Toradora! Anime Review
US Release By
Schoolyard Romantic Comedy/Drama
25 25-minute episodes
2008-10-02 - 2009-03-26
What's In It
- Awkward Youth
- Scary-looking Nice Guys
- Actually Scary Pint-sized Girls
- Mean-spirited Pretty Girls
- Incredibly Cheerful Wacky Girls
- Teenage Angst
- Unexpected Schoolgirl Brawls
- Snippy Girl Fights
- Awful Parenting
- Violence: 1 (mild)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 2 (moderate)
Ryuuji Takasu, age 17, is an above-average kid. Having raised himself alongside his airhead mother after his gangster father got himself killed, Ryuuji can out-domestic the average housewife and has a burning passion for cleaning. Unfortunately for his social life, he inherited his father's scary glare. A fateful turn of events introduces him to Taiga Aisaka, his next-door neighbor--known at school as The Palm-top Tiger due to her short stature and even shorter temper.
Now, it so happens that Ryuuji has a secret crush on Taiga's best friend, the ebullient, wacky Minori "Minorin" Kushieda, while Taiga is pining for Ryuuji's buddy, the cheerful superyouth Yuusaku Kitamura. So, the two misfits decide to team up to help each other out with their romantic indecision. Add in Kitamura's childhood friend, Ami Kawashima--a model who's a lot less nice than she seems on the surface--and it's going to be a heck of a Junior year for the five friends.
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Toradora may look like your average perky, fanboy-targeted comedy-romance at first glance, but it ends up taking an obvious setup in entirely unexpected directions, with substantive teenage character drama eventually taking precedent over humor. Even more unexpected, this works, thanks to a refreshingly mature tone--the show is more about the beginning of adulthood than the end of youth--and the strength of its five central cast members--fun, likable anime personalities with an undercurrent of humanity. Particularly memorable is class-clown Minori; Yui Horie's scene-stealing performance makes almost every minute she's onscreen entertaining. After spending most of its first season on light hijinks with an undercurrent of mild drama, the series gets down to business: watching competent, together characters completely lose it in surprisingly realistic ways. It's teenage angst, but the emotional core rings true, and there's a good reason for it--the side effects of disastrously bad parenting drive the drama. It's a little leisurely with the pacing, and it leaves some unfinished business at the end, but the climax is satisfyingly romantic in a mature, low-key way.
If you go in expecting a broad comedy, you'll almost certainly enjoy the first season, but likely feel let down by the second, because that's really not what it is at heart. If, on the other hand, you come prepared for a relatively substantive coming-of-age drama/romance with a stiff dose of comedy and quirky anime flavor, thanks to well-developed characters and a solid emotional core, Toradora stands alongside Kimagure Orange Road among the best of the genre.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Toradora may look like your average perky, fanboy-targeted comedy-romance at first glance, but it ends up taking an obvious setup in entirely unexpected directions, with substantive teenage character drama eventually taking precedent over humor. Even more unexpected, this works--thanks to well-developed characters and a solid emotional core, it stands alongside Kimagure Orange Road among the best genre-bending coming-of-age romantic comedy/dramas.
Toradora works as well as it does thanks to its small cast of fun, likable characters.
Taiga is superficially a tsundere character--mean on the surface, nice inside--that subverts the stereotype by casting it as a real psychological problem. She starts out less tsundere than complete basket case--hurt terribly by parental neglect, she's distrusting, indiscriminately angry, confused, socially inept, and living in squalor. At the same time, it's clear that she's desperate for love, which she demonstrates with her incongruently open affection for Minori--the one person who's been there for her.
While Taiga's temper is mostly played for laughs initially, it's not just a joke; over the course of the series she gradually pulls herself together, eventually turning into a somewhat testy, functional person. This slow transformation caught me off guard, and had me getting attached to a sort of character I usually find annoying. Tsundere specialist Rie Kugimiya does a memorable job supplying her humorous anger and confusion with an undercurrent of humanity.
Ryuuji, Taiga's opposite, appears to be the passive protagonist; stable, a fiercely domestic clean freak (a good ongoing joke), and bad at expressing himself. As it turns out, there's more to him as well--the responsibility of being more of a parent to his infantile mother than she is to him has left issues unassumingly simmering under the surface.
Kitamura is the uber-youth, and unlike most bespectacled brainiacs, he's also hyper-competent and quite perceptive. He's the least substantive of the group, but is impressive for the all-in vigor he applies to everything he does--including, it turns out, failure.
Minori is a spectacle: A force of nature, she's overflowing with energy and flat-out wacky in the most entertaining, light-up-a-room way possible. Pretty much every minute she's onscreen the first season is fun--you could easily build an entire comedy around her.1 Yui Horie's scene-stealing performance deserves a lot of the credit--she makes simple lines unfailingly entertaining.
Interestingly, Minori's not your usual oblivious nutcase--she's a class-clown who's competent and well aware of what's going on around her. This makes it all the more striking when she starts to crack around the edges, increasing the impact of the conflict in later episodes.2
Ami is the odd-girl-out, acting as more of a sarcastic, bitter observer, quietly wishing she was more of an insider. After an early couple of episodes establishing the damage done by premature maturity and why she would fall for Ryuuji, she really doesn't get the development the rest of the characters do. Importantly, though, she isn't just a harem addition--her sullen remarks make it clear she knows she's not in the romantic picture.
These five are the only significant characters apart from Ryuuji's mom, who's also not quite as much of a joke as she seems. None are as simple as they seem at first glance, and the wonderful Japanese (only) acting gives the colorful anime personalities a measure of emotional substance.
Further, they're not static; Taiga isn't the only one to change subtly--and believably--through the series. Indeed, among Toradora's strengths is its ability to follow a thread without hitting the viewer over the head with it.
For example, in the first episode we're shown Ryuuji's failed attempt to compensate for his scary eyes with his hair. After a string of early jokes it ceases to be an issue once his classmates realize that he's a nice guy who just looks like a thug. However, throughout the series, every time he's feeling self-conscious, he fiddles with his bangs. This little tic signals what he's feeling, and gives the viewer a touchstone of continuity.
The symbolic Tiger/Dragon pairing that gives the show its title is another example--it's mentioned at the beginning, then not so much as alluded to until the last episode.
Toradora is, for the most part, a coming-of-age romantic comedy. Unlike many similar anime, though, it's more about the beginning of adulthood than the end of youth; the focus eventually turns to big life decisions and the difference between a crush and real romantic commitment. A recurring theme is attempting something impulsive and youthfully irresponsible, then stepping back, looking at the long term, and making a rational decision.
This dose of maturity is a refreshing change of pace, and had me feeling far more emotionally invested than I expected. It's also one of many ways in which Toradora sidesteps a well-trod path. Even the inevitable destination looks remarkably unfamiliar once it arrives.
The set-up is obvious: Apparent opposites Taiga and Ryuuji team up to help each other chase someone else, but of course it will turn out they're better suited to each other. However, instead of an increasingly infuriating string of excuses for the two not to get together, they quickly realize that they could get something going. But, having fallen straight into the old-married-couple dynamic, both of them make the conscious decision to go after something with less practicality and more spark. This, I really liked--it comes right out and accepts the underlying pretext, it just isn't ready to go there.
It also helps that the alternate choices are obviously appealing. Kitamura is confident and charismatic--everything Ryuuji isn't, and everything the surly, awkward Taiga wants. Minori is nearly as competent and fun incarnate--everything Taiga isn't, and everything the reserved, domestic Ryuuji wants.
Having confronted and willfully postponed addressing its premise, Toradora spends most of its first season on light hijinks episodes setting the stage. These episodes have an undercurrent of mild drama, but they mainly serve to get you attached to the characters and their version of normalcy. Had that been all there was to it, it would have been a solid comedy--the off-beat timing is sharp and the slice-of-life situations entertaining. It wraps the season up with a more serious story arc introducing Taiga's dad, which clearly demonstrates why she's such a mess.
In the second season the series gets to its unexpected emotional meat: Watching competent, together characters completely lose it. First we watch Kitamura's cheerful perfection fall apart in spectacular fashion. Then, even more unexpectedly, comes Minori--she seems utterly at a loss, which stands in stark, uncomfortable contrast to her unstoppable energy up to that point. Even Ryuuji turns out to be a slow burn--he eventually snaps in dramatic fashion. Taiga, of course, was a disaster from the beginning.
A noteworthy feature is the series' general refusal to let things work out cleanly--toes get stepped on, people say hurtful things, and not everyone can walk away happy. This aligns with the second major underlying theme: Trying to put others before yourself rarely works, particularly when everyone is doing it. If you read between the lines, it's something of a condemnation of Japanese tradition: Not rocking the boat, putting the harmony of the group ahead of your own desires, doing what you're expected to do--all these things are attempted, then jettisoned in favor of following what you want, no matter how much of a mess it makes. This mildly subversive message is common in anime, but Toradora presents it in unusually realistic ways.
Not all the drama is broad or overblown. There is one spectacularly vicious gender-role-reversed brawl between two girls while the rejected guy cries in a heap with his buddies consoling him, but most of the fighting is the sort of snippy, sarcastic bickering that feels more at home in reality TV than anime. Uncomfortable, unusual, and memorable.
It's teenage angst, to be sure, but the emotional core rings true. Further, there's a good reason for the angst--Ryuuji and Taiga in particular bear the scars of disastrous parenting, and both lack anyone to turn to for emotional support other than their friends. Those scars are the third theme underpinning the whole series.
Kitamura, in contrast, is the only one with competent parents, and indeed it's his parents that eventually smack him back into shape. Minori is a disappointment on that count--it's repeatedly hinted that, in addition to having more going on in her head than it seems, she has some serious family problems hiding somewhere, but that's never addressed. That's my only real problem with the series: It seems to have a lot left to do when it ends.
The climax itself isn't the issue--it fits perfectly from a narrative standpoint, is dramatically effective, and is wonderfully romantic in a mature, low-key way. It's just that after spending so much time getting to know the characters on a deeper level, only Kitamura--the simplest one--really has his story concluded by the end.3 We can see where things are going for most of the others, but there's a lot of stuff left open or played out offscreen that I felt owed as a viewer. Minori in particular seems to have plenty of unfinished business, and Ami isn't much better.
It doesn't help any that the overall pacing is quite leisurely; either season could have been a couple episodes shorter without losing anything important. I felt like the series needed either another season or an OAV series to properly cover the follow-through.4
Visually, Toradora is interesting in that it's unassuming but very effective at what it needs to do. The art is simple and the backgrounds not particularly detailed, but the characters look memorable, are very expressive, and there's a reasonable amount of flavor in the everyday locales. The character animation makes up for any other weaknesses--full of life and color, particularly when it comes to Minori's antics. The costuming deserves a nod--there are a wide variety of everyday outfits and even a couple of dramatic makeovers. There's not much memorable in the background music, but the opening and end themes--two of each--are infectiously chipper, with a bit of an electronic tinge.
When you put all this together, Toradora is little hard to pin down. If you go in expecting a broad comedy, you'll almost certainly enjoy the first season, but likely be either bored or let down by the second, because that's really not what it is at heart. If, on the other hand, you come prepared for a relatively substantive coming-of-age drama/romance with a stiff dose of comedy and quirky anime flavor, you're not likely to find many shows better than Toradora.
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The unexpected tipping of the scales from broad comedy to relatively substantive teen drama is a little unusual; Kimagure Orange Road is easily the closest in terms of having both broad (in its case supernatural) elements and angsty drama, although its humor is less effective and the drama more self-induced. The lesser-known Ghibli film I Can Hear The Sea is actually rather close in terms of dealing with parental issues and low-key emotional drama, but with little of the humor and more sense of looking back on the foibles of youth. Any number of shoujo series do similar stuff without so much of the comedy, and there are countless romantic comedy (or harem) series that do the same general thing without so much drama. Some similar picks would be the action-oriented Full Metal Panic and its all-comedy sequel Fumoffu! for the humor, and maybe Ouran High School Host Club for some of both.
Notes and Trivia
Toradora is based on a series of light novels by Yuyuko Takemiya, with illustrations by Yasu. In addition to the ten novels in the series, there are a handful of spin-off books. None of the books are available in English as of this writing. There is also an ongoing manga adaptation with art by Zekkyou, available in English from Seven Seas. In addition to the anime adaptation, there is a radio drama and PSP visual novel.
It's interesting that while the author is female, the demographic is generally identified as male, yet many of the themes owe as much to shoujo sensibilities as shounen comedy. The nearly 50-50 split may explain why the series is hard to nail down in terms of obvious demographic target.
It's worth noting that the final novel was published less than three weeks before the TV version finished its run, which may explain the somewhat abbreviated final segment of the plot. The last of three spin-off novels saw publication about a year later, in April of 2010, at which point the author declared the series complete.
A weird multimedia cross-over is the continuity-mashup DS game Dengeki Gakuen RPG; it mixes together characters from a number of light novels published under the Dengeki Bunko label, among whom is Taiga. Amusingly, Rie Kugimiya also voices another of the major characters in the game, the title character from Shakugan no Shana; disturbingly, Dokuro-chan is among the cast. (In fact, Rie Kugimiya also voiced Sabato from that series--the woman is everywhere.)
The title comes from the symbolic pairing of Taiga and Ryuuji; Taiga sounds a lot like Tiger in English, hence her nickname, while Ryuuji literally means Dragon Child, hence his calling himself a dragon as a match for the Tiger. Combining the Japanese word for tiger, "tora," with the first two syllables of "dragon," you get "Toradora!" Since one word is Japanese and the other comes from English, the first half is written in phonetic hiragana and the second half in katakana. This shortening of two (or more) words into a relatively meaningless new one is becoming a trend among light novels and their adaptations; Kanokon and Oreimo are a couple of other examples.
And, a bunch of spoiler-heavy footnotes:
Footnote 1: The bucket of pudding has to be simultaneously one of the funniest and wackiest things I've ever seen; the self-taken photo really sold it.
Footnote 2: This is a significant spoiler, but there are a couple of different ways to interpret Minori's behavior, either of which is somewhat disappointing in what the series does with it. Near the end, she says that she's been interested in Ryuuji the whole time, but you can just as easily interpret everything up to then as her being a lesbian and secretly in love with Taiga, rather than just her BFF. She even says as much at the end of the first season.
If you assume she was primarily interested in Ryuuji, it's disappointing that the series played it safe and didn't go that unexpected route, in particular because her reactions actually make more sense in that light than her just being jealous of/loyal to Taiga, and she has more chemistry with Taiga than Ryuuji. Gender identity issues might even explain her never-addressed family issues.
If, on the other hand, you assume she was interested in Taiga (or both), and just filled in Ryuuji's name to cover it up, she makes more sense as a character, but in a way it's even worse. For one thing, it goes completely against the "be true to yourself however much of a mess it makes" message of the series, but more importantly there's the frustratingly tantalizing prospect of the particularly good drama that could have come of her real feelings becoming known.
Footnote 3: Another spoiler, but I have to say the brief comment about Yuusaku's post-graduation plan was true to his character and a great way to wrap up his story without needing any further detail. He isn't, after all, someone to do things halfway.
Footnote 4: Explicit (and spoiler-heavy) details aren't necessary to make the point, but if you're curious, here are the three areas in which the end falls short without it being particularly conspicuous:
Most obvious is the lack of follow-through on any character other than Yuusaku. Minori and Ami were worst, but Ryuuji and Taiga didn't get an epilogue, either. Given how much of the series was built on awkward reality and that the whole climax was based on long-term commitment and mature solutions to big problems, I think at bare minimum the viewer was owed some information on what Ryuuji ended up doing with his life after patching things up with his family. There was even less about Taiga's future--housewife seems exceedingly unlikely. It'd also have been nice to see at least a short scene showing how the two end up arranging their life together now that it's "official."
Second is the logic behind Taiga's last-minute skip-out. Looked at purely from the perspective of the central narrative, it was an efficient way to have Taiga address her major issues without oversimplifying them--that kind of healing takes time--with the added bonus of demonstrating her implicit trust in Ryuuji. But from a character standpoint it didn't quite make sense; she seemed to have developed past the point where she'd do something so inconsiderate, particularly when you consider that the entire finale was, essentially, deciding "We're in this together." It's even more awkward since one of the major implied themes in the whole series was not making unilateral decisions without talking to the other person. And it's not like talking to Ryuuji first would've hurt (apart from muddying the narrative).
Finally, following from that, I thought it was somewhat unfair to let the whole messy follow-through with Taiga's parents happen offscreen. Had her parents been an abstract concept, it would have been different, but we'd already met her father at length and her mother briefly, so it's not unreasonable to expect to see the follow-through on both. We got to see Ryuuji's family, after all, and the series thrives on awkward relationships.
It's telling that in the original novels Taiga leaving is effectively with Yuuji's blessing, and she ends up back in town with her parents almost immediately, leaving the messy stuff unfinished, but unfinished in the future, and with far less hand-waving.
Overall, none of these things are enough to hurt the central story, and the end is still uncommonly good, but if the series had gone the distance it would have been that much better. Kimagure Orange Road is a good analogy; the TV series had a perfect end, but without the first movie would have been omitting something very important, and while that movie, in turn, seems final, it left some vital character issues unaddressed without the second movie. Toradora, in this analogy, seems to stop somewhere around the first movie.
US DVD Review
NIS America's DVD release, along with Persona: Trinity Soul, is one of two that mark the video game localization company's first foray into anime. They took an interesting tack with these premium edition box sets--accepting that bootleg copies are readily available on the Internet, they instead focused on giving buyers of the physical version something special. Which they certainly do.
Each set includes one of the show's two seasons on two DVDs in thinpack-style cases along with an accompanying hardcover book and a very classy, very attractive artbox to hold it all.
The DVDs themselves are simple but have one particularly awesome feature. The basics are what you'd expect: Nice, clean-looking anamorphic widescreen video and stereo Japanese audio, plus an accurate soft subtitle track. The only on-disc extras are clean opening and endings, plus the "bonus" episodes, "Hooray For Gourmands," two per set. Those bonus episodes consist largely of the voice cast (with no animation) talking about some particular food item for a couple minutes. They're not all that interesting, but still mildly entertaining.
Given the relatively high episode-per-disc count, the encoding looks good, although given the price it'd have been nice if they'd spread it across three discs. What has me smitten with these NIS discs, however, is what they don't have: Annoying pre-video junk. You stick the disc in and you get literally five seconds each of the FBI warning and two company logos--on one track that you can skip--and then it's on to the video. It even bypasses the menu, although there is one, including appropriate chapter stops in each episode. The subtitle track is also soft, and can be turned off.
I want to repeat that: Not only is there only fifteen seconds of junk at the beginning, but you can skip it. I can't remember ever being able to skip the FBI warning. Thank you NIS--I only hope future productions are so friendly.
The book is also nice--quality printing and a nicely-designed cover. The somewhat hyperactive (if amusing, and colorful) jumble of text and images inside includes several funky diagrams explaining how the relationships between the five leads are aligned in various plot arcs, episode guides, random comments and quotes, "newspaper" clippings about events, and three interviews--Taiga and Kitamura's voice actors, and the series compositor. It's not deeply entertaining, but it's fun to browse through and maybe look for things you missed, and there are a pile of screenshots.
Since the street price isn't much higher than a regular DVD set, they're a pretty good buy. The only problem is that they don't fit on your shelf; the book is two DVDs wide, which looks neat but prevents the box from going on a shelf with your DVDs, and since the box is part of the package you can't even shelve the book elsewhere and put the DVDs on a media shelf. Relatively speaking, though, minor complaint.
There are some generally mature themes and some very bad parenting, but it's a fairly clean series; NIS calls it "teen," which I would interpret as about 13-up.
Violence: 1 - Aside from humorous slapstick, there is one relatively realistic, unexpectedly brutal brawl.
Nudity: 1 - Nothing substantial
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - A few off-color jokes and mildly mature themes.
Language: 2 - Aisaka has a dirty mouth, although NIS's subtitles are relatively mild.
Available in North America from NIS America on two subtitled Premium Edition box sets; each includes 13 episodes, a high-quality box and a hardcover artbook of bonus material.
Amazon doesn't stock the sets, so you'll need to go to RightStuf or a similar specialty retailer to find them. RightStuf has stock at a pretty good discount at last check: Set 1 and set 2. AnimeNation also carries them: set 1 and set 2.