Maybe it’s not always the case, but I think it’s probably more common than not: when a group of kids turns against one member, it’s not because everyone hates or means to bully that person, it’s because one or two loud, powerful people in the group are so insistent. We’ve already seen that Hino wasn’t actively involved in bullying Nishimura, and when he and Takada became friends, he just calmly accepted Nishimura as part of the deal. This week we see that the same is likely true of Umi, Hino’s old friend. Umi hasn’t actively been bullying Nishimura, and like Hino, has largely been in the background of the class, passively participating in Nishimura’s isolation. But she’s friends with Hino (and has a crush on him), so when Hino and Nishimura become friends, Umi tacitly accepts Nishimura into her circle as well. Yes, she wants specifically to ask what to give Hino for his birthday, but that feels a little bit like an excuse to talk to the other girl, especially since she ends up getting him a baseball cap and not a tank top.
That suggests that there have really just been two major players contributing to Nishimura’s isolation and bullying: Kitagawa and Kasahara. Kitagawa is the loudest voice, and he’ll take any chance he gets to pick on his target, as we see when he nominates her for class representative. He knows she won’t want to do it, but also that she’s unlikely to refuse the nomination because that would risk painting an even larger target on her back. It’s one of the few cases where his nasty little strategy works, although that’s not strictly due to his actions – when Takada also volunteers (as, arguably, Kitagawa knew he would), Kasahara jumps into the fray as well. Kasahara is looking specifically to split up Nishimura and Takada based on her crush on him, and she’s willing to use all of the mean words she has at her disposal to do it. That she ends up stuck as the class representative with just Nishimura after Takada bows out feels like her just desserts, although I’m concerned about her being in such close proximity with Nishimura, opening theme notwithstanding.
Of the two primary bullies, I think Kitagawa is the more insidious. Kasahara is motivated solely by jealousy and her aspirational teenagehood, and she’s not quite smart enough to have figured out that everything she tries to get Takada away from Nishimura blows up in her face, sometimes spectacularly. But Kitagawa is just smart enough to pick his words so that he lands a hit on Nishimura, even though Takada manages to flip them back around on him every time. It is getting so that Kitagawa is at an increased risk of cutting off his nose to spite his face, as we see with the surprise party for Hino, but he’s had a long time to damage Nishimura’s psyche and self-esteem. If it turns out that he’s doing all of this because he likes her, I think I might throw up, possibly while screaming.
Machinations of the bullies aside, this episode has some spectacular moments between our two leads. Their giddy delight at sitting next to each other (while poor Hino pouts) is adorable, but even that pales in comparison to Takada’s brain short-circuiting for a second when he sees Nishimura in pigtails and his earnest desire to wear his hair like that, too; that the latter leads to Hino executing a Kitagawa word flip just makes it even better. Takada may be “clueless,” but this week he’s starting to figure a few things out – strictly speaking, that doesn’t need to happen, but knowing that he’s always got Nishimura’s back and that now Hino does too, is one of the most beautiful things this season.