Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

The Tatami Galaxy

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A common misconception is that being experimental makes your work inaccessible. Too many experimental works got this reputation, and too many people now think difficulty is praiseworthy. It’s as if jumping through 50 hoops somehow increases the value of 20 dollars. It may increase perceived value, but that’s not the same. It just means your mind distorted the real value so you won’t feel bad about wasting time.

Difficulty can’t be the main aim of any piece of art. Art is a way to communicate ideas. The reason we seek these experimental/non-traditional/avant-garde methods is not because of their difficulty. These new approaches are meant to enhance a story, to shed new light on the same ideas. Experimentation shouldn’t draw you away from an anime, it should make you curious and involved in it.

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Tatami Galaxy is a perfect example of an anime that’s both experimental and, at the same accessible. It follows a non-linear narrative, whose structure has significant meaning. The characters all look weird, but that’s only makes them more lively. The characters themselves are weird, but people are weird. All their quirks aren’t there just to make them different from one another, but related directly to their personalities.

Jougaski’s love for a doll is directly related to how he’s an idol for women. Akashi is cold and intelligent, but it doesn’t help her when moths are around. Ozu is a scumbag, but even scumbags like him can love.

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The way they are drawn is also important to their personality. Anyone who thinks character design isn’t important has no business watching anime, with Tatami Galaxy a strong argument for the importance of character design. The designs are expressive for their personalities – Jougaski looks perfect, Akashi is pretty in a low-key way, Higuchi looks both absent-minded and too wise to care. Look at the shut eyes and the small smile. It’s right between a wise master and an oblivious buffoon.

The designs are both cartoonish and realistic at the same, and that’s whole approach of the show. It manages to be realistic by being cartoonish. Too many times we see attempts at realism by being ‘low-key’, like in Mushishi or Texhnolyze. In order to be ‘realistic’ you first have to ask yourself what is the reality your story is about. Then you seek methods, techniques, and cues that make us believe in your reality.

Life is weird, but college life is especially weird. It’s not a matter of life and death, but it’s a constant chase after an ideal. Even outside college, the dream of a life of constant partying, joy and excitement is common.

In the age of social media, this theme of ‘rose-colored life’ is more common. People often post only the good stuff and inflate them. We follow celebrities more closely than ever. Sometimes celebrities rise out of that social media. As a satire of that desire, Tatami Galaxy is dead-on.

It’s not so much about choices, because whatever Watashi chooses the results remain fairly similar. It’s also not about some big philosophy about Destiny and Fate, because every time Watashi fails it’s in different ways. The reason he fails so much is because of his desire. This dream of the rose-colored life is his undoing.

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Whether it exists or not, the anime doesn’t answer. It shouldn’t, since easy answers have no place in a great story like this. What it asks us to do look beyond our huge ambitions. The vivid, wacky art style is meant to portray a reality that’s varied, full of weirdness and ups and downs. Notice how the colors constantly change. Life can’t be ‘rose-colored’. It has too many colors.

The message is, thankfully, not just ‘enjoy your life and be thankful for it’. As I said, there’s no room for easy answers in stories that ask questions. Failure is a running theme and the anime is aware you can’t avoid failure and how painful it is. Characters who should lead ‘rose-colored life’ don’t lead them. Jougaski has plenty of things that make him ‘not a real man’. Hanuki may be a sexy, fun woman but she still falls into bad relationship. Ozu may be cunning, but he can also fall apart when loves takes over.

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All the colors, weirdness, and personification of a sex drive only lead to one conclusion. Life is a mess. You can enjoy it not by stop aspiring. You don’t even need some sort of ‘mythical balance’. The world is full of things, of Ozu’s who will knock us down and Higuchi’s who will babble nonsense. It’s about trying to enjoy it despite all these things, to sort out the mess and find what fits you. You can be life-affirming without being shallow

Some have pointed out that the monologues can be too fast. At first it’s annoying, but it quickly dies down. Watashi still talks pretty fast, but the monologues become less dominant and slightly slower. It was easy getting over.

The Tatami Galaxy is worth all the hype surrounding it. It manages to be so many things at the same time, and never losing control. It’s realistic without being dry. The narrative is experimental, but in a meaningful way rather than an obscure one. The character design is weird, but it’s for expressive purposes. For all the reputation it gained as an ‘intellectual anime’, it’s so accessible I’d recommend it to anyone, even people who aren’t into anime.

5 tatami rooms out 5

Stella’s Women Academy, High School Division Class C-3

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It’s so easy to write this off based on appearance. Then again, a lot of people are fooled by realistic design that an anime is deep. Stella’s Women Academy is simple and doesn’t aspire to much, but hits every target it aims for.

In truth, it’s not just an anime about cute girls who play with guns. The cuteness factor is there (since we in the West are still impressed by macho bullshit, it’s a plus). What drives the series, though, are the characters.

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The story is simple because it’s a very humane one. It puts a bunch of personalities and examine them, using the theme of competition. What dominates is the characters’ reaction to every situation. Although external events pop once in a while like competitions, it’s not noticeable. They only happen to develop the characters. Feeling like you’re not enough or being narrow-minded or being laid-back are more crucial to the story’s progress.

It draws comparison to Ping Pong. There are even pseudo-artistic moments where the anime tries hard to be taken seriously. Thankfully they vanish quickly. Moments of confrontation, where we see the relationships change are more meaningful and profound than any weird-psychedelic-vision-thing.

The anime is full of such moments. Every episode is a clear progression of Yura’s personality. It is such tight pacing. Even the best anime don’t have pacing that is this focused. The series catches you off-guard when it moves from the cuteness of the first episode to the serious conflicts. It does it only in 6 episodes.

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The tonal shift isn’t jarring. It adds depth. Life isn’t monotonous except in some circumstances. It’s mostly ups and downs. These tonal shift add realism to an anime that at first seemed only comic. It makes all the drama later believable and engrossing.

It’s an impressive feat. The characters shouldn’t work. They’re neither psychological portraits nor exaggerated oddballs. They still manage to feel real. This thanks to the work of the voice-actors. Most of the attributes – Ren’s gentleness, Honoko’s mother-figure, Karila’s toughness is expressed by these voices. Even when the characters all react positively to something, the voice-actors add their little touch to create distinction.

Yura is the highlight of the series though, and part of what prevents it from being brilliant. Going back to the comparison with Ping Pong, that anime explored every character it had. It wasn’t satisfied with just giving them distinct personalities. They each had their own journey.

Stella’s Women Academy is more narrow. Yura is the only one who goes through a major change. She’s a more believable and realistic character than Ping Pong‘s Tsukimoto, even if she’s less psychological. The changes in her are more apparent and clearer. The anime doesn’t rely on inner-monologues or visions (Okay, there are a few of them but not too many) to show us who Yura is. It’s the constant interaction with the cast.

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Why make the decision to have such a narrow focus? Knowing your limitations is important, but great characters were the strength of the show. Everyone was flawed in a way and could be improve. The writers know how to develop a simple character, and using their talent only for one character is a waste.

Since there are guns in the anime, there are also action scenes. They’re the least flashiest action you will see, but somehow they work. Again, the simple and low-key approach is an advantage. The scenes are clear and easy to follow. They’re made of set-pieces which progress to a conclusion. Some tactics and strategy are involved, but they’re complex enough to be interesting and simple enough not to drag the anime down.

The overall message of ‘real winning is having fun’ may seem simplistic, but it actually goes deeper than that. It doesn’t pretend the world doesn’t have conflict. The message is that we need to understand when we’re in a serious conflict where we must win, and when we’re in a fun activity.

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That’s the fault of both Rin and Sonora. Sonora just wants to have fun, so she doesn’t fight when she has to. She lets people leave freely even though it harms both the club and themselves. Rin sees everything in terms of conflict. For all her victories, her existence is joyless. She can win all she wants but what does she has in the end?

is not a huge anime. It’s a simple story about a person with no confidence getting drunk with power and then waking up. It works. Its focus may be narrow but nothing is missed, no idea is undeveloped and no moment is wasted. The only thing that prevents it from being a classic is that it never tried to be. Still, even the greatest of anime don’t hit their target dead-center like this one does.

3.5 girls with guns out of 5

Ping Pong the Animation

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By the sixth time the characters talked about how talented and brilliant Tsukimoto is, I had to make sure I wasn’t watching a battle shounen series. At least the observers in Medabots looked anxious and worried. Ikki fought against tough enemies and had to find chinks in their armor. Here, Tsukimoto hits the ball a few times, push up his glasses and walks away. Not smiling did not add depth to the character.

There’s a brilliant story here somewhere. The story follows a cast that each has a different approach to the sport. This is an archetype that gives you so much do it never gets old. Often, the series understands how to use it. There are about five different viewpoints here. Each is unique in its way, and each is presented as reasonable. The creators never rely on caricatures. They rely more on super-talented protagonists and an unorthodox art style that adds nothing.

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No comment

Tsukimoto and Peco are both talented people who we are supposed to cheer for because they’re talented. While Peco’s lively energy is fun, it’s not enough to drive a main character. It’s barely a quirk for a supporting one. Tsukimoto is supposed to be unique with how he refuse to smile, but his character never settles on pretentious moron or angsty teenager. Both would’ve been fine, but at best the series makes him the former. It also takes his pretense seriously.

There is nothing exciting or valueable in being unenthusiastic about life. Tsukimoto walks around with an apathetic expression and doesn’t seem to like anything. His attitude towards life is the same thing that made Joy Division successful, but Joy Division didn’t just sell indifference. They explored that attitude.

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Color me unimpressed

People who reach such a state probably have something in the past that made them this way. They would also lead terribly dull and sad life. The idea that such a person can be so talented is far-fetched. Wouldn’t winning games require some sort of drive? People sometimes hate what they’re good at, but that’s at least an emotion. Ping Pong wants us to believe that a walking embodiment of Joy Division’s classic album is somehow a champion in table tennis.

A bullying story is tacked on at the end. It’s a predictible story that shows us that the kid was disliked, but never the horrible reality of it. Tsukimoto even gets a cheerful person to stick with him. Both of them turn out to be extremely talented in ping pong. Where’s the struggle?

Peco faces losing for the first time and gets bummed, but this is where their troubles end. They’re celebrities and heroes in the eyes of everyone, but not heroes that are uncomfortable in their position. They’re not like Kazama, who was driven to succeed to cover up his emotional troubles. Kazama is a champion who uses victories as a way to find happiness that he can’t achieve. His talent is part of his struggle.

Ping Pong also has a strange view of talent. Talent is something you either have or don’t, and no amount of practice can make up for it. It’s a fatalist view, and not a good one. It could be talent is something you’re born with, but how will you know if you’ll never try to prove it? Indifference like Tsukimoto’s rarely produces noteable people.

What’s thrilling in such stories is not to see the characters win. All the creators have to do is just write that the characters won. What’s interesting is their struggle, their view on victory and why they’re doing it. Their reaction to losing or winning is what makes things exciting. China, Sakuma and the long-haired dude all have such an arc. One uses the sport to return back home. One uses it to lift up his own low self-confidence. Another one is on an eternal search for meaning.

Their stories are far more exciting and humane than Tsukimoto’s/Peco’s. They are stories of people like us, rather than two people who found out they’re talented. It’s amazing how similar it is to cookie-cutter heroic stories. Substitute ‘talent in ping pong’ with ‘magic sword’, ‘victory’ for ‘saving the world’ and it turns out the anime isn’t so unique as it looks.

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Bruce Willis?

How it looks is a big discussion point, but not that exciting. The only good thing about it is how unorthodox it is. The character design is a weird take on realism that looks grotesque without bridging the gap. What especially sticks out are the lips, which look huge. The sketchiness also makes the character design inconsistent. In too many scenes, the characters look like blobs.

This is not minimalism. They look like shapes drawn in a few seconds. The roughness achieves nothing. It could be an expression of the character’s imperfection, but the story disagrees with that. Peco and Tsukimoto are heroic champions. It doesn’t achieve any type of warmth because it’s too stylized and distant. All the rough lines and emphasized lips don’t give it the elegant simplicity that saved Mushishi’s character design. Being different is great, but if it doesn’t contribute to the story it’s just a fancy cover. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it other than a sketchy look that achieves nothing.

The animation is different, and Ping Pong fares better there. The series overcomes one of anime’s main flaws – its static animation. Most anime are fairly static, with more focus on design rather than motion. While Ping Pong fails in design, it’s a total success in kinetic energy. The Ping Pong matches are stylized action scenes that rely on visual expressions, not coherency.

Animating a sports match as it looks in reality is pointless. If you want to watch a real game, you’ll watch a real one. The only reason we watch a sports story is because of what the sport means to the characters. Each match is animated with focus on its place in the character development. The matches are the same in what happens in them. They all consist of people hitting the ball. The difference between them is the meaning, and so every match is an engrossing action scene that leaves everything else in the dust. It doesn’t just set the blueprint for how to animate sport scenes but how to animate action scenes in general.

Ping Pong is not the peak of anime. It’s not even among the more unusual of its type. Despite trying to create its own rules, not enough of them serve the story and it falls back on sport prodigies. The exploration of that type doesn’t go deep enough. Still, it has a great cast of side-characters and fantastic action scenes. Its attempts at understanding its cast are admirable, and so it relies more on developed characters than emotional manipulation. It’s not a milestone, but there’s enough to enjoy here.

3.5 chinese people out of 5