Toradora!, Vol. 4

By Yuyuko Takemiya and Yasu. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Seven Seas. Translated by Jan Cash & Vincent Castaneda. Adapted by Will Holcomb.

This fourth volume of Toradora! does a very good job of playing to the series’ strengths. The core of it is getting the five main characters to become closer and bond as friends, and it achieves that. That said, there is also the romantic comedy/drama part of it, and that’s even better. It was always going to be hard for a series where the winning pairing is literally in the name to try to have “who will they end up with?”, but this volume comes closer than any so far. Ryuuji is still crippled by his awkwardness around Minori, but when he tries to can actually have a really meaningful conversation with her where she opens up (obliquely) about her own insecurities. As for Ami, not only does Ryuuji force her to open up a bit more (a very little bit more) about her own insecurities, but she also flat out states she thinks Minori and him would be a bad match, and that he should hook up with her. As for Taiga? Well, there’s the puppy dream.

The puppy dream is great. Starting off as ridiculous, with both Taiga and Ryuuji completely disgusted by it, the reader is immediately thinking “they’re sharing dreams now!”. By the end of the book, Ryuuji is seeing how the dream could also be taken as really sweet and familial. That said, for the most part the Taiga/Ryuuji antics take a backseat here… or at least the boil settles down to a mild simmer, as there are no shortage of scenes showing them being each other’s perfect halves. Taiga fares far less well in the romance department here, partly as she’s still cripplingly shy and partly as Kitamura is even more Kitamura than usual, complete with accidental flashing. I do sort of wonder how clued in he is to everything going on around him – like Minori, he thinks that Ryuugi and Taiga are meant to be a couple, if not already, but it’s not clear that he’s realized Taiga’s feelings.

That said, this is Minori’s book in the end, as she shows off a fragile vulnerability here, and there’s the first signs that she may feel something for Ryuuji as well. Unfortunately, both are the sort to back off at the last minute – as Ami bluntly points out, they can’t get close to each other. But we also have lots of Minori acting goofy, and of course the giant “let’s try to scare Minori” horror movie plotline, which gives us the opportunity for some great laughs. Toradora! holds up over a lot of other comedy romances in that the comedy does not feel forced or cliched, a la “whoops I just fell into your boobs”. The humor is natural, realistic, and both situational and character-driven. But it’s the drama that readers may take away from this volume. Will things change when they go back to school? Will Ami press her suit/ Will Minori do anything? Will Taiga yell at Ryuuji? At least one of those things is guaranteed to happen!

Toradora!, Vol. 3

By Yuyuko Takemiya and Yasu. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Seven Seas. Translated by Jan Cash & Vincent Castaneda. Adapted by Lora Gray.

In many ways this feels like a filler volume in the series, but I think it’s actually focusing more on the main cast and how Ryuuji is able to understand them – or not, as the case may be. Ryuuji is a nice, kind person but he’s not all that good at getting “what women want”, so to speak. That applies to Taiga, who spends much of this book intensely frustrated and upset – even for her. It also applies to Ami, who has been given her depth in the last book and so is free to backslide and be the ‘evil transfer student’ everyone was fearing – or is she merely trying to aggressively flirt? And then there’s Minori, who is theoretically Ryuuji’s crush, but who he seems to try to understand the least, letting her walk through the novel being Taiga’s goofy best friend without pondering why she acts the way she does. It’s not just “I am weird”, Ryuuji. By the end of the book he hasn’t figured much out either, but the stage is at least set for the next part of the series.

The book takes place immediately after the previous one, where Ami put Ryuuji in a compromising position and is now gleefully watching the fireworks. Taiga, of course, insists she is not angry, and we know what that means. Worse, swimming classes are up next, and Taiga has to wear a swimsuit (thus showing off her childlike figure) and also swim (which she can’t). Things come to a head when Ami invites Ryuuji to her summer home over the break, so they could get to know each other better. Taiga snaps, and we’re set up for a swimming challenge – the winner essentially gets Ryuuji. You could argue Ryuuji’s biggest mistake in this book is not shutting this down before it starts, but instead, he does his best to teach Taiga to swim and try to figure out why she’s so upset – which isn’t quite the reason he thinks.

This book came out about twelve years ago in Japan, and so a lot of the things that might feel obvious to the reader were a lot fresher then. If the big drawback in this volume is that there’s very little forward movement, the plus is this allows us to see a lot of silly and/or heartwarming scenes that we might not otherwise have gotten. The cold opening at the hospital, where we worry that Ryuuji’s mother may have died but then realize the far more amusing truth, is an absolutely perfect scene. Ami too is a horrible delight, and the humiliation she goes through near the end once again feels especially deserved. But as always the main reason to love this is Taiga, who is a bundle of issues and all the more readable because of them. Her “solution” to the challenge was fantastic, if also appalling.

If I recall correctly from the manga, the next volume should be especially strong. This one isn’t a world beater, but it’s fun, especially if you like seeing Taiga blow up.

Toradora!, Vol. 2

By Yuyuko Takemiya and Yasu. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Seven Seas. Translated by Jan Cash & Vincent Castaneda. Adapted by J.P. Sullivan.

Having had a first volume that could easily stand on its own, Toradora! now has a second that has to extend the series. So Taiga and Ryuuji are still spending their every waking moment together and even eating the same bentos, but they aren’t actually together, they are supposedly scheming to help each other get together with their crush – something no one buys for a minute, and nor should they, given the ridiculous chemistry of the two leads. And so naturally, in the second volume, we need an antagonist. She’s got to be something that will drive Taiga absolutely crazy with rage. She’s Kitamura’s childhood friend. She’s a tall, long-limbed beauty. She’s a famous teenage model. She acts “oblivious” in a cutesy way. SHE’S GOT THE SAME FIRST NAME AS SAILOR MERCURY. Clearly she is evil and must be punished. And, while technically there is a punishment scene, the beauty and wonder of this book is that it is not about taking down Ami at all.

I think Takemiya is well aware of the fictional tropes involving “new girl as rival”, and she leans on them in her writing to make for greater impact later. Because Ami and Taiga really do not like each other at all. I’ve mentioned Taiga’s reasons, but Ami has heard a lot about her from Kitamura as well, and Taiga is also beautiful in her own, slightly furious way. So seeing Ami rip Taiga apart in the family restaurant, we are not at all inclined to be favorable to her. Showing up as a new transfer student was possibly the most predictable thing that could have happened as well. And so, at some point, we knew the “mask” was going to come off and that Ami would be taken down in front of the class. Technically this does happen, as Taiga and Minori (who has been laying low this entire time to make the payoff better) humiliate Ami in front of the class by mocking her being blase about dieting.

But then there’s the real, genuinely serious plot. Ami is being stalked. And it’s really unnerving and scaring her. And so when Taiga sees the girl who’s been belittling and mocking her all this time beg her and Ryuuji for help… she immediately helps. Yes, this help might also involve having Ami do karaoke for six hours at her place and recording it for future blackmailing material, but Taiga is well-aware that being creeped on by a stalker is bigger than a petty feud. As things escalate, meanwhile, it’s Ryuuji rather than Taiga who is able to wear Ami’s mask down to the point that she finally snaps and goes after her fan in one of the more cathartically satisfying scenes I’ve ever read – even if Ryuuji correctly points out how foolish it actually was. So now the core cast is in place, and I really can’t wait to see how the third novel shakes out.

This isn’t perfect – it ends far too abruptly, in a scene that almost cried out for a sad trombone noise. What’s more, it runs a bit short, so there’s an extended short story attached about a new first-year student with absolutely terrible luck who somehow gets told that touching Taiga will make him lucky. (I think this was adapted to the anime and he DID end up lucky in a way. Here he’s just sort of a shmoe.) That said, those are the only two minuses in an excellent volume.