Toradora is a comedic drama series that presents itself in a uniquely deceptive fashion. It takes place in a normal Japanese highschool populated by (relatively) normal characters, wherein a story is told that appears to be normal. Everything about Toradora is run-of-the-mill at first glance.
As is often the case, looks can be deceiving. Characters, concepts, and storylines all appear to be rehashes of material we're already familiar with, only to be turned on their collective ear as the series progresses and its true colors emerge. Images appear to be static, only to explode in bursts of frenetic energy. What initially appears mundane eventually becomes sublime.
Toradora's simple premise holds true to the series' deceptive nature; girl meets boy, beats boy, and enlists boy's help to get closer to her crush. What ensues is a journey of soul-searching and self-discovery that results in ... well, we can't exactly tell from only half a series but it's shaping up well and, being privy to the rest of the series already, I know it keeps getting better.
Oh, did you catch that? Yes, I said "beats boy." Consider that the first sign that Toradora is going to deviate from the norm. The most feared girl in school teams up with the (supposed) super delinquent after KOing him at school and attempting to assault him in his own home later that same day. In the middle of the night. With a bokken.
If subtlety and deceit are the spices that lend Toradora its unique flavor, then the characters are undoubtedly the meat. The core cast is fundamentally a 2:3 ratio of major to minor protagonists, keeping the story focused and very personal in nature.
The story is told almost exclusively from the point of view of the taller, cleaner, male half of the major protagonists, Ryuji. While we are permitted third-person glimpses into the lives and actions of the remaining cast, Ryuji's eyes are the window through which we ultimately watch the tale unfold. It's for this reason that I'm thankful he makes a clean break from the standard male heroes of every other high school drama series, bearing a punkish visage capable of terrifying classmates - quite involuntarily - into submission, an obsessive-compulsive desire to clean, and a well grounded sense of reality. Hell, the man even cooks.
The other half of that major protagonist ratio is filled by the diminutive, messy, violent, and somehow insanely adorable Taiga, otherwise known at school as the "palm-top tiger." Schizophrenically alternating between overwhelmingly shy and overtly psychotic, Taiga is nothing less than a lovingly crafted homage to the tsundere archetype and its fans.
I'm sure everyone picked up the tiger/Taiga word play easily enough, but here's a little piece you might have missed: Ryuji literally means "son of dragon" and any fan of Japanese history knows that there are strong associations between the dragon and tiger throughout. It's a slick little play they threw in that most western viewers are unlikely to ever appreciate.
At this early stage, the three minor protagonists function as little more than supporting cast and the focus of unrequited romantic attentions. This trio comprises of Taiga's uncontrollably energetic and positive best friend Minori, Ryuji's own scholarly but strangely off-beat best friend Kitamura, and Kitamura's childhood friend, the beautiful and utterly viperous Ami.
Toradora's visuals won't impress at first glance, but viewers that stick around will quickly find that its strength is in the animation and evocative writing. Characters are beautifully presented in energetic and emotive motions that belie the relatively simple, but effective, artistic style.
Incidentally, this is the first time that NIS has released anime in North America and they took the opportunity to enter the scene with a bang: a stellar series backed with some stellar packaging. The DVD's come in an unusually tall, thin, high-quality art box that includes a hardback episode-guide-cum-art-book. My only complaint is that the series' name isn't on the spine of the box, but it's so unique that I don't have any trouble telling where it is on the shelf. This is a good thing, as I'm sure I'll be watching it again soon.
Bottom Line: It's entirely possible that Toradora's subtle nature will work against it if viewers don't give it enough time, but this is a show that is clearly greater than the sum of its own parts. Take the time to look at the whole picture, rather than its disparate elements, and you won't be disappointed.
Recommendation: If you want to wash the taste of the innumerable poorly executed highschool comedic dramas off of your anime palate, this is the series to do it with. Just be prepared to see things through to the end to get the full effect.
James Henley is not afraid to admit that he already owns some models of the palm-top tiger in all her violent glory.
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