I didn’t realise it at the time, but much of my earliest anime experiences were comic romantic stories with a soap opera structure, often built around heavily marketed characters. After Ranma 1/2 and Inu-Yasha, two series for which I have varying degrees of passing, retrospective affection, I lost my taste for truly long-running series, especially ones where the core relationship dynamic was a relatively fixed pair of constants. A character dynamic that is unchanged or uninfluenced by the things surrounding it is less of a dynamic than it is a very static relationship, and while there is some joy to be had in reliable characterisation, I found a taste I did not well understand at the time for character development.
When a series has other elements going on, such as the shonen-action genre fare I’d known, there’s a lure to the writer to treat story elements as large blocks; a block of action, then a block of comedy, then some character development, then another block of action. This process hardly hurt those lighter, episodic and serialised series. As I grew older, though, this structure started to wear on me. This soap-TV series structure was designed to perpetuate rather than resolve. A series that didn’t have a plot-progressing storytelling device, like Evangelion‘s war against the angels or Mahoromantic‘s steadily impending doom made it all the more acute. When character development is made the focus of a story, it needs to be good, or the series isn’t good.
Toradora is a good series.
Without giving a tired rundown of all the major points, Toradora is a high-school focused comic drama oriented around a highly tsundere central character and the relationship web that unfolds around her and her best friend as they deal with the beginning of high school romances. Much like a mario game, it’s a story that most people think they’ve heard before, structured around the high school year. Instead of grasslands, forest, ice world, fire world, boss, though, the pattern in Toradora hits all the familiar notes without ever feeling predictable. Deliberate foreshadowing is wielded in story arcs where the plot point is predictable, and in so doing, it prevents the viewer from being distracted by the event, and focus instead on the characters the narrative wants as focus.
This directorial approach both demonstrates a clear, certain vision in the themes of the story and how it’s going to be used, and in the efficiency with which the story abandons unnecessary tropes and exposition. Toradora started as a series of light novels, with easily enough basic events to create a long-running series, especially if the anime wanted to expand. Instead, it’s a series with both a shorter-than-usual runtime (24 episodes, instead of the typical 26 for a two-season anime), and with a deliberate-seeming three-episode mini-arc structure. These three episode sets typically have a single linking event, which takes multiple days.
Toradora uses its visual space very efficiently; in many anime you will see, for example, a slow pan shot over a static watercolour background while a character provides a monologue. It’s an effective visual storytelling device, and not one that necessarily needs retirement, but it is workmanlike and simple; an obvious budget saver. Even good anime, such as the fantastic Durarara!! use this technique. In Toradora, these shots are kept to a minimum and instead, moments of character monologue are usually juxtaposed with visual devices to convey another element of the story.
Normally, symbolism and metaphor are used heavily by the genres of horror and fantasy, but Toradora is thick with it. Each individual character has their own visual language in the environment around them. Ryuuji, for example, with his strong housekeeping skills, often adds to his surroundings with cooking and food preparation, and it’s very rare for him to prepare any food that doesn’t involve an outer layer. In one scene, a character provides a monologue over him about her emotional state, while he peels an apple in the foreground. One cannot see him, but they do see the peel slithering down the into the bowl. As the speaker talks on a topic that matters a great deal to him, the peel does not stop, but it does slow down – then speed up again after that topic is passed. This is not an atypical thing: The series is rich with this visual symbolism, and by deciding on its themes early, the direction can show you three or four things at once.
Ultimately, Toradora is a story about a complex love triangle; if such stories do not appeal to you, then there’s no way to avoid that. It’s also a story about archetypes of Japanese animation storytelling – centred around the Tsundere. A familiarity with those stories will make the experience the richer – particularly in how the series works with expectations, and then defies them. Characters start as archetypes, but are developed and rounded, with surprising examples of depth and variety. By the end of the series, characters are acting in ways that would seem wildly out of type, but thanks to the gradiated, sensible flow of the story’s development up to that point, it doesn’t feel out of place.
Toradora is a middling length for a series, fantastically well written, excellently directed, and charming. It does not innovate in any of its plot elements or devices, it merely contents itself by executing everything excellently, and with a soulful depth that speaks of the author’s personal proximity to the idea. I’d say that it deserves that awkward title of ‘not just a,’ where despite wearing all the tropes and style of a particular type of anime, it cannot be simply thrown into that basket and disregarded.
Toradora is a story about how we’re all a bit tsundere, in different ways, and it’s worth your time to watch.