I’m not sure I’ve heard the parable about the bear who danced with the girl, but because Rinko likes big things the way Takanashi likes small things, in her version the girl who dances with the bear comes to like said bear. And so it comes to pass, when Takeo takes an athletically ungifted classmate everyone else is miffed about being in the upcoming Swedish relay under his wing. So just as the door seemed to be closed (for the time being) on Ai, it opens on one Saijou Mariya, she of short statue but ample bust.
Saijou feels like she’s in the way and, like most people, assumes Takeo is mean, scary, and easily upset, when none of the above are the case. Gradually, as she spends more time with Takeo simply being Takeo, you can see the increased affection growing in her eyes, in the many gorgeous close-ups of her normally reserved for Rinko (and to a lesser extent, Ai). Ironically, it’s running from Takeo out of a misplaced sense of fear that motivates Mariya to run her fastest…along with his constant support.
When the day of the relay arrives, he tells her, quite simply, just run as fast as she can and pass him the baton. Well, once everyone else passes her, she trips and drops that baton, but remembering his directives, she gets back up, keeps running, and passes that sucker off. Then Takeo does his thing and they win by a landslide. Then the kicker: he congratulates her, then asks her if she’s okay from her spill, and BOOM, without even trying, “not popular with girls” Takeo has finished unlocked Mariya’s heart.
Let me say one thing: I like Mariya, even though she’s Rinko’s new rival. I like her a lot. She’s cute, she’s kind, and in some ways, she’s a lot more normal than the often eccentric Rinko. Not that eccentric is bad; Takeo is eccentric too (so is Suna, for that matter…and Takeo’s parents…and Ai…aw jeez, what have I done?!). But despite the fact she sees Rinko right there, and Takeo introduces her as “my girlfriend” she still has the guts to give him her gift of a towel (his first, somehow!) to him. This is a girl who knows how she feels, and is honest about her feelings, at least in this instance.
Meanwhile, because Rinko has always felt her grip on Takeo was precarious at best due to her own perceived inadequacies, she seeks advice from her girlfriends on how best to fight for Takeo. Despite Takeo’s protests he’s not popular with the girls, Rinko, to her credit, knows what she saw: Mariya danced with the bear, and liked it. (Oh God, that sounds so wrong!)
Mariya is also the recipient of some good luck vis-a-vis Takeo. She goes to the same school and is in his class. Even when she nervously mocks his couple background and matching straps (which IS a bit overkill, if not SO overkill), when she runs after him to apologize and trips down the stairs, she ends up in his arms, and after it’s clear the shoulder-leaning is out due to Takeo and Suna’s imposing height, she gets to choose Takeo to ride piggyback on. Suna really tried to do it so Takeo didn’t have to, but Mariya overruled him.
Unfortunately for Rinko, she chose this afternoon to wait outside Takeo’s school, though Takeo doesn’t act guilty, because he isn’t guilty, because he loves Rinko and is just giving Mariya a hand. When he runs straight back to Rinko after his errand, she can’t help but beam with glee. But in the normal universe where high schoolers of the opposite sex aren’t normally so friggin’ nice to each other—like the universe Mariya normally inhabits—Takeo with another girl riding him still looks bad.
By the way, I’m not considering Mariya’s non-confession legit. She’s not giving up; she’s just decided to play the long game. She only tells Takeo (with Rinko eavesdropping) that she likes him “as a person”, but we know better, since we’re in her head too. Now that she’s allowed to call him “Master”, she has an excuse to stay by his side as his “student”. Rinko has been enjoying a “Pax Gouda” up until now, but love is war, and the battle has begun.
Takeo won’t be easily swayed—had Mariya had confessed for real here, I’m certain he’d have shot her down without hesitation—he does love Rinko deeply. But Mariya knows that, and I hope she’ll apply the same determination to pursuing Takeo as she did preparing for the relay with him.