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Toradora: The Taiga and the Dragon

In Japanese mythology, the tiger and the dragon are rivals, but equal in strength. The tiger represents the earth, passion, and the physical world. The dragon represents the sky, the ocean, wisdom, and the spiritual world. Their clashes can shake the heavens, but neither can completely overpower the other. The truth is, they both need each other to survive.

Toradora is a 2008 romantic comedy that transforms these legendary creatures into (what else?) two anime high schoolers who are cluelessly, desperately in love. The dragon, Ryuji, intimates his classmates because he resembles his ex-Yakuza father, but he’s really a softie who cooks every night for his working single mom. The tiger, named, um, Taiga, is a textbook tsundere: rich, haughty, quick to lash out with her wooden katana (lol), and a hopeless romantic. Their relationship starts off rough, until they realize that each of them is infatuated with the other’s best friend. Ryuji and Taiga plan a matchmaking scheme to win their crushes’ hearts — but if you’ve seen, I dunno, any rom-com from the past 40 years, you don’t need me to tell you they’ll inevitably fall for each other by the end.

No, this is not a groundbreaking series. Almost every episode hinges on a slice-of-life anime archetype: the culture festival, the beach getaway, the tearfully nostalgic Christmas party. Even the big theme, that the outward persona we project to others hides our deep inner selves, is a staple of high school romance. But many anime are great because of the execution of their tropes, and Toradora is no exception. What it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in the charming relatability of its main cast. Light novelist Yuyuko Takemiya gives each character unique personality quirks, a deep backstory, and a longing for acceptance that any adolescent (or ex-adolescent) can understand. And the anime adaptation, written by Anohana’s Mari Okada, adds dramatic flair to the story and brings the cast of lovable weirdos to life.

Taiga and Ryuji are comedic and dramatic foils. Their divergent backgrounds are shown in the very first shot: Ryuji’s wooden shack sits uncomfortably close to Taiga’s ginormous luxury apartment. (Hilariously, this is based on a real neighborhood in Japan.) While their personalities clash throughout the series, deep down, they’re both misfit kids from broken homes. Taiga is estranged from her family: her father may pay her rent, but he hasn’t seen her in years because he’s been off gallivanting with his young new wife. Ryuji loves his adorable mom Yasuko, but he still resents having no father figure of his own. The pair are ostracized in school because of their outward personalities, and worry that no one will love them for who they really are. Their struggles feel real without being overbearing, and even the sillier moments are relatable AF. Like, okay, I never got whisked to another dimension full of sexy elf girls when I was a teenager. But making a dorky mixtape for my crush? I definitely did that in high school!

Track 1 was “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service, and I’m too embarrassed to list the rest

The rest of the classic “five man band” is also great, and they all have their own connection to the story’s main theme. Ryuji’s pal Yusaku plays the fool, whipping his shirt off for no apparent reason, but these actions are driven by his own fear of rejection. Taiga’s best (only) friend Minori is the quintessential genki girl, holding down like 8 different jobs with a big goofy grin on her face. Secretly, though, she harbors her own unrequited feelings for Ryuji and Taiga. Yet the most complex character of the bunch is actually Ami, the mysterious transfer student. She’s a model, beloved for her outwardly sweet demeanor — but behind the facade, she’s really a snob who manipulates others to do her bidding. Although she seems entitled and mean, even her “real” personality is a defense mechanism. Ami is highly perceptive of others’ feelings; like the rest of the cast, she longs for someone who will accept her as she is.

Minori coming to terms with her bisexuality is a sweet detail. I wish the story had expanded on it further

Toradora came out during a transitional period in anime history. Staple series of the 2000’s – the Big Three of shonen and the moe explosion – were losing steam, and a global recession meant it would take a while for new blockbusters to replace them. In the following decade, the medium became more ambitious, faster-paced, and increasingly marketed to Western audiences on streaming services. Because of this, things that made the show fresh 15 years ago might seem dated and plain to modern audiences. There is no shocking twist, surreal genre bending, or deconstruction of its familiar tropes. What you see is what you get in Toradora, and that might be a hard sell for folks who are used to more spectacle in their anime.

Although Yusaku has quite the spectacles… okay, that’s terrible, I’ll stop

But isn’t that often how it is with romance? The genre is often derided for unoriginal storylines and characters, but that familiarity can often be comforting. The timelessness of stories like When Harry Met Sally or one of the 12,673 Jane Austen adaptations isn’t because they are deep and profound, but because their characters are so charming and relatable that people keep coming back. Similarly, Toradora does not excel in any one particular aspect, but it’s still more than the sum of its parts. The animation is charming but a bit flat; the music is catchy and occasionally moving. But it’s still one of the best romance/comedy/slice of life anime ever made, because it never stops making you care about its cast of lovable goofs.

So basically, I think I might finally be coming around on romance anime.

Anime Dating Rule #437: NEVER dropkick your crush

5 thoughts on “Toradora: The Taiga and the Dragon

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    1. What a coincidence – I also just started watching Cyberpunk Edgerunners this weekend haha. I am also a snob when it comes to this genre, though my main point of references are Akira and Ghost in the Shell


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