Teasing Master Takagi-San
has been a joyful surprise for me. This slice-of-life school comedy about the excessively self-conscious Nishikata and his clever and humorous female deskmate, Takagi-san, is full of color and light and small moments in which I could find myself—and God
—went much further than I thought it would, and really pulled me along for the ride.
And very appropriately, as this is a twofold story about gradual change for the better in the midst of daily life, about heading in a direction and being able to see more clearly as you grow. It’s about being guided, which requires hope, and about what seems a messy cycle of everyday chaos at first glance, but is really a path. After all, our everyday life may be, in fact, a series of miracles, and one day I will join Japesland and write about why Our Lord probably likes Nichijou. Takagi-San may not have the crazy originality and brilliance of that series, but it has strongly reminded me of how I felt watching it as well as other favorite comedies of mine like the Haruhi Suzumiya series, Toradora, OreGairu, Barakamon, and Ore Monogatari, all fish-out-of-the-water stories of a sort.
Enduring the crazy status quo, half-knowing that something is growing and solidifying at the other side, as in all romance, as in Christian life, and as in Lent too, which is like a small parable of Christian life, I must confess Takagi-San has rapidly become one of my favorites, and has also taught me a great deal.
On the surface, Takagi-san seemed like a well-paced mix of the similarly named Tonari no Seki-kun (which I also enjoyed a lot) and Tsuki ga Kirei. There are the seemingly endless variations of the same basic premise, each done in a wildly inventive way. There is the absurdist character comedy centered in small moments. There is the indirect connection through a feeling of “but I can´t help but be interested.” There is the recreation of the school ethos, with all its small pleasures and small torments (Get yelled at in class—the horror!). And on the other hand, there is also the attention to detail, the small moments, the side characters, the luscious colour and detail and developing relationships of the second. Yet, too-cute shows usually push me away (it ended up happening even with Tsuki ga Kirei, despite its other virtues), but here, the teasing, the constant battle of wits, the slow reveal of new aspects of our characters, did the trick: I was invested in them from beginning to the end.
Part of its appeal for me is that I remember, and can still imagine, how nightmarish it would have been to be sit next to a Takagi-san as a kid. I would have died. At that time, I was a good student, I practiced a faith that few around me practiced, and I did read a lot of books that nobody else read, so it was only natural for me to model many of my attitudes on those books. Sometimes this was helpful, and I’m glad I did that instead of finding other models. Oftentimes I was more or less socially awkward and self-serious, a time-traveler from the Victorian era or downright ridiculous, bordering on having the infamous 8th-grade Syndrome. In time, my demeanor at school became that of a Hikki (more so around girls). I would go in my school suit as if it was armor. While I changed at university (not without a not-so-little help from my friends), I was still told once by a classmate that I was the most serious person he had ever known, and I’m intimately familiar with all species of Phariseeism you can think of, and maybe more.
Luckily, my parents are wise and dealt with all my antics with patience and a good sense of humor, and God played the role of a Takagi-san in my life. That is, He teased me, threw me off balance, told me who He was, and patiently guided me so I didn’t become completely trapped in my own defense mechanisms. Like Norman in The Promised Neverland, He was the one who told me something like, “Come with me, and I´ll show you something cool.”
That being so, I really appreciate how without fail, Takagi-san teases Nishikata in a way which subtly helps him mature and develop, while also making herself known to him. Her jokes are never separated from her appreciation for him. It is truly an art. She pays attention to him, to how he thinks, to what he likes and dislikes, to what he seeks and to how he reacts, and uses all that to play him. She has the courage to make herself comical and compete, and seeks the occasion with delicacy and cunning cleverness, again and again. She searches for the weak spot in his defenses, and for the correct word and the correct time. She patiently waits, and when the time comes, she takes him out of the frontiers of his small world like a rollercoaster, showing him a ray of intimacy he did not know she knew (or even that existed) and places him again in the floor of a broader world, shared to a greater degree and more open to the true meaning, to the joyful surprise, to the deep adventure.
And now I will discuss more specific aspects of the plot, so spoilers ahead.
Nishikata may or may not have realized, but Takagi never humiliates him for the sake of humiliation alone. She does it to let him know when he is being ridiculous; to make him acknowledge what he likes and dislikes; to strengthen their bond; and to encourage him to try harder. She offers him a way, and asks for him to choose to go on at the crucial times. She trusts him. God has acted like that many times in my own life, and in that I see the fatherhood of God the Father, the intimate knowledge and loving wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and the humanity of Christ, Who told the Apostles, “Let the children come unto near me.”
Just as He approaches in the Bible and the Gospel to each person at His own pace, to John and James through the Baptist and a day of hanging out, to Peter through the miraculous catch of fish, to the Samaritan by asking her for water and discussing Jew-Samaritan issues, to Zacchaeus by requesting he host Him at his house, to the sickly woman by letting her touch Him in a crowd, or to the Canaanite by debating and testing her, He has often chosen to approach me and make my head spin with His unique sense of humor, and offered me a way which certainly takes control out of my hands in many situations, but that I would not change for any other. And I am very grateful.
The path of the Christian, for me at least, feels very much like that of Nishikata sometimes. After all, God knows everything, and if I am being dumb, evil, or infantile, He sees it at first glance. Yet, He is kind, and interested in develop a personal bond, an alliance. So He speaks to me every day while everyday life goes on, challenging me, putting up with my antics, leading me further, showing me my folly, forgiving me, taking the effort to get me to feel that He really understands. And from there, it is a strange and sometimes downright embarrassing world full of crazy situations where I find myself confessing my blackest sins to a guy I just met; asking for a McFish for the first time in my life because it is Lent; returning at once forty books I had been taking out of the library during the years; engaging in practices, prayers and devotions that only in time come to “unblock,” so to speak, their meaning; trying to love in some way the cartoonish teacher whose philosophy and manners with which I violently disagree; the cheerleader-like classmate who constantly shows off how rich her family is or to the man trying to rip me off twice with the same story on the street; discovering that I am crying at the Passion; singing at the Church with the very elderly choir; letting Christ wash my feet or sharing all this in an article at Beneath the Tangles. And this is not even the crazies part. It is being a long and strange journey.
Takagi’s trust in Nishikata has another aspect I like: It highlights how chaste he is. Nishikata is often dumb, very much immature, believing everything he sees on TV and would die before admitting that he enjoys a romantic comedy show, but he is remarkably noble and respectful in dealing with Takagi-san. Chastity as a virtue is not a popular topic outside a Christian context, and may make him sound like a loser. Yet, he is not losing. He is fiercely competing with a girl who teases him all the time, yet he wouldn’t take advantage of her, respecting her space and her intimacy, refusing to risk hurting her feelings even at the cost of the game and the joke, and rushes to protect her whenever she is in danger. He will not tickle her, even though she tickles him. She can be alone with him, flirt with him, close her eyes in front of him, or make herself vulnerable, knowing that she is safe, that he would refuse to take advantage of her.
He wants to trick her (and so badly!), but never to humiliate, use, or demean her. He chooses to interpret Takagi’s teasing as a challenge to become stronger, both physically and in cunning, and he does, everyday. It is meant as effort, as he is being teased and they are always competing, and more so as their bonds grow. Of course, giving his immaturity and the context of romantic comedy, his barriers on this matter are sometimes excessive and even an obstacle, but I cannot help feeling that he puts this embarrassment to good use.
As Takagi-san, I admire that: I´d rather be cool than uncool, but I´d rather be as chaste as him when dealing with girls and women, who are the precious daughters of God. The life of St. Joseph’s example (Medieval Otaku commented on this here a few years ago), for instance, is one of trusting God, taking care of Our Lord and of His Virgin Mother and dealing with major inconveniences at a maddening pace: the duty under the Law to reject his betrothed, carrying out with a love which would have taken the fault before the world; the sudden change of plans and the courageous faith required to accept God´s design; the edict of the Emperor and the rushed voyage to Bethlehem; the birth of Jesus in a barn; the flight to Egypt; and Jesus lost in the Temple at twelve. All of it unplanned, and probably a mess in the eyes of those who knew him. And through it all, he exhibits the chastity, the respect, and the paradox of being the guardian of St. Mary, who he always loved and always respected. His relatives and contemporaries may not have admired him, but I certainly do.
Returning to shame is described in the Bible as being a result of the Fall, of the end of Edenic innocence. Man and woman, both being now broken inside—unclean, with their sins ingrained in the heart—in a suddenly hostile world where the inner ugliness was present and the gaze of fellow human beings was not warranted to be one of love, became ashamed. They needed clothes to hide, and a path to communion with God and with others, sometimes full of hardships, in which both maturing and cleansing, purifying our intentions, play a part. They tried to do it with leaves, and God gave them better clothes.
Shame, like a guardian, is intended to protect our intimacy and that of others to let us share ourselves with purity, with respect, in a way that helps and enriches us and others. We need to overcome it to achieve communion, but it helps us realize that, in sharing ourselves or entering the space of others, we are dealing with something valuable, something that must be protected. I think we must understand what our shame tells us, not merely deny it. Like Nishikata, we need to gradually learn to be vulnerable, but also to love with all our strength, and to be faithful.
Every time Nishikata is foolish, he is also vulnerable in a way he cannot help, as he is exposing his true self. There are aspects in which we all behave like idiots, in which our silliness is exposed to others. We may not think anymore that having a two-storied house with one story dedicated to manga and other to video games is a sophisticated and mature thing, but we believe things which are equally ridiculous. We become comical, and it is easy to make fun of us. But even the dumbest can do that, to laugh at others: The real challenge, the interesting, helpful thing, is to make them enjoy the joke, to bring them to smile even so, as God does with us and Takagi-san does with him.
That´s why gossip, slander, dirty humor, frivolity, and cynicism are repugnant: to take advantage of the weak spots of others, real or imagined, to have a laugh. The foolishness of man shows something of the inside in a way beyond his control and perspective, and thus becomes hopeful when looked at with a hopeful view, with compassion, joy and tenderness, reflecting the view of God. Our friends and our loved ones are like messengers of God when they do this: They are godsends. And humor is precisely one of the biggest challenges that every tyrant pretending to be God will face: It will reveal that, despite all his might, he is in some way ridiculous.
Which leads me to the final episodes, and the connection with both Lent and Easter. Having endured the constant teasing for more than a year, Nishikata has grown, and he and Takagi-san are closer and closer. Through all this embarrassment, all this effort, all this training, all this hard-conscious guidance, all this hardship (and what may seem trivial to us may be a world to a middle school boy), he has changed. He is able to bring comfort to Takagi-san when she is sad, and when she leaves an open spot, also to triumph over his shame and ask her to the festival, where they will be together in public.
And there, after the final separation and reunion (Our Lord, when He was twelve, also used the separation and reunion during the feast to prophesy His passion to St. Mary and St. Joseph), she tells him the secret: Whatever he thought, he was not losing at all. Every part of it is now a part of their valuable future, a sign of the triumph achieved through them, not by sheer force, nor in the sense he expected: The triumph of having freely chosen to follow an uncertain path, and to have letting himself be guided, enduring the proof, confronting the obstacles. He has come to see what he could not see at the beginning, a whole new world.
The road for Nishikata and Takagi-san is ahead, but they already have a joyful sign of hope in this first triumph. Likewise with us and the Lord: I hope you will let this Easter celebration be the conclusion of your Lent, rest in the bond between you and Christ, and prepare yourself for what lies ahead. I assure you it will be worth the wait.