To be honest there are times when I wonder if anime is just a waste of my time. Why do I spend the equivalent of days and weeks of my life watching some cartoon characters walk around and spout lines? Is this really worthwhile?
When those thoughts pop into my mind, I only have to recall some of my favorite series and what they mean to me to dispell the negativity and remember just what type of potential anime has to affect me on a level that is untouched by other art and story mediums. And every single time, the anime that tops that list of fond memories is Toradora!, bar none my favorite anime of all time despite the fact that I typically hate all romances given the memories they drag to the surface of my mind.
Story: Toradora! is a pristine example of how it is possible to take a common, simple story and make something truly stunning out of it. This anime is based on the typical romance story of a group of boys and girls who are all mixed up in love polygons. Each character has a romantic interest that they pursue with differing degrees of stubborness and success, as one would expect.
I will point out that I am apparently "braindead" because I didn't know exactly how the series would end after seeing the first episode as some more experienced reveiwers did. The plot had plenty of turns and reversals to leave me unsure of the end result until it actually happened. As soon as the plot came to the finish however, I was estatic with the result despite not seeing it coming. However, once aware of the finish, I immediately realized that I had seen it coming for a long time. That was one of the most impressive parts of Toradora! in my opinion; they leave you guessing on what will happen next while dropping discreet hints all over the place so that at the end, it looks completely obvious.
It's hard to point to any one thing that sets this story apart from other romance animes. There are confused feelings among the main character, competing emotions, self-realizations, and interpersonal struggles, but all of those can be found in any decent romance. Maybe what elevated this story above the mass of other romances is that everything just feels so natural. The characters are never forced to act differently than they normally would just to allow for some plot point to occur. All of the characters are true to themselves and the story emanates from them rather than the characters existing to further the story. That is how a story should be written and I can't find a single fault in the story save for the fact that for a few episodes in the middle, everything slows down a bit.
Seeing the heartbreaks, triumphs, confusion, and realizations take place throughout the anime is a pleasure beyond measurement and really leaves you empathizing with the characters. The lovely comedic elements are just the icing on top of the cake. I can't in conscience give this story anything below a 10.
Animation: The character models could not have fit their personalities any better and were essentially perfect in every regard. The environments were well done and I didn't notice any glaring faults in the animation. The only reason a point was taken off here is that I would normally expect animation to be a bit crisper and cleaner in such a recent production.
Sound: This is one of the few animes where I can clearly remember the OP/ED songs and that's simply because they both fit the mood of the anime perfectly and were extremely catchy and now reside on my ipod. The voice acting was supurb, especially Taiga's, but that's to be expected when she is voice by one of the most prolific voice actors out there today, Kugimiya Rie, the Queen of Tsundere. I took off a half a point because when Minori went into her creepy poetry-reciting voice, it really wierded me out. That was obviously the point, but no fair creeping me out in a romance anime. :P
Characters: Another perfect, and completely deserved, score. From a quick glance, you might think that this anime is full of the typical archetypes. There is the protagonist who all the female characters focus on and his hyperactive, slighty perverse male friends. Then there is the tsundere girl, genki girl, the perpetually drunken woman in 30s with massive breasts, and there is the cold, disinterested girl who just wants to be loved on the inside. Anyone who makes the assumption that that is all there is to these characters does this series a massive and unforgivable disservice.
Every single character has so many more layers than you would expect that it'd take me a hundred lines to go through them all. Every single character contributes something to the story and brings out unique emotions from the other characters. Simply put, they're all brilliant. As that is the case, I will just focus on Aisaka Taiga, as she is likely my favorite anime character of all time. This is not to suggest that Minori, Ryuji, Yusaku, Ami, and Yasako were uninteresting (couldn't be farther from the truth to be honest), but rather that Taiga was just on a different level.
When the series opens Taiga is introduced as a tough girl and bully of legendary stature, who has trouble relating to people and has a brash "me against the world" attitude. Even when she lets down her guard with Ryuji and discusses her crush on Yusaku, turning her into a tsundere, she maintains this attitude towards everyone other than Ryuji and Minori (her only friend initially), especially when introduced to Ami and when discussing her family issues. To see her gradually open up to Ryuji as a friend and share more and more of her personal thoughts than she has ever shared with anyone, even Minori, only to see her realize this and suddenly draw back and cut him off allows the audience to truly sympathyze with Ryuji's sense of frustration and confusion. Later on when she makes a realization that shatters her entire spirit, leaving her broken down and crying uncontrollably it will feel like a blow directly to your heart, as it did with me. Taiga has simple motivations but she is unable, or unwilling, to realize them making her increadibly complex and relatable and the amount of internal barriers she has built up against forming relationships make her a deep and fascinating character that I've yet to see any anime come close to equalling.
Overall: Toradora! has an unelievable cast that turns what should be a typical and unimaginative story into a thrilling and heartracing adventure into human emotions and relationships. The finale is masterfully done as you see the panic and shock as the characters grasp the entirety of their experiences and true feelings is revealed. As soon as everything is realized, the panic and shock vanish to be replaced by comfort, calm, a touch of humor, and true love. The bridge scene in the finale is particularly heartwarming. If I could only recommend one anime to anyone reading this essay, there would be no contest, watching Toradora! is an experience worth having dozens of times.