Romeo and Juliet is not a play about love. Its stars are in their early teens, and Romeo begins the play by pining over an unknown “Rosaline” in the same way he’d eventually worship Juliet. That doesn’t make its characters’ feelings meaningless, but it does change the context of the tragedy – instead of being about a loss of the greatest love that ever was, it’s about two teenagers who fell in lust and senselessly died for it. Romeo and Juliet’s social circumstances left them no way to get to know each other, maybe see how they felt about each other after a few months, and go from there – it forced them to act in the greatest of secrecy upon the highest of passions, resulting in tragedy for all.
Romeo and Juliet’s situation neatly echoes Nitori’s – if not for a culture that made a big, hateful deal out of Nitori’s identity, she wouldn’t have to resort to measures like this school play, and wouldn’t feel attacked by her own family. Her feelings for Takatsuki would perhaps sort themselves out, because she wouldn’t have to see Takatsuki as both romantic ideal and identity savior. Nitori could resolve her feelings at precisely the speed she herself came to terms with them.
That said, Nitori’s feelings are not terribly relevant to this episode. In spite of Chiba proposing this play with the specific intent of giving Nitori a platform, Makoto ended up with the role of Juliet, and Makoto intends to keep it (incidentally, while Makoto does want to play Juliet, his feelings seem unclear outside of that, so I’m going to stick with the masculine pronouns he presents himself with for now). The focus on his feelings builds throughout this episode, clear in his words, actions, and the way both are framed. And the insecurity of his world becomes clear early on, as the day of the cultural festival finally arrives.
Makoto may be relatively secure in his gender identity, but he still seems to envy the confident girls of his class. He’s stunned by Chiba’s pigtailed costume, and as the class prepares, he repeats his desire to be Juliet almost like a mantra. Makoto is terrified, and isolated by that terror – early on, Nitori’s attempts to reach out to him are thwarted by both Makoto’s words and the separation of the window pane. Makoto’s anxieties are real, but it almost feels like a moment of meta-condescension when he visits the haunted house to get a good scream on, is immediately unimpressed, and remarks “I expected it to be scarier.” For all these characters’ legitimate anxieties, we often do build up the worst moments more than they deserve.
That haunted house visit ends in a sequence that immediately reminded me Mari Okada is this series’ composer. Upon learning their friends are also in the room, Makoto yells anyway for the hell of it, exulting in the adrenaline rush of letting his feelings be heard. As Makoto’s friends join in, the moment lands as one of those quintessential school moments, and also exactly the sort of thing Okada loves to write. This may be an adaptation, but the choice to highlight a moment of visceral, archetypal, almost melodramatic release rings true to her specific mythology of emotional expression. All of her heroes bellow and wail and rub their noses as they cry.
Things move quickly towards the play itself, but Makoto’s nerves are still hounding him. As Nitori begins her narration and the lights fall, we close in on Makoto’s face, trapped in with the claustrophobia he must be feeling. Then the lights go up and the camera cuts behind him, again trapping the audience in his position as he’s blinded by the stage lights. After several continuous scenes of building piano, the music cuts entirely, and we’re left with a vast silence as the camera shifts to cover the scale of the audience. Shots jump between too close to Makoto and too revealing of the audience, as Makoto stammers and thinks of the people disappointed in his role and utterly fails to be Juliet.
Fortunately, Makoto is saved by Chiba’s presence. She’s not the most gentle of supporters – in fact, it seems more likely that she’ll kill him if he fucks up than console him. But she and his other friends are a steadying factor, and so he tries again.
The rest of the play goes far more smoothly. The camera doesn’t return to Makoto’s perspective until the conclusion; instead, we get to enjoy the play from the audience’s position, briefly leaping to relevant stars as their moments come. Makoto is undoubtedly carried by Chiba, but that’s perfectly all right. When the stage lights go up, everyone has had a lovely time.
Makoto isn’t the only one who gets to shine this episode – as usual, Chiba steals the show even in small appearances. There’s a great contrast between her disdain for the boy she doesn’t care for giving her flowers versus the honest smile she makes when Nitori complements her outfit. There’s a clear strength in both her look towards Makoto at the start, and her open hand at the conclusion. And there’s a legitimate tenderness in her ultimate choice to validate Makoto’s feelings, by hiding the bouquet that was truly meant for her behind a “secret admirer” as she hands it to Makoto.
The play ultimately doesn’t accomplish all that its stars wanted. Takatsuki doesn’t get to be Romeo, and Nitori doesn’t get to be Juliet; Chiba doesn’t get to perform alongside her crush, and even Makoto doesn’t manage to convince everyone he’s Juliet. But that’s how things go, more or less. You do your best and then you go home, lamenting your failures and cherishing your small victories. Even this day is just another day, and even this performance might warrant a simple “I expected it to be scarier.”
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