Toradora Box Set 2

My sons are 7 and 2 now - not exactly ready to head for college. Yet it's easy to see how quickly they're growing up. I can't help but pray that they will avoid some of the pitfalls of my growing-up experience, the bullying and general obnoxiousness. At the same time I also pray that they will grow wise enough to stand up to their troubles rather than to hide from them...because, counterintuitively, running away from our problems can actually make them multiply and grow into monsters.

What makes me think of this is the second half of Toradora. If the first half of the 25-episode series was about establishing the players and their complicated relationships, the second half is about character growth and payoff. That payoff comes as the group of friends starts coming to terms with who they are and their inability to deal with the realities of their lives. For a show I never expected to watch at all - and one with a lead I disliked quite a bit at the beginning - I am really, really impressed. (By the way, I'd suggest reading the review of the first Toradora set to get a background and to understand the strengths and weakness of the opening half.)

The second Toradora box begins with our tsundere heroine Taiga being turned into a totem of sorts...after the school festival, people start believing that if they touch her, they'll be granted certain happiness with their special someone. This is a rather inauspicious start to the collection, but the storyline quickly morphs as Yusaku (the supposedly studious, serious one in the group) suddenly dyes his hair a bright yellow, refuses to run for student body president, and runs away from home. To try and spur him back into the election, Taiga runs for the position, promising an agonizing year under her reign if voted in. As that storyline resolves and Yusaku explains his behavior, we head into a series of episodes revolving around Christmas, New Years, and the class trip. Over the holidays, the group dynamics shift as Ryuji and Taiga realize just who they've really fallen for...and as Valentines' Day arrives, the emotions they've been burying about everything in their lives finally surface.

The second half of Toradora shows the same quality as the first. On the plus side, there wasn't ever a time when the animation quality dipped (as I noted in one of the opening episodes). On the negative side, the new OP/ED songs introduced in this collection aren't nearly as catchy as those that came before, though they grew on me. It still strikes me as a beautifully animated series; there were times I just loved watching the visuals. I really have no complaints in that arena.

What took me by surprise was just how quickly I hooked back into these characters after a couple of months between sets. That was partly because they start showing signs of maturity. Had Taiga remained the same throughout the whole, I probably wouldn't have thought all that highly of it. Taiga doesn't radically change; she is still violent and ill-tempered. But Taiga begins to use her temper in constructive ways, as we see in the student council plotline. She also shows significant signs of softening, and by the ending, she has begun dealing with the core reasons why she is who she is. You may not like her, but you can admire that she is in the process of becoming someone different, someone less controlled by the events of the past.

Ryuji's arc isn't as profound as Taiga's, but it is still significant. His changes of heart and the eruption of sentiment about his mother's irresponsibility as he tries to plan for the future realistically reflect the vagaries of teen life. And that's why I really enjoyed the second felt real. Sometimes too real, in fact. The last few episodes aren't overblown, but they do involve a few gut punches.

If there are any problems with the second half, it's that certain persons become secondary. Minori doesn't show up a whole lot or change all that much for reasons eventually revealed; however, she was a delight in the first half, and her absence is noticed. Ami doesn't fall off the planet, but her part is muted as well. If you fell for these two in the first half, you might feel the second half drives off the cliff. While I missed them, the show simply didn't move in their direction, and I was OK with that.

A couple more caveats...the first half and the second half are surprisingly different. I loved the second half, whereas the first half was merely good. I would guess that others might feel the same way in reverse. And if you have a stake in where the relationships finally wind up, you might be infuriated. There are a variety of surprises - the ending caught me off-guard - but figuring out the final relationship score is not one of them.

But what a treat this latter half is to watch! I watched nine episodes on the same day and was quite bummed I had to wait to watch the last three for another 72 hours. The episodes just flew by. I became emotionally invested. That's truly a great sign in my opinion. That investment came about because I feel I know these folks. Toradora isn't based on comedic coincidences or humorous misunderstandings. Instead, it's about believable teenagers who long desperately for someone to love, who hold back not only for fear of rejection but also because they don't want to hurt their closest friends. It's not profound, just genuine. Even the humor, which occasionally goes over the top, organically originates within the relationships. I appreciated that.

Before I close, I do also need to note that once again, NIS America has created a fantastic box set. While I wish that the boxes had the title on the long side - these sets would fit better on a tall bookcase rather than a standard DVD shelf - they look great, they are incredibly sturdy, and the memory book inside is a helpful guide. Fans should have no problem laying out the cash for such an excellent package.

Toradora may frustrate those who've become cynical about relationship dramas and the dreaded tsundere stereotype. But for me, the finale of Toradora was truly, unpredictable, quirky, and ultimately lovable. If only every anime ended this well...

Toradora Box Set 2 -- mild profanity, mild adult themes -- A