Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD 1 Eps. 1-7 Preview
Ryuji Takasu loves cooking, hates mildew (but loves doing battle with it), and dotes on his flighty mother. Unfortunately he looks like he loves mayhem, hates people, and dotes on his drug-smugglers, a genetic legacy from his deceased yakuza father. That doesn't help his love life any, even if the object of his desire, short-circuited mega-freak Minori Kushieda, couldn't care less about it. And he's dreading the move to his new class, as it means rectifying his reputation all over again. Luckily amongst his new classmates is Taiga Aisaka, a diminutive spitfire whose reputation for violence is nowhere near as spurious as his. The minute they clash, the tiny terror cold-cocks him and, presto! no more big, mean reputation. Unfortunately she also mistakenly puts a love-letter in his bag, a mistake that she tries to rectify by killing him in his sleep. As fate would have it the love letter was meant for his best friend Yusaku Kitamura, and even better Taiga is best buds with Minori. An alliance of mutual support is soon forged, a bond that gives rise to a fast, if highly unconventional, friendship.
It can be hard finding a good romantic comedy anime. The male side tends to be dominated by the much (and for the most part rightly) maligned harem comedy, and the output on the female side, while often good, is low and pretty much never licensed stateside. While more widely distributed, the coldly calculated emotional manipulation of moe titles isn't for all tastes, and generally speaking their humor is pretty cursory (at best). Which is where Toradora! comes in. It is the champion of straightforward romantic comedy, a simple and sunny series that is both genuinely funny and genuinely touching and lacks for nothing in broad-based appeal.
Toradora! has probably the best sophomore episode of any romantic comedy. Not that anyone keeps track what with all those glory-hogging premiere episodes. Toradora!'s first is not among the glory hogs. It's as pleasant an affair as any in the series, just not terribly remarkable. There are laughs (Ryuji's wallet-finding prowess) and sweetness (the leads' immediate rapport) aplenty, but the series' real potential doesn't hit the fan, so to speak, until episode two. It has some fun with the expected misunderstandings (everyone thinks Taiga and Ryuji are an item) and mishaps (homemade cookie disaster ahoy!), but blows past them with very un-romantic-comedy speed. Of far more interest to it is the unexpected depth and richness of Ryuji and Taiga's fledgling friendship, which makes poignant silk from the cookie-snafu sow's ear and adds a whole range of bittersweet repercussions to the episode's denouement (a confession of love that comes shockingly early). Most romances can't boast final episodes like that, much less second episodes.
The series slows down almost immediately, though. Episodes three and four are leisurely character-building affairs (for minori and Kitamura respectively), very much in the slice-of-life vein. They do little to advance the primary relationships, preferring to relax and allow time to absorb the new cast dynamic. But even when relaxing they drop at least one bombshell (about Kitamura and Taiga's mutual past) and never stop enriching Taiga and Ryuji's friendship. Heck, they even manage to humanize the inhumanly weird minori. The episodes that follow are similarly low-tension affairs, devoted in this case to the hairy task of rounding out abrasive newcomer Ami Kawashima. Tellingly, she emerges on the other side one of the series' most complex and interesting characters. She also runs away with one of the disc's best scenes, a thrilling little affair during which she unleashes her inner beast on an unsuspecting stalker.
If all that talk of characterization makes these episodes sound kind of stodgy, they're not. Nuances and even big stinking revelations are allowed to surface at their own pace, driven more by the personalities of the cast than by the necessities of the plot. Though they move without hurry, they never bog down, maintaining an easy-moving grace that complements their even-keeled humor. Perhaps they aren't powerful, but they're never less than delightful.
That owes an awful lot to the cast, though. No matter how gracefully handled, characterization of sloppy or irritating characters is no fun to watch. Toradora!'s, on the other hand, are a constant joy to accompany, be it through the emotional highs of a confession or on a delivery run with a bicycle. A lot of that joy is simply in looking at them. With distinctively angled jaws, clear eyes and expressive mouths, Masayoshi Tanaka's designs have an elusive attractiveness that director Tatsuyuki Nagai exploits shamelessly, animating them with such care that they feel very real. There's almost as much enjoyment to be had from watching Taiga's mane of brown curls swirl about her (or watching her exude enough cuteness to make ugly cretins of puppies) as there is to be had from appreciating the mess of contradictions that form her personality.
Almost. The others are nearly as much fun to look at, particularly Ryuji, and Tanaka's ability to improve on the original designs (by Yasu) is suitably impressive, but the true wonder of Toradora!'s cast is in those personalities. Other series have comparably attractive—and expressive—designs (Hatsukoi Limited, also by J.C. Staff, comes to mind) but few can claim to have as iconic of characters. So powerful are the cast's personalities, in fact, that the series' venerable rom-com tropes end up having to accommodate them, bending around them the way rays of light bend around gravity wells. Classic love-letter mix-ups, romantic misunderstandings, confessions of love, meddling rivals, even the classic trip-and-fall; all have their usual paths redirected by the characters, whether it's Ami warping rival archetypes or Taiga brooking no misinterpretation of her friendship with Ryuji.
So vivid are Ryuji, Taiga and company, in fact, that it's regrettably easy to under-appreciate the series' other qualities. Snappy dialogue, intelligent editing, and fluid (non-character) animation all contribute to its well-rounded appeal, and the care that Nagai puts into the lighting and backgrounds is crucial to its shifting moods. The unobtrusive eclecticism of Yukari Hashimoto's score is even easier to overlook, its leaps from comic electronics to all-natural orchestras a secret weapon so secret that you won't grasp their import unless specifically paying attention.
At a time when even the best romantic comedies try to hook with magic, ghost girls and other narrative baubles, Toradora! baits its audience with something far more unconventional: Quality. Toradora! doesn't succeed by doing anything different, it succeeds by doing everything it should and doing it exactly right. If you're willing to bite, it'll hook deep. Painlessly, I promise.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ A romance of warmth and humor with an uncanny ability to dodge the excesses of the genre while exploiting all the joys it has to offer.
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