Romantic comedies seem like the simplest concept to write, because we all want to laugh and experience love in some capacity. But it’s also the easiest to get wrong. There are tons of romantic comedies that struggle with unconvincing romance, unlikable characters or relying too much on outrageously dumb circumstances that the comedy sets itself in to make itself stand out. So when some films or TV shows DO get it right, for example Notting Hill or Wedding Singer, they’re praised as such for being a minority in a pile of waste. Luckily, we’re not talking about the sad attempts at the genre today; we’re talking about Toradora, a gem of a rom-com anime that hits every single note right and it’s glorious from start till end.
Ryuji Takasu is a kind young man who has a love for cooking and cleaning, however his intimidating outer appearance makes others in his class fear him. He also has a huge crush on one of his classmates, Minori Kushieda, however he has never had the courage to express his feelings. Then one day a fellow and also feared classmate of his, Taiga Aisaka, breaks into his house one evening to try and steal back a love letter she accidently left in his bag. When they learn that, by coincidence, Taiga is Minori’s best friend and Ryuji is the friend of Taiga’s crush Yusaki Kitamura, they form a plan to turn their hopeless crushes into reality.
The greatest strength Toradora has is the writing. It’s hard to come across a series like this with such natural conversational dialogue flowing throughout; the characters feel real not just because of the chemistry between them, but because their interactions and development take priority over outlandish situations. Even the mundane actions and banter of everyday have genuine warmth behind them, and when you have great characters and arcs to work with, the comedy naturally follows from it. The series covers a year of school and not a single episode is wasted; when it’s not dedicated to the entangled romances, it’s developing its leads and their personal conflicts because it knows that life doesn’t just revolve around school and having a boy/girlfriend. Not every problem is naturally resolved in an episode and not every action leads to a world-spinning love; combined that with perfect pacing it feels naturally developed and sincere, therefore more emotionally satisfying. It has the usual beach, festival and Christmas episodes but for once they are portrayed with as much honesty and realism as you can get in anime.
To tie it all together are the energetic leads, Taiga and Ryuji, who despite having character qualities that are normally found in the opposite gender (cleaning is normally a girly thing whilst being lazy and eating a lot is considered male) they’re not just defined by those traits. The two interact and complement each other and grow up together whether it is via their relationship or their relationships with others. As the series progresses, the cast gets bigger and the leads (and in turn, the viewers) become more involved with school activities, and although not all characters drive the plot along, quite a few provide quip lines and little commentaries that makes the whole environment feel alive.
The main plot of two friends trying to hook each other up with their friends isn’t something that’s going to cover 24 episodes without feeling stretched out, no matter how good it is. Toradora thankfully beats the mid-season flab by actually developing the supposed love interests. That sounds like something that should be obvious from the start, but a common problem with some rom-coms is having a love interest outside the main characters that are either under-developed or just lumped with the trait of ‘nice’ so that they don’t outshine the leads or the ‘real’ love interest. But Toradora is confident in its leads, and actually goes the extra mile to build layers to Minori and Kitamura’s characters. They have their own lives, they’re not just eye candy for the leads, and it deepens the relationship between the protagonists. You know where it’ll lead, but giving the side characters chances to shine makes the journey and revelation all the more rewarding. It’s such subtle but brilliant writing.
Now let’s talk about the comedy. The main reason that it works so well is that it has a lot of heart behind it, the humour comes from the right place, so it’s easy to laugh and enjoy the moment with the characters. There are a lot of jokes in here that really wouldn’t have worked as well in other anime or without the same team behind Toradora. One such example is in episode 7 where Taiga feels self-conscious in a swimsuit so Ryuji tries to help her boost her confidence with a fake pair of breasts. In other anime this could have easily gone south as the obvious route to take would be a fan service-y one with luring camera angles and nose bleeds, bad taste jokes, all resulting in less likable characters. But Taiga’s emotions come from a real place that a lot of girls could identify with, and Ryuji is not motivated by anything other than a need to help his friend. So when it comes to the scene where Taiga’s jump in the pool leaves one of her pads floating out and Ryuji diving in to put it back in, you don’t feel uncomfortable watching it, you laugh and smile at the wackiness of it and the comedic timing – in other words, you’re laughing for the right reasons. What could have been a very childish and perverted episode is genuinely funny and moving instead.
There are only two minor setbacks when it comes to the comedy, but luckily aren’t the main focus of the series. One is Ryuji’s mother, who plays the typical ‘young, pretty, big boobs, kind but irresponsible’ mother type for the majority of the series. Her character thankfully becomes more than that towards the finale with her back story coming to the fore and really bringing her out of that stock type, changing my mind on her completely, but it’s a shame it only happens towards the end. It would have been nicer to have a few hints that there was more to her earlier on, because before that she stuck out like a sore thumb, being one of the lowest common denominators in anime. The other drawback is the parrot that she and Ryuji own which Taiga calls ‘fugly’, I’m going to go one step further and say ‘disturbing’. It isn’t funny, or necessary, and is more of an annoying distraction than anything. But really, if I’m picking on a fugly parrot to find a flaw, then that just says more on how the rest of it just shines in comparison.
J.C. Staff provides the animation and the quality is consistent throughout the series with little to no obvious shortcuts taken which is a relief. It’s very bright and colourful, and the designs may not look overly original at a first glance but it’s the subtle details of each character that make the designs shine such as Taiga’s bouncy hair and Ami’s slim and noticeably pretty designs without it being excessive.
Music comes from Yukari Hasimoto who really knows when to add a spring into the step of each bouncy scene then really tug on your heart strings during the emotional moments. The stand-out piece ‘Lost My Pieces’ is especially guilty of inducing water works with its heart-breaking piano. The first opening theme ‘Pre-Parade’ is a very bizarre opening with its high-pitched techno pop but its cute lyrics and vocals grow on you. The second opening theme ‘My Silky Love’ isn’t as in your face in musicality so it almost feels like a comedown after ‘Pre-Parade’ but it keeps the cuteness factor to the fore. Both ending themes are similar in tempo and sweetness factor; the first ending theme ‘Vanilla Salt’ is so catchy and adorable that it’s hard to skip past it, the replacement ‘Orange’ isn’t as much of an earworm but it’s just as fun to listen to.
For once, Toradora Complete Collection comes with a healthy amount of extras on the last disc including the OVA ‘Bento Battle’, clean opening and closing, TV spots, trailers, 4 ‘Hurray for Gourmands’ shorts centred around Ami and various food dilemmas, and the bonus clip ‘Ami’s Impressions’.
If you plan to watch the show in English, be warned that although the dub is very good, the dialogue-only subtitles are not. Some of the translated text appears outside of text safe and in the top right hand corner, often going off-screen and missing chunks of text (be aware that I have a 36 inch TV). There’s also a random line of dialogue that pops up in episode 17 and the cute Christmas insert song in episode 19 is only translated in the full subtitle option.
Toradora is a superb rom-com anime with fantastic writing, loveable characters and perfect pacing. It’s a rare example of a series that will make you laugh out loud multiple times and shed tears with the protagonists. Fans of the genre should not pass this, and even those who are cynical towards the genre should give this a try, it really is that good.