Sometimes, honesty is the best policy. Toradora! takes what seems to be a typical anime conceit--two mismatched friends trying to help each other win love in high school--and plays it straight. The final product combines ensemble comedy, drama, and romance with pretty visuals, creating a touching and believable shounen romance.
Toradora! tells the story of Ryuuji and Taiga's friendship. The domestic, level-headed Ryuuji has fallen for the vivacious and optimistic Kushieda Minori, childhood friend to Aisaka Taiga. The tsundere Taiga, meanwhile, crushes on Ryuuji's upbeat buddy, Yuusaku. When Taiga and Ryuuji discover their coinciding interests, they form a friendship around gaining the affections of each other's friend. In the beginning, the series uses this alliance between Ryuuji and Taiga to establish a lively dynamic between five friends--Taiga, Ryuuji, Yuusaku, Minori, and Ami--that achieves a perfect equilibrium of comedy, animosity, and friendship. Just as in real life, however, the accumulation of events small and large changes the characters, and comedy gives way to drama.
Toradora! executes its drama with the same integrity and directness that it put into the comedy moments in the earlier part of the season, but occasionally falls short of the mark. Unfortunately, the writing and direction managed to somehow bungle what should have been Taiga's pivotal moment in the Xmas episode, and the execution of her final decision in the story left something to be desired. But that aside, every major emotional moment save the one mentioned above touched me in a way I hadn't expected, including one of the best kiss scenes I've ever seen in any visual medium ever.
J.C. Staff dropped the ball a little on consistency as some scenes appear rough around the edges. But the occasional quality blips won't stick in anyone's mind, since Toradora! also delivers some moments of genuine beauty. The character designs on the whole are simple but attractive, and each each character's animation helps to communicate his or her personality: Ryuuji's slumped posture, Minori's exuberance, and Ami's haughty cool can be read equally well from their body language as from their dialogue. Far and away, the most visual sugar gets sprinkled on Aisaka Taiga; whether she be sleeping, toweling her hair, or using a doughnut as a halo, she looks fantastic.
The extremely personal character drama demands a competent voice cast and Toradora!'s proves more than equal to the challenge. Each of the multifaceted leads requires exceptional attention to detail and sensitivity to character development, but three performances stand out in my mind. Aisaka Taiga is arguably the most complex tsundere lead attempted by Kugimiya Rie and the "Queen of Tsundere" expertly brings her character to life. Kugimiya navigates both the comedic set pieces of the series' first half and the later dramatic portions with equal skill. Horie Yui delivers the layered and effervescent Minori with perfect timing and energy, deftly transitioning from genki girl into neurotic semi-breakdown and back again. Lastly, Ryuuji's mother, Yasuko, gets an expert reading by Ohara Sayaka who ably shows both the childish and motherly sides of her character when called for by the script.
Of the pitch-perfect score, the first OP, "Pre-Parade" deserves special mention. Kugimiya Rie performs what I consider to be a spot-on tsundere J-Pop tune. The pattersong in the bridge gets stuck in my head for days despite my inability to sing along with it.
While none of these characters achieves a "perfect 10", the core group does come darn close to the mark. All five main characters develop in stellar fashion by making foolish mistakes for real reasons and then trying hard to deal with the consequences. Taiga, while a textbook tsundere, doesn't show Shana's (Shakugan no Shana) simple-mindedness or Nagi's (Hayate no Gotoku!) penchant for delusion. Instead, Toradora! features a female lead with a difficult (not troubled) past who wants desperately to love and be loved. Ryuuji isn't the typical doormat-tsundere-sidekick either. He struggles with an overprotective, indulgent (and self-indulgent) mother and wants only to bring happiness to those he cares about, regardless of the cost to his own well-being. Minori, far from the typical genki girl she appears to be, covers a boatload of neurosis with willpower and attitude.
While the Minori-Ryuuji-Taiga triangle forms the heart of Toradora!'s central plot, the two remaining group members, Yuusaku and Ami, complete the picture. Kitamura goes through his own personal ordeal midway through the series, showing a surprising amount of balls and undergoing an almost hysterically typical rebellion before regaining his footing and becoming simply some of the best comic relief in any series I've ever seen (and is as a result the only male anime character I prefer to see shirtless). Finally, Ami who all but withdraws from the group in the second half of the series, grows into the adult she never expected to become, demanding honesty from her friends and closure for herself in one of the most rewarding micro-scenes I've witnessed.
The people I've seen talk about Toradora! tend to get fixated on either half of the show, which is a horrible mistake. Taken as a whole, this work's honesty and humor paints a picture of high school romance and heartbreak that rings true. The loving, detailed visuals, laid back atmosphere and modest scope make the series a perfect introduction to the romance genre and a standout anime in its own right. No matter how angry it makes me at one moment, the next scene or episode has me singing its praises. In short, Toradora! is a lot like it's subject matter: In turns hilarious, rambling, confused, charming, and foolish, but ultimately a worthwhile and heartwarming experience.
Ryuuji Takasu has an eventful life: his classmates think he's a delinquent due to his 'killer' eyes; his crush Minori seems ever out of reach; and he’s just had an unfortunate encounter with 'palm-sized Taiga' – a feisty and dainty wench in his class. With different cleaning habits and tempers, the two clash like night and day; that is, except for the fact that Taiga and Ryuuji have crushes on the other's good friend! With school rumors abounding, the duo must now work together to play matchmaker for each other. Who will end up with their true love?
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.