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Review: Toradora! (85%)

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Animation: 85%
Acting: 90%
Music/Sound: 80%
Story: 88%
Overall: 85%
See explanation of scores.

Toradora is the standard-setter anime about high school shounen romance. It does for high school love what Kare Kano does for adolescence in general and Honey and Clover did for post-adolescence–and that well-defined scope is both its strength and its ultimate limitation.

Maturity

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing that this show accomplished is simple: it allowed its characters to grow up. The entire cast begins as one would expect out of a formula shounen, otaku-oriented romance: shy, nice kids who are afraid to express their real feelings and who contort themselves into knots in order to avoid doing so. Most shows never allow their characters to progress much further than this, because it is part of the escapist charm for the probably older male audience it targets: for those who are still shy and struggling emotionally, it’s a comfort to see that awkwardness on screen. At most, a better show like True Tears will allow the main leads to change over time, while the side characters remain neglected.

Toradora! manages the feat of essentially having its cake and eating it too. It’s the reason why initial episodes seemed unremarkable to those versed in this genre of anime; the characters were easily pegged into standard archetypes like “tsundere,” “airhead,” “nice guy,” etc; it was sufficient to reel in audiences who like that sort of thing, but perhaps no more. Yet by the mid-point of the fall season it was apparent that these were only surface characterizations. As in all good stories, there is more than meets the eye to these group of characters, particularly when they revealed their vulnerabilities to each other and to the viewer. This was rarely done in a way that felt contrived (save for a few rushed moments near the end). Rather, moments like the famous dialogues at the villa or the multiple physical confrontations grew out of characters behaving like themselves in the midst of the circumstances.

And those moments served as more than just emotional catharsis for the viewer, hungering to hear them finally speak truth to one another. They actually changed the characters. Sometimes the change came slowly, as in Ryuuji’s halting, awkward encounters with Minori that finally evolved into normal interaction; sometimes they came with abrupt force, as in Taiga’s willingness to accept that she and Ryuuji belonged together. The Ryuuji and Taiga of the beginning and end of the show are recognizably themselves, and yet much more mature, and it can be explained by everything that happened in between. That’s why Taiga’s “typical tsundere” reaction at the very end to Ryuuji’s confession does not strike me as being regressive or a “reset” ending. Behind it is an entire history of knowing each other well and being themselves. It’s a true closing of the circle, and with the repeat of the first lines of the show, the writers knew it.

Perhaps most startling of all is the final episode’s resounding affirmation of family ties. Here I think the charges of abrupt pacing are somewhat justified; Taiga and Ryuuji move from wanting to elope and having harsh words with their mothers to speaking in very mature terms about what marriage really involves: the public blessing of their families and friends. A vow. And, almost breathtakingly for anime, an understanding that they might not even be ready for that at their age, and that to run away from their families was not going to give them real happiness in the end. This, realized in the space of 10 minutes and in the shadow of one of the most compellingly and realistically awkward teenage kisses in anime romance, is quite frankly too much to realize so soon.

Yet, thematically, it just works. Especially when paired with Yasuko’s own history of abandonment and the consequences of a teenage fling: the importance of family is most stark when its past is full of brokenness. What Taiga and Ryuuji did was to break that cycle, which would have continued had they gone through with their elopement. It is why her departure to live with her mother makes so much sense, even if it was paced abruptly.

In the end what we have is a portrait of the intertwining of friendship and family. Earlier I commented on how the characters were beginning to realize that friendship was at best an incomplete substitute for it, and what the ending begins to hint at is how the two kinds of relationships can overlap and evolve into each other. The class picture to Taiga, at once hilarious and touching, is a great portrait of an entire community standing behind one of their own; Yasuko’s comment that she, Ryuuji, and Taiga were a family of three is a literal statement of present and future.

All this, while peppered with wonderful uses of visual metaphor and symbol: the single star, the Christmas decoration, aliens/ghosts, the images of a tiger and a dragon. Is there anything this show cannot do? Well, yes.

Romance and Life

I think Author had it right, ultimately, that while this show is a stellar–perhaps the stellar–example of the high school romance genre in anime, with plenty of inroads into friendship and family–that’s where it remains. This is why, though it bats in the same league, Toradora! is ultimately not the equal of a Karekano or especially a Honey and Clover. Considering that those two are, in my judgment, the finest and most genuine portrayals of the stages of life they represent in anime, that’s no shame. There are even moments, like when Taiga is being carried on Ryuuji’s shoulders, when Toradora! comes close to matching the poignance and power of those shows.

To begin with, Honey and Clover is still unequaled in its use of music, both insert songs and general soundtrack. Music should not be discounted in its importance for setting the tenor and memorability of a show. Especially when paired with insightful lyrics, the insert songs shed light on the characters as much as they filled the aural background. Most of the soundtrack of Toradora! was forgettable. The OP and EDs were better (especially lyrically), though nothing has yet to match the brilliance of the two best H&C EDs by Suneohair in capturing the mood of the show. Considering that the director of H&C II is in charge here, though, he gave a valiant effort to come close, and the effort was worthy.

Most importantly, however, there is the sense that what H&C and Karekano had going for them was their scope. Both were not just about love; they were about life, period. That is why those shows gave me, at least, that veritable chill of frequent recognition, something that I primarily felt in Toradora! in the context of emotionally awkward romantic scenarios. Toradora! constantly elicited more sympathy than empathy from me, with the notable exception of Minori’s guilt-driven self-sacrificial behavior.

Even as I write this I hesitate, though, to call this a weakness. One could make a very fair argument that much of the substance of life is love, friendship, and family, and Toradora’s laser-like focus on those aspects is merely the correct choice of its staff to do what it does best. Toradora! is still to be commended for expanding the normal romantic hijinks to include friendship and family, for all the reasons I listed above. Ultimately, this is probably a purely subjective judgment that prevents me from calling this the equal of my two favorite shoujo/josei stories. It might be my age, or my interests; just like for Author, as compelling as the characterization and writing was, high school romance feels more distant and unrelatable to me now than it once did.

Which leads me to wonder about the uses of entertainment/art in general. For me the highest end of anime–or film, or TV–engage both the head and heart, speaking in a fundamentally truthful way about particular parts of life they represent. Good storytelling and characterization are crucial for that, because if either the characters do not seem like people or the ideas seem glib or false, I cannot actively engage the work. I suppose for this blogger, at least, active engagement can be judged by the length of reviews :), and as such Toradora! is a roaring success, a top 10 anime for sure. It’s just not quite a top 5…but rankings are only so important. What matters is that I enjoyed the entire journey from beginning to end, and got more out of it than mindless pleasure.

This was, in the end, a show whose popularity was deserved. How utterly refreshing.

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances

Animation/Quality: 85%–Very attractive character designs and vibrant colors made the show a pleasure to watch. Some evocative shot choices, paired with H&C style voiceovers, mark this as the work of JC Staff’s finest working on their strengths. Some deterioration of animation quality becomes apparent near the end, as motions become herky-jerky and character designs become somewhat contorted.

Acting: 90%–The two leads hit it out of the ballpark with warm, emotionally rich and nuanced performances. Junji Majima’s monologues as Ryuuji were nearly and sometimes as good as Takemoto’s in H&C and were delivered with the same gravity and feeling. Rie Kugimiya gives what is probably the performance of a career, going far beyond her typecast as a “tsundere” into territory almost never seen for that character type. Major props, too, for Eri Kitamura as Ami, whose character was consistently fascinating and complex, and whose mysterious and wide-ranging vocalizations reflect that. Horie Yui as Minori was frequently hilarious and also moving, though Minori’s character was not quite as varied as some of the others and thus her voice performance often fell into two distinct “modes” (genki and melancholy) and little more.

Music/Sound: 80%–There are a few memorable, emotional tracks that often accompanied the show’s cathartic climaxes, particularly a track called “Startup.” Heard during the final race in episode 13 and the climactic battle between Taiga and Sumire, it was probably the emotional high point of the soundtracks. The ED songs often captured the sense of the show very well in its lyrics, though musically, they tended toward forgettability. The appropriate-but-strained analogy about oranges in the second ED is still no “Waltz” by Suneohair.

Story: 88%: See the whole review! A genuine, nuanced tale about friendship, love and family, pretty much unrivaled by its contemporaries, and only bested by the best of the best.

Overall: 85%–a far above average outing that will leave a genuine mark in the heart. If I were to introduce someone to the genre of anime romance, told from the male perspective, this would be my first pick.

More thoughts

Honey and Clover Live Action Review

Other reviews by Mike:

True Tears Review

Kimikiss Pure Rouge Review

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