Toradora Box Set 1

I've been out of high school for 18 years. It was a half a lifetime ago. And while this might not make sense to anyone still trying to make it through freshman year, reliving it is not something I really want to do at this point. Of course, a lot of anime involves teenagers; to avoid them entirely would be to have to find another hobby. But a show that doesn't involve psychics or delinquents or pilots recruited to fly strange mechanical wonders but just plain old high schoolers? Not that interested.

Which is why I was as surprised as anybody to enjoy the first 13 episodes of Toradora. Yes, it's a high school drama/comedy/romance. It is not completely free from a catchy hook or character, but it's darn close. The events of the show are situations we can see in countless other high school anime. Yet the lead characters live in all-too-belivable worlds with real problems and issues, and they are handled not with angst or inappropriate humor but with least as real as you're going to get out of a drama/comedy/romance anime. It's too fast-paced, quirky, and relationship-driven to be a slice-of-life show, but it has its parallels.

Ryuji has problems. For one, he looks like a deliquent, apparently because his pupils are the size of commas. (Yeah, it's an anime thing.) His mom is an alcoholic who thankfully is just sweet and sleepy when she's wasted, which seems to be a job requirement as a hostess. His dad is long gone, and he's left to fend for himself most of the time. It's not a big deal since he's a good cook and a little OCD about cleanliness, and he gets along fine with most people. His biggest problem, though, is his new next-door neighbor Taiga. Too cute to hate and too mean to love, Taiga is a tiny spitfire who appears to have missed a rather important growth spurt called puberty. She lives on her own in an apartment rented out by her dad when she and his new, much-younger wife didn't get along. Pretty much, she hates everybody. The only problem is, she needs people. She can't cook and isn't all that good at being alone, and so she winds up spending most of her evenings at Ryuji's house.

It turns out that for their conflicts, they do have one thing in common: an interest in each other's best friend. Taiga's BFF is Minori, a red-head that does everything -- a dozen after-school jobs alongside captaining the girls' softball team. Sweet, perky, and loyal, she reminded me of a mature version of Kimagure Orange Road's Hikaru. Meanwhile, Ryuji's pal Yusaku is the bespeckled captain of the baseball team and student council vice-president. Both of them are too perfect for their own good...especially since Ryuji and Taiga are madly in like with them. This love rectangle becomes a pentagon with the appearance of Ami, a shallow and self-absorbed model (and childhood friend of Yusaku) who nevertheless can appear to be kind and thoughtful. Nobody's really dating, but attachments form as the school year progresses and the five wind up becoming an unlikely gaggle of friends.

For the most part, Toradora reflects its recent origins, having broadcast in the 2008/2009 season. The quality is generally high, and while the artwork never matches any of Key's recent entries, it's not bad. There is an odd moment during a beach episode where, for about a minute, everybody goes slightly off-model, and I can't help but think that the schedule was so under the gun they couldn't re-animate it. It's the only point that really looks bad in the whole of these episodes. The opening and closing are entertaining, with some surprisingly infectious J-Pop with lyrics that sound like bubblegum but are a bit more pointed than your average. The technical aspects are OK across the board -- nothing to see on its own, but not distracting either.

Because Toradora has no plot hook to reel us in, it has to do so through its characters. What you think of the show will depend largely on how you relate to them. Personally, I'm still not sure what I think of Taiga. She is the dictionary defintion of a tsundere character. (Seriously. Go to Google, type in "tsundere," go to "images," and there Taiga is.) She's angry as a hornet outside, often barking the loudest at her best friends, but in other moments (particularly around Yusaku) she is virtually a puppy...a nervous puppy on uppers, but a puppy nonetheless. Combine that with her lack of figure, and she is the epitome of moe. Honestly, Taiga annoyed me. I don't like cruel, cold characters. She's a bully, but Ryuji doesn't seem to mind. That is perhaps what makes her bearable. I will say, though, that there's a truthfulness to her character that is far more welcome than the average vacuous floozy.

It's difficult to like a series when you aren't fond of a major character. Doubly so when you've seen the events of a series before -- the predictable visit to the beach, the school festival, etc. And yet...and yet...Toradora is entertaining despite these predictabilities because the players themselves continued to surprise me. Ryuji is a talented young man who has no problems doing things that, in the still somewhat sexist Japanese context, would be considered "women's work." Ami and Taiga both pull out of themselves long enough to care about others. Minori and Yusaku, despite both being impossibly perfect, still act in smaller moments like real people. Because there aren't a lot of emotional moments, when they do happen, they mean something. As it turns out, real people really are more interesting than their counterparts sucked into a sci-fi hell or Tolkein-land. At the end of the day, you genuinely relate to them.

Let me give you an example of a sequence that really surprised me. Ryuji seems to have few problems with his living situation. He makes do fine despite being the lone caretaker of a drunkard mother. Yet when Taiga is given the opportunity in episode 11 to make peace with her louse of a father, he is far more invested in their reconciliation than he should be. The sequence where he confronts her about it doesn't come out of nowhere, but it's very powerful. It really takes the next two episodes for him to deal with his own issues to help Taiga make the best decision for herself. It's not resolved through overt angst but through subtle changes in Ryuji's character as he thinks through the situation. I like that.

I also appreciated the Japanese-ness of the production. That may sound odd, but a lot of shows I've watched could happen most anywhere. Needing liner notes is rare. But here, I liked the fact that Ryuji's "look" is conveyed simply through the tiny nature of his eyes -- a culturally Japanese joke if ever there was one. In the first episode, there's a joke around "itadakimasu," the standard phrase one says before eating. Little touches like that help place the show in Japan. The cultural gap is not a great maw in this show, but it's nice to see something that appears made primarily for the Japanese audience without dumbing it down to work overseas.

Before I wrap up, I do want to make mention of the box set itself. Normally I'm not much for these things, but the package includes a true box (made more for a large bookshelf than a DVD shelf) with a nice piece of artwork highlighting the main characters. The back side is a little disappointing in that it's the same picture in a purple color scheme, but it's still handsome for display. The set includes an episode guide that reads very much like a Japanese memory book, including fawning interviews with the cast and crew. It's definitely made for collectors, but if you're into this series, this is worth having. NIS America did a good job.

I don't think Toradora has a fantastic first half, but it's got a good one, enough that I'd watch more of it without any trouble. The show really could go anywhere from the midway point, and I'd like to know how everything resolves. I'd still like the show better if Taiga wasn't so mean...but then perhaps it wouldn't be the same show at all.

Toradora Box Set 1 -- profanity, mild fan service, mild adult themes -- B+