Reviewby Theron Martin,
Volume 2 Premium Edition
In the wake of the school festival Taiga gains a reputation as a walking good luck charm, much to her annoyance. Bigger trouble is looming on the horizon, however, when something causes Kitamura to not only lose all desire to succeed the departing president of the Student Council but also even actively rebel. Ferreting out the truth of the matter, and trying to convince Kitamura to accept a position which everyone believes he's a natural for, reveals that Ryuji and Taiga are not the only ones with relationship challenges, and when Kitamura is hurting most Taiga can only think of one solution. Afterwards, Christmas and the imminent arrival of Santa put Taiga in a much more chipper mood, while Minorin starts to show signs of strain and Ami becomes increasingly catty. Things come to a head on a school skiing trip, but that only leads to an even bigger crisis back home around Valentine's Day, where true feelings are forced to the surface. Ryuji once claimed that he would be the dragon who could stand beside Taiga's tiger, but are the consequences of that decision something that both of them can live with?
The first half of Toradora! both delighted and involved viewers with the quality of its writing and a fresh approach to what could otherwise be staid characters and situations. The second half may be even better, for the simple reason that, unlike the first, it does not have any episodes that dip in quality. It stays at the high level established in the post-Ami's-introduction period and carries that through to the end – and yes, that includes the controversial last two episodes. In the process it rounds out one of the best romantic comedies anime has ever generated.
Actually, continuing to call this series a “romantic comedy” at this point is a misnomer. Without question, the series continues to have flashes of humorous content; a scene during the ski trip where a group of guys try to coax Ryuji out of bed and a scene near the end involving cell phone use are both classics, and these twelve episodes have numerous other amusing moments scattered throughout, too. It is the drama which drives the series at this point, however, and it is so all-encompassing that the events during this stretch which do not, in some way, directly contribute to the overall relationship dynamics can be measured in minutes rather than episodes. This is one of the most tightly-written 24-26 episode relationship-based series anime fans will ever see.
And all of that drama is both fresh and wonderful in execution. Sure, it still incorporates typical elements like the oblivious male lead and the best friend who tries to help a girl match up with a guy even though she's in love with the same guy, but with this level of writing even that content never seems typical. The key here is, perhaps, the realism of the emotional content. So many series have to resort to artificial emotional manipulations or gimmickry rather than just letting their character relationships develop naturally, but here we can see characters who seem to be genuinely struggling to sort out their feelings and trying to balance the caring they have towards their friends with their own conscious and subconscious desires. This can be most clearly seen in Minorin's predicament; those expecting a continuation of the mega-freakazoid behavior she showed early on may be shocked by the subtlety and restraint of her actions through this half. Ami, who becomes the series' voice of insight and master of implied wording, shows her complexities in her own well-buried interests, the way she occasionally stoops to veiled but undeniably catty comments, and the way she reacts to alternately being praised for maturity or criticized for childishness. Their emotions, and those of others, are allowed to run their course, which results in a pair of very physical girl-girl fights which are impossible to regard pruriently; these are out-and-out slugfests charged with the kind of intense emotion all too often actually seen in high schools around the U.S. today. (And those who don't think those fights are realistic haven't been in high schools recently.)
Allowing emotions to run their course is also the key to understanding the main characters and why the events of the last two episodes of the series are completely consistent with the content that has come before. (A lack of this was a common fan complaint against the series during its initial Japanese run.) Taiga may be a tsundere poster child, but she is also a girl from a broken home, one who has a near-complete disconnect with her parents and who is far more fragile and needy than she usually lets show. The scene with Kitamura which finally allows her to be comfortable around him is telling because of all of the self-denial and underlying baggage associated with it, as is the utterly adorable, heart-tugging scene of her being visited by the Santa bear at a crucial point of emotional vulnerability, while her fierce defense of Kitamura's wounded heart is her inept way of showing loyalty to her friends. On Ryuji's side is a young man whose only family has been a flaky, immature mother, one who has felt pressured to be the adult figure in his family and to be the one to make something of himself, yet he also feels like a burden on his mother. Though normally more restrained than Taiga, his emotions come fully to the fore in his scathing rebuke of his mother at one point. Both characters are emotionally immature, feel burdened by their family situations, and really only find a full level of comfort in each other (even if they are reluctant to admit it), so their actions when push comes to shove are hardly out of line or even really that surprising. The reactions of their friends are also consistent: dubious, but reluctantly supportive. What follows is recognition that too much time has been spent running away and avoiding things, so that event, too, is a natural and proper progression. It also allows for an epilogue that is eminently more satisfying than it would have been had that content been handled differently.
Technical merits for the second half are, for the most part, a duplication of the strong efforts in the first half. J.C. Staff lets a little more inconsistency creep through in the character renderings, and refinement in character designs is sacrificed for fluidity of animation in one of the fight scenes, but the animation is good and certain aspects of the character designs can dazzle; Ryuji and Taiga both look jaw-droppingly handsome/pretty when they dress up formally for the Christmas Eve dance in episode 19, for instance, and the white coat that Taiga wears in the winter episodes is both especially sharp and suits her well. The character designs do not shy from messing their female characters' appearances up in the wake of the fight scenes, either, as the different way one girl looks after a fight is almost shocking.
The soundtrack, still a mix of orchestrated and electronic themes, serves very well to enhance the mood of individual scenes, especially in the more poignant ones; its only flaw it that it depends too heavily on a narrow range of themes. Episode 16 also sees the beginning of the new regular opener and closer, both still sung by the seiyuu for the main female characters. The former, “silky road,” is a catchy electronic number whose appeal rivals that of the original opener (albeit in a different stylistic way), while the new closer “orange” is pleasant enough but decidedly inferior to “Vanilla Salt.” Taiga and Ami also sing the insert song “Holy Night” during episode 19, which also gets used as that episode's closer.
These episodes are not dubbed, either, but the Japanese performances in handling the more regularly emotional content in these episodes deserve some special recognition. Yui Horie had to handle a vast emotional and behavioral range in portraying Minorin, often with quick mood swings, but pulls it off without a flaw, while Eri Kitamura nicely delivers the greater subtleties of Ami's portrayal. Yuko Kaida's deep-voiced performance as Sumire also impresses, while Rie Kugiyama continues to prove that she has tsundere portrayals down to a science. The English subtitles make an odd choice by translating Taiga's “baka-Chi” references to Ami as “Chi Chi,” but at least they do change Minorin's nasty-sounding “warrior dieter” reference to the more palatable “Diet Fighter.”
Volume 2's release comes in the same format as volume 1's: twelve episodes spread across two thinpacked discs (which, irritatingly, still boot directly into the disc's first episode with subtitles turned off) which come with an oversized hard-bound book in a sturdy, oversized cardboard artbox which features nice cover art but is still wholly impractical for storage amongst other DVDs. Like with the first volume, the book contains all manner of character designs, profiles, staff/seiyuu interviews, and episode details, and perhaps most importantly also includes the regularly-updated relationship charts. Many complaints have been voiced about the binding of the book being “crackly,” however. The DVD cases likewise have a commonly-noted physical flaw: the plastic coverings are very perceptibly wrinkled. The discs themselves do lack the ghosting problem pervasive in the first volume releases, though. The first disk has a clean version of episode 19's alternate ending, while the second disk has clean version of the regular new opener and closer as well as the modified versions for episodes 21, 24, and 25. It also has two more installments of the chibi-animated “Toradora! SOS Hurray For Gourmands” bits, the first focusing on curry and the second focusing on corned beef.
Though it still boasts some respectable comedy chops, the second half of Toradora! triumphs through frank emotions, credible character developments, and a great sense of timing and dialog, all powered by superb writing and an excellent directorial effort by Tatsuyuki Nagai (Honey and Clover II, A Certain Scientific Railgun), which together elevate the content far above the level of humdrum, gimmicky anime romances. If you want to see why quality in execution matters, look at this series.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Top-shelf writing and Japanese voice acting, realistic character and relationship developments, well-used musical score, immensely entertaining and involving.
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