My Review of Toradora!

In this world, there’s this thing that no one’s ever seen. This thing is very kind and gentle. And if anyone could actually see it, there’d be a whole bunch of people wanting to have it. Maybe that’s why the world keeps it hidden from everyone… Because if it’s that hard to get, that makes it even more special. And one day, someone will find it. Whoever does find it, they’ll be the one that was supposed to. Because that’s the way it’s meant to be.

Ryuji Takesu is trying to find this something… He’s in love with an energetic girl in his class, but his reputation as the second scariest student in the school has kept him at a distance from her. One day, the first scariest student in the school slips a love note into his bag by mistake, and the two of them realize that they’re in love with each others’ best friends. By joining forces in the pursuit of their unrequited loves, can this Tiger and Dragon finally find that one thing that they long to see?

Well, once again, we’re returning to JC Staff, although this series is an entirely different creature than the two shows I’ve reviewed before. It combines the budget allocation from Ghost Hunt with the hyper-cheap aesthetic from Ookami-san to some surprisingly great effect. It’s not what you’d call a great looking series, as movement is limited, but for the most part, the movement it DOES showcase is smooth and kinetic. The only time it really becomes ugly is during a few of the biggest emotional moments of the show, and their attempt to get as much movement as possible out of the characters leads to frameless, poorly drawn monsters that look absolutely hilarious when paused. But luckily, those moments are few and far between, and the high emotions involved are enough to overpower and revulsion these images may cause.

As for the artwork, it’s above average. The character designs are brilliant, with inspired looks and bright, sharp color choices keeping the entire cast fresh in your mind for days after you finish the series, but outside of that, it’s pretty standard slice-of-life stuff. The CG, at least in the few moments that they choose to employ it, is flawlessly done, so it’s pretty easy to pick out where a good chunk of the budget went. The only aspect of the artwork that really bothered me were the constant jagged outlines around the characters, which is not an uncommon problem in anime from around the late aughts… Even Brotherhood and Spice and Wolf suffered from it. That problem is completely erased if you’re watching it on Blu-ray, however.

In any case, the show does it’s job visually, as all the extra effort in the animation makes for some impeccable comic timing, and the lighting and color scheme suddenly become gorgeous whenever there’s a romantic scene to showcase. The facial expressions are detailed and dynamic enough to make Kyoto Animation eat it’s heart out, which is important because in a lot of ways, the characters are the most important part of the show. The main characters… The ones who appear most prominently in the opening… Take the standard love triangle and evolve it into a full blown love pentagon, with enough plotting and emotional nuance that each one of them is as important to the unfolding drama as the next.

Our central character, Ryuji Takesu, is a hopeless romantic who’s been mistaken for a scary thug because of his tough face and quiet demeanor. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because his character was ripped off wholesale by a series that I like to call “Haganai: I Don’t Have Many Original Ideas.” He’s the standard nice guy rom-com lead, but there’s much more to him than others of his ilk… He was raised by a very childish single parent, which lead to him becoming the responsible housewife she could never be… He cooks, fusses, and is an obsessive neat-freak who can’t stand to let dirt or mold sit unchallenged. His personality may not resonate with everyone, but that’s what’s so wonderful about it… He actually has personality traits that aren’t just positive gimmicks, and the majority of the people surrounding him actually DO find him weird because of it. He’s not the glorified perfect guy everyone loves, and after Kyo-Ani’s domination of the market, that’s pretty refreshing.

The other main character is Taiga Aisaka, a tiny girl who’s actually earned her frightful reputation. Blunt and brutal, she’s been given the diminutive nickname “The Palmtop Tiger.” At first glance, she may appear to be some calculated pander to the fans of the lolicon and tsundere archetypes, and I can kind of understand where people who say this are coming from. But as the story progresses, and you learn more about her family situation, her tough nature becomes more and more understandable, and it also becomes very clear that her physical shortcomings are a thing that she has to overcompensate for. Yeah, you can condemn her as being a shallow grab at the loli market, but the truth is, I knew plenty of girls like her in school, so it’s hard for me to become offended when one of them is very accurately represented in a story. She’s the most complex and (ironically) the most developed character in the cast, so it makes sense that she’s become the posterchild for the series.

Their friends(and initial love interests) are Yusaku Kitamura and Minori Kushieda, two lovable oddballs who are active in a lot of school activities. Yusaku is a relatively simple character, and in the beginning, he’s the only one who knows that Taiga and Ryuji are good people. This probably has something to do with his involvement in student council, as he seems to be the kind of person who makes an effort to get to know everybody. Despite being a little simple, he does have his problems, and he does get his own arc, and they don’t disappoint. Minori is the class’s genki girl, a bright ball of energy who tries her best in everything she does, is highly perceptive of other peoples’ true feelings, and holds about a dozen jobs outside of school. She can be annoying to some viewers, but while it’s never fully explored, it’s implied several times throughout the anime that she has a wealth of issues below the surface, and that she may secretly suffer from poverty, or even severe depression in her home life. Whatever the case, the only ones who never really believe in her sunny exterior are herself and…

My favorite character in the show, Ami Kawashima. When she’s introduced to the story, it’s as a sort of villain… Or, at least, an antagonist. She’s a bratty, arrogant model who puts on a much more manufactured, moe-like facade in order to manipulate people, and if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand all the infantilized doe-eyed ladies of the Key Trinity, you’ll be laughing right along with her over it. As she develops, and we learn more about why she transferred to this school and why she is the way she is, she’s eventually forced to drop her act, at which point she becomes arguably the most important character in the series. She becomes an almost Shakespearian character, a fifth wheel who’s free to observe the web of lies going on between her cast mates. She takes an active role in the story, pulling strings and making calculated comments, getting way too involved as she tries to unravel the truth behind it all.

The supporting cast is used with surprising efficiency, as none of them are featured any more or less than they need to be. Characters like The Student council President, Inko the brain-damaged parrot, and the parents of our two central characters exist not only to augment the comedy or drama of the material, but to drop subtle hints about why the characters are the way they are. Characters like Miss Koigakubo and four other select students exist to deliver some stunning paralells in regards to what’s going on in the main story, as well as to serve as a constant reminder that there’s a world outside of Taiga’s circle.

Toradora is one of a small list of shows that I’ve seen in both English and Japanese, and even though I may be woefully monolingual, I can personally attest to the fact that both tracks are nothing short of pure gold. I can’t really say anything about the Japanese track that a simple list of names wouldn’t say all on it’s own, as I don’t think anybody is a virgin to the works of people like Rie Kugimiya and Yui Horie, but the English dub really doesn’t have that kind of star power, so it does merit a bit more discussion.

In recent years, Bang Zoom Entertainment has taken to pushing it’s main stable to the back row, and instead giving some of it’s best roles to a series of newer actors that haven’t gotten nearly as much work in the past. This transition was a little rocky at first, with projects like K-On and Oblivion Island at the forefront, and some decent yet rather awkward acting in Madoka Magica. Well, Toradora was their moment, and they rose to it, putting forth better performances than I could have possibly imagined. They all far surpassed the relatively little work they’ve previously done, and after hearing them in this, I sincerely hope this stable becomes the next big industry powerhouse.

Going in, I already had respect for Cassandra Lee’s ability to understand and essentially become her characters, as her performances in both K-On and Madoka Magica were outstanding, but I felt Taiga’s depth was out of her range… And I never really liked Christine Marie Cabanos, although she was decent in Squidgirl. I wasn’t initially expecting much, but this dub is literally perfect. And yes, I know what I’m implying by putting the word literally before the word perfect… Believe me, I mean it that way. I can’t imagine any cast coming together for Toradora better than this one did. All of those actors I’d never heard of before… Like Erika Herlacher and Erik Kimerer… Are names I’m going to be looking out for from now on. Cassandra Lee has only strengthened my confidence in her abilities, and as for Cabanos? I take back every negative thing I ever said about her. She is the star of this dub, and as such, I don’t want to live in a world where her performance is anything other than star-making. Every inch of her becomes Minori Kushieda, from her sunny and boisterous exterior all the way down to her complex, insecure interior. She’s apparently found her niche in loud, energetic characters, so I hope she keeps getting roles like that one.

There are a handful of seasoned veterans among the cast, with Johnny Yong Bosch and Karen Strassman pulling off performances that are about what you’d expect from them… Which is a good thing, mind you. And even though she’s playing multiple second-string roles, like that weird parrot-thing, Wendee Lee hasn’t sounded this good since Cowboy Bebop.  You can’t go wrong with sub or dub, but I’m still going to recommend the dub, as I honestly consider it a testament to how good dubs can be.

So, right from the first episode, or just from a simple explanation of the plot, most viewers will give this show a dismissive wave and say that it sounds too predictable. “Okay, so they’re in love with each others’ best friends, but they’re going to wind up falling in love with each other, right?” I have literally sat and watched this with a first time viewer who said pretty much this, and then throw his hands up in defeat after about eight episodes of NOTHING going the way he predicted it would. And that’s part of the genius of this series. The characters are familiar, the tropes are familiar, the setting is familiar, but none of it is ever played the way you’d expect it to be played. Take any problem that the romantic comedy/harem genre may have, and Toradora either avoids it completely or turns it upside down.

For example, there’s the harem aspect. It’s a trend in way too many shows that nearly every female character in the cast will inexplicably fall head over heels in love with the male protagonist, ignoring all other options as not being main enough for them.  I complained about this in detail last week. This is one of the biggest issues I had with Sword Art Online and Clannad, but it’s not just a numbers issue… In Tiger and Bunny, the main character had ONE girl fawning over him, and it still bugged me by being completely unexplained. In Toradora, yes, the three main girls have feelings for Ryuji, but there are a few things that set this series apart… First off, it’s only those three characters. Second, all three of these love interests are explained in story, either explicitly or with subtlety, and they’re all played out differently. The crushes aren’t just flowing in one direction from the ladies to the gentlemen, oh no, it’s a distinctly two-way street.  And finally, Ryuji’s not the only eligible bachelor in the show… His friend Yusaku gets just as much attention, and hell, the first character in the named cast to get a significant other is one of their classmates!

Another example is that in most harem shows, particularly the ones adapted from dating games (Which Toradora thankfully wasn’t), the story seems disjointed, as each character gets their own arc while the main relationship just sits on the backburner until all the filler is done and the writers are damn well good and ready to just get to the point already. But Toradora’s story is, however, VERY tightly written. There is not a single story arc in the single freaking series that doesn’t somehow involve Taiga and Ryuji and their ever-developing dynamic, nor does the central plot ever get forgotten. The other three mains may occasionally take a backseat, but they never disappear from a story completely.

Hell, when you get down to it, all the little things that make up your typical romantic comedy are here… But they’re used in new, clever, often subversive ways that are never just there for the sake of being checked off of a tropes list. Everything that you’d expect to see in a show like this… From bathing suit shopping to the obligatory beach episode… Is executed in a way that’s fresh, unique, and important to the story. Hell, where most anime are happy to settle on a cafe or a haunted house for their culture fest episode, Toradora goes balls-out with a professional wrestling show, complete with faces, heels, an over-the-top script and choreographed in-ring action! We never see any characters in the bath, because no matter what a lot of other shows may think, no on screen conversation ever NEEDS to take place in the bath. There’s a little bit of fanservice, but it’s never gratuitous… Except for a dream that one of the side characters has right before the Christmas arc, which was funny enough to be excusable… And it’s offset by a heaping helping of manservice, often willingly supplied by the unnervingly confident Yusaku, and even then, it’s played entirely for laughs.

But if I had to pick out one thing that makes this series stand out over the tops of all the other rom-coms out there, it would be exactly that… Confidence. Toradora is one hundred percent confident in the quality of the material it has to offer, and unlike a lot of other shows that value enthusiasm over ability, it’s smart enough to know that it’s confidence is well founded. It never doubts itself, nor does it ever assume that YOU doubt it, and it never slows down or breaks it’s outstanding pace to try and convince you otherwise. It’s this confidence that gives Toradora it’s energy. Well, that, and the amazing soundtrack.

Toradora has an unwavering, dazzling energy just radiating from it at every moment of screen time. That energy never goes away, even during the more tear-jerking scenes, because it never screws around… Instead of pop culture references, Toradora casually rolls out references and metaphors related to it’s own universe. Where there are plenty of anime that fall into the trap of stopping their stories dead to show you backstory episodes you don’t care about for characters who are just going to fade into the background afterwards… His and Her Circumstances was particularly bad about this… Toradora doesn’t, because it knows that you’ll care about the characters anyway. It never does anything just because it feels like it should, nor does it ever show us anything just because we might want to see it. The only time it really slows down is towards the end, and it only does it then because it has one hell of a perfect post-credits ending to close on.

Toradora was originally released on a pair of undubbed DVDs by Sentai Filmworks, and while those DVDs were just fine and dandy… Once again, the sub is great all on it’s own… I would still highly recommend purchasing the DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack that was released last year by NIS America. It’s pricey, but it comes with a full color fan book and a generous helping of special features, including the cute and charming Hooray for Foodies mini-sodes. It also comes with a short video of some of the impressions that Taiga made Ami do, and a dubbed OVA episode about the magic of making bento boxes, but I’ll be honest, they were both kind of disappointing. The OVA wasn’t necessarily bad, but it would have dragged down the series if it had actually been included. You can also stream the entire series, in either language, on Crunchyroll!

Toradora isn’t just great, it’s glowing. With the exception of the animation, which is at the very least better than it has any right to be, there is nothing this series does wrong. At twenty five episodes long, it’s as fun to watch again and again as any other show with half the episode count. The high rewatch quality doesn’t stop there, either, as the comedic and dramatic material are both so effective and so timeless that I still found myself constantly laughing and choking up after seven entire viewings. It takes some of the worst things about the romantic comedy and harem genres and proves just how amazing those things can become with a little bit of effort, focus, and tender loving care. I won’t say whether or not the characters found that mysterious ‘thing’ they were looking for, but I found what I was looking for… The best anime romantic comedy ever made. I give Toradora a 10/10.

Happy Valentines day.

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