Akemi's Anime World

Akemi’s Anime Blog AAW Blog

Please Teacher Notes

Please Teacher is one of those series that I remember being popular (or at least well-known) years back, but sounded so uninteresting that I completely ignored it. Recently, a friend added it to our playlist because it was on sale and he was wondering if the hubbub was justified. Answer: I can see why it was popular and/or why it stood out from the crowd, but boy is this a mess of a fanboy romance.

The sad part is that a lot of the characters and concepts are appealing to me. The concept is an unlikely but genuine romance between a high school student with a weird disorder (Kei) who accidentally ends up married to his teacher (Mizuho, though he never calls her anything but “Sensei”). Kei’s group of friends includes a quiet girl with legitimate problems, a straightforward friend in understated romantic competition, and an awkward but substantive romance between two other friends. Even the main guy’s random problem is passably interesting—his mind and body freeze up in the face of emotional stress.

It really seems like I should like the series—unlikely romance is my favorite type. It’s even a good emotional hook to have the main character being “out of synch” on account of essentially having been in a coma for 3 years, which he hides in order to live normally as the age he appears and thinks, but technically isn’t. Interesting in part because he’s decided instead of whining (the usual anime solution) he’s going to face it head-on and vows to keep moving forward in life, no matter what. Heck, even the backstory, which it doesn’t bother to even hint at until a weird info-dump in the next-to-last episode, has some good dramatic punch—certainly reason enough for Kei to be seriously messed up. (Frankly, more messed-up than he is, which you never get to credit him for as a character, since you don’t know about it.)

I can see why people would take note of the show—it deviates widely from the norm in the anime romance department, to be sure.

Most notably, it actually goes somewhere with the romance—both the main couple and the secondary one spend time together as couples, gradually deepen their relationships, and even have actual (offscreen) sex, which you pretty much never see in these high school romantic comedies. Heck, the final montage even has Kei admiring his wife’s backside in the bath, with neither blushing nor violence—I can’t think of that ever happening in anime.

The problem is that the execution is a disaster if you care even slightly about logic and character development. The most obvious botches are that the character logic stops making any sense when it tries to up the drama in the last few episodes—it’s like the writers had a list of things that were supposed to happen, but absolutely no idea how to get them to occur. So, they just made the characters do and say things that make no internal sense, even by the already low standards of the genre.

Yes, they’re 15/16-year-olds, and teenagers are stupid, but they’re not that stupid, and even that excuse isn’t available after hammering away for almost the entire series about how Kei is mature enough to pull off a genuine marriage to an adult. Honestly, all three of us in the room when I watched it were smacking our foreheads in dismay and trying to come up with excuses to do anything but laugh at the embarrassing writing.

And then there’s the big next-to-last episode plot twist. It’s bad enough that the show didn’t bother to bring out Kei’s actual emotional hook until then—backstory dramatic enough that you might have been willing to forgive his being a simpering loser who develops some cheesy spine. And then it pulls a ridiculous, large-scale targeted amnesia twist in the last episode. I don’t know which is worse—the pathetically contrived attempt to set up a final re-committment, or that they only did anything with it for three quarters of an episode, and even then didn’t ham it up enough for it to feel like Kei was hurting inside.

Incidentally, Kei is also a terrible son—big spoiler here, but if you think about his backstory, his parents lost their daughter and their son was in a coma for 3 years, and as soon as he wakes up he abandons them to go live with an uncle and aunt because going back to school near home would be awkward. Yeah, real sensitive. We don’t even get an offhanded mention of them. Nor did he invite them to the wedding, or, so far as I can remember, even call them to tell them he got married.

The main couple in general are the series’ biggest liability.

I admit, the secondary romance is actually pretty appealing—it caught me entirely off guard for both how forthright it was and that the characters involved—the loudmouthed class clown and the meek friend—aren’t the sort who usually get any romantic drama. Even the friend who’s competing for Kei’s attention makes sense internally and acts in a relatively realistic, emotionally effective way—remarkably reserved for both the genre and this show.

The main couple, however, are paint-by-numbers fanboy fodder. Kei has interesting backstory but only slightly more personality than a simpering plushie—he’s so obviously a stand-in for the male viewer it’s pathetic. And the titular Teacher is even worse—she has absolutely no backstory or personality whatsoever, other than “alien half-breed” and “pleasant.” They do have a little chemistry, but only because they’re both paper thin and generically cute and shy. The whole “she’s an alien” thing is particularly pointless—apparently “wears glasses” and “mature” didn’t meet the quota of random fanboy fetish categories.

It’s pretty annoying when several secondary characters are far more interesting than the leads, even more so when at least one—the short, without-affect friend—gets some interesting backstory but almost no real follow-through. That added insult to injury after the incoherent stuff the screenplay forces her to do.

Don’t even get me started on the alien sub-plot: “well, she doesn’t actually have any personality, and we need a mascot, so let’s maker her an alien and give her a stupid little ship AI to make cloying noises or something.” Or that she uses the series’ catchphrase—”this is priority one” or some similar nonsense—incessantly. Or that the main couple have lived together for moths and are sleeping together, in the Biblical sense, but he still calls her “Sensei” and she addresses him like he’s a student, with -kun. Even Kyousuke in KOR wasn’t that bad. It’s obviously just to fulfill the teacher fetish, which is the point of the whole thing, but it sounds particularly absurd in some of the big romantic bits when he’s shouting “Sensei! Sensei! Sensei!”

I also liked that they show us that the aliens have the technology to precision mind-wipe an entire school to remove a single person from their memory while leaving everything else intact, yet in the first episode, when their observer is accidentally spotted while landing, the only solution she can think of is to ask him not to mention it, and then marry him when that doesn’t work. Admittedly, based on our sample, they’re all idiots and their technology is, as advertised, completely incompetent, but that’s a plot hole the show almost literally flies a spaceship through.

So far as I can tell, the whole show basically runs on Kikuko Inoue being the voice of the teacher. Combined with the attractive, cute-but-mature character design, her honey-sweet voice is so incredibly pleasant and likable that you’re almost willing to forgive the fact that the character she’s working with is essentially a tarted-up brick, and the script sounds like a badly-written dating sim.

That helped a lot, but the only thing I ended up caring about wer the secondary characters. The humor also would have been a total wash if it wasn’t for Kei’s uncle and aunt, who are offhandedly hilarious when they’re onscreen. Which isn’t nearly often enough. Heck, they’re funny enough to make you buy some of the preposterous situation comedy (or the whole marriage of convenience premise).

I did note two interesting parallels:

One is with Toradora. It’s also a series about a group of friends who develop substantive romantic relationships and have more personality than they seem to on the surface. Except everywhere Please Teacher goes bobbing for fanservice Toradora does something emotionally substantive, and where the former does ridiculously out-of-character things to force the plot along the later gets you to believe that caricatures are real people inside. The only functional similarity ends up being actual long-term romantic commitment.

The other is Strawberry Panic, which is a surprisingly similar series given how different the story is. Both have concepts and characters that sound interesting in theory, both have actual romantic plot progression and physical relationships, both save the backstory until it’s too late to make you care about the characters, both bungle the overall narrative arc, and both do completely incoherent things with the characters to get them where the writers want them. Heck, both even have the same preposterous plot twist at the same inappropriate point—they both do a random, laser-targeted amnesia drama-bomb in the last few episodes that is quickly reversed to supply a cheap-thrill romantic finale.

Bottom line is that I’ll give Please Teacher ample credit for doing unusual things with high-school romantic comedy, and having some likable and/or funny characters, but the execution is otherwise embarrassingly bad, and it feels like what it is—twelve-plus-one episodes of Hot for Teacher fanboy-fodder. (There, I finally worked in my Van Halen reference.)

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.

Toradora Season 2 Notes

Well, I have to say this for Toradora: For a series that you can tell where it’s going to end up in the first episode, that does indeed go pretty much exactly there, I can’t think of anything similar that takes such an unexpected path along the way. Heck, even though in a general sense it ended where I expected it to go, it sort of didn’t—the whole finale was rather extremely not at all like what I was expecting. It was also unexpectedly romantic, in a functional, sweet, relatively mature “we’re in this together” sort of way.

Toradora DVD Box Set 2

NIS's box sets certainly have lively cover art.

The main unexpected thing about the show is that while on balance the first season is character-driven situation comedy with a relatively heavy overtone of misdirected romance and “people with family issues,” the second season is largely drama. I could imagine that, if you really liked the comedy aspect but can’t get in to self-inflicted adolescent drama, you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed by the second half. Me, while I liked the comedy a lot, and it was funny enough that I probably would have liked a little more of it, I actually enjoyed the drama, and once it finally got where it was going there was enough emotional meat (and I’d gotten attached enough to the characters) that it worked particularly well. This is a minor spoiler, but it helped that when it came down to the wire it didn’t dodge serious romance with blushing innocence and furtive hand-holding—we get commitment and (shock!) a real, onscreen, camera-not-pointing-at-the-feet kiss. (Actually, some passion in otherwise broad, socially inept characters like that was particularly and pleasingly unexpected.)

The down side, to throw this out, are that some of the drama earlier in the second season is a little overblown, but then the characters are a little overblown so that’s not really much of a shock, and it’s not so extreme it lost me. Well, that and that it doesn’t end up being at ALL the kind of empty-headed series it appears at first glance, but that’s only going to be an issue if you go in expecting empty humor (which, to be fair, I would have been based on the box art, character profiles, and perky opening/end themes).

Minori on the roof

Early on there's "drama," later on there's actual drama.

It’s also either a little too long or a little too short; it takes its time getting to the meat in the first season, but that’s mostly to give you time to get into the characters and get a feel for how they function before stuff starts falling apart. The second season, though, is a little slow getting going for the first half; it could easily have been a few episodes shorter without hurting much, although I have the feeling cutting the whole thing down to a single season would have left it feeling jumpy and abbreviated. On the flip side, I wouldn’t have minded a third season (or at least a few more episodes) digging into what the secondary characters (Minori and Ami, in particular) do with their lives once the main pair get their stuff together (Kitamura pretty much had his big deal at the beginning of season 2).

I suppose the logical conclusion of what I just said is that it should have cut two or three episodes out of each season and then spent those on the remaining characters, but that would have left the effective finale somewhere in the middle of the second season, which would’ve been weird. Heck, as it was the emotional finale comes halfway through the last episode.

The show, to play the “boil it down” game, is a coming-of-age story, but of a somewhat different sort—in this case it’s about people who have major family issues and are trying to work through them. It’s about finding love, but rather than the usual coming-of-age blushing first love thing, it’s more about finding a soulmate and the making of commitments.

Phrased differently, it’s less about the end of youth—which most such stories do—and more about the beginning of adulthood. It does this unusually well since several of the characters are prematurely mature—Aisaka has essentially raised herself sans-parents, Ryuuji is more a parent to his mom than the other way around, and of the three secondaries Kitamura is hyper-competent, Minori is wacky but also hyper-competent, and Ami has all kinds of premature maturity issues on account of getting into the working world way too young.

What makes the whole thing feel particularly different is that it’s also about people who have it together totally losing it. Kitamura is the uber-youth-guy, and at the beginning of season 2 he implodes spectacularly; Minori seems to be either too crazy to have much going on inside and/or so together she’ll crazy her way through life comfortably, but she likewise is very sharp yet falls apart dramatically. Ryuuji is more of a slow burn, but even he eventually snaps and has to put things back together, albeit much more quickly. Aisaka, to contrast, is a complete basket case at the beginning of the series, and by the end—with help—she’s pulled herself together and made herself into a functioning human (and in a reasonably gradual, realistic way at that). Ami is less interesting, but then she’s cast as a bitter observer silently wanting to be an insider from the start.

This all plays out reasonably well, with particular points going not just to one vicious girl-on-girl brawl (I score highly for any show in which, after the dramatic romantic dustup, the guy is crying in a heap with his friends consoling him, while the girls are in a bloody, no-holds-barred street fight), but the fact that there are some much-less-exaggerated snippy, sarcastic yelling matches between girls. Those girl fights were unexpectedly realistic (thinking about it, you don’t actually see that kind of thing outside reality TV all that often, particularly in anime), although that’s true of a lot of the emotional drama.

One big plus in the adolescent angst is that, in this case, there’s a decent reason for at least a lot of it—these people have serious family issues. Not of the shoujo “my dad is trying to take over the world” or “I’m in love with my sister” sort, just realistically awful parenting and the social ineptitude that comes of it (not to mention, in Aisaka’s case, being desperate for affection and normalcy).

Ryuuji, his mom, and Aisaka at dinner.

Good parenting is not a familiar concept to these people.

Speaking of which, it’s interesting to note a similarity to NIS America’s other initial anime release, Persona: kids without proper adults to turn to for help. Much more dramatically so in Persona, but even here you have teens with personal problems and no adults to smack them back into shape. The one big exception being Kitamura, who of course does get smacked back into shape by his dad, albeit offscreen. Aisaka and Ryuuji, however, don’t have that to fall back on, so they need to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives on their own.

The other major theme at the heart of the show is “Trying to make everyone else happy at the expense of yourself doesn’t usually work.”  Nearly every character does this in their own way, with the failure being because almost everybody else is nice, too, and a lot of the good intentions are mutually exclusive. It’s pretty good about refusing to let things work out too cleanly—there’s a lot of toe-stepping and messy things going on—which brings to mind the very obvious Kimagure Orange Road parallel. (When you factor in the airhead-with-something-going-on-upstairs character even more so, although Ryuuji is about as not Kyousuke as is possible.)

What fundamentally makes all this work is likable, substantive characters. And, with the exception of Ami (who was interesting, but somewhat intentionally not likable other than a degree of pity), they’re all very likable people. Aisaka is particularly unexpected—she looks superficially tsundere, but really she’s just a mess emotionally, and she gets steadily and progressively nicer and markedly happier through the series without ever losing her edge. Gradual character changes like that are rarely handled so well. I also like that she’s hugely affectionate with Minori from the start, showing what’s inside when she’s not overwhelmed by undirected (yet understandable) anger at life. I also really liked the central romance once it finally got somewhere, probably in part because while I’m nothing at all like Ryuuji I made similarly major life decisions at about the same age and happen to have ended up with a similarly miniature, somewhat ornery girl (every one of those looking-down-at-your-girl shots rang all too true).

Random thought: One thing that Toradora played with but never really showed its whole hand on was Minori and Aisaka’s relationship. Minori offhandedly said halfway through the series that she liked girls and was jealous of Ryuuji and Taiga’s relationship; Ryuuji takes this as more metaphoric, and based on the end that was probably the intent—she says she likes Ryuuji and it’s implied her jealousy is because she’s Taiga’s BFF but Ryuuji is the one who helped her get her life together. But, if you want to read between the lines, you could very easily interpret all of Minori’s awkward behavior throughout season 2 as her having been completely truthful and it actually being Taiga she was in love with. If anything, that works a little better with what we see of her behavior.

Obviously not, and I was happy with where the series ended up, but you’ve got to admit if it had gone nuts with the character relationships and had Taiga end up with Minori, Ryuji end up with Ami, and Kitamura chase his love to America, that would have been completely awesome from a “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” perspective.

Final aside: I really like the character animation, and I particularly liked how after mentioning in the first episode that Ryuuji is self conscious about his eyes and tries to hide them with his bangs, this is never once brought up again yet consistently, right up to the end, he fiddles with his bangs every time he’s feeling self-conscious around a girl. Really nice touch that works because they didn’t keep telling us why he was doing it. Come to think of it, the Tiger-Dragon pairing (hence Toradora) analogy is mentioned at the very start and then not again until the final episode. Unexpected, again in a good way.

Overall, I liked this show a whole lot more than I was expecting to, although if you don’t know what you’re signing up for when you start watching you’re likely to either hate the second half or give up in the first few episodes, before it gets to the emotional meat.

[Addendum: Full review now available.]