I think this is a good place for us to talk about the greatest love story ever told.
As the second anime I watched, Toradora takes me back. Way back. Back before I knew who Kugimiya Rie was or that she had a reputation for voicing flat-chested tsunderes. Back before I knew all the ins and outs and standard narrative beats of anime romance. Even before I knew the meme that Toradora was the “greatest love story ever told”. Ancient history, right? (maybe)
In real world time I actually didn’t watch Toradora that long ago. I was late to the party and only started watching anime in early 2010. But in terms of the amount of anime I had consumed then vs now it feels like ages. Because of everything I’d viewed in the intervening years, deciding if and where to place Toradora on this list was very difficult for me. I had gone back and revisited it for the traditional Christmas re-watch back in December 2011 (if you haven’t done this, I highly recommend it. Toradora is a great holiday season show) but I wasn’t thinking that critically about it at the time. Whatever opinion I had about it in March 2010 was probably going to be very different from my reaction watching it now with another ~250 anime under my belt. I mentioned in my introduction to this list that I was concerned that some of the shows might not hold up and I was thinking specifically of Toradora when I made that statement. Sure I had fond memories of the show, but how much of that was due to my nostalgia for a time when everything in anime was fresh and new? Thankfully, while my anime knowledge was very limited when I first watched Toradora, my ability to think critically about fiction was much more fully developed. Despite not knowing anime and its conventions that well, I knew something good when I saw it and Toradora is quite good.
Toradora is adapted from a light novel by Takemiya Yuyuko with the anime script written by Okada Mari (two for two now on shows with Okada involvement). The light novel label is something of a black mark these days but Toradora manages to be the rare show that overcomes the light novel stigma to become something really noteworthy. I’d even go so far as to say that Toradora is the closest thing I’ve seen to the platonic ideal of what a light novel story should be. The nature of the medium doesn’t lend itself to grand, over-arching narratives or complex world-building since you’re putting out many short volumes (designed for “light” reading) instead of a single, complete work. To take advantage of this, Toradora opts for a series of shorter, more focused character arcs that show us all the ins and outs of who these characters are and what makes them tick.
Of course this idea of short character focused arcs isn’t unique to Toradora, so what makes Toradora succeed where so many other light novels have failed? The show’s success is largely due to the universality of its themes and the humanity of its characters. The problem with a lot of light novels is that the problems faced by their main characters tend to boil down to “a bunch of sexy girls have appeared around me and are dragging me into some sort of absurd conflict.” Sure, that can be fun for a little while but Toradora rises above this level by telling a story of flawed human beings dealing with the universal problems that anyone can relate to.
Toradora actually starts kind of slow as it seems it took the author a little while to feel out the characters and get the hang of what she was doing (then lose the hang of what she was doing again when she wrote Golden Time). The characters start out frustratingly static in their naïve behavior and typical high school insecurities. They show little sign of being able to break out of their pattern of foolish and often self-destructive behavior. Each time I’ve watched this part of the show I find myself wanting to shout at the characters for their immaturity and wondering if the show is actually any good. Fortunately somebody was on the way who shares my disillusion with these characters’ behavior: Kawashima Ami.
Kawashima is what really makes Toradora work. She immediately sees the true meaning behind the behavior of her classmates and not-so-subtly calls them out on it. Ami is unique in this regard because unlike the rest of the cast, she’s fully aware that she’s putting on an act and her ability to see through and manipulate the others is impressive. We see this ability on display with almost everybody but particularly with Taiga. She can read a person quickly and skillfully and has a knack for figuring out either what will immediately endear her to that person or what is certain to get under that person’s skin. She is by far the most socially intelligent member of the group and takes full advantage of it. Still, she lives something of a sad existence since she has to keep up her façade in order to maintain her social standing while at the same time being desperate for a friend that knows her true self. This is where Ryuuji comes in as somebody who doesn’t constantly worship her and actually connects with her on a personal level. Their relationship offers a lot of insight into one of the show’s strongest themes regarding love and relationships.
It’s frustratingly common to see young people who develop a crush on somebody and idolize them to such an extent that they no longer see themselves as somebody who can relate to that person as an equal. This is the state we find Taiga in at the start of the show as her crush on Kitamura reduces her to a stammering mess any time he’s around. The show does a great job of showing the contrast between her comfort around Ryuuji with her fear around Kitamura. The titular tiger x dragon relationship plays off of this idea. The tiger and dragon are historically considered to be the only beings equal to each other in East Asian mythology and are often depicted as complementary companions. The idea of the tiger and dragon as equals drives home the message that for a truly healthy relationship the involved parties need to see each other as peers rather than one being merely an admirer of the other.
Taiga and Ryuuji weren’t always this way. Toradora starts out with the standard tsundere girl and “nice guy” set up that plagues a lot of other works. However, Toradora doesn’t use the tsundere to stall for time or the “nice guy” male lead to provide a self-insert for the typical male viewer, as a lesser show might have. Instead, Taiga’s distant and volatile personality feels like a coherent character trait that is a product of her upbringing and difficult family situation rather than a generic trope to drag out the romance. Ryuuji’s almost infinite patience also feels like a natural part of his character given he’s had to hold his family together for so long (incidentally we’re also two for two on main characters with dead fathers and unreliable mothers). Toradora uses this set up as an excellent starting point for one of the best examples of relationship growth in anime.
While it seems one-sided at first, the give and take of Taiga and Ryuuji’s relationship is built up throughout the show to the point where it’s clear they’re no longer enemies and have probably moved past just being friends as well. The process takes place slowly and subtly so that it feels natural rather than being static for 90% of the show and then suddenly having a switch flipped. Even though the process takes place slowly, there were still plenty of great moments along the way. The biggest “wow” moment for me was Taiga’s breakdown at the end of the Christmas episode. The breakdown itself was sudden but it was the culmination of the long process of Taiga slowly developing feelings for Ryuuji while refusing to acknowledge it. Taiga is a beautifully flawed character in the way she’ll continue to say “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine” to the outside world while on the inside she’s nothing of the sort.
In addition to seeing Taiga and Ryuuji grow closer to each other we see both of them along with Yasuko grow together as a family which highlights another key theme of the show. Toradora shows us that being a family is about more than just who you’re biologically related to. People can become family through a shared bond and shared experiences even without being related to each other. By the end of the show Ryuuji and Taiga come to understand this through their experiences together as well as with Yasuko. The final episodes bring this all together very neatly through a confession, a trip to Ryuuji’s grandparents and finally a tearful reunion with Yasuko.
Aside from the main couple of the show, we see the outer façade vs inner turmoil contrast in many of the other characters. Ami is the one who most openly acknowledges the difference between here cute “Ami-chan” persona and her true self but both Kitamura and Minori have their own inner demons. Like Taiga and Ryuuji, each of these characters feels like a coherent whole despite these contrasts. All of the characters are flawed and have some hidden side to them that flows naturally from their circumstances and the rest of their personality. Each character’s issues are slowly and carefully explored before they all finally come together in the explosive finale where they all have to step up and face their fears. Toradora shows us that part of growing up is being able to stand up to the troubles in your life and that you haven’t really grown up until you stop running away. It doesn’t offer any easy answers to the problems the characters face but also creates a world that doesn’t reward them for avoiding dealing with their issues. It’s this type of quality character writing that makes Toradora stand out as one of the best romance anime out there.
Production-wise, I have to give props for the quality work JC Staff put in on Toradora. JC Staff (like light novels in general) gets kind of a bum rap sometimes for being a studio that puts out a lot of works of questionable quality. Despite this reputation, they do seem to have a sweet spot in the teenage romcom area and Toradora fits right into that. JC Staff may have done more than their fair share of trashy light novel adaptations since Toradora and they have screwed up several other shows (*cough* Little Busters *cough*) but when they get the right premise and put their A-team to work, they can put out something really great and Toradora is proof. I previously mentioned Okada Mari’s adaptation work but I can’t forget Hashimoto Yukari’s work on the soundtrack. The background music did a great job of making the comedy in Toradora work and enhancing the dramatic scenes as well. In particular, the song Lost my Pieces is one of my favorite OST songs out there. I find it hard to believe that Toradora would have had the impact it did without that quality soundtrack.
Overall, Toradora succeeds because its writing demonstrates a keen understanding of people and how they interact. Armed with this knowledge, Takemiya Yuyuko is able to create characters that are believable, flawed, relatable and capable of growth. This might sound pretty straightforward but it isn’t as simple as it would seem. Given so many light novels out there don’t understand these things we should really cherish the ones like Toradora that get it right. As long as you know how to write good characters, you can create something worthwhile regardless of the medium. If you’re looking for a solid romance anime, you can certainly do a lot worse than Toradora. The “greatest love story ever told” it might not be, but that didn’t become a meme by accident. The show really is something special.