There are few scholastic touchstones more beloved by anime than the vaunted high school cultural festival. And it’s not hard to understand why; such festivals provide a natural disruption of their attendees’ standard, frequently unconsidered school activities, offering events that both force collaboration between unlikely student alliances and also challenge characters to move outside their comfort zone, prompting reflection on how they’ve changed over the preceding year.
Whether they’re contributing to class events, competing in school tournaments, or putting on brave and iconic performances, school festivals are often the proving ground for characters’ newest and most uncertain developments, the crucible in which inklings of personal transformation are reified into fond memories and sources of pride. Rivalries are fostered or rekindled, classmates you thought you knew are cast in bold new light, and tentative relationships are given ample opportunity to shuffle forward, the flickering glow of a bonfire urging adolescents to nurture their romantic passions. Nothing fosters growth like external turmoil, and the advent of a school festival offers a comfortingly ordered set of challenges for characters to rise above, finding something new in themselves or perhaps in each other.
Even dispensing with their various internal challenges, school festivals also provide something more fundamental: a simple reminder that time passes, that the halcyon days of adolescence are brief and finite, only a few short years between childhood and adulthood. Taiga further cements this recognition of time’s passage as episode eleven begins, remarking that “it’s the first of September, why is it still so hot in the mornings?” Staging adolescent dramas around the turning of the seasons does more than just offer consistent seasonal events for the characters to riff on; it embeds us in the persistent, shifting rhythms of their life, at a time when every year seems monumental, every holiday consequential. A week of school means a lot more to a high school student than a week of work does to an adult.
Ryuji’s response to this is predictably practical: “we’ll need to finish yesterday’s curry, fast.” Their idle griping speaks to their obvious mutual comfort level, their ease in bickering like an old married couple. There is no pretension in how they present themselves to each other, and no insecurity regarding how their behavior might be received. The people closest to you are those you are willing to share the most of yourself with, those with whom you feel safe expressing your potentially ugly or uncharitable features and flaws. Ryuji and Taiga have already found home in each other, a place where they feel safe sharing their most selfish feelings, yet they tragically lack the experience to understand how rare and precious that is.
At this point, their more self-conscious and socially savvy friends actually feel jealous of the closeness they share, and even protective of that bond. But they are oblivious to how well they fit together, partially because it wasn’t some grand ordeal to achieve that closeness. They still see love as something to be bravely fought for against all the odds, as the hardest thing to achieve in the universe – and while it can be hard to find love, the actual experience of being in love is one of the easiest, most freeing feelings in the world. It is having someone beside you who serves as a port in the storm, who wants you to do what will make you happy, because your happiness is their own. Ryuji and Taiga still can’t comprehend that the confidence they lend to each other, the validation of their feelings, is the most precious thing there is – is the essence of knowing someone unconditionally loves you.
This unconsidered closeness isn’t really shared by any other member of the cast, and certainly not in a romantic capacity. The uncertainty of gauging comfort levels and comfortable intimacy is clear in Ryuji and Minori’s first post-vacation meeting, with each not entirely sure how to engage with the other. Minori unsurprisingly recovers first, and Ryuji follows her lead – a microcosm of their relationship in total, and one of the main reasons Ryuji finds Minori so enchanting.
He believes her to possess all the confidence and social acumen he longs for; he sees in her not just a charming romantic prospect, but also the easy, comfortable high school life he feels he has been denied. Of course, the truth is that Minori is simply very good at pretending to be that person, and actually desires a confidant with whom she can share her anxieties – something she’s been quietly confessing to Ryuji in their every intimate conversation. What Ryuji doesn’t, cannot realize is that Minori has already considered, attempted, and ultimately abandoned her pursuit of such closeness with him, favoring her friend’s feelings over her own romantic curiosity. And thus, when Ryuji attempts to bring up their final, definitive conversation about “UFOs,” Minori changes the subject. That door has now closed; Minori and Ryuji might have made for a happy couple, but Minori has steeled herself and accepted that they are not nearly so compatible, nor so essential to each other, as Ryuji and Taiga.
The following scenes demonstrate this unconsidered closeness from both sides, as each of our protagonists reveal how much the other has been integrated into their idle thoughts. While the rest of the boys in class daydream over what costumes their classmates might wear, Ryuji’s fantasies of Minori are swiftly replaced by the pragmatic “if the costume is too tight, I’ll have to make Taiga bra-pads again.” His own desires fall second to whether a given costume might be an embarrassment to Taiga, and thus a necessary hassle to him – the mindset of an unquestioningly devoted companion, not a lustful onlooker. Meanwhile, Taiga is barely out of gym class before she’s confronting Ryuji with her torn gym pants, knowing he’ll be happy to fix them. Their interactions contain none of the embarrassment or hesitation they aim at their crushes; they each know the other has got their back.
But while Taiga and Ryuji have clearly achieved an unusual level of mutual understanding and concern by high school standards, there are still aspects of their lives that are too painful, too personal to fully share, still points of separation in their life stories that ensure they will sometimes be misunderstood. An unwanted call brings one such touchstone to the surface, as Taiga glances at and then slams her phone to the ground. “The man gets married and decides I don’t belong, so he gives me an apartment and throws me out? He abandoned me!” Though her frustration is no longer bottled, her body language is still defensive: as she reveals these key details of her father’s behavior, she is framed as facing away and partially blocked by the table, the layout echoing her discomfort in showing her weakness like this.
Ryuji can only offer a trite consolation in response, saying that “with family, you’re always connected in your hearts, even if you’re apart.” In spite of, or quite likely because he never had a father in his life, Ryuji still believes in the preeminence of family. He has never experienced an actively unhappy home life, or a failed, antagonistic relationship between parents – only his loving mother with whom he shares everything, and her starry-eyed stories of the man who stuffed magazines down his shirt to avoid getting stabbed. He is naïve to the ways families can be broken, and his naïve admonishments of Taiga serve only to frustrate her.
With her usual defender unfathomably siding with the father who abandoned her, Taiga is further backed into a corner by the ongoing festival preparations. First, Ami’s position as pageant show judge means she is barred from actually competing, an opportunity she promptly snatches to force Taiga on stage in her stead. Then, the class’s improbable selection of a class wrestling show leads to her being chosen as the despised heel, another clear joke at her expense. And to all of these fresh injustices, Ryuji only responds to “just give up and enjoy a class event for once. You need to open your heart.” His eyes aren’t even on her – lost in the expectations of that UFO confession, Taiga can see he’s only thinking of Minorin.
The difference in Ryuji and Taiga’s perspective seem irreconcilable as Taiga stares down at an indifferent ATM, realizing that her father has cut her off from her finances altogether. She is literally a caged pet, only allowed to live her life so long as she follows his rules and promptly heeds his commands. To Ryuji, such conditional family love isn’t just strange – it’s simply unthinkable, too outside either his experiences with his mother or his fantasies of his father to contemplate. While Taiga frankly states that “he’s threatening me,” Ryuji admonishes her that “nothing will change if you don’t talk to him.” And thus it is actually Ryuji who meets with Taiga’s father, still serving as her shield in the storm even when he can’t actually recognize the hurricane.
Taiga’s father seems sincere as he hands over Taiga’s allowance, confessing that he “wants to start over with Taiga.” Apparently, he will soon be separating from the younger wife with whom Taiga clashed so violently, and thus “I’m going to live with Taiga. Since I’m her father. Since I love her.” To Ryuji, the idea of a father suddenly returning to mend your family is a fantasy too distant to imagine; to Taiga, these are just more insincere words piled on top of the last bundle, a reflection of how he sees her as an object he can discard or reclaim at will. Their tempers clash over an adorably domestic moment – Taiga cleaning the dishes as thanks for Ryuji’s efforts, and doing an absolutely wretched job of it. For the proud and obstinate Taiga, actions frequently speak louder than words: though her words are bitter and transactional, it’s clear she doesn’t want her life with Ryuji to echo her relationship with her father, as an unwanted, inessential dependent.
Ryuji and Taiga’s crush-attracting conspiracy offered them an easy source of camaraderie, a project on which they were clearly, unquestionably on the same side. The assurance of that project allowed them to establish an intimacy that didn’t require overt articulation; they became a family in spite of themselves, skipping over anxious heart-to-hearts in favor of the gradual attunement that naturally attends collaboration and cohabitation. It even taught them how to argue without ego, pushing forward their positions with far more confidence than they’d apply to challenging the objects of their affection – but now, with their positions so distant and so embedded in their distinct life experiences, the fragility of intimacy without mutual understanding is made painfully clear.
The very ease with which Ryuji has come to challenge Taiga now serves not as validation of their closeness, but affirmation of their remaining distance. He chastises Taiga for ignoring her father’s wishes, attesting to his sincerity in wanting to live with her – something he clearly has no way of knowing, beyond his hope that all fathers might be reunited with their children. To this, Taiga snaps back with “it’s none of your business! Don’t meddle in someone else’s family affairs!” Her eyes refuse to meet his; even though she sent him to her father, their relationship is still a live wire he cannot safely touch. But Ryuji pushes forward, admitting “I felt bad for him,” to which Taiga responds with the root of her frustration: “you should feel bad for me!”
Why are you taking his side, Ryuji? Why are you acting like everyone else? They all treat me like a doll, dress me up and then cast me aside, but I thought you were different. How is it fair that my dad can abandon me in favor of a new wife, then snatch me back without apology now that he’s done with that woman? With her school trials echoing the presumption of her father’s demands, and even Ryuji stating she should go along with her father’s wishes, Taiga feels like she has no allies at all, like everyone just wants her for what they can get out of her. And Ryuji, so used to Taiga pushing back against everything he throws at her, cannot fathom how vulnerable her father makes her, how much she needs his unconditional support right now.
Things come to a head outside of Ryuji’s apartment, as Taiga’s father stands waiting for the daughter he abandoned. “I thought you’d be the one person on my side,” Taiga screams, revealing just how much she’s come to trust in Ryuji’s support – a trust he’s now squandering through his unthinking naïveté, his unconsidered assumptions, his own desperate desire for a father. “I’m saying this because I’m on your side,” he responds, calling on her to admit to her genuine, long-dormant desire for parents who love her. “What do you know about me,” she asks, “I abandoned him – abandoned him like a worthless pile of trash.” Her words speak to her own self-image, but Ryuji cannot see that – he instead takes offense at seeing his own desires so mistreated, firing back “do you really see him as trash? My old man’s not coming home, no matter how much I beg!” And thus the truth is finally revealed.
Taiga stops short at this, this confession of vulnerability and longing that Ryuji has heretofore studiously concealed. Though it was spoken in anger, it is the truth, and his willingness to air it speaks to how much he has invested in this situation, how desperately he wishes Taiga might claim the happiness forever denied to him. In that moment, Taiga forgets her own desires, seeing only the hurt she has inflicted on the boy who is her only true family. And thus, just as Ryuji realizes he has gone too far, he has substituted his needs for Taiga’s own, he has made a mistake – in that moment, Taiga agrees to return home, if only for Ryuji’s sake. As Ryuji attempts to convince himself this is a good thing, Taiga walks away, sacrificing her freedom for the sake of Ryuji’s lost father.