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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.]

5 Responses to “Toradora Season 2 Notes”

  1. BarryW Says:

    I agree that Minori didn’t get as much backstory as she should have. The explanation for her working multiple jobs only comes at the end for example, and we never get to see how she and Taiga wound up as BFFs.

    Actually, MInori and Kitamura would have made a good couple personality wise. In the second half of the series, after his breakdown, you see more and more of his crazy side, which is even evident in the first half but he has obviously repressed due to his crush on Surime.

    As far as Minori goes, she doesn’t lie but definitely hides her feelings. Listening to her closely at the beach discussing ghosts you can see that she is trying to tell Ryuuji that if he is interested in her he needs to tell her. She can’t believe in something she can’t “see”. When she rejects him she uses similar language. She is also affected by his picking the picture of the two of them winning the race at the cultural festival and later by a comment he makes about “always watching her” when he comments on her hair style. At the end when Minori breaks down, Ami says “are you upset that Tiaga took Ryuuji away from you or….”. Before Ami finishes Minori says she doesn’t know. The implied second half of the statement is “or Ryuuji took Taiga away”. The girl has feelings for both of them.

    I think the theme that defines the show is one that Kitamura expressed when he introduced Ami and let Ryuuji see her real personality: Be your true self and deal with the consequences. It’s something each of the characters learns. Look behind Ami’s catty personality and you see someone who has learned to care for her friends and is the most adult of the five. This is evident in her discussions with Ryuuji. She got off on the wrong foot with him and realizes she can’t change things, but she tries to do what she can for those around her. She is a much, much better person than she appears to be, just as Ryuuji is not the person his appearance suggests.

    I could go on and on about this show. I keep rewatching episodes and catching nuances that I missed, but those are my main points (and don’t forget the running gag with Inko-chan).

  2. Marc Says:

    All of the above were things I’d noticed, and why the series ended up being so much more than it superficially looked. Also glad that you agree with my interpretation of one of the major themes being not just “Follow your heart.” but “Follow your heart, even though it may make a huge mess.”

    I actually interpreted Minori’s ghost comment quite differently; she was goofing around when she “gave” Taiga to Ryuuji earlier, but that seemed to be indeed what she was doing, so she wouldn’t necessarily be encouraging him to go after her instead of Taiga even at that point. Now, maybe she didn’t realize how much Ryuuji had done for Taiga until later, so at that point she was still interested, but I read that as one of two things: either “I haven’t yet felt love for someone, so it’s not real to me yet.” or, if you go with my Minori actually loves Taiga, not Ryuuji, conspiracy theory, as meaning “I’m in love with someone who will never feel the same way back, so I don’t know what being mutually in love is really like because I’ve never seen it, but I’m going to keep looking because I want to believe it exists.”

    An aside on the “Ryuuji doing more for Taiga than Minori thing,” I read their whole relationship to mean that she was essentially too cheerful to handle the mess that Taiga’s life was–she said as much when she eventually visited Taiga’s place in the second season and said that she had been scared that it was still going to be a disaster. She obviously had been there pre-Ryuuji, and apparently just couldn’t handle trying to get Taiga to pull herself together–the best she could muster was support without getting directly involved.

    The thing with Minori is that you could easily interpret Ami’s implied “…or Ryuuji took Taiga away from you.” as including “your BFF Taiga,” in which case her whole thing was the combination of losing her best friend to a boy, and that boy being somebody you liked on top of it. That, according to the end of the series, is what actually happened. Which is fine except for the fact that I just don’t think they sold why Minori would be interested in Ryuuji (though it’s completely obvious why he’d be interested in her, and they did sell why Ami would be interested).

    But if you go with the apparently-wrong interpretation of her actually being in love with Taiga the whole time, it changes entirely why she was crying at the end. Heck, you could even say that’s really what happened, and she was just inserting “Ryuuji” for “Taiga” when she was running down the halls. But, frankly, it’d be more disappointing if she actually was interested in Taiga and they didn’t follow through with the emotional mess that information getting out would have caused, so maybe it’s better to just take the obvious option at face value.

    Oh, and while Minori and Kitamura were a great match in the crazy department, they were pretty obviously a match as friends, not romantically–I thought it did a good job of establishing that without ever saying something.

  3. BarryW Says:

    I think the exposition of Minori’s feelings was so subtly done as to be nearly unreadable. I’ve only arrived at my conclusions by going over the episodes a number of times and I may just be reading too much into it.

    Everyone was making assumptions about Taiga and Ryuuji’s relationship because they were doing everything that (I’m assuming) they would expect of a Japanese teenage couple. Minori made the assumption from the first time she saw them walking together, which, I guess, is not something mixed couples do unless there is a close relationship. Her assumptions get backed up by all the subsequent events even with all the denials.

    I took Minori’s staying away from Taiga’s apartment to be due to her dislike of Taiga’s dad. Taiga was defensive of her parents even though she was mad at them and Minori was afraid that she couldn’t keep her mouth shut and would ruin their relationship.

    Your reading of the ghost comment was how I originally read it. However, when I looked at in in the context of other comments I saw it differently. She follows the ghost comments at the beach by a comment about maybe looking for UFO’s with him, which in Minori-speak I take to mean that she want’s to get closer to him. At that point, she isn’t in love, but she is hinting that she is interested. He has to make an overture, but of course he doesn’t. She uses the same language at Christmas as to prevent him confessing. Another subtle action on her part was when Ryuuji runs after Taiga leaving Minori at the nurses office. Right before she makes a fist and touches his lips. After he leaves she raises the same fist and touches her lips to it. Their only kiss.

    I think the issue with Minori is that she “doesn’t know” how she feels about Taiga. She’s wondered about being a lesbian at the cultural festival and she has “cute radar”. I think she knows when Taiga and Ryuuji run off that the friendship she has with both of them will never be the same. All of these feelings are overwhelming her and she hasn’t sorted them out. Any and all combinations of feelings were possible at that point.

    Yeah, I realize Minori and Kitamura are just friends, it’s just that their personalities seem eminently suitable to each other.

    The reason I’m enamored of this show is because it isn’t simplistic, and can be interpreted different ways depending on how you interpret different scenes. I’m sure that if I understood Japanese there would be even more nuances that were evident.

  4. Marc Says:

    There are a few language nuances, to be sure, but I have to give NIS credit for their official English release–they did a very good job with the subtitles. (They also didn’t try to dub it, which to be honest I actually consider a good thing, originalist jerk that I am.)

    I should note that I don’t disagree with your overall interpretation of Minori’s motives; based on how the TV series ended, unless the books completely contradict it I have to assume she was mainly interested in Ryuuji romantically and Taiga as a friend. What I am saying is that A) They perhaps unintentionally did a much better job selling her as being purely in love with Taiga than they did with the more straightforward option (in particular because they just never established any chemistry with Ryuuji), and more importantly B) That I personally think it would have been significantly more interesting if she were a full-on lesbian, and that had come out. Other people finding out is important–it only hits the area of entertainingly messy emotional drama if Taiga finds out about it, and you’ve got to admit that would have added a heck of a monkey wrench to the whole situation.

    There’s also the fact that that sort of goes against one of the central themes of the show–be true to yourself even when it makes a mess. Her keeping quiet–even if the situation was totally hopeless for it benefiting anybody–is completely contrary to that. Since she did confess her interest in Ryuuji–despite it not helping at all–it stays in tune with the theme if you take her at more or less face value.

    I’m curious where you got Minori staying away because she didn’t want to generate conflict with Taiga over her dad–I don’t remember her saying that, and until Ryuuji got her to re-think it (which Minori was quite open about saying was a bad idea) Taiga didn’t seem to be the slightest bit defensive of her dad. She obviously still felt something for him, but that again only happened after Ryuuji stepped in.

    It’s interesting to me that we liked the show for similar but different reasons; I actually tend to strongly dislike things with an open-ended interpretation–I figure that if the writer didn’t know specifically what the characters were thinking, then he was doing an inadequate job of getting into their heads, and in turn if the writer did know what they were thinking, there is by definition a “right” interpretation, and I want to hear it. I do, however, like things that get into seemingly-shallow characters’ heads, get a feel for people’s psychologies, and (most importantly) when big messy dustups happen and all the stuff under the surface comes popping out making a mess.

    Phrased differently, I like to go through something thinking “Is that what’s going on here? Maybe this?” and then having things hit the fan at some point where I say “Oh, now I get it!” I find that coalescence–even if you need to be paying a lot of attention to get it–far more satisfying than open-ended speculation.

    Toradora has all of the above in a big way, and it’s the same reason that both of the Kimagure Orange Road movies are so good, and part of the reason Spice and Wolf is so much fun. So we probably liked many of the same scenes, but it sounds like for different reasons.

  5. BarryW Says:

    Listening to an English dub would be like listening to Beethoven on a kazoo (yeah that may be a little over the top). Some of my friends would never watch a dub, and I have come around to their way of thinking. I know you liked Yui Horie’s Minori, but I found Rie Kugimiya’s Taiga amazing.

    When she is making tea at Taiga’s while the gang is making the guide book for the field trip, she tells Ryuuji that she hadn’t been there since freshman year. She then says that that was because of “the stuff with her dad”. I’m making something of a leap by taking the next line: “I was afraid of failing” to mean that was failing as a friend in protecting her from her dad. You could also take it in other ways. She’s praising Ryuuji for doing a good job with Taiga. From Ami’s perspective it would be Ryuuji didn’t fail as the “daddy” but Minori was afraid she would fail as the “mommy” to Taiga.

    I think it depends on what you mean by open ended. If the character themselves doesn’t know then that should be what is conveyed by the writer. In Minori’s case I think that is what was trying to be conveyed. Her emotions, at this point in the story, are confusing to her. She has dedicated herself to achieving a goal (national women’s softball team), and her feelings have been suppressed (her I decided I wouldn’t cry). Minori’s life could be an interesting series in itself. I think the lesbian thing may be a bit cliched along with the “I love my brother/sister” bit, which is why I liked this take.

    I would recommend going back and reviewing Ami’s comments and actions, because I think you would see a very different character than just the catty spoiled girl she appears to be.