The flourishes that make Toradora special are hard to pin down. Maybe over the last 15 or so years, the things that made the Japanese series special have just become ubiquitous and watered-down, like romcom homeopathy. It’s not outrageous, high-concept, risqué, knowing, wish-fulfilling, melodramatic, or anything else that might make it jump out if it were made today.
The light novel turned manga and anime is about a mismatched couple that falls in love after trying to set each other up with their best friends. Taiga, the “palm-top tiger,” falls squarely in the tsundere archetype. She beats people up with her wooden sword when crossed or made to feel vulnerable, hiding her bruised heart. In the anime, she’s even voiced by the “queen of tsundere” Rie Kugimiya. Taiga’s counterpart Ryuuji is perhaps less immediately identifiable as a trope, but he’s a soft neat-freak who’s thrown off his social axis by the beady eyes he got from his deadbeat yakuza father. Anyone who’s been misunderstood for some physical coincidence like that — which is to say anyone at all — can relate to that. Throw in some goodhearted friends and foils and you have the main cast. Even the story’s thematic spine — the artificial social selves that people construct to avoid vulnerability also limit human connection and love — is a mainstay of young adult fiction.
One would be forgiven for assuming that a light novel like Toradora, overwritten prose and multimedia adaptations and all, is a spin-the-wheel collection of romantic cliches, but being glib sells Toradora particularly short. Light novel author Yuyuko Takemiya and anime screenwriter Mari Okada freshen up canned ingredients. Both writers took on Toradora relatively early in their careers and went on to prove their work wasn’t a fluke, Takemiya in the excellent college rom-com Golden Time and Okada in literally every genre all the time. They delve into the emotional texture of teenage life, each in their own way. Toradora’s charm is in how that texture presents itself: deliberately, earnestly, intuitively unspooling the cultural shorthand bestowed upon it by decades of romantic comedies into feelings said and not said.
That breathing room is important in Toradora. In the light novels, it takes the form of thousands of pages documenting less than two years of high school. Thoughts and pasts are carefully detailed and explicated, bringing you as close to the characters as the didactic light novel idiom can. In the manga adaptation, it’s the literal month of time between installments; started in 2007, the ongoing comic still hasn’t wrapped up the original story. In the anime — Toradora’s most popular form — it’s two seasons span 25 episodes in total. That length doesn’t sound like much in comparison to these other benchmarks, but it’s enough, allowing for some much-needed silence that can’t be found in the light novel that makes it feel all the more expansive: a moment by the vending machines, a burdened walk home, empty rooms lit by the weak evening sun. Garbled, unsaid emotions are palpable in these moments, held back like a held breath. Sometimes, they break through in a gasp.
Toradora is never in a rush, but it also doesn’t dawdle. It hits each one of the conventional milestones of a high school anime — pool episodes, Christmas episodes, festival episodes — but each station is indicative of several meaningful changes in friendships and romances. Those changes are often hard to verbalize, and the reasons given to one person for the change sometimes aren’t the ones given to another. What does a grand gesture, like getting in a fight with your crush’s crush, mean to your crush? Probably not the same thing that it means to you.
This deliberate pace helps make the push and pull of the central couple feel lively, almost syncopated. Taiga turns away, hardens, softens, loses her self-consciousness for a moment, and moves away from what she thought she wanted while Ryuuji obsesses, cringes, forgives, embarrasses himself, and stands up for who he wants to be. These shifting moods are much more than one person being happy and not reaching the other because they happen to be sad. Being on similar journeys in love, they see themselves reflected in the other. Ryuuji sees Taiga confess to her crush for the first time and gains respect for her as well as some motivation for himself. Soon enough, they start to see each other as more than contrasts and objects of pity.
Takemiya treats the rest of Toradora’s characters preciously, weaving them into the theme if not the romance. With the exception of Taiga’s negligent parents, the story never sells anyone out. Takasu’s best (only) friend and Taiga’s crush, Kitamura, is an extremely observant nice guy whose own failed confession of love leads him to become a pathetic icon for the forlorn lovers of the school. He recognizes it as an opportunity to have some form of love, and so he acts the quixotic fool as a way to distance himself from his pain. Minorin, Taiga’s best (only) friend and (who’d’ve guessed it) Ryuuji’s crush, is a workaholic goofball who has always used humor and nonsense to keep everyone at a distance. It’s almost as if she belongs in another show like Azumanga Daioh, one where characters don’t have inner lives. But since everyone around her appears to be a person, one can’t help but see Minorin’s depth as well. She gives it to Ryuuji in bits and pieces, but it’s always a metaphor expressed as a hope for something she doesn’t have: a belief in ghosts or a lost hairpin. Minorin’s refusal to be vulnerable, to give something up in order to gain something else, makes her lose her best friend and a potential love. Finally, Ami is a model who is secretly a jerk to people whose love she doesn’t need: a perfect archetype. This glamour is quickly broken by those closest to her, but when it is, she uses what remains of it as well as her newfound pathos to test their mettle. She learns to stoop to conquer and slowly — slowly — learns that this is just another avoidance tactic as well. Eventually, Ami forms real authentic bonds with the others through a mutual recognition of the minor tragedies of their lives.
The second half of the series ratchets up the urgency of things as much as a conventional high school romance can, every step both intimate and cathartic. The climax in the final two episodes of the anime isn’t a revelation as much as an elaboration of what everything has led up to, a promise at once fulfilled and postponed in a quiet exchange of vows. A few minutes later, the show ends with one character bonking another in the head. So goes one of the most satisfying romances in anime. So goes young love.
Mari Okada’s most recent TV anime — O, Maidens in Your Savage Seasons — is a great comparison to see what’s happened since Toradora. Okada’s sophisticated sensibilites makes for a frank, disarming, often embarrassing exposition of how a group of high school friends come to know love. It’s excellent, and shows how sophisticated and storytelling are. In half as many episodes as Toradora, Maidens covers the ground of most every type of romantic situation a high schooler might realistically find themselves in. It’s bawdy, at least for an anime targeted at teens, but that bawdiness never taints the earnest searching for connection and meaning in the backbone of the narrative. (If it didn’t include some tawdry sexual awkwardness, it wouldn’t be so earnest.) Either because of the time or some other circumstance, Toradora couldn’t do anything more than put some real emotions behind a run-of-the-mill boob joke. If it were made now, Toradora might also have been able to directly explore homosexuality as Maidens does, given the gentle hints about certain Toradora characters’ identities. In comparison, Toradora is slow, less ambitious, and just beginning to push against the pulpy tropes of a moe age gone by.
This isn’t to say that Toradora is outmoded by the perspectives of the best of contemporary romcom anime. The limited variety of human experience displayed in Toradora does not discount the depths it plumbs. Amidst the occasional over-told joke or boilerplate male perspective, Toradora resonates with real emotions. Not just the big ones, but very small ones, ambivalent ones, intricate but surprisingly common ones, ones you only notice in the wake of the big ones. You need those long, quiet moments to bring language to them for yourself.