The most interesting thing about Toradora! is how it follows a path that's the opposite of the sort I'm used to seeing. Many shows begin with some ambitious gesture or grand concept, and then turn into a tub of whipped cheese product. Toradora! starts cheesy and obvious, but here and there inches its way towards something smarter and more interesting, and in a way that's so underhanded I barely noticed it was happening. Maybe that's why NIS America has given the show a reprinting: clearly, it says something to a broad enough swath of fans that it was worth such a reissue.
Roger Ebert once wrote an essay about the power of film in which he said, "Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem." I agree with him up to a point, because it's often easy for a great many people to be willfully blind to the worst aspects of something popular as long as they have the rest of the crowd to justify their love for it. With Toradora!, though, under the goofy surface there's something a little nobler than I was expecting to find.
Tiger vs. dragon
The premise for Toradora! is pure screwball romantic comedy, emphasis on screwball. Thuggish-looking high school student Ryūji Takasu gets given a wide berth not only by his fellow students but by random strangers on the street. He's not a delinquent at heart, though — his now-absent gangster father did that job well enough to make up for him — and in fact he's got a soft spot for one of the other girls in his class, the endlessly energetic and positive Minori Kushieda. It's just all a question of working up the nerve to actually talk to her and not say something terminally foolish — and being taken seriously in the process to boot.
Into his life comes Taiga Aisaka (the "Palm-Top Tiger"), a female classmate whose tiny size is inversely proportional to her temper and her propensity for explosive violence. Ryūji's little rabbit-hutch building is in the shadow of her much larger luxury apartment complex, and after Taiga puts a love letter intended for someone else into Ryūji's bag, he ends up paying her a visit. Her place, despite its tony appearance, is a slovenly mess: she seems to be living there alone. Ryūji, already accustomed to being domestic for the sake of his perpetually-sloshed bar-hostess mother, decides to help her get the place in order and maybe get some food into her that wasn't purchased from a convenience store.
Not that Taiga is going to accept such help without a kick-and-scream routine. She's touchy, proud, stubborn ... kind of insufferable, actually. But she has a soft spot of her own, this one for the upright, straight-A, always-smiling Yūsaku Kitamura (the intended target for her letter). By degrees, and through fits and starts, Ryūji and Taiga each agree to aid the other find the object of their desires, and also unsnarl each others' snarled-up lives. Family problems are something Ryūji knows about intimately, and while he can tell Taiga is not going to blithely accept the kind of help she clearly needs to deal with her estranged father (who treats her like a problem to be solved, not a daughter to be appreciated), he also senses he may be the only one on the face of the earth who can accomplish such a mission.
Better than your average romantic entanglement
So much for the setup. And while the way all this plays off is embodied in some of the most dependable clichés of the high school screwball romance subgenre — the big school event, the summer getaway — the way the little details add up and play off becomes a stronger draw than it might seem at first.
For one, neither Yūsaku nor Minori is quite what they appear to be in Ryūji and Taiga's eyes — and the mere fact that they are so unmasked is key to how both the audience and their respective idolaters come to think differently of them. The straight-arrow Yūsaku turns out to have a pranksterish side — as does Minori, to the extent that the two of them collaborate on a colossal turn-the-tables joke during a summertime getaway. And once Yūsaku gets that much closer to Minori (all for the sake of aiding Taiga), he sees she has a prickly, angry side that is often hidden from view — one that's as much a product of self-criticism as it is a manifestation of her urge to stick up for her friends. One of those friends is Taiga, and the complications that ensue from that are predictable in terms of how they affect the plot, but not always as predictable when it comes to how they affect the other characters, or the viewer.
Taiga herself, by the way, goes from someone who can't speak the names of her classmates without snarling to someone who gives them friendship chocolate, and the fact that the evolution is credible and doesn't feel like something shoehorned into the material, says something. Some of it is a little lopsided — e.g., the strained relationship with her parents is kept mostly offscreen — but not so much so that the whole house seems ready to fall over.
This peel-back-the-skin approach, where we start on a predictable level and move to something less so, is appealing when it's done well, and and I can think of a few other shows where it has been deployed to surprising effect (and affect). Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions had some of the same flavor: its concept seemed goofy from the outside and its execution was peppered with many of the requisite clichés needed to make the material click with its target audience, but it turned out to be smarter than it looked. On the other hand, Hagani: I Don't Have Many Friends attempted to do the same thing, but collapsed under the weight of its own need to be an otaku product. By the time it finally tucked in its shirt and lifted its chin, it was too late.
Toradora!, on the other hand, actually tries to go somewhere with its material, and uses its stock elements — the tsundere heroine, the irresponsible parents, the goofball friends who can't leave well enough alone — as stepping stones to get there. The compulsively complex plotting is straight out of both bedroom farce and soap opera, but it's again ultimately a way to go somewhere a little larger. The final few episodes, which involve the characters leaving behind the hermetic world of high school and facing a far less certain future, are striking: they revolve around the idea that the best way to show your love for someone is to let them be free to choose as they wish, not to drag their heart around. What starts with Taiga being dependent on Ryūji eventually becomes about her striking out on her own as an expression of her feelings for him: this man stuck his neck out for her this far, so the least she can do is return the favor.
One of the reasons I tend to avoid romantic comedy as a genre is not because I don't find romance interesting, but because too often it's used as an excuse to present things that are just plain mean as if they were funny or, worse, cute. Toradora! doesn't make that mistake: it knows a lot of what it presents is silly, and some of those parts are pretty funny, but at the end of the day it knows the real story is in something a little less obvious. I was pleased to see it do right by its characters, when it had any number of possible excuses not to.