Dailymotion link (in case youtube goes down)
Over the past month or so I’ve been constantly watching romantic comedy anime, and in the process have come to some conclusions about what elements can make or break a series within the genre for me. These rules may or may not apply to you as well, though I think all of them could be seen as fairly universal elements that most people would appreciate.
#1. Establish what I might like about the characters up front.
It’s pretty difficult to become invested in a romance story if I don’t particularly like any of the characters. This might seem kind of like an obvious facet of storytelling in general, tho I think it’s perfectly possible to make a good story with a protagonist that you’re not necessarily meant to root for, or wherein the characters aren’t necessarily good or righteous people. However, unless your romance series is a hardcore drama about dealing with a toxic relationship, it stands to reason that I’d rather watch a romance between several good, likable people than I would between a bunch of assholes or people that I don’t care about.
Sakurasou Pet na Kanojo is a series with elements of romance, comedy, and drama, which I found myself putting down after a handful of episodes upon the realization that the story had already started diving into its drama before I had actually managed to care about any of its characters. The early episodes establish how each of the characters has a unique talent or attribute of genius–excepting the main character whose crisis is jealousy over everyone else’s talents–but it never really establishes any of them as good or interesting people. Once they started getting dramatic over their various personal hang-ups, I found myself emotionally left behind–as though I’d been expected to care about this drama simply because of its own existence. I suppose this wouldn’t be impossible if I found the drama to be particularly compelling, but it would’ve been downright easy if I’d been invested in the characters already.
Sakurasou felt like it was more concerned with using its characters as tools to talk about its themes of genius instead of treating them as people whose life story just happened to be one that evoked those kinds of themes. An excellent series which managed to have similar themes to Sakurasou while also telling a great story full of imminently likeable characters was Honey and Clover–but to use an even more potent example of how much power there is in likable characters, I want to discuss a series which doesn’t really have any particular theme at all: Kimi ni Todoke.
The opening episodes of Kimi ni Todoke may be a bit saccharine for some people, but they go out of their way to establish all of the main characters as exceptionally good-natured and decent people, while also inviting us to understand their general life problems. The main character, Sawako, is largely avoided and ignored because she looks like Sadako from The Ring, even though she really just lacks the social skills to communicate with anyone thanks to a lifetime of failed attempts to do so.
Sawako falls in love with an befriends a classmate named Kazehaya–unaware that he’s developed feelings for her as well–and Kazehaya helps her to improve her social relationship within her class and to make her first real friends in the form of Yano and Chizuru. It’s only after several episodes of establishing Sawako’s friendships with each of these characters and solidifying the group’s dynamic and chemistry that the first real dramatic conflict arises with some other girls spreading rumors that Sawako is using and abusing her friends. By the time this conflict emerged, I was already invested enough in Sawako’s friendships and how they were affecting her character that I wanted to know how the conflict would be resolved. I’d even go so far as to say that I made it through two whole seasons of Kimi ni todoke largely based on the goodwill which the series bought from me by intriguing me to the characters in those early episodes.
#2. Give the characters lives outside of their romance.
Unless your character’s dream is to be a stay at home parent for the rest of their lives, they should probably have some life goals outside of earning the affections of another character. Even if the series isn’t meant to explore those elements of a character’s life as much as it is the romantic elements, it’s important to at least introduce conflicts or aspects of the characters’ personalities which exist outside of that romance, especially because one of the most interesting things about relationships is how they affect the lives of the people involved.
I really wanted to like Ano Natsu de Matteru–a gorgeously-designed and animated romantic comedy which featured one of the most adorable childhood friend characters around. Unfortunately, said childhood friend makes for the perfect example of how to write the worst kind of romantic heroine–the kind whose only personality trait is that she loves the main character.
In seven episodes of this twelve-episode series, I did not learn a single thing about Tanigawa besides the fact that she was in love with the main character, and that the other guy in her group was in love with her. Both of these loves were unrequited–the main character’s affections were directed at an alien girl who fell from the sky, leaving Tanigawa to walk around flustered over whether or not to confess her feelings across the entire show.
The biggest issue here is that I have no real reason to root for Tanigawa over anything. I don’t expect her to win out in this romance; and since she doesn’t really have anything else going for her, I can’t really cheer her on in any other aspect of her life either. Even if she did hook up with the guy, I don’t have any sense of how this would change the two of them or what their relationship would be like, unless she really does just want to become a housewife.
A series which handled this very same type of character far more skillfully was ef ~a tale of memories, with the character Kei. Like Tanigawa, Kei is romantically obsessed with her childhood friend, Hiro; but unlike Tanigawa, Kei is a star basketball player, able to rebound on her passions and even to possibly find new love after her inevitable loss to the new girl in Hiro’s life. A large part of ef is even about deconstructing what Kei actually plans to do if she and Hiro ever hook up, by having her love rival, Miya, perform the kind of wifely activities which Kei always imagined herself performing, without ever realizing that she wasn’t any good at.
But in Kei’s case, it’s pretty clear that the series was more intent on analyzing her loss in the relationship as a childhood friend character, rather than how being in a relationship might affect her everyday life. A recent anime series which did a great job of establishing its characters’ personalities and lifestyles outside of their romantic relationship was Akagami no Shirayukihime.
Shirayukihime depicts the growing relationship between a strong-willed herbalist on the run from being forced into marriage by one prince, and the other prince who quickly grows romantically attached to their powerful friendship. It’s pretty easy to imagine each of these characters having lived their entire lives without ever meeting one-another. Shirayuki would have continued with her passion for herbalism regardless of anyone she met, and Zen would’ve continued to perform his duties as a prince while hanging out with his retainers on the side.
However, this isn’t to say that the relationship between the characters doesn’t change anything about them. Shirayuki slowly learns how to rely on others and to not bottle up all of her anxieties while trying to work through everything on her own, and Zen realizes the need to prioritize the things that he cares about in life, and to strike the right balance between fulfilling his duties as a prince and fulfilling his desires as a human being. In spite of the many challenges which their relationship brings into their lives, there is a sense that this relationship is ultimately improving both of the characters, even if they could have possibly lived their entire lives without ever meeting. This kind of brings me to my next point…
#3. Make me want the characters to be together.
Nothing is more effective for getting me involved in a romance series than having a personal desire to see the characters end up and stay together. There’s a pretty broad gradient in terms of how well different shows accomplish this, and it’s kind of rare for them to completely and totally fail unless the main characters are a bunch of unlikeable shitty pervert otaku like most of the cast of Saekano or your average harem series. I can only think of one show which managed to really fail at this without having unlikable characters, which was Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou.
Kawaisou is a weird case, because its main character’s romantic interest is not only one-sided, but incredibly distant. He’s got a crush on this classmate named Kawai who happens to live in the same apartment complex as him, but she’s barely even aware of his existence and completely unaware of his personality throughout the beginning of the series. In spite of being in love with her, the main guy really doesn’t know anything about her and spends much of his time curious about what she’s like; but the series itself doles out the details of her personality very scarcely over the course of their rare interactions–and she doesn’t even seem very interesting. The main guy doesn’t have any real personality outside of being comically victimized by most of the people in his apartment complex, and altogether the whole thing left me wondering if I was really supposed to care at all about whether or not these characters ever made any romantic progress.
Meanwhile, shows like Toradora, Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, and Lovely Complex have me rooting for the main characters to get together before the two of them have even fallen in love with one-another yet. These are series in which it’s clear that the main characters are able to function better as people when the other person is around–be that in the unsubtle way that Taiga would have questionably been able to make it through life had she never met Ryuuji, or the subtle ways that Yamada manages to bring out Shiraishi’s personality and give her something to look forward to, while Shiraishi gives Yamada a powerful support boost from the sidelines.
Most of these romantic comedies don’t give a lot of follow-through on what happens with the characters once they actually get together, but a series which started off with a couple getting married and then made me want to see them together forever was Danna ga Nani. This series takes a casual approach to its romance, once again portraying characters who could not only have easily lived out their entire lives without ever meeting, but whom we could imagine being better off in other circumstances–yet we see the countless ways that both of them help to improve and comfort one-another and end up really loving their time together, in possibly one of the most realistically-portrayed yet endlessly heartwarming love stories that I can think of.
#4. Something has to make progress, romantically or otherwise. (Unless that’s the joke.)
By far the biggest knock that most people have against romance in anime is that it take forever for anything to happen. This problem is far-reaching and often excruciating, but I don’t think that the problem is simply a lack of romantic progress. Plenty of romantic series manage to remain interesting by showing how the characters change and grow either in pursuit of their romance, or as a result of being around other characters in the show, regardless of whether they’ve managed to hook up already or not. I don’t feel miserable waiting for the romance in Toradora or Shirayukihime or Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches to be actualized, because I already can see how the characters are being affected by the progress in their relationship as it is.
Where romantic stories become painful is when I feel as though I’m sitting around waiting for something to change. A lot of the times, this happens in a romantic comedy or harem series as soon as the jokes get old. Characters will come inches away from finally revealing their feelings, only to comically misunderstand one-another and continue on with their frustrations–and that can be fine as long as the series is still funny and endearing in its own ways. Shows like Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun even seem built entirely around making fun of the idea that the characters will never end up together, and constantly manages to base fresh jokes around the comic misunderstandings of its main characters.
But when things go wrong in this department, oh boy do they go wrong. I can think of no better example than the second season of Kimi ni Todoke–and I guess you could say I’m going to spoil it, but this is the kind of spoiler that may save your life. It’s made clear from the very beginning of Kimi ni Todoke that Sawako and Kazehaya both love one-another–and based on their personalities, it’s impossible to imagine that anything is going to stop them from ending up together. The first season manages to dodge the issue of when they’ll hook up most of the time by focusing on other things: be those Sawako’s personal development, or her conflicts with other girls who are in love with Kazehaya, or the romantic side-stories of her friends. At the back end of the season, it seems like everything else has been dealt with and put aside, and all that’s really left is for the main characters to finally hook up; but, after three episodes of teasing, they don’t.
And then we get season 2. Even though the first season has put us in a position wherein the main characters are totally sure of their feelings and pretty clearly just one confession away from becoming a couple, the series drags its feet for eight more agonizing episodes by introducing all kinds of totally artificial-feeling conflicts in the name of keeping the couple apart. A guy shows up who’s interested in Sawako, Kazehaya for no reason gets all self-conscious about his feelings, and then, in one of the most stunningly infuriating moments that I’ve ever witnessed in a romantic series, both of the main characters manage to confess to one-another, while misinterpreting the other person’s confession as a rejection.
All of this treading water felt so in-my-face and like such a waste of time that by the time the main character were together, I didn’t even care anymore. So much of my good will towards these characters and their romance had been drained by the cruel way in which the series went about prolonging their inevitable relationship that I was just pissed off at all of it in the end. The last three episodes of the season actually did make progress and get things going again, but they should have happened eight, if not ten episodes earlier when it would have made sense narratively, instead of putting everything on hold in the name of squeezing out some unnecessary drama.
#5. Don’t forget that this is anime.
A vast majority of romantic anime is adapted from manga and light novels, and romance is not exactly the flashiest genre in terms of action, so it’s understandable that a lot of these series rely on dialog and narration pretty heavily to get their points across. But really, for a romantic anime to stand out as a romantic ANIME, as opposed to a vessel for drawing attention to its likely more narratively detailed source material, it needs to put the medium to use. How can it do that? By doing something like this:
[scene from Kimi ni Todoke ep 8]
This moment conveys the emotions that Sawako feels for Kazehaya purely through sound effects, music, animation and color design. We don’t need a narrator to tell us what’s going on, because we can feel it just by looking and listening.
Even a show that leans constantly on its dialog and narration can use the medium to its advantage in portraying a romantic scene. Take this confession from episode five of Bakemonogatari:
[scene from Bakemonogatari ep 5]
Senjougahara’s pose, Chiwa Saito’s performance of her strange english dialog, and the gorgeous golden light sparking in contrast with her deep purple hair all creates a moment that pops and is memorable forever in a way that it couldn’t have been if it were only text. There’s a reason that the Senjougahara figma comes with this as one of its poses, as advertised right on the box.
For one more example, Tamako Love Story is an anime-original film which is notable not so much for how it handles specific moments, but for how it handles its overall sense of pacing and tone. The film is very deliberately paced and drawn with nostalgic, intimate colors which actually look quite different from the brightly colorful TV series that it’s a sequel too, all in the name of creating the mood that it wanted for its romantic story. The equivalent to this is certainly possible in careful writing or illustration, but the exact tone and feeling of this film is something which I don’t think could be captured outside of its medium.
#6. Give me some conflict in the relationship.
This one is more of a bonus. I don’t think that every show needs to explore the conflicts which its characters may face from one-another or from external forces as a result of their relationship–especially if most of the series is spent just getting the two of them together–but I do think that reaching this stage can make a romance far more interesting.
I was actually pretty bothered by the lack of conflict in the central relationship in the early episodes of Ore Monogatari, which sees its main characters dating by episode three, and then conveys them as essentially perfect people who can do no wrong to one-another to the point that it strained the believability of the series a bit for me. I know that there is more conflict later into the series, but I’ve been more intrigued in the past watching conflicts in the relationships of other anime couples than I was while watching these characters being perfect for one-another.
Danna ga Nani once again works as a great counter-example here, as its main characters do make an exceptionally good couple, with their personalities seeming to compliment one-another, but they also run into a lot of questions about how their relationship can hold up under the weight of their lifestyles. The husband is kind of a skeevy otaku who can’t always keep himself employed, while the wife has a bit of a self-destructive streak and isn’t always sure if her life is going the way it should be. When the two of them find out that they’ll be having a child together, they have to take the conflicting parts of their relationship into consideration and work to compromise their faults and protect the stability of their relationship, which makes for some impressively compelling characterization in a series of three-minute comedy episodes.
So, those are the six biggest things that I want to see out of anime romance. Not all six of these elements are required for a series to be worthwhile, though all of them are preferred; and I think that the best of the best are the series which get all of them right. If you want to see that kind of coherence in action, then I recommend checking out the late-90s Gainax series, Kare Kano. This show managed to establish lovable, interesting characters right from the outset, each of whom has a lot going on in their lives, yet is unmistakably affected and improved by their involvement with one-another. Their relationship is compelling and manages to make progress at an unusually satisfying pace, without ignoring the conflicts that arise both from one-another and from the people around them, while director Hideaki Anno and his team at Gainax do what they do best at making sure that the imagery and sound design push the emotions of each scene up to the next level. Kare Kano has its own problems that result from production issues in the later part of the series, leading to a very unsatisfying conclusion; but nonetheless, I think the series at its best managed to do everything right in creating the kind of romantic comedy that I want to see more of.
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I do agree on many of these points and some of the examples you mentioned. Amusigly, i’d switch the negaitve examples of elements #1 and #3. Sakurasou had very likeable characters but I wasn’t sure I wanted the main couple to hook up. Lack of romantic chemistry, I guess, or at least overshadowed by other aspects of the story. Kawaisou is where I had some problems getting to like the characters, mainly because how abusive they were towards the main character, or by how distant and cold Kawai was for a great part of the show.
Partially disagree about Kare Kano. I say partially because in the beggining I really liked the show and the main pair. But due to those production issues in the latter half of the show, it kinda killed my affection for the first part of the series. What I remember now (a good +10years after watching it) is mostly a mess of super-deformed characters and a main romance that was seemingly forgotten somwhere in between.
I had remembered feeling the same, but those emotions turned out to be way overblown and overstated on my rewatch. I didn’t really dislike any part of the show, and when I knew that it ends the way it does I was so much less disappointed that it didn’t even matter. The show kind of wraps up comfortably in ep 18 and after that it’s mostly just that the pacing sucks because of how fast it was moving before. Those last episodes would have been fine if they were just 2 eps and if the show kept going from there, instead of being the ending and cutting off at such an awkward time.
Aargh! How can you write about anime romance without even mentioning Kimagure Orange Road? While I like a number of the shows you’ve mentioned, to my mind, none of them holds a candle to KOR.
I haven’t watched it yet.
Well, for what little my opinion matters, I very much recommend it to you! I think there’s a huge (and understandable) recency bias in pop cultural reviews, and while 30 years is an eternity in anime, or most any popular culture setting, it honestly isn’t a REALLY very long time in actual terms. While KOR very much looks dated, like any great work of art, the actual content is pretty timeless.
And its quintessential 1980s soundtrack is simply one of the best OSTs any anime has ever produced.
I think 2 animes rival Kare kano are Skip beats and Toradora, though I feel very ambivalent about Minorin loving Takasu but giving him to Taiga. If Takasu cherishes Taiga already why that act of pity. but overall those shows had great cast of friends, supporters and I forever remember how skip beats link Kyokos acting with her life and progress.