Touko Nanami is a girl who spends her days wrestling with an intense, suffocating fear. Fear of not being good enough, of confronting how people feel about her, of being seen as who she is instead of who she assumes people believe she is, or should be. Day in, day out, Touko seeks to hide what she sees as her true personality behind a confident, poised facade, terrified that if she lets it slip, even for a moment, people will see her as a failure and a fraud, utterly unremarkable and unlovable. Nio Nakatani’s Bloom Into You is a love story – between Touko and a kind girl named Yuu, yes, but also between Touko and herself. It’s the story of Touko – with the help of people she cares about and who care about her in turn – slowly, agonizingly learning to confront this all-consuming fear inside of her: a fear born of deep, intense, agonizing self-hatred.
Much of this sounds very familiar to me. I’m not (as far as I can tell) nearly as far gone as Touko here, but self-confidence and self-appreciation has always been a problem for me. When Touko talks about how she needs to become the image of her revered, late sister – to become somebody, anybody other than who she is, that feels familiar. When she talks about what a dull, unremarkable person she believes her ‘true’ self to be, that feels familiar. And when she anxiously worries to herself that she’s overextended in her relationships with others, that she’s been too honest, that she’s gone beyond what other people will tolerate, that feels achingly familiar. I have had that same fear inside of me – that aimless, insatiable anxiety that comes with feeling like you’re not good enough while simultaneously having no concept of what ‘good enough’ even is. That fear that you’re just one slip-up away from everyone around you finding out about some sin you’ve committed and shunning you forever – even if you have no idea what that sin could possibly be. Or worst of all, the fear that everyone around you is only barely tolerating your presence, that they’ve only ever humored you, that they’ve actually resented you this whole time and just been concealing it, for some unnameable reason.
It is this fear that drives Touko to reinvent herself. To, in her own assessment, lie. Ceaselessly, constantly, relentlessly. Never speaking without thinking, never doing anything to present herself in a way that breaks with what she thinks is expected from her, never deliberately taking any actions that might violate any taboo or let anyone down. Always hiding, always deflecting, always utterly, completely, irrationally terrified of being seen. Perpetually ashamed, yet never able to precisely name or describe just what it is she’s ashamed of. If she were to try, it would perhaps sound strange or underwhelming to her – so she doesn’t.
The saddest, but also most frightening part is when you start to get the impression that Touko has, in some way, become attached to this idea of herself as an empty failure. When you realize that some part of her seems to resent the idea of coming to accept herself as a worthwhile person with her own merits and her own agency. But maybe I’ve seen the appeal of that, too. There exists a point where self-flagellation can feel freeing. If you’re just an irredeemable failure, after all, then you can’t really be blamed for not bothering to try redeeming yourself, or seeking anything other than failure. And by a similar token, Touko denying herself the luxury of believing that she has any worth of her own, choosing instead to try and emulate the image she has of her deceased sister, allows her to shrug off any real responsibility for living her own life. She doesn’t have to process her decisions in their own context, she doesn’t have to acknowledge and manage her relationships with other people for their own sake, she gets to just fall back on “what would Mio Nanami do” in each and every scenario. It’s freeing, in its own way. It’s also stifling and ultimately poisonous – to her and to people around her.
And the thing with a complex like this is that it never really goes away. Yuu can tell Touko that she doesn’t have to be somebody else, that people will or even already do appreciate who she really is – and Touko will reject the idea on its face. Yuu can even, months later, through painstaking, uncertain, careful nudges and conversations get Touko to open up to the idea that maybe Touko’s actions and feelings, and the actions and feelings other people direct at her, belong to Touko and Touko alone. That she has never, could never be as much of a failure or as devoid of meaning as she assumes – that nobody could. Touko can even start to believe it. But a week later, Touko still might find herself paralyzed with fear when she needs to make a decision, willing to self-flagellate even beyond the point where it begins to hurt people around her. At the end of the day, the only one who can truly convince Touko to value herself, to have the confidence to show who she is to people around her, to finally bloom into herself, is the same person who first latched onto the idea of ever doing otherwise – herself.