There was something so overpoweringly attractive going on in Toradora! that I watched it straight through twice.
I mean, who knows? Might have been COVID coma at work. But it managed to transcend both cute and saccharine, and that’s a damn good trick.
Wasn’t the plot. Wasn’t the setting. Wasn’t the theme. Nope. If you like Toradora!, it’s because you like Taiga (Tora) and Ryuji (Dora), and specifically because you like them as a couple.
Structurally, on the surface this is a story you’ve heard a thousand times. Well, maybe a hundred, at least. You know, the friends who are so busy helping each other hook up with the people they are crushing on that they don’t notice they are in love with each other. Seriously, how many times have you seen that plot? They’re both idiots and everyone can see it but them, right? Then they hook up for a happy ending, right?
But Toradora! was deeper than that. Let me show you.
Nothin’ up my sleeve…
I’ve got to go back a ways to make sense of this stuff. How far back? All the way back to Neon Genesis Evangelion. The Greeks described five kinds of love, and we saw them all in EVA. Storge, agape, xenia, eros and philia, right? Keep your eyes peeled, this will matter in a second …
So anyway, there are these two high school kids who live next door to one another, Ryuji and Taiga. Ryugi’s a pretty independent fellow since his mom is a ditz and his dad is out of the picture. Oh, and he’s a big guy, very intimidating-looking, a bit dragon-y. Ryugi is crushing hard on his classmate Minori, the class jock, a cutie-pie who is dangerous with a softball bat.
Across the alley lives Taiga. Taiga is a tiny girl (less than five feet tall and skinny) but ferocious like a tiger; in fact, her nickname around the school is “Palm-top Tiger.” She knows no fear and beats the crap out of about half the cast at one point or another. But both her parents absent so she’s living alone and she’s just no damn good at it; she lives on take-away noodles and as to hygiene, well, the first time Ryugi visits her apartment he holds his nose and exclaims, “It smells like ass in here!”
Since he’s smelling dirty dishes in the sink I think something was lost in the translation. I’ll talk about that some other time.
Anyway, to make her parallel to Ryugi, Taiga is crushing on Yusaku, which is doubly ironic since when Yusaku was crushing on her, she blew him off. Oh, that karma, come to bite her on the butt!
Long story short, Taiga and Ryugi become friends, good friends, the kind of friends who take joy in seeing the other happy, so Ryuji pulls all sorts of stunts to put Taiga next to Yusaku, and Taiga does the same for Ryuji vis á vis Minori. But this ain’t going anywhere: Yusaku is hot for Sumire, the class president, and Minori really isn’t ready for love. (Frankly, from an emotional standpoint she’s the least mature of the bunch.)
So, Taiga and Ryuji are really good friends. That’s one kind of love, philia. They are looking for a second kind of love, romance, or eros, and after they have struck out with their crushes often enough, and after they are beaten on the heads by clue-by-fours (Minori unloads on Ryuji with both barrels, ka-BLAM), they realize they have romantic love for one another.
Ho hum. Seen it. Remember Sleepless in Seattle?
What makes Toradora! transcend that old story is that the writers layered a third kind of love onto Taiga and Ryuji’s relationship, then point it out, and leave you to figure out that it’s not what it seems.
Let’s start with this: Taiga may be a high school senior but in a lot of ways she’s just a kid, and I mean a KID, not just a legal minor. She’s tiny, completely flat-chested, violent. She has no self-control whatsoever and doesn’t care who knows it. She screams and she throws temper tantrums.
You know who she reminds me of? Chibiusa from Sailor Moon. And Chibiusa is five. FIVE. That’s how old Taiga acts.
And Ryuji is an adult before his age. His mother, Yasuko, is a complete air head, a high-school dropout who works as an exotic dancer. She does not clean, or cook, or even get up in the morning; Ryuji has to do all those things for her and himself. In a lot of ways, Ryuji is the parent and Yasuko is the child.
Now you see it, right? Ryuji fills a parent role and Taiga a child role, so inside their relationship Ryuji acts as parent and Taiga acts as child, even though they are the same age. And that’s true: He cooks for her, lends her his umbrella, makes sure she gets to school, and that she has a lunch when she gets there. When she throws a tantrum he holds her back and when she breaks down he soothes her. Parent and child. Type of love: storge.
It’s not like THAT’s the secret that makes their relationship and the show work, either. It’s obvious. Even Ami, the class mean girl, notices it. She tells Ryuji that he can’t be Taiga’s father, that it’s bad for her.
I’m not so sure of that. Taiga wants Ryuji to be her father. At one point she even gives him her father’s clothes to wear. Nothing subtle about that, right? But that’s our Palmtop Tiger!
But here’s the gimmick that makes it all fresh and original: the parental relationship between Ryuji and Taiga isn’t Daddy-Daughter.
Right? They aren’t just parent and child, they are gender role reversed. Look at what Ryuji does. He cooks. He cleans. (He is not the bread winner. I’m not sure that matters.) And he is a calming influence in Taiga. That’s what stereotypical mothers do. Geez, if he was a REAL dragon he’d be Tohru!
And Taiga: she’s violent, aggressive. She’s a slob. She lives on canned food and takeaway. Geez, I’m a better cook than she is! She holds down a sociological role that is typically male, and specifically teen-aged male. If not pre-teen male.
That gender-role reversal is one seriously cute move, and it’s the tension that underlies the series. They’re so noticeably a parent-child unit that the writers had Ami point it out, but to keep the wool down around our eyes she gets the genders wrong. Ami’s right: Ryuji can’t be Taiga’s father. He’s not. He’s her mother. Or, to be precise, he plays the role of her mother.
See how creative tension works? You watch Ryuji and Taiga thinking “Daddy-Daughter,” but that’s not right. It feels wrong. So you’re left saying, “Wait, what’s wrong?” That’s tension, and it’s a good good thing.
So what’s right?
We love Ryuji and Taiga because they have three kinds of love: They are the best of friends (philia). They will be married (eros). And they are … no, not Daddy-Daughter, but Mommy-Son … sociological relatives (storge).
Very cute, very clever, and very, very sweet.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.