Rumble in a Teapot: Toradora!

Matt Brown (Editor in Chief) — September 25th, 2011
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Toradora's title is a portmanteau of tora (tiger) and doragon (dragon). Its main characters are Taiga (tiger) Aisaka, and Ryuji (dragon) Takasu. For all intents and purposes, the tiger is something tangible and wild; the dragon is wise and mystical. I think you can figure out which gender is which, in anime terms. Then the clever stops, and you wake up naked in a fountain in Prague, wondering how you got there. Some old hag waddles over, and informs you that you've been sold into slavery overnight by a hideous man named Hans. You knew him as Elise. Yes, that wild, wild "woman." It's all coming back, now. Except how you wound up in Eastern Europe in the first place. But that's all in the past, and your Kafka-esque waking nightmare is of no concern to the rest of us.

Let's rewind a little, and talk about some more words. Ami, French for friend, Japanese for "hate me because I'm beautiful, and popular, and have the most outgoing...personality." She'll wind up liking Ryuji because convention wills it, and rivaling Taiga for the same reason. Then there's Minori, or "I'm a minor's my first name!" She's Taiga's best friend, so of course she has no choice but to like the same boy. Then, there's, Yuusaku...yeah, I've got nothin', other than it sounds like "you suck." He's Ryuji's best friend, so of course he likes Taiga. Taiga and Ryuji are polar opposites, so of course they hate each other, at first. But you see, there's this coin, and they're both on it. There's only one problem with all this: it's not School Rumble.

Bear with me.

There's something fundamentally ridiculous about romantic comedies, aside from the designation itself. There's no way those two would ever get together in real life, but gosh, we sure wish they would! We're supposed to laugh at how awkward everything is for the natural opposites, and feel suspense and shit when "Deus Ex" Misunderstanding strikes, while maintaining an ironclad faith that those crazy kids will get together in the end. (Maybe even earn the bonus of an earful from the SO as she inevitably compares the perfect movie relationship to her unfulfilling real-life one, where applicable.) I can stomach a good romance, and love a good comedy, but admit it: most rom-coms are neither. If there's anything that redeems a rom-com for me, it's the antics, and what happens in the beats between.

Toradora actually does all right on both the funny and the romance, but on balance, it never held me for more than a few moments at a time. As one might expect from a recent anime, 99.99999% of the funny (and personality) rests with the girls, with the other 0.00001% belonging to Inko-chan, the Takasu family parrot, whose routine is looking like he's one gasp from keeling over.* The character gimmicks generally don't work so well, in part because they're unflappable, but mostly because they don't multiply the funny in tandem. Ryuji inadvertently casts evil glances at other students, making him come across as a delinquent. Yuusaku is the requisite quiet know-it-all who pretends to be oblivious of what's going on. Ami's spotless public image is a diametric opposite of her private personality. Minori is the gung-ho optimist who tries too hard at everything. Taiga's a loose cannon, and thankfully provides enough entertainment that we can ignore the cliché of the petite loudmouth.

We all know by now how rom-coms play themselves out. All the characters stick to their pre-determined behavioral tropes until one or more of them crosses a line, obliterating the little nest of comfort they had all made for themselves. In Toradora, this plays out as Taiga laying into Ryuji a few times for not having her back — a tried and true construct for romances that in this case works well. (I'll never say that the acting in this show isn't top notch.) Unfortunately, in Ryuji's case, it means displaying a despicable lack of respect for his mother. His behavior throughout the show doesn't engender enough sympathy to overcome the damage, except maybe the lack of a father figure to lay the smack-down on his punk ass.

I said that the show's problem is not being School Rumble, by which I'm not saying it should be more silly or pop-culture referential or genre-self-deprecating. The thing that School Rumble has and Toradora and most other anime rom-coms lack is what I can only describe as a sense of adventure.** I like a rom-com that doesn't make up its mind right in the title about how things will play out, but instead allows its characters to have life-enriching (and hilarious) experiences outside the sphere of who they want to date and who wants to date them and dating in general. Not only is it more fun to watch, but it comes across as more authentic — instead of two characters wasting time not seeing what's right in front of them and what all their friends see, the motives of several characters combine to produce results that are largely accidental. The writers will, of course, ultimately steer the narrative to keep it from being too tangential, but as a viewer, I very much enjoy the tangents.

For all that Toradora has going for it (strong acting, serviceable writing, sound production values, terrific ending and second opening themes), its early episodes come across as stalling for the main event, like the local opener for a concert. Or if you prefer, it's like the twelve step program — we all wait around patiently for the characters to admit they really like each other, and only then can they follow the path to healthy adult lives. To this I say HUMBUG. To see what's under your nose requires that you look forward and down, and then you'll miss what's in front, behind, up, and to the sides. I'll take my chances with a wider field of view. Besides, to think about what you've missed or are missing is only harmful, and we all try to tell ourselves that life is too short for regrets, anyway. A lot of romantic comedies quietly espouse a nebulous idea that some version of the Right Thing will just happen, even if we all just sit around waiting for it. There is no right thing. There's only life.

Thanks go out to NIS America for providing a review copy of the show.

* I wonder how many people even know what a keel is, yet everyone knows what "keel over" means.

** Say what you will about Love Hina, but it has it too, a little.