Toradora! – Episode 7

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“Just be yourself” is well-intentioned advice, but frankly a little incomplete. What if your genuine self isn’t actually a nice person? What if your most honest instincts aren’t the most charitable ones, and your greatest talent is tearing people down? The truth is, being yourself is a luxury within society, a privilege that demands either an unusually charitable disposition, or an unusually forgiving audience. To truly be yourself, you must first find your people – the soil that fits you, and the dynamic that rewards your natural instincts. Growing up is a process of both tempering your own instincts, and feeling around for an environment that accepts you – and until you reach that point, most advice about self-presentation is just going to sound like a sack of lies.

So it went for Ami Kawashima, a girl who cannot help but being sharp-edged and cynical and eager to roast. Rather than being rewarded for her natural self, Ami was taught to suppress her uncharitable instincts –  first as a woman, and then as a professional idol. When her actual personality gets her in trouble and her fake one gets her celebrity, what is she supposed to think about the value of sincerity? We are all told to “be ourselves” until it turns out that our honest selves aren’t socially beloved – then we are punished for it, thus learning the lesson that others are liars, and when they say “just be yourself,” they mean “just be a version of yourself that pleases me.”

Raised in such an environment, it’s no wonder that Ami hardened her feelings, adopted her façade, and began to sneer at the very idea of sincerity or honest friendship, particularly between men and women. But Kitamura believed in her, and through witnessing Taiga and Ryuuji’s lopsided friendship, she began to recognize that it is possible to be both messy and beloved at the same time. Ami would never admit it, and Taiga would hate to hear it, but witnessing Taiga being a disreputable little gremlin and still maintain the trust and respect of her friends was a monumental experience for her. Taiga essentially taught Ami that it’s possible to be sharp-edged and still loved; that we can embrace our uncharitable instincts at times, and that a relationship built on acceptance of our faults is far stronger than one built on a denial of their existence. The only people who want you to be perfect are people who don’t really want to know you – people like Ami’s stalker, who are in love with the idea of a perfect doll.

Of course, putting that philosophy into action is easier said than done. We all feel a little mean sometimes, and some of us deal with more underlying anger than others, but the world at large will rarely thank you for being honest to your uncharitable self. The plain fact of the matter is, if you embrace yourself in all your imperfect glory, you are going to have some people who relate to you more closely, and some people who are distanced by your personality. “Being liked by everyone” means ruffling the feathers of no one, which requires being either so saintly or so milquetoast that no one could find fault with you (and even then, plenty of people aren’t fans of saintly or milquetoast people). Living honestly begets natural friction, which leads to resentment, which leads to self-doubt, which can recreate an emotional shell. And though it’s important to respect the feelings of others, it’s also crucial to love yourself, and embrace the things that make you special and strong.

Now, hopefully all of this character analysis can serve as a literary life raft, as we attempt to navigate an episode constructed around that most ancient and dubious of anime tropes: the boob envy gag.

In general, the boob envy gag is a terrible, character-diminishing narrative conceit. Though plenty of people are insecure about their looks, obsessing over relatively boob sizes almost never feels like an authentic expression of a character’s perspective. Instead, the voice prioritized during a boob envy gag is generally that of the audience, an assumed male perspective that sees the characters as foreign, alluring objects rather than genuine people. Boob envy gags undercut the believable characterization of the characters in question, while also situating the audience in a voyeuristic, predatory perspective relative to the cast, rather than the equal, intimate placement characteristic of effective emotional drama. They’re fanservice in its purest incarnation: material that actively detracts from the storytelling to cater to the audience’s assumed proclivities. Here in episode seven, Toradora dives head first into the boob envy world, and does its best to find something worthwhile in this tired device.

This episode frequently feels like a sort of narrative flex, an experiment in whether extremely stale romantic comedy gags can be grounded in genuinely convincing character fundamentals. Perhaps I’m giving the show too much credit, but the very first scene seems like an example of this process, as Taiga walks in on Ami creating an intentionally misinterpretable scene with Ryuuji. This style of drama is cheap in the abstract; “walking in on something that can be misinterpreted” is artificial drama, drama built not out of fundamental disagreements between characters, but pure miscommunication artifice. Rather than learning more about the characters through the points where they disagree, situations like this are dramatically static, and often feel like the writers running out the clock. Additionally, scenes like this tend to cheapen our belief in the characters’ feelings, since they demand accepting that the cast are too stupid, static, and untrusting to hear each other out.

In Toradora’s case, at the very least, this hoary device is at least reflective of genuine character fundamentals. Pulling a trick like this is exactly the kind of shit Ami likes to do, as her every appearance so far has demonstrated – she loves abusing Ryuuji’s inability to handle flirtation, and loves being the ostensibly innocent centerpiece of a social scandal. Meanwhile, Taiga actually is supremely hardheaded, and while she likely understands that this situation is a farce, her general belligerence regarding Ami would never allow her to acknowledge that. It’s essentially a solid execution of a very bad idea, a combo that will define this episode as a whole.

At school the next day, Ami continues her assault, having clearly decided that Ryuuji is now a “project” of hers. But while Ryuuji can’t really counter Ami’s manipulation, Taiga is perfectly positioned to do so. Ami’s signature attack is using her ostensible perfection and airheadedness to corner her opponent, making them look like the villain. But Taiga is actually perfectly accustomed to already being cast as the villain, making her impervious to a lot of Ami’s tricks. It’s an oddly charming dynamic; Ami’s knives are deflected by the very quality she admires most, Taiga’s refusal to give a shit.

With Ami and Taiga happy to keep escalating, duty falls to Minori to defuse the situation, by literally lifting Taiga out of the argument. Minori might seem like an airhead, but her actions consistently demonstrate a keen understanding of social dynamics, as she persistently uses her very “airheaded” persona to disarm conflicts without ruffling anyone’s feather. Her understanding of social dynamics is actually quite similar to Ami’s – but unlike Ami, she uses her knowledge for good, attempting to smooth over situations that are making others uncomfortable. “Relationships are built on a variety of social pretenses” is a shallow deduction, something that’s obvious to anyone with much emotional intelligence – what is important is not your simple awareness of this fact, but what you choose to do with that information. Do you lord your savviness over others, sulk about the “artificiality” of society, or use your knowledge to make others feel comfortable and valued?

In Ami’s case, the lording continues unabated, but without much effect. As the gang goes swimsuit shopping, she once again attempts to grab Ryuuji’s attention, but mostly just ends up impressing herself. But while Ami can’t help but maintain her usual performance, Taiga immediately turns to him with her insecurities, proving she wasn’t truly concerned about Ami’s appearance at his house. Taiga may get frustrated with Ryuuji, but that’s precisely because she values his presence – by relying on him, she demonstrates what a key confidant he’s become, more trustworthy even than her friend Minori.

Dragging Ryuuji into the changing booth, she at last confesses to her insecurities about the swimsuit situation: Taiga is genuinely too petite for any of the adult swimsuits, and afraid of being shamed by the rest of the class. Though she generally doesn’t make a big deal about her own height, her usual behavior is likely a partial reaction to it. Being so small, she’s had to act big and loud, always ready to fight to prove her strength. But at a moment like this, her natural insecurity about being so small rises to the surface – a fear that feels totally natural for her character. Though “Rie Kugimiya-voiced pocket-sized tsundere” could itself be considered an anime trope, Taiga’s genuine anxieties about her size add a human relatability to her situation – one more way this episode somewhat rehabilitates its cliches.

After a whole bunch of dubious boob envy jokes, we at last get back to the good stuff at Taiga’s apartment, when Ryuuji asks “is having small breasts such a big deal?” Along with Taiga’s believable origins for her insecurities, Ryuuji’s simple decency regarding this situation is perhaps this episode’s saving grace. Though the situation is contrived, neither of these characters are performing for the audience – Taiga’s insecurities make sense, while Ryuuji simply can’t relate to her feelings of insecurity, rather than parsing them through some otaku stereotype. Even in an episode centered on an exploitative trope, one that generally reduces female-female relationships to pure performance for an assumed male audience, Ryuuji and Taiga still feel like people, rather than pandering or grotesque archetypes.

And so, knowing how much this means to Taiga even if he can’t relate, Ryuuji decides to help his friend. As Ryuuji knits up some pads and Taiga struggles to stay awake, the two once again serve as a perfect demonstration of their misguided desires. Taiga is desperate to  “trick” Kitamura, to entice him with a false self in the way Ami is accustomed to doing. But the real takeaway here should be how honest she’s already willing to be with Ryuuji, who accepts her unconditionally, and respects her insecurities even if he can’t understand them. Impressing Kitamura might feel like a great victory, but it is the people you don’t have to impress who you are truly close to. As Taiga declares that she’ll stay up until Ryuuji finishes, the two seem closer than ever, demonstrating yet again how the best romances are built out of close mutual understanding, not distant longing.

The plan goes off swimmingly (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), though Kitamura doesn’t seem particularly preoccupied with Taiga’s chest either way. And though Taiga almost drowns at one point, Ryuuji is there to save her, and even maintain her hard-fought boob dignity. Boob envy jokes weren’t redeemed by this episode, but actual topic aside, every step of this journey served as an affirmation of Ryuuji and Taiga’s humanity, as well as their close personal bond. It’s an odd thing to smile at these heroes sharing a victory cheer over fake boobs; but ultimately, what is most important is that these characters remain vulnerable and human, wherever their choices may lead. Earnest writing can make winning drama out of pretty much anything.

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