Another Review from MAL. This time a more proper example of my dual-framework.
INTRODUCTION: THE GENRE WE LOVE
If there are any genres out there that exist in a more overdone state, it would probably be the Slice of Life Young Adult Romcomdrama. The genre’s criteria are as follows. It’s basis is a Coming-of-Age story, but usually details the growth of a set of two rather than merely a single individual, with both boy and girl playing off each other. The comedy is usually backed in the form of slapstick with a tinge towards Otaku archetypes and in-jokes. Dates and certain events are given precedent, such as a beach-trip or Valentine’s day, corresponding to the study-cycle of a Japanese High School student, and, of course, its set in High School.
Now the criteria is quite fixed, but loose enough to allow for different variants, such as works involving a tinge of the fantastic, or science-fiction works. Either way, despite that the structure mainly plays out the same way. The heft, then, is on the interaction of the characters, the growth, and the sparkling romantic school melodrama.
One of the primary abuses of the genre is to overplay the comedy, so as to give the illusion of longevity, when in fact all that is going on on screen is aloof meandering with different running gags and characters screwing around without any insight to their development. This is what I like to call the ‘Key tactic’. It’s a spawn of what happens when you base your work of the Visual Novel structure, which incorporates multiple fodder writers to embellish content, while being forced into the multiple-heroine style one-by-one epiphany route. This form is popcorn entertainment. The characters only shine when a well written arc really takes off the ground, and when it equalizes back to a normal state, the character that was previously involved in the ‘epiphany’ remains as a static puppet to the endless barrage of running gags.
So in an ideal world, the baseline standard for the genre would have to be Toradora. Anybody trying to write the same tripe simply has to ask, “Is it functionally or technically better than Toradora?”, “Do the characters play off better than Toradora?” and “Are the epiphanies or key character growth moments as well-earned as Toradora?”. Production companies would have to collude together to create the Takemiya Constitution as a bid to eliminate the growing spawn of shoddy SoLYARcd from the shelves.
Even then, take note that I set Toradora as the ‘baseline’. If I would have my way it would have as tight a plot structure and as cathartic the highs as Kokoro Connect (despite the abuse of Deus Ex Machinas), as keen an eye for the natural as Paradise Kiss or BECK, or as calculative and analytical as Oregairu, and, of course, as experimental a spirit as the Monogatari series, Utena or Evangelion. I would even love it to be as mature as certain aspects of Golden Time or White Album 2.
So this review will function on two levels. I’ll critique the work within the bounds set by the genre, then I’ll even more harshly critique the work outside set genre bounds, in the greater realm of Literature and all other works out there. I believe that this will show why we love the genre so much, but also show its definite limits, its immaturity, and its lost potential.
SECTION 1: MEANDERING LOVE
The plot of Toradora (which is different from the narrative) is quite simple. The two protagonists work together to get at their respective love interests, each being the ‘wingman’ for the other, but as it continues emotions get mixed up and things become even more complicated. Every character is based on an archetype, that is equally complicated. On the surface level, Ryuuji is a nice guy whose identity is complicated by his face. The surface symbolism here is merely the first step to the later delvings. Taiga is a Tsundere who is complicated by her archetype formed through trauma and neuroses, and she later displays equal parts fragility, warmth, kindness, rationality, understanding, and courage, as opposed to her character type usually being streamlined as passionately hot-headed and comedically bipolar. Minori is, likewise, the archetypal happy-go-lucky girl who is complicated by her extreme energetic passion being underlined with an extreme obsessiveness and irritation. She fits the standard of most extroverts out there more to a key, in that she sometimes takes her emotional core over the edge when confronted with an attack against her ideals, but also displays great self-awareness in her ability to control her environment so that she doesn’t succumb to her internal passions. Thus paradoxically she becomes the most calculative and also the most hot-headed. Finally, the later arrival Ami, is a model with a good-girl facade that is actually calculatingly narcisstic, once again another ‘surface’ complication played for laughs, but later she becomes the person most aware of the various faces people bear and comes out as the most clear-headed of the lot.
If there was any problem I would say that Ryuji isn’t really complicated beyond his bad-face/good-guy nature, but that isn’t a critique of how Takemiya has portrayed his character. He’s the foundational stability of the whole group and he’s the person that always pushes things beyond through his unwavering nature, like most other straightforward Anime heroes, and yet he’s still portrayed as having problems of his own, especially related to his family. He’s plausible, basically, even though he holds all the stale notions of the archetype that Takemiya would relentlessly destroy in her later Golden Time (by making Tada Banri headstrong but ruthlessly selfish about his emotions). Furthermore he’s also a flawed person in that he rides on his own immaturity at times without understanding the whole situation. (Another logical end to this archetype would be Araragi Koyomi or Kokoro Connect’s Taichi. I don’t count the Kiritsugu family because Nasu doesn’t really write good characters and is better at concepts and settings).
I guess despite being one of the core components of the plot and also one of the supporting cast, the most invisible character happens to be Kitamura, who is also quite static and definitely also fits into an archetype of a best friend character. But this staticity also makes sense given the implication that he was a more immature character in the past, and the now being closer to his end state; an ideal of neutrality. This is also the key moment in his arc when he reverts to his non-neutral old state, and also happens to play in later later during certain moments when his neutrality gets in the way at some points.
And besides that there’s a core series of lesser supporting cast members, some merely existing as running gags, but others at least being given one or two moments of character.
So Toradora has the benefit of having all the conflicts arise either from character, or within the realm of character. Nothing really occurs from an unseen happenstance. Furthermore the best part is its ability to capture the wayward flitting nature of young love. Characters adopt initial poses, then flit to other cores, while simultaneously remaining within the shell of the old one. The primary two interlocking triangles Kitamura – Taiga – Ryuji – Minori are what drives the motion forwards.
Incidentally a resembling triangle is Iori – Taichi – Inaba from Kokoro Connect, with one being an energetic girl with a dual side (and WHAT a dual side it is. It’s a plain crime that Aki Toyosaki doesn’t get more dramatic roles, being either as or more capable than Yui Horie in representing all kinds of extremes in character) and the protagonist attaching himself to that girl because of a false pre-conceived notion of the type of person she is. But both triangles never reach the complex highs of Oregairu or White Album 2 in their characters being a lot more than just dual-sided, but multi-faceted, manipulative, and dripping with drama.
Apparently a question has been raised though, mainly that why would Ryuji and Taiga get together anyway, with one being more or less a spoiled loafer, and the other being kind and domestic. Well that question would make sense if intentions were single in character and not born out of continuous variations and mixed intentions. Obviously we see that Ryuji derives his need for order because of his hopelessly untidy mother. This can easily transfer as initial pity for Taiga. Secondly he’s interested in the outcome of the dual-friendships with Minori and Kitamura, being concerned with his friends. Thirdly, more than just pitying her background, he empathizes (This being the keyword) with her family past, being in the same situation, and this comes to culmination in the ‘roaring-9’ finale episodes. Not only do they sync well in their interactions, but they literally understand each other’s problems, and that is the basic requirement for a connection, which any amount of improper distribution of labor cannot possibly tear apart. And she’s also the one who, in times of the greatest crisis, is trying to pull the whole group together while people like Minori or Kitamura are going off on their passions. And the most important is OF COURSE THEY’RE YOUNG AND IDIOTIC, which is something that so nicely plays itself out in the finale, and both of them being impossibly young and idiotic together is what sets them together against everything out there, and being young and idiotic means you believe that love can exist without the type of long and hard compromises that, in the long run, can destroy marriages born out of unstable foundations. Takemiya understands that completely and doesn’t need people to tell her that the relationship seems a bit off, except that she agrees and gives the two characters space for necessary growth from their own respective neuroses. This compromise would be played and challenged to its fullest in Golden Time which deals with mature adults (albeit with a very very ridiculous and bad dual-personality plot device). With that said, lets get into that whole thing about Growth:
SECTION 2: GROWTH
Now, the primary aim of your average SoLYARcd is nostalgia, but also growth. A work that basks in childishness doesn’t dignify the human condition. But countless slice of life shows out there are anti-thetical to this idea, usually playing it all off in a haphazard ‘graduation ceremony’ that nicely knots off a series of characters without worthy development to that graduation. All your Lucky Stars or Azumanga Daiohs or the initial seasons of Key Works all lack that upwards breeze that pushes a character the way that a series like ARIA or Paradise Kiss can (and Paradise Kiss, or BECK, even though both have quite a forward narrative, is, what I’d argue to be a true SoLYARcd that honors the Slice of Life part of the bargain).
And the characters do grow in Toradora. Taiga receives the most facets throughout the whole show. She starts off displaying her archetypal traits until her first main arc in the middle, where she switches over to an almost complete opposite kind of timidity and passivity, reconciling both by the end of that, and all the later moments play on this growing satellite of traits, which is where she truly shines in the ‘roaring-9’ episodes. That’s why the whole series centers on Taiga, rather than Ryuji, because if you think about it only the both of them really grow by the end, and her growth is in larger culminative spades. The other 3 are complex, but rather than growth, its just that more of their already pre-existing facets are revealed over time. In fact that’s the whole thrust of Minori’s conflicted character, being a character that is truly ‘complete’ but realizing that her completeness does not sync at all with the direction the lives of her friends are going. She knows everything she wants and her pragmatism forces her to burn bridges.
Furthermore the growth has to be seen as positive, tender, and kind, and not the kind of growth by hellfire that occurs in a war-drama like Now and Then, Here and There or Evangelion. With that Toradora is wholehearted in its approach. The critical moments are all born from friendship and aid, with the hot-blooded kind of youth that characterizes Anime in general. The growth is also given the rose tinted lens that befits the tender age of rebellion and no-compromises, where everything rests on the feeling that what is important is the eternal Now. The whole ending, in its clear cut ‘grown-up’ reality and refuting of this fact is possibly one of the greatest denouements to occur in the whole history of the genre (until we get Paradise Kiss, of course, which just pushes the whole thing so far to places I can’t even possibly begin to describe).
SECTION 3: EVALUATION
On the genre’s terms, for its time, Toradora is pretty much astounding. The character complexity intimates Kokoro Connect, and much much later, Oregairu. Animation is fluid. Everything plays its part. Archetypes are destroyed with kindness and compassion. And it fits the requirements of celebrating the nostalgia for young life, detailing the complex fluidity of love, and accentuating smooth character growth with a perfect conclusion that reconciles the hot-blood with reality. Thus, it sets the baseline for the genre.
SECTION 4: GRADUATION
This section is for those who wish for greater things, even at the cost of burning away your previous conceptions. Once the terms of genre are shed away, the maturity and nature of a work has to stand against everything else in the world. To do this a person’s conception of life simply cannot be small, which means one cannot rely on archetypes, stock tropes, or any other form of celebration of staleness. (and while I understand the plight of the animators, I must still carry on in judgment, as that is the work of the critic)
Simply put, works have become tighter everywhere, and this means that there are excesses within Toradora that weigh it down. The aloof nature of the first 16 episodes simply places too much of a strain on the last 9, no matter how well done the final thrust is, which is why certain people misconstrue the work as being merely of other types, with a sudden ‘tone shift’ at the end, rather than realizing that things from the start carry over to the end. This is because the comedic spread of the first 16 episodes places the character moments too far from each other. Furthermore though the buildup in the arcs are quite dramatic, the half-comic nature of the cathartic moments undermine the effects (for true epiphany in motion, look at any of the most well-wrought episodes of KareKano to understand what can be done in a single 20 minute span). Kokoro Connect, while being more direct in its psychological nature and less subtle than Takemiya, benefits from that rolling momentum to the end. Oregairu season 2 and White Album 2 absolutely kills everything out there in its tightness. Evangelion suffers from meandering as well during its monster-of-the-week episodes but makes up for it with its complete style and Anno’s cinematic eye.
Besides the Tsundere running gags, Taiga’s creepiness towards Kitamura is also one, Ryuji’s cleaning obsessiveness is also one, and Minori and Kitamura are pure slapstick. Note that in a higher work, every action is weighted with character intention and meaning, and while Minori’s slapstick may serve to later deepen the duality of her character later, there is still quite a lot of excess. It is the ridiculous auteurism of both Anno and Osamu Kobayashi, that they even know how to maximize the placing of the ending segue for full impact (as I examined in my blog post that breaks down Evangelion’s silences). Toradora still links itself to its ending song and has to work off the episodes climactic cuts to play into the next episode.
SECTION 5: BLEEDING EDGE LOVE
Even a work like Evangelion can still reek of psychological flaws in characterization. For example Anno’s too insistent use on Freudian motivations to posture everything as a parental problem, which ruined one of the greatest episodes in the series (episode 15). While I went on about Toradora’s character complexity, I realize that the problem with initially attaching to an archetype then subverting, rather than making a multi-faceted character from the start, is too much having to place a burden on the subversion. Oregairu, which builds its characters on realistic aspects of the culture, down to the Gyaru lingo, as well as playing a cynical character straight, can sidestep this quite nicely when the major arcs hit. It was quick to drop its parodistic trappings from Haganai and set up the complex character chains within the student festival arc. By the time Season 2 came in, everything was rich in intention and counterintention layered on top of one another.
Likewise Toradora suffers from some bad conditions, like I said, due to its genre premises. Being rose-tinted, jealousy cannot reach beyond a certain level so as to become wholly acerbic or destructive. Friends must stay friends and gracious concession is the norm (although the ingenuity comes from the fact that the real drama starts due to a simultaneous double concession). What’s more, everything is shifted so that the struggle becomes against authority, that is, the useless adults. Which means that all backstories must also be quite Freudian in its parental woes. The root of Kitamura’s arc is also the most major Deus Ex Machina force-plotted conflict of the show, behind Taiga’s initial arc (which was necessary to set up things in the finale though).
I foresee an alternate universe where Fumiaki Maruto would team up with Woody Allen to rewrite Toradora, and Taiga would have no woeful backstory but merely be a rather spoilt WASPy girl forcing herself onto the humble middle-class Ryuji out of some PC farce. The plot would be given the adequate poison needed to push it to a tight pure-drama… or it could just be called A Streetcar Named Desire or something. While Takemiya wrote the plot to fit the premises, some of the premises really need to be changed.
Either way, although I gave reasons for the relationship being upheld, it is quite less likely to be maintained in the long run. But then again we have Golden Time, which is essentially the complementary work to Toradora. Sadly Golden Time suffers from very very wayward plotting (to say it nicely).
I compared Takemiya to Dostoyevsky before, and I was primarily thinking about the main struggle in The Brothers Karamazov, where the proud Katerina attaches herself to who she does not love, solely out of arrogance and face. I am also thinking of Chekhov’s The Seagull, where the longingly immature Trigorin attaches and arbitrarily destroys the young actress Nina out of boredom. Or the pure Woody Allen examination of Love: Husbands and Wives, which is far above everything in terms of its knowledge of what goes on in a relationship, and the various things that can taint an intention or romance. That aspect is missing from a work dealing with the fluidity of human relations, that is captured fully in White Album 2, and partially in Oregairu.
I think the genre has become quite exhausted in its possibilities, and people should turn their sights even more upwards to get at the heart of human nature.
SECTION 6: TRANSCENDENCE
From its roots the Coming-of-Age story has hit quite a roof. Catcher in the Rye perfected the tone and got the dual structure of Holden’s biases versus adult reality quite right. Oregairu also has that element. Toradora only really has it at the end. White Album 2 breaks the barrier, but I haven’t seen Closing Chapter so I can’t say what it becomes. Outside of characterization, Herman Hesse has pulled off the mystical growth aspect to quite its full potential. Eventually the work must be about the full Human and his or her place in the world, and be a communication of those aspects deeply and rightfully dear to us, across the whole span of the age, rather than just existing through the narrow funnel of a period of tummultence.
Take a look at the knowledge in Paradise Kiss for example, that sets it at a station piles apart from anything else in its genre. Yukari runs away from home, and when she returns she’s slapped by her mother. This incident is dealt with in voice-over, and only skips to the event episodes later. The adaptation works off the knowledge that the whole manga its adapting is a full sappy shoujo melodrama, but it does amazing things with an eye for detail. The way it looks back on the whole events of the story is so cool and detached, ebbing with maturity, as if basking in the knowledge of knowing the limitations of the genre form. Even in the final episode, when things are drawing down, comes one of the most startling moments of jealousy that just places all the characters you’ve known already into a new light, that these are flawed people, and in a way Yukari is also flawed but by the end, even with its melodrama, the ending plays it off with that coolness all the time. Anno can pull off the same thing sometimes in KareKano by prying deeply into the rampant insecurities of young romance while maintaining a complete adherence to the manga. And don’t get me started on BECK’s complete anthropology of youth subculture and Japan’s relation to foreign cultures.
If we were truly blessed, we would have framing and understanding of how to set up a narrative on that level, along with a characterization complexity that places people in relation to other real throbbing people.
SECTION 7: THE FUTURE
Understanding of within the genre, as well as around the genre, serves an understanding of what the Art can truly do. And its understanding of that that first leads to greater things.
But either way I guess for now its okay to look at idiotic SoLYARcds and their idiotic counterparts.