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30 Years of Kimagure Orange Road

by Dawn H.,

You can tell how long an anime fan has been around to how they react to the name “Madoka”. Most anime fans will probably say, “Oh, Madoka Magica, right?” But if you've been around for a while, the first Madoka that comes to mind will most likely be a different one: Madoka Ayukawa.

Kimagure Orange Road
 first aired on Japanese TV in 1987, based on the manga by Izumi Matsumoto that ran in Shonen Jump. Back in the 80s, SJ wasn't known as the magazine filled with hot-blooded fighting series that we think of now. While things like Fist of the North Star were definitely popular, it had its fair share of more laid back, romance-focused stories as well, with KOR being one popular enough to get animated.

The series centers around Kyosuke Kasuga, who is an almost painfully typical teenage boy. Of course, there has to be some kind of twist to make it interesting—which is that Kyosuke and his sisters are Espers (psychic powers being a popular plot device in this era of anime). The series begins after the family's just finished moving to a new city due to one of his sisters yet again using her powers in front people. Not wanting their secret exposed, their father moves them all to a new town (for the seventh time!) before anyone can start asking questions. While exploring the neighborhood, Kyosuke has a fateful encounter with a pretty girl after saving her hat from blowing away in the breeze. He introduces himself to her, and although she never reveals her name, Kyosuke is overjoyed; it's love at first sight. 

But in Kimagure Orange Road, Madoka is the “kimagure” character: “kimagure” meaning “capricious”, which fits her to a T. When Kyosuke starts at his new school, he discovers his mystery girl isn't the seemingly sweet one he bumped into, but one his classmates refer to as “Madoka the Pick”: a delinquent who frequently plays hooky to go play her saxophone, get in fights with bullies, and smoke cigarettes. She seems like a completely different person at school, but when she's alone with Kyosuke she'd lower her guard and become more gentle and friendly. Yes, Madoka was tsundere long before the term was invented, and many cite her as the mother of all tsundere characters. While compared to the tsundere girls of today, she might not be as extreme, but the traits are definitely there.

Madoka was one of the main reasons I and many of the other fans of the series I've met, male AND female, were drawn to KOR. To younger me, she seemed not only extremely cool, but much more interesting and complex than our hero Kyosuke. I didn't want to know more about HIM — I wanted to know more about HER. She wasn't like most of the romantic interests I'd seen in anime back then: she was feminine, but strong. She was kind, but if anyone messed with her, she wasn't afraid to start throwing punches. And she didn't automatically fall all over the hero of the series — she kept him at arm's length, even when it seemed like she might be interested in him. It was no surprise to see her consistently near the top of character polls in monthly Japanese anime magazines back then. 

Alongside Madoka, there's another love interest in Kimagure Orange Road: Madoka's best friend, Hikaru. The token Childhood Friend, she's a little younger, and it's obvious that she looks up to Madoka — when we first meet her, she's basically a more boisterous, hyperactive version of her. She pretends to be a delinquent, too, riding on motorcycles with questionable older students and stupidly picking fights with guys much bigger than her. But after secretly seeing Kyosuke make an impossible basketball shot (with the help of his Esper powers) we see her turn into a squealing, cutesy teenage girl in love… and when she and Kyosuke share an accidental kiss, she decides that seals the deal: they are now a couple and she must start calling him “Darling” from here on out.

And as they say, “wackiness ensues”. Kyosuke, being a bit of a pushover, doesn't know how to tell Hikaru he's not really THAT interested in her and would rather pursue Madoka instead. Madoka's obviously interested in Kyosuke but doesn't want to get in the way of her best friends’ happiness, so she steps aside and pretends she doesn't care. And of course, the Esper plot device comes into play, another thing Kyosuke has to worry about — which adds to all the silliness and misunderstandings, as he can't let them find out about that, either, or he and his family will be forced to move yet again.

As the anime continues, Kyosuke's Esper status becomes less of a plot point. What takes center stage is the love triangle between the three. Kyosuke keeps digging a hole deeper and deeper the longer he keeps his feelings secret from Madoka, and it becomes increasingly obvious that eventually, he's going to have to stop pretending he's happy and make a choice.

The TV series ends on somewhat of a hopeful note. Kyosuke, after some soul-searching thanks to some Esper-powered accidental time traveling, decides he's going to finally see if Madoka feels the same. And it seems that she, too, wants this! It's a bit open-ended, with nothing set in stone, but one of the loose ends left undone is kind of a big one: How will he tell Hikaru?

This is where the first KOR movie comes in. Set after the TV series, Kimagure Orange Road: I Want To Return To That Day follows Kyosuke as he recalls the story of having to tell Hikaru that it's not her he's really in love with, but her best friend. Gone are the gags, supernatural plot devices, and light-hearted comedic tone that the TV series starts out with. Instead, the 70 minute movie is basically a slow build up waiting for what everyone knows is coming, and it's heart-wrenchingly painful. Like the scene of an accident, you know it's not going to be good, but you can't stop from wanting to see the results. It's a movie I haven't rewatched in years simply because the pain in everyone's faces and voices is just so heavy — almost too real to bear. All the facets of these character's hearts and feelings are laid out to each other, and the story becomes one of the most compelling romantic dramas you'll probably ever see in anime.

You would think that after such an emotional roller coaster, that'd be the end of it. But eight years later in 1996, we get one more KOR movie called New Kimagure Orange RoadSummer's Beginning. Taking a page from the TV series, Kyosuke ends up accidentally time traveling once again. This time to the future, having to save his future self to save himself in the past. Sound confusing? Well… it is. This movie is almost universally denounced by even the most die-hard KOR fans as a convoluted mess, not giving anything new or exciting to the franchise other than a more “updated” art style and more of a focus on sex, though nothing explicit. All the high stakes emotional drama is gone, leaving this continuation feeling like a last gasp for a series that had already felt completed almost a decade ago. 

Thinking back, it's not really a surprise that they tried to make just one more KOR thing. Fans still had very strong nostalgia for it even in the 90s, and with good reason. Its aesthetic harkens back to 80s bubble-era Japan, from the clothing to the aerobic classes and discotheques. It had an amazing staff, with character designs by Akemi Takada, directors that worked on classic shows like Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku, as well as a cast of extremely talented seiyuu (including Tohru Furuya and Hiromi Tsuru). It's not hard to see how the anime gained so much popularity — in Japan and overseas. While the series definitely has its share of flaws, it was easy to overlook them when you were most likely only watching the series in small chunks via anime club showings or waiting for the next VHS to come out. KOR is nowhere near as prominent in US fan's consciousness now as it once was thanks to it being out of print, but its legacy continues to influence nearly every shonen romance that came after it: from Video Girl Ai in the 90s, to more modern anime like Golden Time, and current season shows like Seiren.

Much like an old high school romance, I still look back at it fondly, bumps in the road and all. It's amazing to think 30 years has passed since its premiere! As the lyrics from one of the ending themes goes, “I just dance in the sweet memories”…

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