How To Build a Series: Toradora

I always like a nice case of Stealth Storytelling.

Look, in a lot of ways, when you have a really basic story what you’re really exploring is character development, right? Like there’s this novel I’ve been working on. It’s just a Comedy: Girl meets Boy, Girl loses Boy, Girl gets Boy. Like, it’s that simple. I mean, heck, it’s a ROMANCE. The genre DEMANDS that Hikari end up with Junichi.

Yeah, those are their names.

What made writing the story interesting from my perspective is not the plot but the characters, and especially Hikari, who does a lot of growing up as she learns to deal with love. Character development, right?

So we’ve got Toradora, which is an anime about growing up.

Gack. Growing up. What a snoozer. What are we going to do to jazz that up into something someone will want to watch?

Well, first, let’s get us a Look-At-Me girl. I mean, that will get everyone looking at her and away from the plot.

It’s okay, you can say it. Taiga Aikawa.

But think about it: she’s the center of attention at every point. She’s pretty, violent, assertive, has a hair trigger, and is probably headed to prison due to her poor impulse control. I mean, can you imagine Taiga once she’s old enough to drink??? With her body weight, the combination of two beers and the guy at the next barstool attempting to cop a feel would be capital-T Toxic. She’ll be in jail for thirty days instantly. More if she hurts him badly.

But although the story centers around the Taiga/Ryuji romance, the fact is that as a character Taiga doesn’t really go anywhere. The first time we see her she kicks Ryuji in the face. The last time we see her she headbutts him in the face. Emotionally she’s the same eight-year-old boy at the end of the story that she was at the beginning.

But while you’re LOOKING at Taiga, what’s happening to the others?

They’re growing up. But they’re all growing up in different ways.

From left: Ami, Yusaku, Minori, Taiga, Ryuji

In a lot of ways Minori is my favorite non-Ryuji character, because she’s upbeat and active, and her activity hides a bundle of neuroses. She’s always doing something, as though she’s running from something, and when people’s conversations go in uncomfortable directions she has no problem cutting them off.

(Aside: The first time I watched Toradora I thought she was hiding latent homosexuality, trying to avoid getting in touch with that part of herself. But that didn’t hold up for me the second time I saw it. Was that just me or is there some of that in her?)

What Minori is going through is realizing that her future is uncertain, that the time is coming where she’ll be an adult. And she doesn’t know what that holds for her, and it frightens her, so she throws herself into things to stop herself from thinking about it. But, frightened or not, she’s going. She’s determined. She’s Minori.

Love her. She’s a brilliant supporting character.

Then there’s Yusaku. He takes on responsibilities, like being Student Council Vice-President, because he hopes they will bring him in touch with the girl he adores, Sumire, the Student Council President. But alas, when she leaves him to go to America, he throws it away, dyes his hair blond, tries to just give up on his life because of all the time he’s wasted doing things just to impress a girl who’s not impressed.

When he discovers, of course, is that things aren’t that easy. Responsibility isn’t about attracting babes; responsibility is being strong enough to be willing to do things for other people. And the reward for it isn’t a date with Sumire, it’s the emotional satisfaction of doing things for other people. He learns what it means to be an adult, in other words.

That’s some pretty strong growing up there. As I read it, Sumire really does love him; at the end his plan is to go to America himself to be with her. Good for both of them. But he’s going as a grown adult.

Ami is a pretty easy one. Being a famous model and all that goes with that has made her old before her time, but also isolated her from her peers. After all, she knows she’s better than they are: she’s prettier and more successful at this stage of life, and everyone tells her so. She’s aloof and she can be nasty because she just doesn’t need those little people.

But Ami comes to realize is that she can have friends who like her for herself, not just because she’s pretty, or pretty famous. At the moment of truth, when the group needs to get Ryuji and Taiga to understand what they mean to each other, she’s part of the team, one of the gang, a true friend who wants her true friends to be happy.

And then there’s Ryuji, who, like Ami, is already pretty grown. He is very much a mother figure to both Taiga and also his own mother: He feeds them and cleans them and makes them do what they need to do.

But when we meet him he has a crush on Minori. No, he doesn’t love her, or if he does, it’s puppy love. But in the course of the series he starts to understand real love, adult love, is more than hand-holding and necking at the back of the auditorium. He comes to understand that true love is an emotional connection in which two people need each other to be whole.

Poor bastard, for him that’s Taiga. He’s going to be bailing her out of jail forever.

But you see what’s happened here? Toradora looks like a silly, lightweight story about a crazy little girl and the big lug who likes her for no reason that makes any sense. I mean, it’s in the name, right? Tora is Taiga and Dora is Ryuji.

But it’s only about their love story in that their love is part of Ryuji’s story. It’s really about kids, and what they go through as they grow up.

Everyone except Taiga. She doesn’t grow up.

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.

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