Love can be a tricky, fickle thing. Sometimes you think you’ve found it when you really haven’t, and sometimes it’s right in front of you but you refuse to accept it. Love can be heartwarming, love can be heartbreaking, love can be unexpected, love can sometimes even be expected, and nowhere are the trials and tribulations of romance more evident than in the life of a high school student (if we’re talking about anime, that is, which of course we are). If you didn’t just click on this article at random, then you know that today’s high school romance is Toradora, the 25-episode 2008-09 series from J.C. Staff, and adapted from light novels written by Yuyuko Takemiya, who would later go on to create Golden Time (a series which I am actually rather fond of). That’s all I got, so let’s get to it.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Ryuji. Male. 17 years old. High school student. Lives alone with his mother. Loves cooking, cleaning and general housework. At heart quite the kind person. Cursed with a thuggish physical appearance that frightens even his teachers. Burdened by unrequited love, a crush on a girl in his class, Minori. Friends with the student council vice-president, Yuusaku. And… yeah, think that about covers all our bases, except for a very big one (or a very small one, depending on how you look at it): a short girl named Taiga, practically small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but more than aggressive and fiery enough to compensate, thus earning her the nickname “Palmtop Tiger”.
However, the Palmtop Tiger happens to be good friends with Minori, Ryuji’s crush, and happens to live right next door to him anddd just so happens to herself have a crush on Ryuji’s friend, Yuusaku. After a bumpy first meeting or two, Ryuji and Taiga quickly establish a collaborative relationship, each aiming to help the other hook up with their respective crushes, eventually becoming good friends in their own right (and perhaps even something more).
Now I’m not always one to comment on a show’s themes or philosophies, admittedly because I can sometimes be too dense to properly notice them, but with Toradora, I felt like I was able to actually click together what the show is all about. To me, it was a lot about being honest with yourself, the dissonance between whatever exterior you put out for others and the genuine interior core of who you are, even if you yourself do not realize it. As such, pretty much every main character and even some more important side ones will at one point or another in Toradora have this disconnect between their inner feelings and outward actions.
In effect, this means that every principal cast member is layered to some degree, with more to them than a cursory glance would imply (especially considering that, with a few exceptions, the character designs themselves can be somewhat unremarkable). Arguably the most obvious example of this internal-external conflict would be Ami, a character who I neglected to introduce in the premise since she doesn’t come into the series right away. Ami is a model, and childhood friend of Yuusaku, who lives her life by putting on an act, an act that more or less everyone, very much including herself, is aware of. Ami puts herself forward as the innocent, wide-eyed, cutesy girl, disguising her true personality of frustration, anger, even manipulation. She doesn’t want to live a lie, but sees it as the optimal course of action. Like every other character (to varying degrees), over time this shell is broken down and she learns to be more honest with others, and comfortable with who she really is.
Next we have Yuusaku, a fun, entertaining guy, with a flair for some eccentricity and theatricality, who (if you recall) is the vice-president of the student council, and his story goes hand-in-hand with a less major character that (like Ami) I have yet to mention, being the president herself, Sumire. Both Yuusaku and Sumire may or may not have feelings for the other but, again, it goes back to the discrepancy between an individual’s thoughts and actions, in that neither of them stands up to outright admit it.
Then, Minori, who for some reason I find the most difficult to talk about, but her situation is at least easy to understand; her outward character being the usual super cheerful, airheaded, sporty girl, but like everyone else, this may be something of a facade to avoid dealing with her real emotions.
And those three being out of the way brings us to the star of the show, Taiga, who in some ways is an opposite to her friend Minori, as while Minori projects herself as a cheery, go-get-’em person, Taiga is much more brusque, abrasive and prone to violence, hence her nickname “Palmtop Tiger”. Of course, if you’ve picked up on the pattern at this point, her tsundere tendencies rarely mirror her true feelings and instead serve to cover them up and push them down.
I have yet to touch on Ryuji, and in some ways I think that’s because his character dissonance is the most superficial (and it also doesn’t hang around for particularly long in the story). It’s pretty much exactly what I described in the premise: he has a delinquent-esque appearance that scares people off very easily, but is in actuality a kind, warm person, so once his classmates get to know him after a few episodes, they stop judging him on his appearance and he’s free to be himself. That’s just a little less meaty than what the others bring to the table, but it’s not the end of the world because he’s still a likable guy…
… which makes you want to root for him in his romantic endeavors, as even putting aside any potential subtext or implicit meanings to its story, Toradora is still more than entertaining as a simple love story, as much as a high school romance can be. Make no mistake, this is no After Story, you’re not gonna see much beyond the hook-up itself, but it’s still sweet young love, and you cheer for it when it finally goes down.
That’s about all I have to say about the story itself (in this “Good” section, that is). It’s a show where, for me, the characters are more important and more memorable than specific plot beats, which isn’t a bad thing, that’s just the kind of show it is. So, that said, I guess that means we now talk about the presentation, starting with the animation, because that’ll be pretty quick and easy. By nature, this is not a series with many over-the-top fight scenes or sweeping vistas, but the visuals are solid enough and very nice for what they need to be. A few scenes in particular do stand out as spurts of rather excellent animation, but on the whole Toradora is not a show to push the boundaries of the medium in that regard. Nonetheless, it plays its role more than adequately.
So now that that’s done with, we can get to what I really liked: the music. It’s been a while since I ran into a soundtrack that I loved. Some shows can go their entire run without my noticing the music, or more than at least couple tracks. Toradora is not one of those, with great tunes popping up sometimes as many as three or four times each episode. Most of my favorite songs were pretty cheery, jaunty, the kind of stuff that would just perk me up, and the instrumentation is fitting for that, with a mix of piano, electronic, trumpet, sometimes a guitar or even a harp-ish sound. To be clear, not a masterpiece of a soundtrack, but well-made and effective (which frankly doubles as a succinct description for the entire show).
Now the opening and endings, as actual songs, I liked but didn’t particularly love, except for the lyrics, because the lyrics parrot a lot of the points of the show, like the first ending (which is pretty clearly written from Taiga’s point of view), saying stuff about how she can’t be honest with herself, how she means one thing and says another, which is a cool touch. Definitely better than just some random generic lyrics about love and happiness, or something like that.
On the topic of audio, this is as good a time as any to reveal that I in fact watched Toradora dubbed. And I must say, it was a very strong dub that played both sides of the show remarkably well, with good delivery and timing for the comedy, then a believable amount of nuance and subtlety for the emotion. I don’t watch enough dubs to have been familiar with any of the lead actors prior to watching the series (with the exception of Johnny Yong Bosch as Yuusaku), but frankly everyone nailed their performances. I have literally no complaints. Well, technically that’s not true, I have one complaint. Near the end of Toradora (episode 19, if I recall), there’s a musical number performed by Taiga and Ami, which is, funny enough, not dubbed. I don’t know why they chose not to dub it, as the sudden switch to subtitles was a little jarring, I have to say (and don’t try to tell me it couldn’t be done, because Haruhi did it just fine).
But, overall, besides that, the dub kicked ass. In fact, this is going to be a controversial opinion for just about any series, but I checked out several clips of the subtitled version afterwards, and in my own opinion, the dub is actually better than the original (blasphemy, I know).
Ryuji’s mom annoyed me. I really didn’t care for her. She’s a mental midget, one of those weird anime parents that acts like a toddler and forces you to question how they even stumbled through life before having their child to pick things up for them. It doesn’t make any sense to me, and it’s just… is it wrong for me to want adults to act a little adult-like? Adults can have fun, but Mama Ryuji’s lines were frequently laughable, and not in a good way.
Putting that aside, for as well-done as it often is, Toradora is still a high school romance anime, and that topic is tread upon rather often, meaning that common genre complaints, or at least my common genre complaints, still to a degree hold true here. For one, I know it’s just the very anime thing to do, but sometimes you can’t help rolling your eyes at how seriously everyone takes crushes and student council elections, as if their lives depend on it. To quote episode 16 of this show, “there’s more to life than high school”, but you wouldn’t know it from how these guys act. Granted, this is not an issue exclusive to Toradora, and tends to be present in some form in many series of this genre, but it’s just worth noting that it pops up here too.
Likewise, it seems a key plot point in these kind of stories is always mis- (or a complete lack of) communication, and Toradora is no exception. Granted, as I said earlier, a big point of the show is people not following through and acting on their true feelings, but sometimes, things happen that make you want to shout “Just talk to each other! Please!”, and they don’t. You could perhaps argue that this is a cultural difference, since Japanese culture is more focused on bottling things up and not making a scene, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating.
My next (and by far most minor) complaint is that at times Toradora moves fast. Arguably, too fast, whether it acts like Ryuji and Taiga are a well-established pair despite it only being Episode 2, to Yuusaku going off the deep end with few prior signs, to some things that happen near the end. Again, this is my most minor complaint, but it was something I noticed from time to time.
And the last “bad” thing I have to say about Toradora is that it’s the kind of show where you know the end before it even begins, thanks to two things: basic genre knowledge and the title. If you’re not familiar with Japanese, “Toradora” might as well be nonsense to you, but it’s really a rather clever title. “Tora” is the Japanese word for “Tiger”, thus referencing the Palmtop Tiger, Taiga. Then, for “Dora”, Ryuji is called a dragon a few times throughout the series. The Japanese pronunciation of “Dragon” is “Doragon”, the first two sounds being “Dora”. Hence, “Toradora” means “Tiger-Dragon”, which itself means “Taiga (and) Ryuji”. So, the whole show is ultimately an exercise in waiting for the obvious couple to actually become a couple, for “Tora” and “Dora” to become “Toradora”, while everyone faffs about with other potential romances that you just know won’t stick in the long-run.
I’m glad I finally got around to watching Toradora. For a while, it had been one of those pretty popular series that I just had no opinion on, and when it comes right down to it, yeah, Toradora was good. Did it make me reexamine what anime can do or what stories high-school romance can tell? No, but execution can often trump premise, and I think that’s the best way to put it when it comes to Toradora.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S... sometimes, you just gotta go with your gut, and as much as I really liked Toradora, it lacked that certain spark that warrants the highest rating, so I have to go with a very solid A. It didn’t do anything majorly wrong, but it also didn’t hit me on that raw level that an S has to. Nonetheless, if you’re in the mood for anime high school romance, Toradora would undoubtedly be one of the first on my list (alongside stuff like Clannad, and I really love Clannad).
Toradora is currently available for legal streaming from Viewster (that’s a new one), Hulu and Crunchyroll, in a rare case of Crunchyroll hosting both the sub and the dub. If you are intrigued and have yet to see the series, go for it, there’s plenty to like and it’s only 25 episodes.