Having survived Toradora!’s darkest hour, we arrive at an episode that announces itself with one of the franchise’s greatest assets: Minori Kushieda, and her inexhaustible inventory of weird noises.
Minorin’s Whole Deal is one of the most compelling ways Toradora! pushes back against anime romance convention. For as complex as they are, Taiga and Ami still resemble recognizable archetypes – in contrast, Minori is both weird and intelligent in ways that aren’t often recognized in anime, much less framed in the context of the “perfect romantic ideal.” Minori is always too unabashedly herself to fade into her narrative role, always doing things that push others out of their comfort zones, and steering the narrative when you might expect her to be stepping aside. As we’ve discussed, her play-acting is ultimately its own kind of defensiveness, but her behavior is unique in a way that makes her feel far more alive and distinctive than many romantic heroines.
In this case, the weird noises in question are the prelude to an announcement, as we learn that Taiga and Ami will be competing in a fifty meter swimming race. Taiga was happy to passively benefit from Ryuuji’s support, but with Ami having entered the ring, she now has a competitor for his attention. As Ami haughtily describes the summer plans she has for Ryuuji, Taiga turns deaf with rage, and threatens to bring hell itself down on her new rival. But with this challenge now entirely divorced from either Taiga’s pursuit of Kitamura or Ryuuji’s pursuit of Minori, a question emerges – one that entirely defines this episode, and thus rightly serves as its title. “Who Is This For?”
To answer that question, we must first engage with the context of this competition. Though this is theoretically a personal disagreement, the execution of this competition is painfully public, starting from Minori’s theatrical challenge-selection. Later on, the students create a betting pool, with their raucous comments forming a humorous chorus of commentary on the ongoing drama. The stares of the crowd are consistently emphasized, and in the wake of last episode’s disaster, Taiga even specifically admits that she “will never, ever practice in class again.” Again and again, this episode emphasizes how much of their behavior is a performance for someone else, necessitating a conscious understanding of your public presentation.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that both Ami and Taiga are attempting to establish distinct public narratives of Ryuuji’s behavior. Ami genuinely likes Ryuuji, and genuinely dislikes Taiga, and thus this situation is all benefit for her: she can establish Ryuuji as “hers” and take something away from Taiga at the same time. But for Taiga, the situation is a lot more complicated. As she’s not actually pursuing Ryuuji, her “victory conditions” are narrower – she is attempting to save Ryuuji from Ami’s clutches, while also framing her consideration for him as a reflection of her hatred of Ami, not her feelings for Ryuuji. Taiga is attempting to extricate Ryuuji from the class narrative altogether – to make this a story about her and Ami, freeing him to continue pursuing Minori.
Of course, that’s only what Taiga is telling herself, not what she actually feels. And to make matters even more complicated, Ryuuji can’t even parse her actions on that level, and instead is totally convinced by Taiga’s “I’m just doing this to punish Ami” performance. Part of Toradora!’s charm is the profound combination of earnestness and obliviousness expressed by its central pair; in contrast, basically every secondary character has already figured out the game.
Kitamura is the first to demonstrate this, offering the two a pair of tickets to the public pool, in order to save Taiga the embarrassment of practicing in class. You could theoretically interpret this gesture romantically (our reliably oblivious Ryuuji chides Taiga for a “missed chance” for a date here), but his behavior towards both of them doesn’t seem to support that. Instead, it seems clear that Kitamura has realized Taiga is great with Ryuuji – that after years of being unappreciated, she’s finally found someone she can be herself around. Even this very conversation illustrates the difference in their dynamics, as she flubs words and adopts an insecure tone, returning to performance to avoid disappointing her crush. Kitamura admires Taiga, cares about his friend Ryuuji, and would love for them to be happy together.
Ami also understands the true game – she just doesn’t care. Tucked between the hallway vending machines, her chosen sanctuary underlines the sad contradiction of her personality. Here, she can avoid the whispers and passed notes of the classroom, the need to be perpetually charming and vulnerable and pure. Ami performs more constantly and fervently than anyone, and in the face of that, she requires a place where she can just be herself. The walls of the vending machines act as a natural metaphor for the tragedy of her situation: the only place where Ami can act authentically is the thin margin of these two metal walls.
Talking with Ryuuji, Ami is once again oddly charmed by his earnest obliviousness. Her commenting that “the tiger’s pretty cute when she’s jealous” is met by “jealous of what? She just doesn’t like you,” to which Ami rightly asks if Ryuuji is stupid. But rather than clarify Taiga’s position, she instead reaffirms her own, declaring that she is “serious about winning, and about spending the summer with you.”
Ultimately, Ami might actually be more mature in her understanding than Minori and Kitamura, in that she sees Ryuuji and Taiga have some weird thing going on, but isn’t going to let that stop her from pursuing what she wants. No love is destined, and if those two want to wander around each other’s feelings forever, that’s no reason to delay her own happiness. Ami likes Ryuuji, is willing to say it, and is going to pursue him unless forced otherwise. Her blunt, authentic self-interest is a godsend to this narrative; everyone else is an adolescent treating romance as some distant ideal, but Ami has no time for any of that nonsense.
The last to offer her “blessing,” such as it is, is Minori. Bumping into Ryuuji after school, she acknowledges everything that he’s done for her friend, and puts her formal support behind them. With the angle of the shot explicitly designed to shade her expression, there’s a sense that this is a letting go as well; an acknowledgment that she and Ryuuji have no future, just like Kitamura and Taiga. Even this early in the series, both of their crushes seem to understand that Ryuuji and Taiga are better for each other than anyone else could hope to be.
But while all their friends already know what Ryuuji and Taiga mean to each other, the pair in question are still fumbling in the dark, interpreting gestures of kindness through a filter of intense self-consciousness. Taiga notices Ryuuji praying for good practice weather, but says nothing to him about it. Instead, when the weather turns terrible at the pool, she expresses her feelings by declaring she’ll stay and practice – something that Ryuuji misinterprets in turn, saying that Taiga must not want “the tickets Kitamura got us” to go to waste.
Taiga gets angry at this line, but even she can’t fully explain why. For each of them, framing their actions as a pursuit of a third party has allowed them to get emotionally close without really considering how close they are. Their comfortable tone implies a slight degree of antagonism, an understanding that they’re only collaborating in order to achieve a mutual goal. But at this point, Taiga is actually trying to do things for Ryuuj, and feels frustrated to see her efforts interpreted as being aimed at Kitamura. The distance between their acknowledged and actual feelings is pulling them apart at the seams, leading Ryuuji to eventually ask “do you want me to understand, or not?” And in response, Taiga offers the only answer she can: “no one could ever understand how I feel. After all, I don’t understand myself.”
Taiga does not possess a clean answer to this episode’s title. She herself isn’t sure of or comfortable with the emotional changes she’s experiencing. She knows on some level that she’s doing these things for Ryuujii, and she wants him to appreciate that, but at the same time she doesn’t really want him to know about it. She was comfortable with the way things were, but is unhappy when her feelings are misunderstood, and frightened of a change that might break their fragile bond. This puts them at a stark impasse, where they’re too afraid of consequences for full honesty, and not even sure what their honest feelings are.
Her feelings are far too confusing for Ryuuji to parse, but fortunately, his mom is there to offer the simple answer. “Taiga always means the opposite of what she says. She cares about you.” And so Ryuuji chooses to believe this, and makes his own stand. The next day, he tells Taiga the truth, or as much of it as he has to offer: “I want you to win the race, and…” He can’t really finish that thought, but it’s alright; Taiga has been unable to finish that thought for days, but with Ryuuji on her side, she’s at last ready to commit to the race.
Taiga chooses violence from the start, of course, and begins the race by assaulting Ami with an army of pool floaties. She gets a cramp halfway through, but fights on regardless – that is, until Ryuuji gets knocked in the water, and her priorities immediately flip. With Ryuuji in genuine danger, this stupid competitive proxy war at last gets the best of her, and she lets out an honest roar of “Ryuuji is mine!” Taiga doesn’t care about this public performance, and resents being pushed against Ami – she just wants Ryuuji, and is tired of having to fight to prove it. Sometimes it takes a near death-experience to reveal a simple truth: they did this for each other.
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