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Sundome Finale Comments

My preordered copy of the final volume of Sundome arrived in the mail the day before yesterday, and despite a great deal of hesitation—I knew it was going to be depressing—I of course couldn’t resist reading it the moment I walked in the door. Bottom line is that while it loses just a bit of its steam toward the end, and the conclusion is somewhat disappointing for its lack of detail, it’s certainly consistent in what it is and what it’s saying right up to the last page, there’s a heck of a final full-team adventure, and for something that’s outright porn by almost any standard, emotionally powerful stuff. Certainly, on the whole, one of the more intriguing and disturbingly alluring series I’ve ever read.

I’m going to cut loose with the spoilers for the rest of this, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want to blow any surprises, just stop here.

Where Sundome was going was a little uncertain for most of the series—somewhere dark for sure, but just where wasn’t specific. Later it became pretty clear that the destination was Sahana’s death from her illness, and indeed that’s exactly where it ends. Interestingly, it never really does open up as to what all is going on around her; we never do find out who exactly the older man is (other than that he’s her doctor, which you could’ve guessed relatively early), or what specifically happened to her family (other than that they’re dead, which was implied early, and that she was apparently in an orphanage previously), or get any specific comments from her personally (past what she said to her fish and “I’m not taking you with me”) about what’s really going on in her head with her “plan” for everything.

This is both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, there’s never any exposition or dramatic reveals; we only know the most important little bits—that Sahana has a powerful bond with Aiba, but has no intention of opening up to him about her past or family. One could assume it’s too painful for her to think about, or perhaps it’s just that she wants Aiba to have no connection to her past at all, given their… unusual relationship, and that she’s not trying to hold him back, but to make him strong in her place. (I’m assuming here that the people we saw from the train were at the orphanage she was in; nothing else makes sense in context.)

On the minus side, after so many hints dropped and so many musings in Aiba’s head about what’s going on with Sahana and her past, I really wanted to know a little more about the backstory—even if he never got it, I wanted at least a bit in the way of specifics about just what kind of catastrophic tragedy put her where she is at the beginning of the story. (And actually, since he ends up working for the mysterious doctor, Aiba presumably does find out at least some of that eventually.) Most disappointing to me was that she never explained what she had originally meant when she asked Aiba to take her to the seaside; while it became a final adventure in the last moments of her life culminating the story, it wasn’t clear if she had originally intended him to take her ashes to be buried there, to take her to visit the orphanage, or something else. I’m assuming the former, but had that been stated explicitly it would have tied the final story together with more than just the implication that what had been a tragic request about death became an affirming quest about life.

Points, certainly, for not going through the expected series of dramatic reveals or info-dump at the end, though. The unwavering focus on the tiny world of the Roman Club and the core emotional bond between Sahana and Aiba was an interesting way to approach the whole story, and certainly left the entire thing with an air of mystery and unease.

Interestingly, the final volume does absolutely everything it can to make a story about an obsessed and devoted kid trying to take a dying 15-year-old-girl on one final adventure uplifting and upbeat. Which, frankly, doesn’t help that much—it’s still depressing, though certainly affecting if you’ve gotten caught up in the characters. And it’s no secret to anyone in the club by the end that she’s dying, and its quite satisfying in how the story eventually reveals that they all “get it” without going into any details or unnecessarily drawn-out drama—there are no big weepy scenes, no screaming, just commitment, teamwork, and Aiba’s increasingly unhinged devotion.

There are even some subtly powerful moments, top among them a shot of Sahana so weak she can barely move, lying in an ICU clean room, but having put her clothes on in preparation for Aiba coming to break her out for their final trip—emaciated and with her face not visible, capturing her isolation and weakness, yet showing her complete faith that he will come for her. There are a number of other poignant moments digging deeper into her, her way of thinking, and what the two of them mean to each other, but that particular image was the one that stuck with me. It also follows through with her already increasingly bony body, which was unsettlingly fragile even at the start—she isn’t just dying, she looks like it. That she can barely stand, yet has complete control over Aiba, is potent stuff.

Speaking of getting farther into Sahana’s head, there was one very important thing about her relationship with Aiba that I realized abruptly during the final volume that I was surprised I didn’t earlier; I’m not sure if this is because I’m dense, or if we weren’t supposed to get that until the end. It had already been established in book 7 what she was doing; being an ephemeral nobody herself—her parents were dead, she had no relatives, no friends, and no future—she was taking a nobody and building him from a weak child into somebody—a man with the strength and commitment to do anything. And, further, a person onto which she had indelibly imprinted her existence—someone through whom her influence would live on after she was dead and, to all the rest of the world, vanished. Aiba was, in essence, a statement (explicitly at the end of both of the final two books, and reiterated by the doctor)—”I existed.”

But what I hadn’t understood was why, earlier on, she established so clearly that she didn’t belong to him, only the other way around. At first I took this to be a sort of generic statement of domination, but the lack of commitment seemed weird given how obvious and powerful her love for him is by the end. Of course, it actually makes complete sense—she knew she was dying, so she would not commit to giving him something she could not. He was not allowed to “own” her, because he couldn’t—she wouldn’t be there for much longer, and he needed to live on after she was gone. So it was a combination of kindness to him and preparation for the inevitable—impressively nuanced stuff, and actually quite affecting when you think about it (a sentiment that may come from having a wife much older than I am who I will almost certainly watch die some day with much of my own life left). She even worked in the threat—temptation, really—of taking him with her, but then let go, telling him that he was not allowed to follow her, even if he wanted to. In essence, “I own you, and I will let you go when the time comes, but I do not belong to you, so you cannot stop me from leaving you behind.”

Maybe this was obvious to other people, of course—I’ve been known to miss really blunt things on occasion. It didn’t, so far as I could interpret, explain the whole “no sex” thing; maybe just an extension of the same possession issue, but there was the hint of something else there that I, at least, failed to pick up on.

I’ll close by commenting that the last issue does contain the only time that the sexual content seemed to get in the way of the emotional story rather than enhance it. While I can completely understand why Okada decided to put some sexual content into the final scene—it would have seemed out of character if he hadn’t—it just felt like the relative violence of it clashed with the otherwise beautiful imagery of stars, darkness, waves, and the two of them completely alone together. Perhaps that was the point, and it certainly didn’t ruin anything, but I fet like it didn’t quite mesh with everything else up to that point—the bit earlier that got him arrested in the ICU was plenty to get roughly the same point across (of him belonging to her and desiring her completely no matter what condition she was in). It wasn’t even that it seemed to be graphic sexual content for the sake of it—if anything it was restrained compared to a lot of other parts.

That was still a very minor blemish on an otherwise uniformly gripping, powerfully sexy, occasionally hilarious, darkly emotional, and all-around intriguing series. The sort of genre-warping thing you just plain don’t see pulled off very often, and almost never so well. I’m now curious to see what Okada is working on next, and if he can pull off something that unusual again.

Hentai That Isn’t

I was well aware I would regret it when I said that it’d be hard to top Kanokon for pushing the envelope between a dirty TV show and outright hentai. I do wish it had taken a little longer before I noticed KissxSis (more readably and accurately written Kiss×Sis, if you can figure out how to type a multiplication sign), though. In my defense, it’s not quite the same thing—Kiss×Sis is full-on, unequivocal adults-only from more or less the first scene; it just coincidentally (at least in comic form) develops a little personality down the line.

This got me thinking about things that dance around that line, and one particular manga series that defies expectations in the process. Some categories, because I love creating arbitrary categories:

Porn Plus

Kiss×Sis is simple: it started out as a light hentai manga series (no excuses—it’s certainly not full-on hardcore, but it’s hentai) with almost nothing past the dirty situations. Being less about gynecology and more about desire (it’s make-out porn, so to speak), you don’t technically see much, and the shenanigans get cut off before they get too far out of hand. They also get cut off well after the point at which it’s left risque behind and crossed into the territory of softcore H.

Then, after the protagonist graduates from junior high into high school, the manga actually gets less dirty. On one hand, the characters are pretty amusing, so it’s nice to see them given a little personality. On the other, it’s an awkward transition—after having gone more or less all the way already, suddenly toning down the lascivious come-ons seems silly, and the excuses for cutting things off exceedingly weak. There are also a trio of secondary love-interests/harem-bait added, which removes the one mildly unusual thing about Kiss×Sis—the fact that it was less a harem and more a willing tag-team—and replaces it with pointless harem situations and improbable excuses.

Essentially it evolves from passably erotic softcore twin-sister H into a generic harem comedy with the safety off.

This category, I’ve dubbed porn plus, as in “porn that eventually evolved a plot or interesting characters.” Adam Warren’s Empowered is squarely in this category (and, unlike Kiss×Sis, is a great series—a manga-style classic superhero parody comic series with a lot of personality once it evolves past a string of bondage jokes).

Fetish-Action

The action-centric variant of the same thing.  Seikon no Qwaser, for example—it may have a high budget, nice art, stylish action, a good voice cast (how does someone with as much talent as Ayako Kawasumi keep ending up in crap like this?), and a rocking end theme, but it’s porn. Softcore, but porn—the point of it is the violent, misogynistic breast fetish, and everything else is just designed to support that and broaden the market appeal. Ikki Tousen is another one in this category.

Hardcore Transplant Victims

These are those occasional oddball things that are a decent movie/show with raging hardcore porn spliced in for no good reason. Kite tops the list, and Mystery of the Necronomicon is another. Edit the porn out of either and they’re both at least reasonably entertaining, nor would you know anything was missing.

Sundome

Now Sundome, this weird little series is a different beast, and almost in a class by itself—porn with integrated plot that isn’t just window-dressing.

I’ll confess it was the wickedly alluring cover that grabbed my attention, but it’s the content—and not just the dirty stuff—that held it. 10% lowbrow school comedy, 20% budding femdom romance, 30% dark coming-of-age psychodrama, and 40% fetish porn, it’s like the bastard child of a hentai show, Kimagure Orange Road, and The Ping Pong Club, composed of the best parts of all three.

This series is interesting because it’s the sort of thing you’re not likely to ever see animated (at least not properly); it’s unquestionably full-on adults-only stuff, so it’s never going to get sold outside that genre, yet there’s far too much characterization and plot to sell alongside simple skin flicks.

What’s really interesting about it, and where it differs from both Kiss×Sis—which it sounds similar to—and the above-mentioned Kite genre, is that the erotic content and the emotional drama are inextricably intertwined. The porn is the drama, and the story would not have the same depth or character without it.

It’s a story about power, control, and treading the line between devotion and obsession, in which the erotic content is an integral part of how the charaacters relate—it’s who these people are. Further, the fetishes aren’t just there “because”; the protagonist falls into them naturally, so you can see how something goes from a coincidence, to a turn-on, to an unnatural (and possibly unhealthy) focus of his attention.

What’s interesting about Aiba is that his behavior borders on disturbed, yet at the same time his increasing devotion to Sahana actually makes him a better person—he gradually becomes stronger, more confident, and more mature, both physically and mentally. Sahana, for her part, has a casual dark side that makes it believable that Aiba could get pulled farther and farther down the proverbial rabbit hole, as she in turn sees how far she can push him and shape who he is. She’s also a marvel of a character for her ability to go from sweet to flat-out creepy depending on mood and situation, sometimes in the space of a single page. Not to mention the little hints of emotional weakness that show she is, indeed, human inside.

From the standpoint of erotica, Sundome is noteworthy for “showing” almost nothing, having no sex at all in the clinical sense, and only revealing the most fleeting bits of nudity, yet being incredibly explicit and flat-out filthy—not to mention wickedly sexy. It succeeds at this in part through a refined sense of chiralism. (That’s a fun Japanese word describing the sexiness of a fleeting glimpse—the onomatopoeia chira—as a form of erotica.) Taking this beyond the average panty shot, Sundome works with brief glimpses or shapes caught through clothing to build sensuality and tension.

That’s where Sahana is unique as a character; she’s hyper-aware of sexuality and how she appears to Aiba, so every casual gesture and sly look is calculated and intentional. It’s manipulative, but in an up-front way—she subtly leads Aiba on, then tells him what he’s thinking and challenges him to admit to it and follow through. And, as a result of her thus-far-unexplained constraint on their relationship—no sex, ever—the follow-through is more willing self-denial than the stuff you’d expect in a normal hentai story. At the same time she uses a similar sort of non-sexual emotional manipulation to challenge Aiba to become more of a man.

The art is near-perfect in this aspect, in part for subtle eye-catching detail, but as much for how Sahana looks—she is sickly and physically fragile, something driven home by the occasional glimpses of her waifish, unsettlingly bony frame. The dichotomy between her frail body and the emotional power she holds over Aiba is memorable, and indeed it’s what the whole core of the series is built on—someone weak controlling someone stronger. In fact, as the next-to-last volume confirms oh-so-casually, making someone else stronger, yet completely subservient to her.

That reveal is the other thing Sundome does spectacularly well: Slip in a sentence that, without saying anything specific, brings major ongoing aspects of the story into sudden focus. In volume six, it was the line “You may not.”—with that, what the whole relationship, and Aiba himself, meant to Sahana snapped into focus. In volume seven, an offhanded comment to her fish hints at exactly what she’s been doing the whole time, and where it’s all headed.

Nowhere happy, of course; the sense of impending doom starts out with casual bits of foreshadowing through the narration and builds to an oppressive sense that something terribly wrong is hiding behind the scenes and will, soon enough, make itself inescapably known. There are only fleeting hints of this early on, but by halfway through the unsettling shadow surrounding Sahana is already strong, and by the end the dark pall is so strong even the erotic content is overshadowed by it. I find it particularly interesting that a series with a playfully dirty dark side at the beginning evolves into a relatively heavy drama while maintaining a strong sense of continuity, and that the characters are strong enough that you care what happens to them. More, in fact, than I ended up caring about the erotic content by the end. I suppose you could say you start reading for the porn then keep reading to find out where the story is going.

It also maintains its sense of humor, at least a bit, and cleverly adds the relationship of a couple of secondary characters to provide a happy romantic end in the next-to-last volume so the entire thing isn’t an overwhelming downer. Even more interesting, those other characters don’t do anything at all dirty—their complete celibacy is a significant plot point. It shows clearly that the erotic content isn’t why the characters exist—the author is perfectly willing to tell parts of the story without resorting to anything unreasonably dirty.

The only other series I can think of off hand that is even close to Sundome in category is Ghost Talker’s Daydream; it’s really more of a seinen-flavored josei drama in which a job as a dominatrix is a part of the character’s life, but a few sections of the manga are explicit enough, and with enough of a focus on the eroticism rather than just necessary detail, to qualify as adults-only (rather than just “R-rated”). You wouldn’t, however, call it outright porn, so it’s not quite the same.

Dirty Comedy

And, to close, there’s this category, which is completely different from the rest even if looks similar—stuff that’s very dirty, but in reality is not porn at all. Sakura Diaries is one example, and the more recent B-gata H-kei surprised me by being another—both are quite explicit with the dirty jokes, but in the end the point is that they’re jokes, not that they’re dirty. That is to say that they’re comedy first, dirty second (or, in the case of Sakura Diaries, comedy/substantive character drama first).

Anime That Gets Under Your Skin

It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether or not you liked something you just finished watching. Since I write anime reviews, I also put some effort into figuring out why I felt the way I did. Aside from something more interesting to say than “thumbs-up,” I think it’s important because I want to be able to make a distinction, as much as I can, between things that I connected with on a narrow, personal level because I relate to the material in some way, and things that I just liked because they’re good. Or, alternately, things that grabbed me in some way but I did not necessarily like, perhaps for some personal reason despite objective quality.

Since I’ve decided to toss stuff about process into this blog, I thought I’d put together a few posts based on thoughts knocking around in my head about the different, specific ways in which anime works for me (or doesn’t).

So, to start with: You know that feeling when you finish watching something and it just won’t let you go?

Some anime quite literally keeps me up at night after I watch it, because my brain just won’t leave it alone—those are the shows that I know have something special about them, be it good or bad. That kind of gut-level reaction is interesting to me, and it’s one of the ways I separate simple entertainment from things with more to them—my subconscious doesn’t care that much about fluff.

On account of a couple of things I watched recently I’ve been thinking about those rare cases that it goes a step farther—anime where something hits me on a deeper level. Things that get under my skin in a visceral way, things that I feel for days after I’m done watching them.

They’re not always the things I enjoyed the most, and the emotional reaction is as often bad as good, but I find it intriguing to try and figure out why, exactly, those few things affect me that way. Following are some examples, from which I picked out something of a pattern in how my psyche works. These are all pretty large spoilers for the shows in question, so beware if you’re averse to those and haven’t seen one. It’s also extensive, navel-gazing self-analysis—you’ve been warned

Shadow Star Narutaru

This show has some stuff in the closing episodes that is deeply disturbing, and I found myself being… unsettled by it for quite a while after it was over. Now, in this case, the show has major objective quality issues (bargain-basement animation budget, pacing similar to watching grass grow, stops halfway through, and the author probably has bigger issues than Amano). I didn’t like it all that much, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it (not that you were supposed to). So this was a show that affected me—I expect in the way it was intended to (if you weren’t supposed to be skeeved out by it, I have no idea what the intended effect was)—but wasn’t in any way a pleasant experience.

The why is relatively obvious—you have sympathetic, fragile characters who have horrible things happen to them, and one of them, instead of pulling through, snaps and does even more horrible things to other people. It’s particularly unsettling because most of the bad things—abusive parents and extreme bullying—can and do happen in real life all too often. Even more so because the Carrie reenactment is the sort of revenge fantasy a lot of otherwise decent people harbor, but (thankfully) lack either the will or ability to carry out.

In particular, I think the thing that pushed it past just unsettling and into something disturbing to me on a deeper level was the combination of the reality of the horror and the prospect of salvation being so close, but failing to materialize.

So from an objective standpoint, my reaction means the show was quite successful at what it set out to do, but whether that’s a good thing is a matter of taste. Overall, though, this one would be disturbing to just about anyone with some humanity, so it’s not as interesting in terms of self-analysis.

Spice And Wolf

This show got to me in the good way. In particular, the second season’s first-story-arc dramatic break after Holo’s freak-out had me crawling in my skin wanting to know not just how it was going to play out, but terrified that they were going to screw up a series I so much adored. Which didn’t happen, leading to my reaction at the end of the season’s low-key final moments—what happens next?!

So in that case the melancholy that overtook me after the end of the season was related just a bit to the somewhat ambiguous end, but mostly to really loving the story and characters, both of which had plenty left to do. The question was why I liked it that much—was it a Tokyo Godfathers or Baccano! thing (meaning, I love it because it’s awesome), or was it more personal? In this case, I had to admit a lot of it was personal, because for whatever reason, I simply cannot get enough of Holo and Lawrence, and I do so love improbable romance (because that’s the story of my life). Best I can figure, their interactions remind me of an idealized version of myself and my wife (the demure-to-everybody-else, sharp and sarcastic to me part, with occasional bouts of condescension and childishness).

Therefore, in this case, while I could say with some confidence that it’s a wonderful series riding entirely on those two characters, it’s not going to connect with most people as strongly as it did with me. More a case of straight fanboyish-ness—I want more!

(It’s comforting that, even if a third season never gets greenlighted, the novels are getting translated, so I can find out one way or another. Note, also, that I was tempted to use “moar” above, but then I’d have had to cut my own pinky off in shame.)

Sundome

This one is manga, and not of the sort I usually talk about here (I do intend to write up a quick review at some point), but I thought I’d throw it in because the last couple of volumes have left me with a lingering feeling of gloom. In this case the reason is entirely obvious: Few things I’ve read have had such an overwhelming sense of impending—yet nonspecific—doom. Doom, further, of the tragic, real-world type. You don’t know what’s about to go wrong, but you know it’s going to be very, very sad, and it’s getting ever closer (vol. 8 is the final one, so presumably it’s just about here).

The reason that the foreshadowing impacted me so strongly, of course, is because I really got into the characters. Given the subject matter, I probably wouldn’t give specifics even if I did know what about them grabbed me, but (fortunately?) I don’t have any idea. I certainly don’t associate with anybody, I’m just unusually interested in what happens to them.

A factor, I’m guessing, is the confident emotional strength in the face of physical fragility and, though we don’t know what specifically, some very major past tragedy—again, the theme of overcoming things.

Persona: Trinity Soul

My reaction to this one surprised me quite a bit. The plot wasn’t the reason—that was plenty unsatisfying, but didn’t do more than disappoint me. Instead, I found myself actually feeling depressed for quite some time after Morimoto dies late in the series. Now, her death was hardly a surprise—she was utterly doomed from the start. (Though I admit she was out-doomed by Ryo—if you thought the competent older guy who keeps stepping in to thwart the villains was going to make it through the series you probably thought Dumbledore was going to survive, too.) It was, however, deeply yet understatedly tragic; rather than sacrificing herself, which is your normal heartstring-tugger, she had already made it, in terms of working out her demons—twice. She had already come out the other side, so to speak, only to have fate quietly take away the life she’d won.

Further, the way the series handles it is exquisite. Kayano’s reaction and instruction to Shin—”There’s no time to explain why, just find her and be with her.”—exchange weepy melodrama for a practical response and a touching understanding of what, in someone’s last moments, is most important. To complete the image, it adds her return to her “childhood” safe place for a twist of innocence and the long, quiet shot of the falling snow not melting on her skin next to Shin’s warm body to drive the point home with no screaming or orchestra necessary. It even knows to cut away at the moment disbelieving realization crosses Shin’s face, not after, like most things, which cut on the stock pan to the sky while the surviving character emotes loudly. Powerful stuff. But then, since the entire series was fundamentally about loss and grieving, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it knew how to present it in an affecting way.

Persona DVD 3 Cover

This looks like a sweet image until you see the episode, at which point it becomes one of the most cruelly tragic box covers ever.

All that came together to hit me on a more visceral level than I was expecting. In this case the tragic presentation itself was only part of it; I also liked the character a lot. Can’t say I’m sure why; I expect the combination of her being quiet and reserved, rather than as fragile as she looked at first, and her twice-over surmounting of significant inner demons. (Semi-literally—after the addiction episode, I commented to a friend who hadn’t seen that far yet that she had problems, which turned out to be minor compared to her actual problems.) All helped by uncommonly attractive character design. Toss in a touch of unlikely romance given her “condition” to complete the reasons it made me sad to see her die.

Now, in this case, because of the sort of series Persona is, my reaction was unpleasant but not negative, and it spoke well of the emotional effectiveness, but in analyzing the show I did need to factor in that my personal attachment to that character (and several others, but that was the one that “stuck”) wasn’t going to be anything like a universal for other people. The dramatic presentation, however, is objectively almost perfect so far as you can say anything objective about art.

Toradora

This is a series I did not think was going to have that much of an effect on me (heck, any effect on me—I’d written it off based on superficial appearance), and it’s what got me started on this introspective analysis. See, for a full week after I watched the end I could not get the damn thing out of my gut, and, even more maddeningly, I couldn’t figure out why. Heck, I’m not even sure how much of my reaction was positive or negative, which is kind of ridiculous. Normally it’d be bad enough to be bugged that severely by something you can’t put your finger on, but I can’t very well write a review and close my mental file on the  show if I can’t even figure out why or how much I liked it, much less why it drove me crazy for days.

So I kept kicking theories around in my head.

Part of my reaction was positive—the substantive romance in the final episode was far more than I was expecting from the series. Further, I liked the way it smoothly added a romantic, physical component to what had been an entirely practical relationship up to that point. I always like it when a series takes a superficially shallow character like Aisaka (or Ryuuji, or his mom, or Minori), and then lets on that there’s more to them than that, even more so when something takes relatively asexual characters (again, Aisaka and Ryuuji) and lets you know that, actually, they are real people with physical desires. In Aisaka’s case, taking her from an angry hothead to something much more functional, and then adding a (lightly) sexual component to her and Ryuuji’s “dry” relationship (not to mention doing a proper onscreen kiss, something so rare in anime) was unexpectedly satisfying for the romantic in me. (Aside: yes, I know anime fans will sexualize anything; I’m talking about their personalities and presentation, Rule 34 aside.)

But that wasn’t most of what was gnawing at my subconscious for a week.

A big factor was a significant personal connection to the situation that somehow didn’t even register until I really thought about it—I do happen to be married to a very short Japanese girl with an ornery streak and a generally sappari way of relating to people (a good Japanese word—used for food it means something like “clean finish” or “light”; with people it is the opposite of clingy). Moreover, I made similarly major life commitments at a similar age, and in a similarly logical, “this just works” manner,  so there was the angle of “Hey, for once a romantic profession that relates to my life experience!” (It even so happens that, in my case due to circumstances and immigration law, I was mostly separated from my wife-to-be for two years between the making of commitments and married life proper.)

So, although it took me a while to realize it, part of what was “bugging me” was a powerful sense of nostalgia; that would be positive, but in a very personal way that only applies to me.

The other factor seems to be a combination of the last-episode separation and where it ends. From a purely narrative perspective, the end makes complete sense, and it would have taken serious contortions to get it to fit together any other way without completely jettisoning Aisaka’s parents from the equation.

As a result, I didn’t immediately realize that it was missing something substantial.

See, we had been personally introduced to her dad at length and her mom briefly (I really liked that Aisaka had previously claimed she and her mom got along great, which was suspect but the series didn’t even hint was a lie until the very end when her mom shows up in person). Further, her abysmal parenting was the core of her entire character, and overcoming it what half the series was about. So, while I can understand the decision to show that she’s developed to the point she’s ready to take an active role in working things out, then hand-wave past the actual messy stuff offscreen in an effective epilogue, that was a bit unfair—we already knew all the players, so I feel some entitlement to details on how, exactly, they work things out. If Aisaka’s parents had been offscreen concepts, it’d have been different, but they most definitely weren’t, and we did get to see Ryuuji and his mom get their issues worked out onscreen.

I’m also not quite sure how much sense Aisaka’s running off to clean up her childhood before moving on as an adult makes within her character. Again, from a narrative standpoint, it was important to have her stand up on her own while trusting Ryuuji to wait for her, but I’m not positive it aligned with where she’d developed to as a character by that point.

I’m pretty sure that dissatisfaction is a major component of my nebulous… thing about the end, but I think the bigger part is that after all it had done to develop and advance the characters, it owed us a little more about what they were going to do with their lives. Had it been about childhood promises and whatnot, the “what they do after graduation” epilogue is unnecessary. In this case, however, it was about making lifelong commitments, so at bare minimum I think we were owed some info about what Ryuuji planned to do (college? straight to work? house husband?), not to mention what happened to Ami and Minori post-dustup. Minori, in particular, seemed a jettisoned plot thread—most of the second season was about her cracking around the edges, but then (unlike all four of the others) they never did tell us exactly what makes her tick, or what she’s going to do with life. Allowing herself to cry once is not sufficient—there was clearly way more going on than that (some of it apparently bad) and after that many episodes hinting at it leaving the details out is bad form.

I also really wanted to see at least a little of how Aisaka and Ryuuji run their lives once they’ve made their big decision. Since their relationship was already pretty domestic, it would only have taken a bit of screen time to show in what subtle ways their day-to-day life changed once they added a romantic component.

Really, the only character that did get completely addressed was, somewhat ironically, Kitamura, who did his emotional thing earlier; that gave us enough of a picture to know where he was going from the brief epilogue note about going to America (which I really appreciated). The fact that some of the video game adaptations, at minimum, offer an epilogue with the main couple having children shows that I’m not the only one who thought closure of that sort was necessary.

So I’m thinking that in addition to romantic nostalgia, my feeling was a general dissatisfaction with what was omitted from the end in order to wrap up the narrative in a tidy fashion. Since it would have been difficult to do otherwise, I can’t exactly blame the series for most of this; rather, I feel like I want a sequel OAV or TV season along the lines of New KOR—something that tells us more about where things end up. Come to think of it, given the parallels between KOR and Toradora, this isn’t entirely surprising, as that series really wasn’t complete until New KOR, even though it superficially looked like it (and it also continued into their adult lives in the novels).

I wonder if the Toradora light novels did more with Minori and Ami, and/or give some more details about life-after-school.

In Closing

There was an obvious pattern I noticed in these examples; the things that really got under my skin all featured characters I got attached to in one way or another, and all related in some way to either people confronting and overcoming major personal issues, unlikely romances, or both. The former is no surprise—apart from hard sci-fi or action, most things we watch are really about the characters. The latter presumably speaks to the kind of stories I like most on a gut-level; I’ve had an admitted fondness for unlikely romance for a long time, while my penchant for traumatized characters pulling themselves together was something I didn’t realize explicitly until more recently.

Finally, I’ll add that I have one additional reason for analyzing why the things that affect me the most deeply do: when I’m writing a story myself, if I could manage to get even one person to feel as strongly as I did in these cases (hopefully the positive examples) I’d consider it a success, so I’m interested in what works.