with the ball.
Points like that are so much more crucial an indicator of the match's back-and-forth momentum according to 2.43's priorities that the actual scoring itself is easily secondary. We find out Seiin took victory in the second set just coming back from the show's commercial break, while their loss of the third set is simply stated to Kuroba by Haijima in the post-credits scene. I can't really call it a contentious choice, since if you've stuck with 2.43 this long you've probably cottoned to the fact that it just does things this way, but it is still A Choice. It means your appreciation for how the story is being told here hinges on how much you like the story itself; I find myself drawn into the dramatic see-sawing of Seiin's game chances in the moment, but I also recognize that the bottom could drop out of the momentum at any time with one wrong choice in focus. It makes it that much more important that the show keep my attention with brief sport-specific spectacles like Subaru's insane cross-shot, with laser-eye flashes and bold, more abstract lines on his arm as he swats the ball.
For all the feelings of pragmatism and real-world winners and losers its storytelling seems to be setting itself up for, 2.43 still comes off as a very feelings-focused story right now, and to its credit, I am feeling it. I'd almost say it was worth the flashed-back delay from last week, even as what works about this episode has less to do with any interest or sympathy for Fukuho they drummed up within me and more because of how effectively they spin the focus between them and Seiin, in time with their in-game momentum. I'm less cynical about the ultimate irrelevance of Fukuho's role because, right now, the show gets me to effectively question how this is going to play out. The weight of that momentum, apart any overdramatized twists, is the mark of a strong sports story.