So, romance. It’s a huge part of our culture and the media we consume every day. And of course, it’s a big deal in anime – with Valentine’s Day around the corner, a ton of my anime blogging friends have been writing about some of their favorite love stories and romantic couples in the medium. And I want to write about it too, but from a different angle. I don’t really… get… romance. In fiction or in real life. Weird, right?
I realize that this is a “me” problem and that there are a lot of amazing romantic anime out there. But whenever I try to sit down and watch one, more often than not, I end up feeling bored and frustrated. I can’t relate to the characters, I don’t buy their chemistry, and I get annoyed seeing the same tropes used over and over again. Even in anime not specifically centered around romance, I tend to find the romantic subplots to be the least interesting part of the series as a whole. So I wanted to figure out this weird bias of mine, and maybe talk about a romance anime I actually like!
The biggest problem I have with romance in anime (or really, any work of fiction) is the perceived inevitability of it. Romance is such a huge part of modern society that in some ways, being in a relationship is seen as the norm. Take almost any show or movie with both a male and a female protagonist, and chances are they will end up together by the time the end credits roll. This gets especially ridiculous in harem anime, where a seemingly endless cavalcade of girls will fight over one guy just because he is The Protagonist. Like, I know Sword Art Online is the ultimate low-hanging fruit of anime criticism, but why is it that so many girls in that show are in love with a socially awkward game otaku?
Because of this, romantic stories can often feel forced, lacking in suspense, and overly reliant on tropes and visual shorthand to tell the story. Sometimes, all the characters need to do is stare at each other for a few seconds while soft, willowy music plays in the background to let the audience know they’re in love. And if one of the characters seems to have no romantic interest in the other? Well, they’re a tsundere! All they have to do is be nice to the protagonist once and the romance is officially on.
Now, these tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves (in fact, many of them are present in Fruits Basket, a romance anime I really like), but they can be painful to sit through if the characters themselves aren’t interesting or don’t have real chemistry. So many writers seem to assume that a romantic relationship, by itself, is enough to hold their audience’s attention. But I’ve sat through too many crappy rom-coms on date nights to believe that. And if the relationship feels too forced, it can have problematic real-world implications – like say, if one character is too eager to be in a relationship but the other just isn’t feeling it, the dynamic can often feel like stalking or a violation of consent. (No means no, kids!)
On top of all that, the pacing of many romance anime can often feel terribly slow for me. Many anime romances center around the characters’ inability to express their feelings to each other, until it all boils over in a dramatic love confession at the end. In fact, this is such a common thing in anime that they made an entire rom-com about two people who are too prideful to confess their feelings, so they try to make the other person do it first!
A lot of this stems from Japanese culture, which makes a really big deal out of confessing your feelings to initiate a relationship. But so often, in both anime and Western media, the relationship actually starts when the series ends. This means you have to sit through 20+ episodes of characters playing this drawn out and tedious “will they or won’t they” courtship dance, only to have it end in an obvious and predictable confession (of course they fucking will!). It’s just baffling to me. Why would writers go through the trouble of making these characters wrestle with their feelings for hours on end, and then never actually show them being in a relationship?
Now, none of this is to say that I hate all romance anime, or that I can’t enjoy a good love story. I just wish that some of these series would try a little harder to make their romance a bit more true to life. Love isn’t just about making dramatic confessions while cherry blossom petals sway in the wind. Love is often messy, confusing, and scary. Human beings are complex, imperfect creatures, and we often hurt the people we care about the most – but we still try, because we need that connection with others. So I’d like to end this by talking about a romance anime I unambiguously love, 2017’s yuri romance drama Bloom Into You.
Bloom Into You is the story of Yuu Koito, a shy teenage girl whose only experience with love is from the idealized romances of shoujo manga. When she joins the student council, she meets Touko, a beautiful, intelligent, and assertive girl who seems to have everything going for her in life. When Touko confesses her feelings to Yuu at the end of the first episode, it seems like a fairy tale romance waiting to happen. But when they kiss, Yuu feels, well, nothing.
Yuu can’t reconcile the idealized fantasy romance she has in her mind with the uncomfortable reality of dating and relationships. She worries that something is wrong with her, and wonders if she even really loves Touko if she doesn’t share her sexual desires. Their relationship is awkward at first, like most real high school relationships, and they struggle to set boundaries and talk about their genuine feelings. But ultimately, Yuu realizes that none of this matters. She wants to be with Touko for no reason other than she likes being with her. She can still have a happy, healthy life with Touko, even if their relationship is messy and imperfect. This is more than just a love story – this is a story about finding yourself, about learning to be okay with yourself no matter who you are.
I haven’t talked about this much on here, but I’m on the asexual spectrum. I don’t dislike sex, but I don’t really have the same desire for it as most people. For the longest time, I thought I was damaged goods. In a society that constantly equivocates romance with sex, I felt like I had to have physical intimacy with someone to truly love them. Bloom Into You is the first time that a love story made me feel validated. It taught me that there’s nothing wrong with me being who I am. It showed two people in a genuinely loving relationship that I could identify with and relate to. And that, to me, is worth more than all the “boy meets girl” tired romantic tropes in the world.
Well, turned out different than I thought it would! I started by complaining about anime tropes and ended with a coming out story. (Jeez, I make these things too long sometimes…) What do you think of all this? What is some of your favorite romance anime, and your favorite (or least favorite) romantic anime tropes? Let me know 🙂