Toradora – Stereotypes Done Right
Regular readers of antiotaku will have figured out some things we don’t like. These include plots addicted to the status quo, comedy that isn’t really funny, and—most relevant to our discussion here—characters who seem like they came from a made-to-order fetish shop for the viewer’s enjoyment. Of all the ways where anime descends into cliche, hackneyed and done-to-death character tropes prove the most common, a consistent refuge for writers who are out of ideas or simply want to jump on the latest bandwagon of popularity. This is a particular problem with romantic comedies.
With just a cursory look, Toradora would seem to fit that bill nicely. The female lead is Taiga Aisaka, who manages combine the spoiled rich girl trope (she’s even sort of blond) with an increasingly popular trope from light novels and their anime adaptions: the loli tsundere. Bring in a girl who seems really underdeveloped for her age, give her a major chip on her shoulder, and watch her inexplicably fall for male lead, even as she violently denies it.
It’s a trope which J.C. Staff had already done (at least) three times before, with the same voice actor, Rie Kugimiya, playing the role of the pint-sized brat in each show. She’s been so stereotyped into such roles since the debut of Shakugan no Shana that sometimes its hard to remember she’s done anything else, and there are entire fan communities devoted to her as the “queen of tsundere.” But she is, in fact, quite good as an actress, and one would hope that eventually she would be given a chance to show it.
That chance came here. Toradora is a show that proves that just because you start with formulaic characters doesn’t mean you have to limit them to being nothing more than their formula. And just because you know how a story is going to end doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time going along for the ride.
The basic plot of Toradora pairs Taiga with Ryuuji Takasu, her next door neighbor whom everyone takes for a delinquent. (He just has a scary-looking face.) In the first episode the two of them discover that they are in love with the other’s best friend, and forge a pact to help each other to romantic success. Taiga also gets Ryuuji to be her personal cleaner, cook, and general lackey, but that’s more from the threat of physical violence.
Of course the series has the two of them slowly fall in love with each other over the course of the show. Of course this is obvious from the very first episode and won’t come as a surprise to any viewer with three working brain cells. Anyone who watches the trailer for a chick flick isn’t going to any trouble deciphering who will be involved with whom by film’s end. The appeal comes from the process, and Toradora nails that on every level—first and foremost with its characters.
We can start with Taiga herself. Like dozens of rich girls in anime before her, she feels isolated from the world and secretly wants to be loved, even as she acts in ways to make herself hated. Unlike those before her, her wealth buys her a fancy apartment and all the to-go meals she cares to buy, not a mansion, a private cruse liner, and an army of maids. And, far from being an orphan, both her parents are still alive, and remain the malign influences in her life in all the ways that you’d expect absentee, self-absorbed-and-guilty-about-it parents to be.
Or take Minori Kushieda, the ostensible object of Ryuuji’s affection, who comes off as a cross between an over-caffeinated workaholic and Luna Lovegood. Minori cheerfully spouts off whatever bizarre nonsense is working through her brain whenever she’s not actively encouraging other people to succeed (cheery optimist that she is). And yet it only takes a few episodes to learn there’s a whole second layer to her thinking which only comes out on special occasions.
The secondary characters continue the pattern of adding hidden depth to what seem like walking cliches. Yuusaku Kitamura, the object of Taiga’s affections and class over-achiever? Knows a lot more about the pair’s shenanigans than he lets on, and has his own romantic goal in sight. Ami Kawashima, the two-faced model? Is far too observant of her friends’ relationship dynamics for her own good. Ryuuji’s hot, still-in-her-early-thirties mom? Has deep security issues related to providing for her boy, and projects her own dreams for success on to him.
Then there’s Ryuuji himself. Ostensibly the classic “too-nice-for-his-own-good” protagonist with some scattered quirks tossed in, Ryuuji has his own issues stemming from his odd relationship to his mom and to the world. And those “quirks”—which could easily have been a sloppy attempt to give the character something externally distinctive—are what drive him into an increasingly close relationship with Taiga, even as his target remains Minori.
Even bit players like designated class loser Kouji Haruta and “spinster” homeroom teacher Yuri Koigakubo get far more depth than their roles would seem to justify. Basically every named character has an established personality and motivation; it’s clear their existence matters beyond what it means for our protagonists. The result is a cast that is far richer than they would seem to have any right to be on paper.
All of this means that the traditional harem that forms around male protagonists in these sorts of shows becomes much more complicated. There’s plenty of romantic tension stemming from (and toward!) the secondary characters, and while Ryuuji gets more attention than most, it feels much more like high schoolers getting crushes and falling in love, rather than female cardboard cutouts all falling for the designated male cardboard cutout. It’s a key distinction which is difficult to capture in words but comes out instantly when watching the show, particularly when you compare it to its peers.
That subversive creativity, taking old ideas and making them fresh, works into the plot events as well. You need a school festival? There is one—with the most unique idea for a homeroom activity that has ever been done in anime. The traditional class trip heads into the mountains for skiing instead of the beach (much to the class’s chagrin). Don’t get me started on the campaign for student body president.
Every time what could have been a check mark on a list of “needed high school events” becomes something … more. The show isn’t content with just having well-developed characters in normal situations, or hastily imagined cliches in outlandish situations (the majority of anime falls into the latter camp). It puts well-developed characters into normal situations that become, for lack of a better term, realistically outlandish.
The constant problem of anime adaptions of light novels and manga is that they are made when the series is popular, but not anytime close to when they are supposed to end. This means stupid filler episodes, long waits between seasons, or hasty improvised endings once the show needs to end and the original material keeps plugging along. Toradora was written as a ten volume series, however, and the novels wrapped up almost at the same time as the show itself. It’s a narrative that doesn’t have time to waste on pointless filler, and doesn’t waste our time with it either.
There are shows, like Tatami Galaxy or Katangatari, that break genre boundaries and present something marvelously unpredictable; even if both the shows I mentioned have fairly rigid episode formulas, those formulas are sui generis, and only exist to be broken by the end. Toradora seems to be predictable on every level, but whenever it comes to the execution the show continually finds a point here and a character there to liven up the mix.
There is one way in which Toradora completely breaks out of the mold, and that comes in final episode. A running theme in Toradora is the importance and value of family, even when one’s family is the primary cause of all those pesky neuroses and complexes that the audience has seen on display for the full series run. And so the last episode reveals that Ryuuji and Taiga can’t form the relationship they want without first resolving the relationships already in their lives.
This leads to an excursion that seems a little odd for a romance show, which I am reluctant to spoil directly. There have been remarkably mixed reactions from fans on this score (I and my co-blogger are split on the subject) but I don’t think even those who hate it would say it ruins the series. I would say that, however oddly it was implemented, it points to a much deeper and mature view of human relationships than I ever would have expected out of an anime romance. In that way, it’s in line with everything else about the show.
Toradora has been licensed by NIS America, and just days ago Anime News Network started streaming the series. Only the first four episodes are free (the rest can be unlocked for a one-time charge), but if you aren’t sold on the show after four episodes, then you obviously hate romantic comedies and should have known better than to check it out. For those of you who do like romantic comedies, know that they don’t get much better than this.
Edit: Now Crunchyroll has picked up the entire series. Only the first six episodes are free, but premium members in the US and Canada have access to the entire series. If that group includes you, take advantage of it.
Further Edit: Now Hulu has the entire series too.