By Kathleen Townsend
I’ve introduced a lot of people I know to anime, but there’s only one series that had them sitting entranced through all of it that very same day. May I introduce…Toradora!
Now, I’m not always a huge rom-com person, and neither are a lot of the people I’ve shown Toradora! to. But this series has the unique power to utterly enrapture whomever is watching it with its depiction of life and emotional character arcs.
While it has elements of a rom-com, it’s so much more than that. Before you know it, you’re sucked into these characters’ lives, totally unable to look away.
The story of Toradora!
Toradora! is the story of two high schoolers, Ryuji Takasu and Taiga Aisaka. Ryuji is a kind boy who’s a good cook and enjoys housework. Unfortunately for him, he’s tall and has a scary-looking face which leads people to think he’s intimidating and label him a delinquent. Taiga Aisaka might look a little like a tiny, fragile doll, but she has one hell of a temper and is known around school as the “Palm-top Tiger.”
When Taiga moves into the apartment complex next door to him, Ryuji’s life is changed forever. The two cross paths and soon learn each other’s secrets: Ryuji has a crush on Minori Kushieda, Taiga’s best friend; Taiga has a crush on their student council’s vice president, Yusaku Kitamura, who just so happens to be Ryuji’s best friend.
Together, they set out on a quest and form an alliance to help one another win over their crushes! What ensues is a comedic navigation of feelings with an endearing cast that’s full of unpredictability and a masterful soundtrack. Sometimes it’s more of a comedy, sometimes it’s more of a romance, and sometimes the focus is more on family, but from start to finish, it grips you.
The characters we love
So what is it that first grabs the attention of my poor, unsuspecting friends and family when I first sit them down, knowing full well no one is moving for another eight hours?
Ryuji is a sweet boy who’s largely misunderstood by his classmates, but also takes on chores and other duties because he has to. Taiga’s a spitfire of a person, but one who’s seen a lot of hurt in her life, too. They feel like people, complete with their own weaknesses and insecurities caused by fears, traumas and other past experiences. They struggle, do what they can to survive, try to be better people and live easier lives.
Sometimes their struggles play out, but sometimes they don’t. Either way, they learn from their experiences, try to do better, and approach problems differently the next time.
Everyone is flawed in Toradora!…even the grown-ups
Each character is a wonderfully complex individual who’s a lot like, well, all of us. Everyone’s just muddling through, trying their best, making mistakes both big and small.
But this isn’t the sort of fare you might’ve seen before in anime. While our cast might be filled with high schoolers, teenage hormones and generic misunderstandings aren’t what drive the story forward. Instead, every character has deep-rooted, well-explored reasons for their actions.
Taiga is callous and rough, pushing people away because it’s safer than once again risking the deep hurt she’s experienced in the past. And it isn’t just the teenagers like Taiga whom we see struggle.
The adults are all struggling and making mistakes, just like their kids. Some do what they think is best for their children, not realizing they’re hurting them in the process. Others are selfish, only thinking of themselves.
Yasuko, Ryuji’s mother, does whatever she can to support her son as a young single mother, but when things get hard she has the habit of running away to start all over rather than confront or deal with issues healthily. Taiga’s father is selfish, drifting in and out of his daughter’s life as it’s convenient for him, trying to replace parenting and being physically there for his child with money and objects.
No one ever stops growing, changing and learning. All too often adults are just muddling through as well. Toradora! makes that abundantly clear. Some adults try harder—or change. Others are blind to their actions and don’t change at all. Both affect our main characters, changing their lives and forming their viewpoints of the world.
Growing up romantically and emotionally
Sure, the characters are great, but so are the characters in lots of other anime. So why is Toradora! touted as such a masterpiece? Why is everyone I’ve showed it to so utterly hooked on the series from the first episode? Is it the characters themselves?
Well, sort of. It’s because we watch Ryuji and Taiga grow up. What starts out as a simple comedy of two high schoolers trying to get their crushes’ attention turns into something much bigger.
Right from the get-go, we (along with much of the cast) know that Ryuji and Taiga are perfect for one another. But they can’t see that for themselves. Instead, they’re both chasing their ideal person. And they both believe that their crush is the best person for them, but truly just loves the idea of them.
Ryuji believes that Minori’s happy-go-lucky attitude and way of always looking at the bright side of things will help make him happier. Taiga believes that Kitamura will help break her out of her shell, soften her personality a little bit and learn how to let someone be kind to her. He’s also the first person that’s kind and open with her, despite her reputation.
In their eyes, their crushes are perfect. But neither of our protagonists really know nor understand their crush. They don’t see that what they’re really searching for isn’t there. Minori works harder than anyone else in the series and has a very serious side that Ryuji doesn’t see or imagine until well into the show. And while Kitamura is happy to be friends with Taiga, there’s always something he just doesn’t understand about her.
What you want vs. what you need
That’s what this story is really about.
By the end of Toradora!, Taiga and Ryuji aren’t looking for schoolyard crushes, they’re looking for love, even if they can’t see or name that at first or don’t really understand what it is. What they want is someone who completes them, who helps them be a better version of themselves while at the same time helping the other one be the best version they can be.
Growing up is hard. Navigating crushes and love isn’t any easier. It takes time to realize that they aren’t looking for a person who, in their eyes, is perfect. They’re looking for the person who is perfect for them instead.
And look, Taiga and Ryuji certainly aren’t perfect. All of their problems and insecurities aren’t gone by the end of the series. But they’ve grown, learned, and are trying their best. Just like all of us.