The task of collating favorites is both an exciting and an onerous endeavor. The excitement is in sharing what you love; the burden is in setting limits, in the cherished tales left unspoken. What sets these stories apart? What magic endears them to our hearts–renders their characters our close friends, their experiences our own–that these few deserve mention above all others? I could chart each objective quality–from writing to editing to cinematography to sound–delineating the success of each ingredient in delivering the recipe’s divine flavor. But I must admit I’ve always lacked the attention and capacity for such detail. So, glancing at the garish plastic adorning my bookshelf, I asked, “What do I love about stories? What spurs my hunger for the next tale to devour, cel by cel?” And, as I eyed the titles before me, my mind’s eye conjured images of their characters–the interactions between them–that move us to laughter, tears, or a simple smile of pleasure at a tale well told.
So, here are a handful of my favorite anime, with an eye for the relationships that spoke most deeply to me. I hope you enjoy!
When one begins to speak of relationships the first thought is often of romance–candlelight dinners, walks on the beach, milkshakes for two. Or rooftop confessions, shoebox love letters, and bentos filled with love, if you prefer the romantic cliches of high school anime. And Toradora! isn’t afraid to toy with the familiar as it tackles high school and first love. A quick glance at the shounen romantic comedy and you will spy some of your typical anime love interests: genki Minori Kushieda; the two-faced model Ami Kawashima; and Taiga Aisaka, violent tsundere exemplar. And yes, Toradora! has rooftop confessions, shoebox love letters, and bentos filled with love.
But while operating in the familiar Toradora! reminds us that the wrappings of a cliche can clothe all the depth imbued by its creator. From Minori’s approach to life’s fears with the energy to tackle them rather than them her to Ami’s decision to recede from her mask of polite maturity to accept her flawed, engaging personality, Toradora! portrays that depth through characters that aren’t defined solely by romantic interest but by self. And when our canon couple, Taiga Aisaka and Ryuuji Takasu, develop a relationship through mutual unrequited love for the others’ closest friend, gradually realizing the depth of their own feeling for one another, they are not simply defined by those affections but also by their mutual uncertainty facing impending adulthood and the flawed examples of the families that raised them.
Yes, it is a tale told with melodrama, but those early experiences with social awareness and the swell of emotion in high school often are. Balanced with some of my favorite humor in anime, I have found Toradora! to be as sweet and engaging a romantic tale as the medium could offer.
While our first thought at relationships is often of that most intimate of human endeavors, romance is truly the tip of the iceberg of the rewarding–and harrowing–experiences life offers with others. For example, as social creatures from birth, nature proffers a support structure when we are at our most fragile: family. From mother to daughter, father to son, uncles, aunts, and second cousins, bonds are established by the simple expediency of blood. Polarized by views on politics, religion, and entertainment? Welcome to the family. Have you returned from college with a very expensive sheet of paper and empty pockets? Well, family can be there for you, too. The hope is that one’s family can offer support with the strength of a rope rather than a strand, and Mamoru Hosoda’s sophomore film Summer Wars is a wonderful example.
Esteemed blogger 2-D Teleidoscope once touched on Summer Wars‘ family dynamics while comparing it to Hosoda’s prior film, the coming-of-age drama The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. And yes, the latter handles its main characters with greater depth than the former. But as 2DT notes, the character of Summer Wars is the Jinnouchi family, and as its members interact we witness the foibles and traits of a living, breathing family unit. Each additional individual shapes the whole, and it can be an overwhelming experience for a newcomer, like Kenji Koiso. But in the face of tragedy and crisis trifles like the intrusive patter of bratty feet, the occasional trumpet of forceful opinions, and the crimes of a black sheep are all forgotten. The strands entwine, each contributing in the face of an emergency beyond one individual’s ken. And the result is a delightfully suspenseful climax with a heart-warming conclusion, affirming the value of acceptance and support within a family.
But a family isn’t always full of emotional support and understanding. Sometimes nature’s provisional buttress in the face of life’s trials can be its most damaging foe. And the necessary support can come from the most unlikely–and extended–of sources. Such as six-year-old Rin Kaga’s 30-year-old nephew Daikichi Kawachi. In Usagi Drop, Daikichi accepts the custody of the supposed daughter of his late grandfather, partly motivated by anger at the family’s cold regard for the illegitimate orphan. What follows is a crash course on child-rearing for a single bachelor, punctuated by all the joys and sacrifices of parenthood. We watch as Daikichi learns to balance work and home, cope with the fears and needs of youth, and endure the sacrifices necessary when the wants and needs of a household are doubled. And as the two develop a bond Daikichi discovers that each tribulation is worth the joy of sharing life with another, and experiencing it through their eyes.
While the focus revolves around the adorable and affirming relationship growing between Daikichi and Rin, Usagi Drop isn’t afraid to glance at the hardships we face when the strands of family unravel, or the act of entwining a sacrifice to great to bear. From Masako Yoshii’s choice of devotion to passion or blood to the Maeda family’s out-of-balance relationship and unequal yoke, Usagi Drop is again a reminder that family isn’t all bubbles and sparkles. But it does so without moralizing, leaving conclusions up to its viewers. It is simply a reminder that the health of a family is dependent on the embrace of its individuals, and in Daikichi and Rin Usagi Drop displays one of anime’s most heartfelt relationships.
While we have thinned the blood connection of family with Usagi Drop, genetic attachment still remains a part of its tale. What if we were to snap the genetic bonds completely? Could a group of completely unrelated individuals be considered a family? With Satoshi Kon’s light-hearted drama, Tokyo Godfathers, one could be drawn to concluding that yes, family bonds can extend beyond kin.
Tokyo Godfathers‘ revolution around family is a trait it holds in common with many of the films for whom the Christmas season plays a central role; however, its family is anything but typical. It comprises Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic; transgendered Hana, a former drag queen; and Miyuki, a 16-year-old runaway. All three are unrelated; all three are homeless. Scavenging Tokyo’s garbage, the three hear the cry of an unexpected treasure: a newborn foundling. Dubbing her Kiyoko–”pure child” for her Christmas Eve discovery–Tokyo Godfather‘s unique family embarks on a hilarious, enlightening romp through Tokyo’s underbelly to find Kiyoko’s true parents. And following our homeless trio from yakuza-run hostess clubs to immigrant communities to the burnt out shell of a young household, Satoshi Kon removes us from the typically middle-class family of Christmas dramas, plopping the viewer amid the forgotten families of society for whom the Christmas season can be the harshest time of year.
While the humor of Tokyo Godfathers pointedly satirizes the feel-good holiday feature, the earnest heart for its characters marks it as a film both full of laughter and a moving experience, motivating me each year to sojourn with the inimitable clan as they reprise their Yuletide travails.
So far I have covered romantic and familial relationships as I have dallied among four anime I consider close to my heart. While their are other relationships I could acknowledge–most notably friendship–let us continue to broaden scope, addressing the relationship of a community with the final title: Aria.
A science-fiction tale residing on terraformed Mars, Kozue Amano’s adorable manga, adapted into three seasons–Aria the Animation, Aria the Natural, and Aria the Origination–by director Junichi Sato, imagines an aquatic planet that revolves around a tranquil recreation of Venice, Italy. Focusing on the comely water guides who pilot the gondolas of Neo-Venezia’s canals, Aria dwells on the variety of relationships that comprise a complex metropolis. We witness our main characters–Alice Carroll, Aika S. Granzchesta, and Akari Mizunashi–tread the waters of instruction, apprenticed to their undine tutors. As they bond in friendship over kindred experience they share the wonders and delights of the beauty that surrounds them, marveling over recreations of such landmarks as the Bridge of Sighs, St. Mark’s Campanile, the Rialto Bridge, or something as simple as a flowering cherry tree.
And as we relax in Neo-Venezia with the three undine pupils we see their interactions with the community. We witness festivals such as Carnevale and Festa del Redentore. We see the three interact and develop relationships with a variety of Neo-Venezia’s residents, like fellow apprentices of community tasks such as gravity and weather control, mailmen, patisseries, glass blowers, restauranteurs–even a street puppeteer. And we see the tendrils of community as the three girls and their prima undine instructors guide tourists and citizens alike, from the young girl Ai of its introductory episode to the elderly couple who recreate The Marriage of the Sea, from knowledgeable Amarantha, tester of undine apprentices, to ferrying Neo-Venezians via traghetto. . . . The variety of relationships in the community of Neo-Venezia are truly copious beyond mention!
Yes, Aria is plotless and slow-paced, but that simply makes for a relaxing tale that revels in the beauty and heart-warming potential that mankind can offer, providing a tranquil experience for the frantic viewer looking to unwind from the rigors of daily life.
Toradora!, Summer Wars, Usagi Drop, Tokyo Godfathers, and Aria. Five tales whose characters and their relationships are near and dear to my heart. Now, if I may ask, what are some of yours?