If you’re not into fanservice, To-LOVE-Ru is not for you. This manga pretty much exists for the singular purpose of showing cute, mostly naked girls as much as possible through silly and ridiculous circumstances, and while the characters are decently likable and it has its funny moments, I really can’t imagine getting into this manga if you don’t appreciate the cute, scantily-clad girls. The strength of this series really lies in how well Yabuki Kentaro can draw female bodies, and the story is well aware of this, operating without any intentions of being much more than a series of excuses to get the girls out of their clothes.
As far as the fanservice goes, I rather enjoyed the almost innocent, youthful approach that To-LOVE-Ru takes towards it. I mean there’s no denying that most of the scenarios are incredibly stupid and the characters and their reactions to things that happen are completely unrealistic, but there’s this very real sense to me that the creators of this series had the simple, straightforward desire to make a story that young boys could read to indulge in cute girls. It really does feel like pornography for twelve year-olds, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense that I possibly can.
At the risk of going into TMI territory, when I was a kid porn was kind of scary to me. I wasn’t old enough to understand sex and how it worked, and so much of it seemed seedy, dark, and weird. I was more able to understand simple stuff like cute naked girls in my favorite manga. Even though they were being sexualized, it almost felt incidental, like it wasn’t really a big deal or something. That’s how To-LOVE-Ru feels to me–like something that a kid could read because they like the cute naked girls, but without feeling dirty or overexposed for doing it. That’s what I mean when I say there’s a certain innocence to it.
After all, the artwork is very bright and the story doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. It’s full of fun, kinetic little action scenes and bright, bubbly characters of varying degrees of interest. Most of the chapter storylines are incredibly cliche, but I think if I’d read this manga when I was 12, even recognizing some of these cliches, the series would’ve been just funny enough and had just enough action to have captured my interest. As an adult, most of it falls kinda flat, and I’d say I was only able to power through ninety chapters of it because it reads incredibly fast. Dialog is pretty sparse, with lots of large images, so I could read each chapter in a little over a minute; meaning it only took a few hours to power through like nine volumes. There were also little nuggets of things that I enjoyed, such as some of Lala’s creative inventions, and the sub-plot about Lala’s bodyguard, Zastin, becoming an assistant manga artist working for Rito’s dad.
Even though this manga is all about the typical misunderstandings and confusion that any romantic comedy love-polygon manga is full of, it actually manages to feel like it’s making very slow, small progress as it goes along. Characters actually change and grow little by little, and their feelings never return to a previous default state the way they’d tend to in something like, say, Ranma ½. That’s not to say that this series is better than Ranma, since Ranma had way more interesting and original ideas with its characters and storylines, but I do think that it’s a breezier read that lends itself better to the fanservice-driven storyline it has.
Around where I stopped reading though, it seemed like the artwork was moving in a direction of having more and more screentone, giving it a darker look that didn’t fit the breeziness of it as well, and as more and more characters got introduced and the same plotlines kept getting recycled, I found myself losing interest. I did find the story of how To-LOVE-Ru stopped running Shounen Jump to be one hell of a juicy tabloid story, which I recommend looking into if you’re interested, and I had a look at the sequel manga, To-LOVE-Ru Darkness, which currently runs in Jump Square.
If the first series was porn for twelve year-olds, Darkness is porn for the older teens who’ve grown up reading the series. As the artwork has improved, so to has the fanservice gotten way more intense, detailed, and all-encompassing. Some of the breeziness and comedy trappings have been softened, while the service-driven romantic angle is pumped up, along with some of the character development aspects. Unlike the first series, I probably would’ve felt dirty reading this as a kid, and looking at it now it just comes off as a lot less readable than the first series, and makes me wonder why I wouldn’t just look up porn instead. Although honestly, this is close enough that it might not be bad porn in itself.
I also had a look at the To-Love-Ru anime adaptation and it just didn’t work for me at all. Even though the animation looks pretty good in the OVAs and the colors are nice, the lineart of the characters just can’t live up to Yabuki’s abilities, and in a series that hinges entirely on how well the artist can draw boobs, this is pretty much a dealbreaker as far as I’m concerned. The anime slows down a lot of scenes massively in an attempt to give more weight to the emotional moments, but it comes off as tone-deaf in a series where the character arcs play second fiddle to the fanservice. It’s a lot easier to read something stupid when it’s light and fluffy and doesn’t take itself seriously or take up much of your time.
I know that the anime series has a number of filler episodes and changes up certain events, but the first episode of the OVA, which would be about 26 episodes deep into the anime, was covering the same events as right where I stopped reading the manga. That’s about eight hours worth of anime compared to less than four hours of manga, which is a time investment I just can’t possibly see myself making into a series like this.
Overall, I didn’t dislike To-LOVE-Ru, though it couldn’t hold my attention through to the end. In Shounen Jump terms, I would say that it had about two successful years with me before it dropped into consideration for cancellation with my interests. There’s another manga series called Yomeiro Choice, which is very similar to To-LOVE-Ru in terms of tone, sci-fi elements, pacing, and fanservice, but as I read To-LOVE-Ru, I kept thinking not only of how Yomeiro Choice one-ups it with the quality of its fanservice, but was also more inventive and memorable all-around, and I figured I wouldn’t have much reason to come back to To-LOVE-Ru knowing that it had such fierce competition.