Two stories entertwine in "Personal Tutor." The overt story is about how Nagisa, far behind in her French, gets herself up to speed to pass her final exam; but mixed with this is the story of Nagisa and Shizuma’s love for each other. There are many lovely moments, including a wonderful sequence in which Nagisa and Shizuma almost kiss in the greenhouse. The episode dances upon the edge of bringing the two together once and for all.
Let’s dispose of the front story quickly. Nagisa manages to catch up in her French, with the help of Shizuma’s tutoring, through her own hard work, where she forgoes sleep and uses every spare second to study. Driving her is her own wish to go to summer camp, which she will miss should she fail, her sense of obligation to the people helping her, whom she must not embarrass by failing, and Shizuma’s confidence in her and encouragement. Nagisa’s success is a testament to her character. Since Shizuma’s tutoring succeeds where Tamao’s does not, the episode is a nice counterpoint to the previous one, to confirm the point that for Nagisa, Shizuma, personal growth, and developing adulthood are bound up together.
Of course the French exam is a occasion for putting Nagisa and Shizuma into each other’s company. The episode delicately dramatizes how each girl, in her own distinctive way, learns that she is in love. Shizuma does so, characteristically, by solitary reflection in the woods, as she admits to herself that Nagisa is special to her, and not another "cute girl:" "The first time we’ve (sic) met, I thought she was only a cute girl, I thought she was just one of many cute girls. That’s what I thought all along." She leaves unsaid her recognition that what she had thought is not so, that instead Nagisa is more to her than that. Nagisa, just as characteristically, begins to find out that she is in love from her friends, who tease her while baking cookies, and connect her happiness and the cookies with the idea she is giving them to someone as a sign of love. She denies this to herself, since the cookies are really a thank-you gift, but asks herself why she is so impelled to find Shizuma at once, to give her the cookies at once. The implication left unsaid, which she may even now not realize fully, is that she is really moved by love. The anime has a quite sophisticated understanding that the characters’ own deepest feelings may be hidden from themselves. It is in these secret feelings that Nagisa and Shizuma are tutors to each other. Love is a language they must help each other learn.
The other really beautiful aspect of the anime is the way each girl finds the other haunting her thoughts. Shizuma cannot help but think of Nagisa while she is by herself in the woods. For Nagisa, there is the extraordinary moment in which, exams over and exhausted, she falls asleep by the lake, only to half-waken and find herself looking into Shizuma’s eyes, the whole sky her face, then murmuring her name, and falling asleep again, only to wake up and not to know if she had dreamed the whole thing or not! We really do not know one way or the other. The evidence is contradictory: she seems to awaken sitting upright, in the position she fell asleep, and not prone as she had been in Shizuma’s lap, but then the anime gives us details about Shizuma after Nagisa falls back asleep–she exclaims how cute Nagisa is, and gives her a kiss on the cheek–which a dreamer could not dream about herself. As viewers we are left thinking that Shizuma is so much in Nagisa’s mind that she cannot distinguish her from reality itself. The other sign of Nagisa’s thoughts of Shizuma is the way Nagisa repeats her name to herself when she is unable to find her, her name becoming an expression of longing and disappointment, where her whole thought is her wish for Shizuma and disconsolate realization that Shizuma is not there.
The incident in which Nagisa and Shizuma almost kiss is delightful and silly and wonderful all at the same time. Of course it is absurd they do not kiss, but the narrative must have its subterfuges to postpone this moment to the series’ conclusion. The main thing to be said is that Nagisa accepts the kiss. She unquestionably wants, and wants to return, Shizuma’s love. The other thing to say is to notice Nagisa and Shizuma’s great happiness together after they almost kiss. It is as if we are already in the "happily-ever-after" stage of the fairy-tale. There is not only joy, but deep intimacy: think of the moment when Shizuma puts a cookie with her fingers into Nagisa’s mouth. One can almost say they live their future retrospectively, that all the happiness they will eventually find after they get together, hidden from us by being after the anime finishes, is given in the build-up to the conclusion, and in this episode in particular. If we can read the anime this way, then we have before us the whole story of their love, and not only the courtship and the prelude.
In some ways this episode is the high point of the whole series. Shizuma and Nagisa do become closer, and receive their happy ending in due course, but they will reach it through much unhappiness and emotional upset. They will never be quite so care-free with each other again.