Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 24th 2010
Volume 1 Premium Edition
Much to his chagrin, second-year high school student Ryuji Takasu inherited exactly one thing from his dearly departed yakuza father: a face which can effortlessly intimidate almost anyone. He is actually an exceedingly nice guy so domesticated that he sees tough mold as an invigorating challenge and looks after his hostess mother, but first impressions are hard to break. Taiga Aisaka is a tiny, ultra-petite-built classmate so fierce in disposition that she has earned the nickname “Palmtop Tiger.” Though their first encounter ends violently, a misplaced love letter and the discovery that they are neighbors lead Ryuji and Taiga to an eventual understanding: since they both pine for the best friend of the other, they will assist each other in their romantic endeavors. The trouble is that Taiga has already previously turned down Ryuji's friend Yusaku Kitamura (a decision she came to regret), Taiga's friend Minori “Minorin” Kushieda is a major league freakazoid who has yet to discover love, and people keep misunderstanding that Ryuji is, as Taiga puts it, only her “dog” and not her boyfriend. Further complications arise when Ami Kawashima, a magazine model who uses an airheaded façade to cover up her true nature, transfers into their classroom and eventually starts coming on to Ryuji while also forming a combative relationship with Taiga. Deeper issues linger under the surface, too, including Ami's problems with a stalker and Taiga's strained relationship with her divorced parents, the latter of which comes to a head during a cultural festival. According to legend, though, only a dragon is mighty enough to stand beside a tiger, and Ryuji has resolved to be that dragon.
First the bad news: the first half of this 2008-2009 series does just about everything a typical anime romantic comedy does. It has its beach episode, its pool episodes, its cultural festival arc, its Test of Courage, its assorted shenanigans involving characters who are desperately in love with other characters but can't work up the courage to confess, its transfer student who tries to shake up the romantic arrangements, and its couple who fails to acknowledge (though most viewers quickly will) that they are most right for each other even though they think they are in love with others. The good news is that Toradora! does all of these far better than the run-of-the-mill romantic comedy and adds in two things that most such series could only aspire to have: quality writing and genuine depth. Those factors go a long way towards making this one of the best series of its type and contribute towards making this one of the best series of any type to be officially released in the U.S. in 2010.
And the key here is the writing. Episodes 1-13 are based fairly closely on the originating series of light novels by Yuyuko Takemiya, but whether the credit belongs to Takemiya or anime producer J.C. Staff, a wonderful effort has been turned in here which takes ordinary elements and does extraordinary things with them. Even in its most mundane scenes the first half of the series never quite feels typical; there is always something which gives it just a little more edge, a little more depth, a little more impact, and with that comes at least a little more entertainment value. The series can be quite funny at times – Minorin's reaction to being asked what she thinks of someone who pretends to be an airhead is an all-time classic, for instance – but the humor often takes a back seat to the more dramatic content, and as the first half wears on the series shades more towards a dramedy than a true romantic comedy. Its dramatic side can pack some power, too, delivering some scenes which can be emotional, others which are uncomfortable, and other still which can take the viewer aback with their unexpected intensity. Even so, the writing still finds a good balance and transitions effortlessly between them without going ridiculously overboard in either direction, as so many series do. It also demonstrates that an anime does not have to be blunt to get its points across; nuance and subtlety are in greater abundance here than in most other series of its type.
The true merits of the series may not be immediately apparent, as the first episode only hints at the series' true potential. Episode 2 makes the first stab at greatness, beginning about halfway through when the two leads stop to kick a light post in frustration over the way that they are being perceived by their peers. While this may sound like an innocuous scene on paper, in execution it carries a great deal of power and shows something that these kinds of series almost never do: liberating venting, the kind that can only happen with another person who might understand you. It follows up with the kind of emotional confession scene most romantic comedies aspire to climax with, yet here it is merely a building point towards greater plot and character development. After that the series regresses for a couple of episodes before taking a permanent jump up with the introduction of Ami in episode 5, who brings a necessary source of conflict into the picture and adds a new angle to the relationship dynamics – but without ever engaging in trite “I'm not going to lose to you” antics. Some of the series' best material follows, including Ami's problems with the stalker, Ryūji and Minorin's famously abstract “ghost and UFO” conversation, a truly novel cultural festival class project, and especially the circumstances involving Taiga's efforts to mend her relationship with her absentee father and how that affects her closest friends; there are some curves here that even veteran viewers may not see coming.
No series like this can excel without a strong cast of characters, and in that the series is blessed. To be sure, the lead characters aren't entirely original; deceptively tough-faced characters are not unheard-of in the genre (see Kenta Usui's intimidating eyes in Karin), but also casting Ryūji in the “domestic goddess” archetype is a fresher twist and makes his cleaning fetish all the more amusing. Taiga, meanwhile, so thoroughly epitomizes what it means to be a tsundere character in anime that she even beat out characters from hard-core moefests like K-ON! to win a major Japanese moe character tournament in 2009; the sole scene in this set where she genuinely smiles, which comes near the end of episode 13, should leave little doubt why. She has exactly the right mix of outward fierceness and inward emotional vulnerability to endear herself to viewers. Ami, with initially her two-faced nature, more subtle personality quirks (what does her favorite spot say about her?), and gradual growth towards being “real,” shines as the most original character amongst the three major supporting roles, while Minorin is deliciously overboard as the almost impossibly weird character – but underestimate her capacity for emotional range and she'll surprise you. Kitamura, by comparison, is more laid-back, congenial, and even-tempered, but does contribute to one of the set's best comedy scenes. Amongst minor supporting characters, the little-used student council president Yumire Sano sticks out as an entertainingly brusque character (thankfully we see plenty more of her in the second half), while timid homeroom teacher Yuri's laments about approaching 30 without being married make for some amusing but thankfully not overused side jokes. Contrarily, Ryūji's mother Yasuko is more of a nuisance so far with her airheaded behavior, but the apoplectic parrot Inko-chan makes up for that.
The most distinctive visual aspect of the series is its character designs. The emphasis on sharp chins will certainly remind viewers of the more recent Highschool of the Dead, with which Toradora! shares its character designer, but this one, unlike HSotD, is very restrained in what little use it makes of fan service and entirely uses more natural proportions for its female characters; Taiga is, in fact, famously flat-chested, which does become a plot point in one arc but with unexpected complications. Amongst male characters, Ryūji stands out with his gangster-like features, while on the opposite side of the spectrum Kitamura stands out just as much for his warm and inviting expression and handsome features. Ami does look distinctly prettier than any other female character, and the series does look good in general, but it is not one that will be remembered for its aesthetics. In fact, the most impressive visual aspect of the series is arguably the girls' school uniforms, which feature sharp red blazers, although several scenes (especially the race scene in episode 13) do also excel in animation.
The musical score does not impress much save for the way it segues into the closing theme, but the base material here is good enough that it doesn't need to do anything fancy, either. The music typically floats along merrily with its light electronic sounds, though it does show a great capacity for dramatic and comedic reinforcement when needed. Each episode opens with “Pre-Parade,” an electronic song wonderfully sung by the three most prominent female seiyuu and sporting both a catchy tune and fitting lyrics and visuals. Yui Horie, who does such a fabulous job voicing the offbeat Minorin, also closes each episode in this set with the equally catchy and fitting “Vanilla Salt.” Though no English dub is present, the Japanese dub does pack some other star power and quality performances, including Rie Kugimiya reasserting her position as the Queen of Tsundere with her performance as Taiga.
Toradora! is the inaugural American anime license and release for NIS America, a company originally established in the U.S. to distribute titles for Japanese parent company Nippon Ichi Software but which announced earlier this year that it was branching out into anime. The initial print run was thrown askew by a big problem with ghosting, though that seems to have been fixed for the most recent releases. Even so, the video quality does not seem exceptionally sharp, and in a very unusual (and somewhat annoying) set-up the two thinpacked DVDs boot directly into the first episode of each disk rather than to the disk's menu – and they do so with the subtitles turned off. Extras included on the second disk include clean opener and closer and two short omake titled “Toradora!- SOS! Hurry for Gourmands” #1 and #2, which feature chibi versions of the main cast involved in various silly culinary discussions and taste tests. Also included in the Premium Edition is a long (7.5” by 10.5”) hardbacked Episode Guide, which provides a wealth of character designs, profiles, key terms, regularly-updated relationship charts, and various seiyuu and staff interviews, amongst other tidbits. It and the two thinpacked disks come in a sturdy box which sports some display-worthy cover art (someone needs to make a wall scroll of this!) but is wholly impractically sized for shelving amongst other anime DVDs and boxed sets. At least the translation and subtitles are solid, though the latter make the odd choice to use “warrior dieters” in a few places where “diet warriors” would have sounded better.
High school romantic comedies are such a crowded field in anime that series often have to resort to something outlandish to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Toradora! takes a less traditional approach by emphasizing drama and character development and allowing events to develop naturally from its characters rather than trying to force them into staid romcom formulas. The result is a quality series that is one of the rare gems in a field littered with rocks.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Quality writing, character development, can be affecting, avoids most of the pitfalls of typical romcoms.
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