It’s finally May, and as you all know, that means that love is in the air.
Okay, technically, that’s February, but whoever thought love would be in the air while its freezing cold was an idiot, so love is now in the air in May. Suck on that, greeting card companies!
You know they tremble in fear as their entire house of cards teeters on the brink of collapse. Especially since it’s made of greeting cards. Way unstable. Their contractor should be fired.
As I’ve said many times, I’m a romantic. I love a good love story, and I love the general sense of happiness that most love stories have as their central theme. For a love story to really work, though, there are a few things it has to do right, and the first of those is to have characters we can care about. Without that, the whole narrative collapses, just like the greeting card companies elaborate ruse that February is somehow romantic.
Fuck you, February. You can be the month of love when you stop dumping snow all over everyone.
Granted, with climate change and all, that may happen soon enough. Guess I’ll be eating crow when it does.
To kick off love story month here at… this bloggy place that doesn’t really have a proper name, which I am totally planning to do something about at some point in the near to extremely distant future, I wanted to tackle a show that isn’t one of the great love stories of anime, but somehow, still manages to be a really good story anyway.
Of course, I can only be talking about the truly twisted romance that is Toradora.
A 2008, 25 episode series from anime mainstay J.C. Staff, Toradora is a romance anime that is pretty light on the romance, and pretty heavy on the character development, making it a bit of an odd bird when it comes to the romance genre. It’s also a comedy, but features a hell of a lot of drama, too, so it really isn’t down with playing by your rules, man.
Stop oppressing the anime, dude!
If you’ve never seen it, Toradora follows the lives of five high school students, starting with Ryuji Takasu, a gentle natured clean freak who just happens to have the look of a violent delinquent about him. Since most people judge every book by the cover, most people are afraid of Ryuji, including his teachers, despite him being a straight A student who sometimes brings a toothbrush to school so he can clean the grout in the mens bathroom when he has a free period.
Determined to change the way people see him, Ryuji is thrilled to learn he is in the same class as his best friend, Yusaku, who’s also the student council vice president, and the girl he’s had a crush on for years, Minori, one of the most bubbly, outgoing, and popular girls in school. With them around, he’s certain people will start seeing him in a better light.
Until he bumps into Taiga Aisaka, the diminutive girl known as The Palm Top Tiger, and wielder of some truly spectacular rage management issues. Offended that Ryuji wasn’t watching where he was going, Taiga immediately knocks him out, with a single blow, leading the entire school to believe there’s a war brewing between the two most dangerous students.
Making matters worse, Ryuji learns that Taiga lives in the apartment right next door to where he lives with his mom, and their pet… bird thing. Lucky for Ryuji, it turns out that Taiga has a huge crush on Yusaku, and is best friends with Minori. So, the two decide to set aside the fact they can’t stand each other in order to team up and help each other get the person the are crushing on.
Hilarity, drama, violence, and maturity ensue.
One of the things about Toradora that makes it work is that it isn’t really a romantic comedy, though it is cleverly disguised as one. It’s actually a coming of age story, with Ryuji, Taiga, Yusaku, and Minori all learning how to be adults the way all teenagers do. By failing a lot.
Adding one more element of chaos to this mix is the arrival of Ami, Yusaku’s childhood friend who is now a highly successful teen model. While she acts like a ditz, it’s all for show, and she’s one of the meanest mean girls you’ll ever meet. Not without reason, however, and as she becomes part of the madness that is Ryuji and Taiga’s attempts to be romantic, she begins to grow up as well. By failing a lot.
Look, I know we now live in the 21st century, where everyone is special, and should always feel good about themselves, and all that shit, but c’mon. Failure is important. Failure is how we learn what we are good at, and what we aren’t. Failure teaches us as much, if not more, about ourselves than success does. It’s in failure we learn how to be okay with who we are, and set realistic goals. How we discover what we want to be, and learn how to become that. Failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of life, and a major part of becoming a responsible adult.
Watching the cast of Toradora fail, constantly, isn’t just comedy fodder. It’s watching them learn what they can’t do, what their limits are, and forces them to constantly re-examine what it is they want, and why. This is what makes the show such an enjoyable watch. The cast actually learns, grows, and changes because of their failures, inherent flaws, and the problems they face.
It’s easy to dismiss Toradora on the grounds that it’s a fairly cliched romantic comedy. It’s a lot harder to get past that view, and see that there’s a more important story being told, with a very subtle hand, that is using those cliches to explore the characters in ways that actually do change them. It’s clever writing, and a neat trick to pull, but one that gets lost a little too easily by those who simply judge the book by the cover. Much like people do Ryuji.
Gee, it’s almost like the author of the light novels, and the folks at J.C. Staff did that on purpose, isn’t it?
Nah. That’d be crazy.
Because Toradora is a coming of age story, what drives the plot is always the characters. Most of what happens in the show revolves around them, and their various attempts to woo someone. There’s very little in the way of an overarching plot beyond teenagers trying, and failing, to be good at adulting.
Which is great. You know I love a good character driven story.
Despite Ryuji being the POV character for most of the show, Taiga is easily the most compelling character, not just in Toradora, but in pretty much any show that falls even slightly under the umbrella of romantic comedy. The best parts of the coming of age aspects of the show revolve around her, as well.
For starters, it’s that she is tiny. Like, really tiny. To the point people often think she’s still in grade school. At least, until she opens her mouth, which is usually followed by her losing her temper. Violence does then ensue. This isn’t an element of the show that was done just for the kicks, or the lolis. It’s an integral part of her character, and the source of much of her rage management issues.
Taiga resents her appearance. A lot. To a degree that even Ryuji can’t match. She hates that she’s so small, and so cute. She wants to be taller, more voluptuous, more feminine. She wants to be seen as an adult. She wants to not be who she is. Which is a pretty common thing for teenagers. Very few are really okay with themselves, and see their flaws far more easily than their strengths. With Taiga, this aspect of being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood is given a literal form.
She tells people that ask that her anger comes from her family. Her parents are divorced, with her mom having re-married, and had a son. Her dad continues to try and chase after get rich quick schemes, and fail at being a good businessman, often leaving Taiga to do whatever she wants, without any parental oversight, for months on end. At first blush, this a good reason to be angry.
What it really is, though, is that Taiga feels as if living with her mother will just make things worse, because while her half brother grows up into an adult, she’s always going to look the way she does. It’s humiliating, and just being in the same house with them makes her feel even smaller. Compounding that is that when her dad does come around, he treats her like a little girl, showering her with gifts, and basically, acting like he’s happy she’ll never grow up into a proper woman.
All of it together gives her such a complex over her height, and appearance, that she is angry all the time. She just wants to be accepted for who she is, instead of all the focus being on what she is for someone else, or what she can ever be.
Its a damn good story, watching her come to terms with it all, and learn what it is to actually be accepted for just being her, flaws and all.
It isn’t just Taiga that gets that, though. The entire cast does, as well. Yusaku learns to be okay with just being himself. Ami learns that just because she’s a bitch, doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. Minori learns how to be happy with just being happy. Ryuji learns how to be a little more concerned with himself.
It’s like the Breakfast Club, but with anime, and a truly epic girl fight. Not a cat fight, either. A full throttle, no holds barred, ass whoopin between two of the girls in the cast. Breakfast Club might have actually been better with one of those.
Or maybe I really do watch too much anime.
Toradora is based on a series of light novels, which I’m going to point out continues to be evidence against this idea that all light novels are trash and soft porn, written by Yuyuko Takemiya. Nor is it the only anime adaptation of her work, since Golden Time is also one of hers. The reason this gets mentioned here, instead of up at the top, where I usually mention this kind of thing, is because Takemiyu has an excellent grasp of characters, which shows up in everything she writes. Almost everything about Toradora, as an anime, is due to her ability to craft incredibly good characters. She’s got a couple of other works that haven’t been adapted, so if you liked either Toradora, or Golden Time, I suggest checking out her other stuff.
The director for Toradora was Tatsuyuki Nagai, and boy, did they ever roll in the big guns when they brought him on. For those who don’t follow directors the way I do, this is the cat who was the director for that one show I never shut up about, Ano Hanna, as well as A Certain Scientific Railgun, Waiting In The Summer, and more recently, Iron Blooded Orphans. He’s also worked as a unit director of shows like Witch Hunter Robin, Mai-HIME, and Mushishi.
In other words, dude knows how to fucking direct the shit out of stuff. Toradora is no different, either, as he keeps everything about the characters, just the way it should be. He does an excellent job of bringing the entire story together, and making it all work, from the romance, to the comedy, to the drama, to the coming of age aspects. All of it works because he has a steady hand, and knows just what to do to make a series the best it can be.
The writing was done by, quite frankly, living legend Mari Okada. Rozen Maiden, Basilisk, Fate/Stay Night, Black Butler, Fractale, Ano Hanna (I’ll never shut up, no), Black Rock Shooter, and many more are among her writing credits. She is among one of the most prolific, and successful, anime screen writers alive, and it’s impossible to not see why. She has a knack, a skill, for bringing out the heart of a scene. For getting the character interactions down to what matters most. Unlike some anime, Toradora isn’t a direct adaptation. Some things were changed between the light novels and the anime, and those were things Okada saw made the story work better, or just in a new way that achieved the same goal.
Basically, lady is a bad ass writer, and I am a big fan. She’s amazing.
The music was composed by Yukai Hashimoto, who also did the music for Golden Time, Omamori Himari, and a couple of others. With Toradora, she really does a great job of capturing what the show needs from the music, never overwhelming, always complimenting, and keeping the focus on evoking what the characters are feeling. It’s a good soundtrack, and Hashimoto does an excellent job of elevating the story with her work.
Not for nothing, but the original story, anime writing, and music were all done by women. That’s something, ya know?
On that note, for those of you who aren’t as a big a nerd as me, Taiga is voiced by yet another living legend, Rie Kugimiya, better known to most of you as Alphonse Elric from FullMetal Alchemist, Happy from Fairy Tail, Kagura in Gintama, herself in Seiyu’s Life, and about a billion other major roles. She’s commonly called the tsundra queen, and is probably one of the most prolific voice actors working in the industry today.
Lotta huge names involved in this show. Just, so many big names it’s kind of mind blowing, ya know?
Here’s the thing. If you want to watch Toradora as a romantic comedy that is pretty ordinary, that’s fine. You’re missing out on an amazing coming of age story by not really thinking about what it is you’re seeing, but I’m not here to tell you how to live your life. Just to judge you for doing it wrong.
Which I do. All the time.