Just in time for St. Valentine this year, I’ve been rewatching Toradora with my teen siblings and have found that my appreciation of it has only grown. I like its summer night skies and its dark winter, its bittersweet songs, the red or golden evenings at the school or near the river. The brilliant, casual way it tells important things through small details (Ryuji Takasu’s passing comments about his father in the very first episode are crucial to his character, for example). The way it manages to be both a clever, almost absurdist character comedy and an intimate drama that goes deep into the problems, passions and insecurities of its teen cast. The steadfast commitment to show something genuine in all its messy hope. The way it refuses to play it easy and chooses a path a standard romcom wouldn’t dare to. But most of all, I like the code. Because, at heart, I think Toradora is a story about heroes—messy, flawed, hurt, confused heroes.
“There is something in this world which no one has ever seen,” the series begins. “It is soft and sweet. If it is spotted, I’m sure everyone will want to have it, which is why no one has ever seen it. For this world has hidden it quite well, so that it is difficult to obtain. But there will come a day when it is discovered by somebody, and only those who should obtain it will be able to find it. That is all.” There is remarkable depth in this description of love. Genesis tells us how, immediately after the Fall, man and woman realized that they were naked and vulnerable, and resorted to clothes made of leaves, hiding from God, who is Love, and from each other. Later, He himself gave them better clothes, as they had to go to the outside world—towards exile.
Even since then, sin threatens love, and shame prevents intimacy; even as we thirst for love and communion, we need clothes and armors (bokkens, bats, charges in the high school council, homely duties, professional facades) to survive, work, build, and sustain our identities and relationships. They are there to defend us, but they may become obstacles. If we don´t love justly, properly, and truthfully with real openness, as God has written in our hearts, we will only be deceiving ourselves, and we will see it all fall apart. Even if we do it justly, we may see it fall apart anyway. We hurt others and we are hurt. We throw our pearls to pigs and they trample then under their feet, or maybe our feelings do not manage to come across. We may feel the piercing pain only those who have experienced it know, that overwhelming feeling that it wasn’t worth it after all, and we know that beforehand, just as Kushieda, Kitamura, Aisaka, Kawashima and Takasu do.
Both in Toradora and in this fallen world, the path towards that hidden treasure—romantic love, but friendship, too, and family love, love of a community, and even charity to enemies and near-strangers, without forgetting the love of God Himself—has become confusing and difficult, full of riddles and thorns, both on the giving and in the receiving ends. The show has something interesting to say about that kind of love (it turns out that our female protagonist, though not a believer, retained something important from her Catholic school, says that Christmas episode we comment about almost every year), and also about their crossroads, illusions, and misgivings. This is the “pure parade” of feelings the first opening describes: The calling and the thirst propel you onwards, the fear of sin and hurt propel you backwards, and there you are, trying to make sense of it all.
Arguably, teen years, when you are just discovering who you are, may be the worst in this respect. And thus, I cannot but admire the nobility with which these flawed, complex characters confront this messy world, their bonds with each other, the changes, the fury, the attraction, the solitude, the deep sadness: the enthusiasm, generosity, eccentric kindness and true commitment of Kitamura; the extent of the caring nature of Takasu, who gives stability and provides for the needs of those around him, while fighting against insecurity; The harsh, mature kindness of Ami Kawashima; Taiga´s messy courage, her sincerity and her sincere repentance; and, most of all, the way Minori Kushieda sees the world and her role in it. Among other things, this rewatch gave me the opportunity to calmly consider how things were from her point of view (just as Twwk did some years ago with that of Ami Kawashima).
As the opening lines suggest, God reveals us that there is a path, “one day”: Our encounters are not outside His Providence. There is a path. A wrong bag is chosen by accident, and so it begins. Spoilers from here.
Minori Kushieda does not believe in the invisible—ghosts specifically—but keeps searching for them. She does not believe those who tell her they have seen one, but she likes to speak about them, to hear spooky stories, to visit haunted places, sounding like a hopeful way out of the classic chuunibyou dilemma. Her attitude towards romantic love, as she calmly explains to a friend she has come to trust, is quite similar. Her parents were absent quite often, and she has always taken care of her little brother: She is strong-willed, clever, talented, energetic, determined, and maybe somewhat jealous now that her brother is not little anymore, but a captain in sports aiming for Koshien. She wants to leave a mark, too, and loves challenges, so she fights a good fight with diligence and enthusiasm.
In her second year at high school, she is the captain of the softball team, a self-proclaimed diet warrior, good with studies, works several side jobs while saving her earnings disciplinely, and cooks. It is interesting to compare the different facades of the five characters: Kushieda’s cheerfulness and determination are a reflection of her energetic nature, but she insists in not letting go of them whenever she is afraid, trying to encourage herself and others.
Yet she openly explains her reasons and feelings, sometimes using a quizzical language—not as quizzical as that of his friend Yusaku Kitamura, though—and is well-liked in her class while remaining kind of an oddball and having a close friend whome she cares for, Aisaka Taiga. The way she tries to takes care of Aisaka and strongly identifies with her may or may not have to do with the absence of her own parents (the acute Ami Kawashima notes at a point the somewhat parent-like way she and Ryuji Takasu, both children of absent parents, behave towards Aisaka), but so wounded or not, she is a true friend, or tries to be.
And when it turns out that which has made Aisaka lonely, embittered, full of rage and a social outcast are family problems, Kushieda tries to help. An apparent opportunity arises, but the situation is bigger and more complicated than Kushieda has resources to deal with. She fails, and Taiga is hurt again. Kushieda feels guilty, and while she remains a good friend of Aisaka at school, she painfully retreats from the home front. So, when the guy Kushieda kind of likes, the silent Ryuji Takasu, whose threatening face hides a timid nature and an habit of taking care of those around him, starts hanging out with Aisaka and it seems like something may be going on between them, she wholeheartedly resolves not to interfere. Even when it turns out that they are not dating, Aisaka still visibly starts to heal. She smiles more, has other friends now, becomes a part of the class, and lets go of much of her rage.
In March-Comes-in-Like-a-Lion style, Takasu has opened the doors of his household to Aisaka, who hangs out there whenever she wants. He himself being an only child whose single mother works at night, Takasu’s friendship has also a distinct fatherly element, and he provides Aisaka something she direly needs, even if she doesn’t notice. It cannot hurt to step aside, but helping Aisaka and having her as a common friend means that Kushieda and Takasu begin talking more, and as he extends his kindness to her, it becomes apparent that they are similar in more ways: They discover that they both like cooking, and more than that, Takasu is a good cook. More generally, he himself is a diligent worker at home with high moral standards and the habit of caring for others, trying to become courageous and expand his world, in part, due to Kushieda’s influence, though she does not know that.
Things as they are, he listens to her in a moment when she lets her barriers down, and urges her not to give up on either phantoms or love. Aside from being a very valuable friend, he becomes a strong influence, and her attraction to him cannot but grow with his acts of kindness. What complicates things now is that Kushieda is also jealous of him. He has been consistently helping Aisaka in a way she never could. When Aisaka’s capricious father comes back, Takasu doesn’t see through him (for him this is a dream turned real, in part because of his own father issues), thinking he is serious and pushes Aisaka towards him. Kushieda is both furious and unwilling to explain her fury, so she and Takasu fight and become distant. Kushieda repents, and after Aisaka is hurt again, she desperately cooperates with Takasu to bring her some consolation. Kushieda tries to push him to confort her alone, but he insists that they do it together. Then, she apologizes to Takasu, and tells him about her jealousy. They are friends again.
Things get complicated further, though, when Kushieda sees signs that Ryuji Takasu may actually like her, and she begins to feel guilty again. But hey, Aisaka likes a common friend, student council vice president Yusaku Kitamura (and also captain of the boy’s softball high school team), who shares with Kushieda a similar sense of humor. May she have mistook the situation? That would mean she has a chance with Takasu. But if she is mistaken, she would be depriving Aisaka of the most important person in her life, so she starts avoiding him. Under the pressure of this guilt, of his attraction for him and of the brutal honesty of Ami Kawashima, she starts to visibly crumble. An this is a matter in which her closest friends, Aisaka and Takasu, cannot help her. She is alone. Speaking with Takasu, she calls herself a hypocrite (kind of a paradox).
We have commented here a few times on what happens next, how Kushieda sacrifices her chance for Aisaka and turns Takasu down, and how she pushes Aisaka to confront her true feelings, and in doing so reveals hers in a brave and almost violent scene during which he calls Takasu a liar to his face. In this romantic comedy, she is the one that insists on something genuine instead of an artificial, inauthentic peace. She inspires Takasu to pursue Aisaka once he runs away, and considers herself paid even if she only gets a moment of Takasu’s kindness in return. She gives her savings to Takasu and Aisaka when they run away, even when expressing that she disapproves of their plan; the hurt she has in separating from Aisaka, given what she represents to her, is as great as the hurt of renouncing Takasu. She then decides to make herself vulnerable, and cries in front of Kawashima. And when Aisaka decides not to run away, but to start over with her mother, she interprets the last message of her friend, a lonely star representing hope.
But how so? At one point of Toradora, after learning that Kitamura is suffering, Aisaka Taiga looks to the stars and wonders how great is the real distance between us, even though we help each other with our own light. This is one of the most terryfing experiences for those who love, to realize that the distance remains, that time, circumstances, sin, wounds, misunderstandings, life itself, and the unfathomable depth of every human being, are in the way. The fear that sometimes we cannot truly help, even understand, those whom we love, and in turn can’t be helped by them.
Kushieda experienced that impotence, that guilt. And yet, there was someone watching over Aisaka, and a path of love and healing opened for her. And, unbeknowst to her, Minori Kushieda was helping it happen. Her daily fights had inspired the one who would be by her side. Her kindness and openness help him mature and grow. The painful sacrifice she was called to and Takasu’s love convinced Aisaka that she should love him right, sacrificing the immediate pleasure of being physically with him right now and focusing on the long term.
When Takasu and Aisaka are finally married (TWWK agurs them a happy future), it will be thanks to her. Similarly, we know that God has a plan to save and help us and others through His love, and that He counts on us to trust Him and give Him our free cooperation, taking the path of love. That often means that we should lead our loved ones, even a husband or a wife, to Christ, the one who can heal and reach them as we cannot, the painful role of the “friend of the spouse”. That also means that by serving others with our ignorance and our imperfection, we may become a sign of hope, a godsend (as Takasu was to Aisaka with his symbolic Santa costume on, as every husband should be to his wife), or even by helping them in ways we will not know in this life. God created us personally, but also connected, and Christ redeemed us the same way.
One who truly loves will come to understand that loving someone may mean to leave him or her when the time comes, as dire and dark this hurt may be, just as it may mean to remain there, even as it feels that the world is going to end. To suffer something almost unbearable for the love of another is a strong sign of Christ, a proof that there is something in this world that cannot be conquered by darkness, and thus of a hope not of this world, of something invisible. The path of Kushieda was providentially disposed so that she would inspire, heal, and unite Takasu and Aisaka through her painful sacrifice. This was the same thing she couldn´t achieve by her own strength.
And yet, Toradora happened because Kushieda remained faithful, because, as we are called to do sometimes, she was called to be the one who shouts the hopeful, difficult truth at a great personal cost, the voice in the desert, the friend of the spouse.
Of all the characters of Toradora, Kushieda is the one I would like to imitate in my own life. I would like to apologize like her, when I discern jealousy or pride tainting my intentions, when I give false hope to others without realizing it. I would like to balance originality and openness as she did. I would like to be foolish and hopeful enough to try to help, even if someone who knows the ways of the adult world would scoff at that pretense. I would like to fight to harmonize my feelings with my commitments, to work hard, to inspire others as she inspires Takasu. To be able to endure loss for others, to look the world with gratitude and hope, to open up, being both vulnerable and strong.
But most of all, I would want to be the one who loves when it is harder, because that is what Christ did, and all true love is a sign and a stream of His hope. In romance, in friendship, in my community, with strangers, with my enemies, I want to live by that code. Because there is truly something in this world no one has ever seen, and I hope to see it.
These truths are written in our hearts, and Toradora knows them. It tells them to us clearly and wisely, until “Lost my Pieces” sounds for the last time.
Toradora can be streamed on Crunchyroll.