I love romcom anime. Kaguya-sama and Horimiya rank among my favorite manga of all time, and I even came around on Oregairu when it recovered from a disappointing first season. This is just a genre that anime performs particularly well in. The long-form nature of the medium means that it isn’t as suffocating as its western film counterparts, and not subject to the same by-the-numbers plot.
Oh, there’s plenty of tropes, premises, and tired stories that they share in common, but there’s a lot more to pick from. I could guess a dozen storylines that your average romcom anime will use, but in an American live-action movie, I can name every plot beat in order and how they’ll be resolved. As such, I’m always going to lean towards the anime equivalent, and today I’ll be looking at what’s considered the king of anime romcoms, Toradora.
Based on the light novel series by Yuyuko Takemiya and adapted into an anime in 2008 by J.C. Staff, it’s one of the most influential romcoms in recent memory. It didn’t invest the genre conventions we see today, but solidified many of them as mainstays and elevated them to iconic status. But the question we always face with these genre classics is if they live up to the hype. Has enough good romcom anime been made that we no longer need it? Today, I’m here to find out if Toradora deserves to be a classic.
Toradora is set in a high school because this is an anime, what did you expect? It follows a group of five “friends”, though I use the term loosely and will elaborate on later. Ryuji is a kind boy with a knack for homemaking, but puts everyone off with his scary face and intimidating demeanor. Taiga is the mold for every tsundere you’ve seen in the past decade, and condensed into a very small body, which means her classmates don’t take her as seriously as her practice sword toting self would like.
Taiga has a crush on Ryuji’s best friend, Yusaku, and Ryuji has a crush on Taiga’s best friend, Minori, which they both discover as soon as they realize they live next door to each other. They make a deal to help the other win the affections of their crush, and Ryuji’s going to make sure Taiga stops eating takeout for every meal. It’s a cliché premise that only feels more cliché because we’ve had so many more anime that were inspired by Toradora, so for now I’ll leave it be.
Yusaku is a straight-laced student council vice president, and Minori is jolly and a bit air-headed, your typical genki girl, but she’s more perceptive than she lets on. The setup seems bizarre at first, that Taiga and Ryuji would work together and be friends in spite of their clashing personalities, or that they’d each fall for someone so starkly different from themselves. However, opposites attract, and you get an idea of what Taiga and Ryuji see in their prospective partners, especially after Yusaku and Minori get smaller arcs dedicated to their characterization.
The group is rounded out by a new member, which prompted me to say “friend” in quotation marks. The transfer student, Ami, is a pretty blatant antagonist from her introduction, and that never really goes away. She plays as sweet and meek, though this is a front for her true nature, which is cruel and capricious. Her arc is focused on dropping this façade, which is admittedly much more interesting than a stuck-up mean girl learning to be nice and value friendship, but the fact that she’s never friends with anyone at any point is kind of jarring.
She’s billed as part of the main group from the openings, but she never gets along with anyone, and kind of just continues behaving like a petty villain or bully would. Her relationship is just as unpleasant as it has been the whole runtime. It’s just kind of baffling, especially since Taiga fills the role of the off-putting one, and she actually has a genuine relationship with the others that’s founded in mutual understanding.
Toradora succeeds where every slice of life needs to; its main cast is full of likable characters who have competently written chemistry with one another. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is the minimum bar to pass. With the exception of Ami, every interaction is almost certainly going to be charming.
It has a solid sense of humor, even if it leans pretty hard onto the slapstick of a tsundere inflicting violence on people. The characters have a nice way of bouncing off one another, and the four leads are distinct but complementary. That means Toradora can attempt many standard slice of life scenarios, but they all feel fresh with the bonus of their character comedy. Visually, the series is solid, but its design and animation style is tailor fit to its zany sense of humor. The character designs are simple, they communicate the intended tone particularly well.
The series writing indulges in many of the trappings that slice of life and romcoms fall prey to, especially in this era, but the quality of the writing often breaks out unexpectedly. Moments like when Yusaku has a breakdown, or over summer break when Ryuji actually gets to talking to Minori and learning about her as a person. Toradora’s best moments come when it stops and takes the time to develop its characters.
I mostly criticize Ami’s involvement, as she never fully integrates properly with the rest of the cast, but she also receives the most characterization. She’s the only character to receive a full arc as she learns to drop her persona, and to be honest with herself and others. If they had spent much more of the runtime rounding out the cast, my opinion of the show would be much more positive.
I don’t have a lot of complaints with the cast of Toradora, but that isn’t to say none at all. We get a good idea of why Taiga and Ryuji wind up liking each other, but Taiga often goes way too hard in the stereotype of the tsundere who beats people up. It’s a tired trope, and it wasn’t funny even if it was fresher when this came out. You just have no idea why anyone would willingly be in the same room as her, much less be her friend or boyfriend.
Taiga breaks into Ryuji’s house to commit theft, is a slob of titanic proportions, and physically and verbally assaults most people she knows. That would get most people arrested, but here she’s a fan-favorite because, you know, uwu cute loli pls step on me. It’s frustrating more than anything, especially because when you look at more recent examples of tsunderes, you can find a few that aren’t violent criminals.
I mentioned that the character designs are simple, and while that works for the style of comedy, it falters when it comes to being visually appealing. The guys get a poor hand especially, as Ryuji and Yusaku are some of the blandest lead character designs I’ve ever seen in a popular anime. Don’t even get me started on the side characters, as they’re blandly drawn and written across the board.
Then we run into a problem that afflicts so many slice of life series; it’s much too long. A 25 episode run is just too long for this kind of story, and I can understand that you want to put stories that the fans love into your anime adaptations, but it just bloats the runtime unbearably.
Horimiya received a lot of backlash for cutting down or straight-up cutting most of the 122 chapters it adapted into 13 episodes, but that level of restraint is praise-worthy. They didn’t fluff the story just to appease fans, they selected the chapters that would suit the streamlined narrative. Toradora is loaded with baggage; they might not have been able to fit it into just 12 episodes, but more series need to acknowledge you don’t need to conform to one or the other.
If I had to give you a simple yes or no, I would be forced to say that Toradora doesn’t deserve to be a classic. This series isn’t really intended to put down the subjects, but evaluate if they are still as groundbreaking and good as when they first aired. With this many quality romcoms on the market, there’s not much of a reason to watch it unless you’re interested in exploring the classics.
As it stands now, Toradora is a perfectly serviceable series with endearing characters and plenty of charming moments. However, even only 13 years ago, it was a lot easier for a middling story to stand out. Don’t take this as a slight against Toradora; I enjoy the series for what it is, and I’d happily recommend it to someone if they enjoy modern romantic comedies like The Quintessential Quintuplets or Kaguya. Toradora was an excellent stepping stone to the consistent high level of quality we see now.
I can look back at Toradora and see it as a product of the time that it was written in. A must-watch for fans of romcoms and those interesting in filling out their backlog with the long history of anime, but optional for most other people. I’m just glad I got to do one of these essays on something other than another mecha anime.