First, a bit of background that's probably good to know: as a whole, I usually tend to hate tsunderes who aren't a bad idea in theory but whose execution most often sucks and when they're also overtly violent, childish and voiced by Rie Kugimiya, we enter the realm of my most reviled and loathed elements across all anime.
So why'd I watch Toradora? First, it was lauded to me as an excellent romantic drama with a more mature atmosphere. Second, it was also praised for complex relationships also involving other people than the main couple, love triangles and even the side characters talking to each other. Third, I had to find out exactly why someone I had as bad an image of as Taiga is something like #21 in Anime-Planet's most loved characters, her likers including a good number of people I consider intelligent, as well.
So. Episode 1 was about everything I hated about the genre and then some. Very few series have seemed as loathsome at first glance. It had cliches everywhere and exactly all of the tsundere bullshit one would expect. Had I dropped the series here, it'd have gone right down to Most Loathed Shows Ever and given something like 1 star. Pressed on, anyways. And it paid off. Although the beginning was mostly irritating crap, there was also potential to be seen here and there, which would actually be used later on unlike many of Toradora's contemporaries. And, starting with episode 3, there were also just wonderfully done moments which raised my impression of the entire series. If it was for this bunch of moments alone I'd give this 5/5 and rank it somewhere around my top-10. However...
...well... Toradora was somewhat inconsistent. It had excellent moments, it had short periods of time where it seemed really good but as a whole I don't remember watching more than at most two, three episodes as happy with the series without also being annoyed at something at the same time. It showed me first-grade moments, then the next episode started with something completely different and in worst cases even seemed to reset or ignore what happened right before it.
Most of my grief had to do with various cliches and, most importantly, the characters and their relationships with each other. First of all, the love triangle angle was basically shot down right off the bat. After episode 4 or so I don't think anyone else seemed like a serious contender. It was all about Taiga and Ryuji from the start with the others being emotional roadblocks at most. The cast-aside side characters didn't do anything between themselves, either, with two of them being in love with the male main and the third liking a minor character. It was more like a harem without actually being a harem if anything.
Well, I like side characters, but wasn't expecting them to get paired off with a main character by the end or anything. So, how about the main couple? If they're good, who cares, right? Well... that one was a mixed bag. As with most other things on this show, Ryuji and Taiga had a few most wonderful moments, but they just couldn't keep it going consistently.
First, the very premise their relationship started with never stopped bothering me. Had Ryuji been a normal person and called the cops on the crazy woman breaking into his home and swinging a bamboo sword at him, there'd be no Toradora. Even after that, most of their earlier interaction was mostly about A) Taiga being a general bother to Ryuji who just stood by and took it like a punching bag that was able to complain but that's pretty much it, B) trying to set each other up. And here we come to the root of the problem.
A few good moments, especially later on, aside, their relationship was mostly about Taiga. Her wants, her needs, her whims. Ryuji, while not really giving much of a reason as to why, mostly just took a backseat to support her while showing just about nothing else of his own personality than being neat-freak and ended up looking rather flat as a result. This is why I liked Ryuji's and Minori's scenes, most of them showed something of him, too, while Ami went down the middle road. Later on, as Taiga started improving and becoming more self-sufficient, we got to see more of Ryuji as well, but they'd held off on improving him for too long by that point, making him seem mostly like a clueless idiot. It was still written well enough to not get painful, but never could quite shake off the annoyance, either.
Well, the thing is, they did improve by leaps and bounds and while I never found myself really rooting for the pairing I was fine with them and could tolerate the things that bothered me about them, but then the ending took the time to kindly remind me that yes, this is still a tsundere romance with headbutts which, while it didn't exactly reset the process since they were still getting married, still felt irritating and somewhat of an insult to the maturing progress they went through.
And as a side-note on relationships, was hoping for more than all the main women being in love with the hero and the only other guy's arc finally showing a window into his mind... which is then immediately used to remove him from the equation.
Anyways, the characters themselves. Taiga started out as everything I hated, then seemed too goddamn immature to be in a relationship, then slowly matured and started showing good qualities, even bordering on genuinely likable at times before being annoying again but was more on the good side... until the end where they just have to show the immature tsun side again and leave a foul aftertaste.
Ryuji, as I said, was actually left pretty flat to me for most of the series. Male leads who are irrationally nice and get regularly beaten up by their girlfriends are nothing new, nor is complaining about it, in addition to which he couldn't seem to make up his mind about if it actually hurt or not. He did get his moments, like his father issues projected onto Taiga which were unpleasant but still showed us something about how his mind works, but they were fairly few and far inbetween compared to Taiga. He also just plain irritated me for most of the final third with his utter cluelessness. For someone having been praised by a great deal of people I've met as a good example of a male lead, I found him a letdown.
Minori was my favorite character from about the first moment I met her and despite being irritated at a couple of points during the end, she remained that way. Would've liked to see her transition from happy-go-lucky, with forcing and gritted teeth when necessary, to the more open person she'd become by the end of the series earlier, as well as her striking a friendship with Ami. I think they gave each other good peer support and provoked each other into being more honest, but unfortunately... happened too late, too little was shown. Still, I liked her sillier antics just fine, too. Except when used as a runaway method.
Yusaku also got the short end of the stick. This always was the women's show, but the side characters probably show it the best. While both Minori and Ami get a good number of heart-to-hearts and their thoughts are explained, we only get a narrow look into Yusaku's mind and that's mostly to get him out of the dating market to go after Sgt. President while also seeming somewhat moronic. Other than that he just seems kinda omniscient, conveniently knowing what people feel at the right times while showing nothing of his own emotions. I'm not sure if he ever gave a definitive answer about his final opinion on Taiga. It's a shame, really, would've liked to see more of him and as the worst thing, was expecting it due to the praise people gave about Toradora.
And finally, Ami. Once the bubbly persona was cracked in one of the best moments of the series, she improved... albeit I think Ami got hit with the reset button and inconsistency pretty badly, at times being as fakey as before while being even more venomous than originally at other times without it seeming to be tied into the audience present, either. Still, she was my other favorite character in the show, albeit when thinking about it later on, she also mostly closed her heart after her own arc after which it was mostly about getting reactions out of others. But I'm not complaining, she was interesting and pretty much the most sensible member of the cast. Again, though, I wish we'd seen more of her motivations and background.
The other characters... well, I was fine with their schoolmates, hated the parrot, Yasuko was mostly annoying as was their teacher despite both getting some good moments only to go back to annoying right afterwards, Taiga's dad was a creep and Sgt. President left an impact despite only appearing a handful of times. Was there anyone else warranting a mention?
...okay, on to other things. It had a fair bit of cliches, I'd have to say, but most were handled in a way that made them, if not well-flowing, at least something I could accept as an evil I could live with and keep watching. Some of them, however, just didn't fit in. It wasn't bad but again, just enough to detract from enjoyment.
The soundtrack, however, was fine. They didn't seem to have that many songs but used them effectively to amp the mood up just at the right moments, some of which are now etched onto my memory because of that. One song in particular was very much to my liking, probably going to look it up later. Good job on that front. No complaints about the voice acting, either, and it got even better when they started screaming. The emotion was made clear to the viewer, as well. Well, Taiga sounded a bit like she had the flu for a good bit of the series, but it wasn't bad. Graphics-wise it was also enjoyable. Especially liked Minori's design but even Taiga, despite her annoyingness, really did look cute when smiling properly and hers and Ami's transformation for the christmas party they held was also very notable when compared to girls dressing up for most other series. Some of the more fluid movements also left an impact.
So, all in all. It had wonderful bits, just plain wonderful. It was paced well, never felt slow, never felt rushed, never had to check the time to see if it was over soon. Soundtrack was utilized just finely. Loved both Minori and Ami to bits and Taiga, even though I still don't like her, moved on to well-written dislikes instead of considering her a shitty dislike. However, the guys mostly got shafted, could've done with more screentime and serious attempts at romance by someone else than the main couple, it had a bit too many decisions that bothered me and it was, at its core, still a tsundere romance which I just don't like since there are protagonists who can make just as good romance and drama while not being raging bitches. Still, I don't regret watching this. It was good, but some things bugged me which is a textbook example of my rating of around 7/10. Worse than series I was consistently fond of, yet better than one would probably expect from a person who came into this hating one of the main themes of the show.