Season 1 of Toradora concludes with a simple, yet affecting portrayal of friendship–which encapsulates all that has gone right with a show that I never expected to be so good.
I feel the same way about Toradora as I did for a comedy from the previous year, Seto no Hanayome. Neither would win awards for originality–they both start with unremarkable, even cliched premises. I certainly didn’t even notice Toradora in my own fall preview, passing it over as Yet-Another-Harem-Comedy type shows. Series like this one are always some of the most pleasant of surprises, because it worked past my defenses and endeared me to it in a way that is pretty rare for a comedy.
And a comedy it is. It never lost its humor, even with the serious subtext of its final arc. Far too many shows in the past have opted to begin with humor and then transition to a pure drama devoid of any laughter whatsoever–and it rarely works well. Now, you’ll have to grant my biases: I have a higher tolerance for tsundere humor than many. I think that was how I managed to somehow survive 2.5 seasons of Zero no Tsukaima without simply turning away in disgust–though the third season finally did it for me. But fortunately, Taiga isn’t the only source for humor in the show–Minorin and Ami are pretty good at gags themselves. (I’ll never forget Minorin’s excited-to-the-point-of-nosebleed proposal for a haunted house in episode 11.)
But when the time comes to take the characters a little more seriously, not only do they earn it, they do it with enough emotional subtlety to make me care about them and feel for them. It’s only a little emotional realism, not a lot; the situations portrayed in the plots aren’t exactly realistic much of the time, and one can point out how two-dimensional Taiga’s father turned out to be (among other plotting flaws). It’s the little details, like the fine ending of episode 11 when Taiga decides, with great reluctance, to trust in Ryuji’s wish to be reconciled with her father–in response to his once suppressed pain over losing his own ne’er do well father. It’s moments like the little talk he and Minorin have while they’re on vacation about ghosts, or the talk they have near the very end of episode 13. And it’s elegantly written, evocative lines like
Taiga: How do you dance?
Yusaku: We hold hands and look at each other. Then we go in circles until we get tired. And that’s it.
Which, before it gets too sentimental, is immediately followed up by a golden transition:
Minorin: Am I a lesbian?
A little yeast leavens the whole lump, as the saying goes; now that I think about it, I remember all the way back to the first episode’s voice overs, which seemed out of place in what should have been a very cliched anime rom-com. They were a little too pensive for the genre, I remember thinking even then. It’s nice that it really was a sign of things to come. Those moments help elevate it from the straitjacket of genre conventions, which, at their best, serve as a useful starting point to create interesting characters and stories with their own voice.
And their voices are distinct and complementary. This is a very well-balanced cast, which is rare in anime and even rarer in shounen romances that usually lean toward harem. I’ve already explained why this isn’t a harem, and one of the ingredients to this show’s success is how well the characters play off one another. Taiga is tsundere-ish, sure; but Ryuji (in spite of his “housewife” tendencies–had to laugh at his quip, “don’t you guys want coupons?”) pushes back. Ami situates herself well as a vulnerable, but proud and independent, person who wins grudging admiration from the rest. Yusaku is friends with pretty much everyone, a genuinely kind hearted person who holds the group together in many ways. Etc etc–this is a real ensemble of friends, and it turns out that friendship is what makes this show tick, moreso than romance really. It’s friendship that heals and protects even when family won’t; I think this is true for many teens in real life, for whom their peers are just as, if not more, influential than their parents. That’s why the final episode of the season was so moving to many, because it not only shows the maturation of Taiga but also shows the kind of thing good friends do for each other when they’re in trouble. Did you notice that when Minorin finally sheds tears–it wasn’t for her own fears or angst, but because of her deep care for Taiga? Everyone wants that; few fail to be affected when it happens.
Of course, we know that the story is not over–more episodes will continue on January 7. This isn’t any kind of final review, more an assessments of its strengths, an addendum to my previous article about why this has proven to be the most pleasant discovery I’ve had in the fall. If the creators manage to keep the quality up, they won’t have redefined the genre exactly, nor will they have created one of the great masterpieces of anime. Sometimes, that’s not necessary. It’s a solid, entertaining piece of work that happens to have more real heart than most of its sorry cousins–and that’s enough.