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As the End Nears: The Surprising Quality of Toradora

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For me, this formulaic-and-yet-better comedy has been the surprise of the season: a surprise at how much genre conventions need not get too much in the way of some real character moments and clever writing.

There’s no doubt that Toradora! uses all the standard character archetypes that you find in anime harem romance. There’s Taiga the loli tsundere, played by the queen of such roles, Rie Kugimiya. There’s the vapid, energetic girl, Minorin (Horie Yui, naturally). There’s also the high maintenance ojou-sama Ami, who harbors tender feelings for the male protagonist. At the center of it all, of course, is the “nice guy” Ryuji, whose relationship with Taiga is ambiguous and always threatening to tip, just so, into romance–but both are in denial. He’s got a drunken mother who wears skimpy clothing and is more immature than him (a role often played by an older sister in anime), as well as a best male friend Yusaku who is practical, hands out advice, and is cheerful to a fault. It could be a setup for a dozen random eroges.

The plots are little better. We have the swimsuit/swimming episodes, the haunted cave episode, and other standard fan service opportunities. And of course, there’s the scene at the end of episode 10 where everyone stares at the fireworks and feels wistful.

And yet–dig a little deeper, and it’s not quite that simple.

First, it’s not really a harem. Ryuji’s romantic ardor is clearly focused in one direction–toward Minorin. Episode 10’s strong character dialogue between him and her show this. There’s no real evidence so far that he has any eyes on Taiga, or, despite her best efforts, Ami. (Taiga, on the other hand…she might be more conflicted.) The presence of Yusaku also makes the usual harem dynamic impossible. He’s the avowed love interest of Taiga to the point of extreme blushing and embarrassment. What we are really seeing is more like interlocking-but-separate relationships going on between a circle of friends. You know, the sort of thing that might actually happen in life. (This also happens to be a quality Toradora! shares with Kannagi, which only looks like a harem on the surface but is really just a “zany, strange people doing strange things” sort of show instead.)

Second, the characters themselves are all given more than one dimension for a change. No, it’s not the fully orbed, three dimensional portrayal of inner life on the scale of Honey and Clover–sorry, Mike of anime|otaku. Rather, it’s two-dimensions, but in the context of anime romance, this is quite huge. It means that characters can have more than one motive for their actions, and feel conflicted between two competing desires that war within themselves. No one is simply a tsundere or an ojou-sama; we are slowly coming to realize Minorin is not simply an airhead. I think most watchers will recognize the introductory episodes with Ami being a turning point in that regard; we get a good deal of her vulnerability as well as her cockiness, which made her much more sympathetic than her initial “two-faced bitch” persona indicated.

I also noticed from early on, however, that Ms. Kugimiya was showing a lot more emotional range in her voice acting performance than she normally did. Sure, some scenes were very Louise-like, and she fulfills the formula aspect of being a tsundere by physically beating on Ryuji–but for once, this is only one aspect of her character. She can also be openly love struck and obsessive, grateful, and insecure without simply being “tsun” or “dere.”

Finally, there is Minorin. Color me strange, but I was immensely gratified that the writers did not leap to the immediate conclusion that Minorin’s cheerfulness was a thin coping mechanism for trauma and pain. That’s cheap and cliched. When Ryuji and Minorin were locked in the sports closet in episode 3, as she sang her “here batter, batter, batter” song, she may have paused for a second when Ryuji inquired how she could be like that all the time–but said, clearly, that it was the best one could do when things were hard and difficult. The impression is not one of pretend but one of genuine effort to beat back despair. Another glimpse of this comes in episode 10 in the startlingly well-written dialogue about seeing ghosts, where it’s revealed that Minorin, without becoming maudlin, does not really believe in love. There’s surprising nuance in the way this is handled; there are no tears, no swell of music, or massive revelations of massive trauma (I’m looking at you, ef-a tale of melodies). The scene reminded me of one in the movie Sideways where the main couple are talking about the pinot noir grape as a veiled way of talking about themselves–except that one was even less subtle and bordered on corny.

That’s, however, the risk of making an earnest romance. A lot of anime these days–see Kannagi, Akane-iro, Haruhi Suzumiya–is now steeped in irony and fourth-wall breaking. Sincere emotion is hard to come by, and in our more cynical times, must be served in small doses. Toradora! serves them in just the right amount, without jettisoning the humor and making characters act out-of-character. That’s what prevents the show from becoming too sentimental, and its willingness to take just a little bit of time for some character revelation is still too rare in this sort of anime.

For me, there’s always one show I’m surprised I liked so much per season, and this one is it. As the show reaches its conclusion soon (though I think they could go much further and still do well; the characters are strong enough to sustain more), it’s refreshing to see someone doing a good take on a genre that long has become the province of stale and hackneyed writing. For once we have relatively angst free, charming, and funny characters falling in love.

As the End Nears is a series of reflections on the shows I was supposed to blog about at this juncture in time, the near-end of the season. Next: ef-a tale of melodies: What Are We Supposed to be Feeling? (Part 2)

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