Toradora! – Episode 9 | Wrong Every Time

Toradora!’s eighth episode found our leads fumbling around an emotional breaking point, unable to admit their feelings to either themselves or each other, and more fundamentally uncertain of what those feelings are. Taiga’s proclamation that “no one could understand me. After all, I don’t understand myself” basically embodies their feelings at this moment – having gone past the point of collaborating purely for the sake of their romantic goals, they are now closer to each other than anyone else in their lives. They are each other’s confidant, and even though their understanding of romance is still informed by the lofty dreams that push them towards their chosen crushes, their experience of romance is all contained in this odd dynamic they alternately call a partnership, a friendship, or something in between.

Adolescents construct their image of romance out of dreams, stories, and hearsay, seeing the entirety of the process as the actual pursuit of romance, with the reality of a day-to-day relationship fading into some kind of fanciful reverie. It doesn’t matter that Ryuuji doesn’t understand the first thing about Minori, or that Taiga chokes on her tongue every time Kitamura addresses her – those are just temporary hurdles, reflections of the intensity of their feelings, which will surely banish themselves the moment a confession is reciprocated. When your experience of romance is entirely hypothetical, you build an altar out of your feelings, and attempt to act in such a way that your performance fosters a reciprocal altar in your target of affection’s closet. You are a festive bird putting on a ritual dance, not sure if you’re more terrified of victory or failure.

In contrast, what Ryuuji and Taiga already possess is the steady, comforting presence of a trusted partner, someone you understand will have your back, and who you’re unafraid to show your frailty or weakness. Someone who’s accepted the most uncharitable parts of you, someone you can turn to when you’re feeling vulnerable, someone who doesn’t ask you to perform strength, or wit, or intellectual brilliance. Ryuuji and Taiga are perpetually preoccupied with making themselves look good enough for their crushes, not understanding that such a performative high-wire act could never resolve into a relationship worth pursuing. In each other, they have found something far more valuable than the giddy rush of adolescent infatuation: they have found a true home, a place to rest and recuperate, a harbor in the storm. Their rough edges suit each other perfectly; not only do they accept each other, they bring out the best in each other, too.

Taiga, at least, is beginning to realize her feelings are more complicated than “Ryuuji is a useful tool to get me closer to Kitamura.” The defiant performances of strength she once dedicated to Kitamura are now more often being aimed at Ryuuji, as she embraces ridiculous contests or forces herself to swim in a downpour in order to protect feelings she can’t even admit to herself. Unfortunately, their uneven levels of self-knowledge are causing new problems, as Ryuuji’s failure to understand this shift prompts a sense of rejection and subsequent anger in Taiga, muddling their ability to communicate with the tongue-tying influence of genuine affection. But I have faith in them, and faith in their friends (well, maybe not Ami) to guide them through. After all, what better time for a new romance than summer vacation?

Episode nine opens with Ryuuji’s subconscious unpacking the feelings he still refuses to acknowledge. We begin on a bizarre nightmare, wherein Ryuuji begs Taiga to marry him, she begrudgingly agrees, and he ultimately finds himself living in a doghouse with a litter of puppies. His nightmare reflects both his horniness and his confusion regarding his relationship with Taiga, while also exemplifying a real and understandable fear: how could he consider a relationship with Taiga when she doesn’t treat him as an equal? In truth, we in the audience have a pretty firm lock on Taiga’s bluster as a defensive coping mechanism, a way she attempts to fill space and assert herself in spite of her small stature. But Ryuuji has no reason to interpret her actions as insecurity or fondness, and what’s more, he shouldn’t have to. In spite of Taiga’s underlying psychological intentions, the plain surface reality of what she is doing is unfair to Ryuuji, and demands some explanation if she expects him to continue standing by her side.

As it turns out, Ryuuji’s puppy dream was largely inspired by his and Taiga’s strange taste in horror cinema, meaning Taiga wakes up from basically the same nightmare. The two of them performatively lament the “abject horror” of their dreams, unwilling to admit to the fledgling feelings those dreams represent, with Taiga ultimately declaring that these dreams are a premonition which must be averted. Of course, instead of following that line with something like “we need to stop hanging out together,” or anything else that might threaten their bond, her takeaway is “we need to have each other’s backs on this summer trip.” Even when acting from an ostensible desire to avoid Ryuuji, Taiga can’t help but propose actions that will actually bring them even closer together.

The absurdity of Taiga’s position is further underlined when we actually witness them hatching their summer plot. Taiga’s plan for their vacation is to capitalize on Minori’s fear of spooky things, by creating a fake ghost that Ryuuji can swoop in to rescue her from. It’s as arbitrary and inauthentic as all of their plans for impressing their crushes, and as is so often the case, the contrast of their immediate circumstances serves as a smirking sendup of their intentions. As the two of them plot to use arbitrary tricks in order to create some kind of “crisis romance” between Ryuuji and Minori, they’re actively sitting at a coffee shop, enjoying each other’s company and shooting the shit – precisely the sort of casual, getting-to-know-you date situation that might actually bring Ryuuji and Minori together. But no, they gotta go with these arbitrary “prove my suitability as a mate” shticks, because they’re simply more comfortable with that than admitting their feelings.

Arriving at the airport, our leads discover Kitamura and Minori being absolute weirdos, performing some kind of synchronized line dance and mostly just confusing our leads. The two clearly understand each other’s wavelength much better than our main pair – but perhaps more fundamentally, they’re simply not afraid of looking silly, and thereby alternately come across as impossibly cool or insanely weird. Confidence is an incredible power in high school; those who aren’t ashamed of who they are, or of revealing their eccentricities, either become social epicenters or wild eccentrics. In the case of these two, it seems they’ve chosen to be both.

But this sequence does more than just illustrate the difference between our lead characters – it also simply celebrates teens being weirdos, and embracing odd flights of fancy just for the hell of it. If every action by a given character is purely functional in a narrative or thematic sense, you can start to get the sense that they only exist in service of the plot, and that their world has no substance to it beyond these strict narrative actions. Moments of oddity like this, little digressions in the narrative, or personal jokes shared by the cast – all of these things add a sense of texture and depth to the characters and world, maintaining the sense that these people are rich enough to genuinely surprise you, and distinct enough to be worth remembering. There is great power in incidental and seemingly “purposeless” embellishments of character.

After the gang settle in at Ami’s beach house, Kitamura announces he’s heading into town for food, to which Ryuuji cannily suggests he take Taiga along. But Taiga declines, and when Ryuuji challenges her on it, she states that “we need to find a good place for a plan.” That admission, and the lopsided priorities it indicates, embodies what is most alluring about Ryuuji and Taiga’s overcomplicated schemes. Through these contrived attempts to engineer romantic scenarios, Ryuuji and Taiga get to enjoy the satisfaction of “making progress” and “pursuing your crush” without any of the anxiety of actually engaging with them directly. This emotional safety net undoubtedly makes their activities useless as actual steps towards romance, but nonetheless provides that validating sense of “doing your best” without any threat of failure.

But sometimes, fate conspires to push us beyond our comfort zone. After various shenanigans with a naked Kitamura, showering Ami, and an extremely spicy curry, our leads each get a perfect chance to get closer to their crushes. Complaining of a stomach ache, Taiga heads upstairs with Kitamura in tow, while Minori and Ryuuji retreat to the patio. It’s the ideal moment alone for each of them, the perfect opportunity to get closer or even confess to their crutch. So how do these perfect opportunities play out?

For Taiga, it’s an anxiety nightmare. While Kitamura offers choice leading lines like “it hurts me to see you in pain, you know,” Taiga vibrates in silence, too anxious to say a word. Her romantic feelings and psychological elevation of Kitamura have erected an impassable barrier, preventing her from getting to know and feel comfortable around Kitamura in the way she’s become accustomed to Ryuuji. Watching her stare saucer-eyed at the accommodating Kitamura, it seems clear that Taiga needs to be guided into romance via a gentle on-ramp of friendship and partnership, and has no ability to simply dive in at the deep end by announcing her feelings.

Meanwhile, Ryuuji and Minori are enjoying a quintessential romantic moment, talking idly and sharing a private snack as they stare up at the stars. With Minori on the balcony railing and Ryuuji in a chair below, it appears as if he’s staring up at a goddess, her aura connected to the stars themselves. With her eyes deliberately concealed across a series of cuts, her feelings are a mystery to us, aligning us with the insecurity Ryuuji is mired in. It’s a sequence carefully designed to present Minori as Ryuuji sees her: angelic, unreachable, and infinitely mysterious. Staring up at his muse, Ryuuji screws up his courage and asks a brave question: “Kushieda, do you have a boyfriend?” And Minori’s response is somehow gentle and devastating at once: “do you think that seaweed ghost is still around?”

It’s a rejection, but it’s more than that. After a terrifying silent moment, warm strings accompany the reveal of Minori’s gentle expression, and she continues. “I believe ghosts exist, even though I’ve never actually seen one. But I don’t believe any of the people who claim they have. And, well, this applies to something else, too. I believe I’ll fall in love one day, get married, and live happily ever after… even though I’ve never actually felt that way about anyone. It’s like I live in a different world from the people who fall in love so naturally. And because I’ve never seen it before, maybe those ‘ghosts’ don’t exist either. I’ve nearly given up on ever seeing one. So… the answer to your question is no. What about you? Can you… see ghosts?”

Though she indulges in wild gags and frequently acts in ostensibly immature ways, her words here reveal a thoughtfulness and maturity that outstrips any of her companions. First off, her framing is extremely considerate to Ryuuji – not only does she avoid rejecting him directly, but she also frames her disinterest in a relationship with him as a more general statement about her feelings on romance. But beyond that, Minori is admitting to an uncertainty that’s genuinely scary, a fear that she might be “flawed” in some deep emotional way. In spite of that, she asserts that she’s still confident in pursuing her path, rather than embracing the conventions of those who are already hopelessly love-struck. She is not desperate to be loved – she is Minori, and will continue to be Minori without hesitation or regret.

It is unclear if Ryuuji entirely parses Minori’s metaphor, or if he’s even aware he’s being rejected. But Ryuuji is a nice guy, and so he plays along with Minori’s question, offering an answer that’s perhaps more insightful than he realizes. First admitting that he is at least interested in seeing ghosts, he goes on to say that “even people who can easily see ghosts are amazed by their first experience. Then there are people who’ve seen them, but deny their existence. And finally, those who have to work really hard to see them at all. But all in all, I see no reason to give up.” He ends his speech on a line that’s essentially a softer reprise of his initial proposal, telling Minori “I’m sure there’s a ghost out there who wants you to see it.”

Ryuuji tends to be a pretty direct guy most of the time, and hasn’t shown much of a knack for metaphor. Additionally, Minori is currently displaying a side of her personality that he’s simply not equipped to deal with, mired as he is in the adolescent crushes that Minori can’t help but distrust. But in spite of all that, his words speak truthfully to the ephemeral nature of romantic love, and the fears or misunderstandings that make articulating our experience of love so difficult. Ryuuji might not have the answer Minori seeks, but his words are earnest and compassionate – and regardless of how well he understands her, Minori can still take comfort in Ryuuji’s genuine support as a friend.

The episode’s final sequence offers a resounding counter to our heroes’ alleged feelings, as they reconvene after their failed confessions. Sharing a midnight snack and lounging carelessly on the couch, they enjoy each other’s company without effort, neither sparing a thought for how to best win the other’s approval. “I thought spending a whole day with Kitamura would be a thrill, but I was such a nervous wreck it shortened my life expectancy,” grumbles Taiga, before adding, “but I’m dead calm with you.” And Ryuuji, fool that he is, interprets this comment as an insult, rather than an admission of how close they’ve become. Even when Taiga notices how closely they’re clinging to each other, she can only interpret this as her having “gotten too used to being in that cramped apartment.” Having decided love must be the sick, terrified feeling they get in the company of their crushes, they cannot parse the love they already share – though Taiga, at least, is willing to admit “that dream wasn’t so…”

For now, a confession cloaked in ellipses is the best they can manage. Fortunately, Ryuuji and Taiga’s friends are not in fact idiots, and have by now realized their friends are utterly perfect for each other. In a final reversal of fortune, episode nine concludes with our heroes discovering they’ve become the latest targets of their own fabricated seaweed ghost. Sure, such contrived meet-cute scenarios might not be the most reliable courtship method – but the fact of it is, Ryuuji and Taiga are more or less already in a relationship, and simply haven’t admitted it to themselves. If Ryuuji and Taiga are so certain that seaweed and spooky noises are the only things separating them from true love, their weird friends are happy to provide.

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