Torrid Anime Romances

'Torrid' is the last word you'd use to describe these two. Even holding hands was an ordeal.

In all honesty, this is an intentionally misleading title, because none of the following anime romances can really be described as “torrid”. In fact, anime romance generally isn’t torrid at all. Romance in anime tends to be fairly subdued, and there’s an innate innocence about the emotions involved, especially compared with other mediums. Romantic J-movies tend to be obsessed with jun’ai (or “pure love”) and often come off as melodramatic or unbelievable. Western romance movies love to focus on the quirkiness and irony of love, and often seem to imply that love is an irrational response (although maybe there’s a corn chip of truth to this). And then there’s Western romance novels which sometimes don’t even bother to disguise the fact that they’re straight up smut. Their reputation as being targeted towards lonely housewives who are compensating for their own passionless relationship is well entrenched. Obviously I’m making vast sweeping generalizations here, which is necessary when trying to comment on how a genre differs across different mediums. But I want to make the argument that anime’s track record with romance is as good as any other mediums, which is something that I’m not comfortable saying about any other genre, with the arguably exception of the mystery genre (and the iyashikei genre, which is exclusive to anime and manga). This post, which features some relatively recent examples of anime couples that I really liked, contains major spoilers for the tagged titles.

Continuing on with generalizations, the only real way I can make this argument is to conveniently ignore the trash. Every genre in every medium has a proportion of gems and crap. The stereotypical anime romance follows a well established formula… a fairly bland male lead with limited distinguishing features attracts a multitude of female archetypes, often from random acts of kindness towards said girls, and equally often because he happens to be the only man within a five mile radius who isn’t a total jerk. What follows is a serial of tepidly romantic interactions with each girl, usually involving multiple misunderstandings if it’s a comedy, in order to stall any genuine relationship development (even more true in manga adaptations, since the clutch is based on a “will they, won’t they” brand of suspense, which is brought closer to a close every time there is development, and limits the publishers’ ability to sell more chapters) or resolving some sort of trite personal problem in the girl, if it’s a drama (generally the type of problem you’d think she’d be better off dealing with by herself or with friends and/or family… not some doofus she just met and barely knows). The story ends when the male lead picks a girl (which is usually an arbitrary choice) and there’s an implied “happily ever after”, despite the fact that you get the feeling that if these two people were to hook up in real life, they’d probably be clawing at each others’ throats after a year.

So I’m going to ignore this type of anime, because it suits my argument. It’s a bit like the comparison between anime and American television which weighs My Wife Is a High School Girl against The Sopranos and concludes that American television is better. It’s meaningless, but I’m aware of this. So what makes a good romance anime? Unlike the case with crap romance anime, there’s no comprehensive checklist (which is a good thing, it shows there’s a lot of variety from series to series, which I like to think backs up my point). A reasonably obvious pairing from the outset is generally a good sign, IMO. It means that the anime can start developing that relationship from the first episode. These types of series also have a sense of focus which is lacking from love polygons, which sometimes feel like they’re deliberately being written to fuel shipping wars. It may be a trend of two anime, but romances with multiple male leads tend to be good, as shown by ef – a tale of memories and Kimikiss. Series like Toradora! show that good character development can turn initial archetypes into very engaging and respectable personalities. Something like Itazura na Kiss will follow the relationship long after the main couple hook up. Shows like Honey and Clover and Koi Kaze are strong because they deal with tough moral dilemmas with a maturity and evenhandedness, where lesser anime fumble badly. All of these shows, and all good romance anime, I daresay, feature character and relationship development which is utterly intertwined.

Anime romance is frequently good, but it’s rarely torrid. To me, the word “torrid” describes something like the real life fling between Edith Piaf and Marcel Cerdan as portrayed in the 2007 French Film, La Vie en Rose. Going by what we’re shown in that movie, Piaf knew that Cerdan was married after their first date, but couldn’t help that she was still falling in love with him. The romance was forbidden and immoral, but absolutely passionate and emotional, and Piaf wanted it to last forever. Despite the fact that it was an affair, there was no cheapness or meaninglessness about the emotions and love involved, particularly from Piaf. When Cerdan was suddenly killed in an air crash (ironically, on his way to see Piaf), it destroyed her. She was heartbroken, almost inconsolable, and it affected her for years, as she resorted to drugs and alcohol to deal with it.

Chiaki x Nodame (Nodame Cantabile)
Part of the reason I wanted to write this post was to reflect on the recently finished Nodame Cantabile ~Finale~. Right from the beginning, this was a case of opposites attracting, but this relationship always had a peculiar third wheel: music. Maybe “third wheel” isn’t the right term here, since music defined their relationship, but with it, came a number of interesting challenges. While Chiaki was so utterly committed to his goal of becoming a world class conductor (he overcame the biggest hurdle to achieving this in the first season), Nodame spent much of the time molding her own ambition… and her work created a lot of insecurity and uncertainty. She was completely devoted to Chiaki and would accept him entirely, but she knew that to be with Chiaki, music would be a massive part of their lives together, and her struggle to accept music, both good (ie, the music itself) and bad (ie, the industry), became one of the important conflicts of the latter part of the series. Chiaki’s part in this relationship is strangely analogous… he was devoted to music, but kinda had to “come around” before he accepted Nodame’s proposal.

Craft Lawrence x Horo (Spice and Wolf)
The relationship between Lawrence and Horo is complicated on two fronts. As is the case with Nodame and Chiaki, Spice and Wolf is the story of two different people falling in love. But it’s also about a man working a ruthlessly competitive and high risk job, with more than a livelihood at stake on a few occasions. Lawrence’s job, and the type of person he needs to be in order to do it effectively, is a sticking point in their relationship: greedy, shrewd and, on occasion, dishonest, Lawrence is a good-OK merchant, but often comes off as naive and stubborn when dealing with Horo. It’s because he’s willing to work on these shortcomings, to a better person for Horo, and to see his oath with her through, that makes their relationship admirable. Horo’s difficulty comes from a recognition on her part that he will die long before she does. His mortality and the ephemeralness of their time together are very real fears for Horo. And, in spite of their shortcomings, they make it work. Arguably communication is an important aspect of their relationship. It doesn’t always happen straight away, but they find ways to talk about their insecurities with each other.

Tomoya x Nagisa (Clannad)
Given its Key visual novel routes, you’d think this would be an example of a romance story where several female characters battle it out for the male lead. The discourse among some of the fans would suggest the same thing, but to me it was clear that this couple was going to happen from the beginning. And it was the right pairing… not because it was what I was shipping (if I didn’t abhor shipping in the vast majority of cases, I’d probably go for Kyou), but because, given the themes of the story, what the two lead characters needed more than anything else was each other. Tomoya gave Nagisa support, friendship and a sense of self-worth, while Nagisa gave Tomoya a family, and a way to reconcile with his own father. It’s in After Story where Clannad extends its scope immensely and deals with ground that only few anime romance stories explore: the challenges that come with a long term relationship, such as marriage, growing up and finding one’s place in the world. As the years passed, Tomoya gained a family but lost his wife… and yet, it was in this tragedy that he grew up and became a man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male character in any anime romance who was afforded character development as drastic and momentous as Tomoya had in After Story.

16 Responses to “Torrid Anime Romances”

  1. Anime romance isn’t torrid because, well, the Japanese view of love isn’t passionate the same way the Western view is, as you pointed out. Anime is steeped in the Japanese culture the same way film is largely steeped in Hollywood American culture. There are exceptions, such as foreign and indies films maybe, but the general gist is there. Hollywood, at least, never fails to make the romantic connection ostentatious, derivative, or chaotic.

    I think Lawrence and Horo’s is the closest we’re going to see of a torrid relationship. All the pieces are there, it’s just the painful reminder that their life spans are incomparable that reins back any possible passion from flowing freely. On the other hand, I think it’s the restraint of this more subdued pure love that allows mature dilemmas such as in Koi Kaze to be taken seriously instead of having the dilemmas thrown out by either passion or plot contrivance. I rarely see such tact in Western romantic movies, which is why I feel American romcoms are atrocious and American romantic drama is very much hit or miss (although I suspect this says more about my tastes than the quality of the movies. Anyone have something to change my view?). The obstacles the other two pairings had to overcome probably would not be dealt with as sincerely if they moved in the way Western influences would guide them.

  2. I thought Chiaki was aiming to be a conductor rather than composer… unless something in season 3 revealed itself =p

    Anyways, I’ve always thought that in Chiaki’s case, meeting Nodame was basically a revelation. Before he was taking music too seriously and it’s not until he encounters Nodame that he begins to really enjoy music for what it is: a way to freely express oneself without being necessarily restricted to what’s on the sheet music. It can be messy, it can be raw, but that’s totally okay.

    Nodame’s case is easier to look at since she’s able to motivate and discipline herself in pursuit of her goals.

    The passion is pretty subtle… if you look at it from the two characters alone, but the way they channel their heart and soul through music is where it really becomes apparent.

  3. I’ve found the best anime romances are NOT in the romance genre. Guts X Caska, Hikaru X Misa, Tidus X Yuna, Van X Hitomi, Shinji X His right hand…

  4. I’d say that one of the (or perhaps the only) torrid romances in anime is the one between Kenshin and Tomoe in the OVA series. Their relationship was so exceptional for a number of several, including extenuating and complicated circumstances. Here’s why (spoilers ahead if you must):

    Kenshin became a mechanical cold-blooded killer when ironically, his naive intention was to help the weak by (mis)using his skills. His cruel fate crossed paths with Tomoe, and things get complicated from here. Tomoe was filled with murderous rage, but something prevented her from killing Kenshin. Deep inside, she thinks that Kenshin is nevertheless an innocent boy who “lost his way” (she did find it hard to believe that Kenshin was only 18). She understands Kenshin’s bleak fate and even empathize him while extenuating circumstances put them together as a couple.

    Tomoe hates Kenshin for killing Kiyosato, but discovered how hard it was when she realized that Kenshin embodied all the qualities that made her fall in love with Kiyosato in the first place. Kiyosato did break Tomoe’s heart by leaving for Kyoto, and Tomoe couldn’t express her depression because 1) she was expressively inept (which explains her diary) 2) cultural constraints (perhaps verbalizing feelings was discouraged in ancient Japan). Tomoe then did the unthinkable by falling in love with her fiance’s killer, but her emotions were so real and meaningful that their relationship seemed pre-etched in fate. The timeless line “This man took away my happiness, and then he gave me a new one” embodied everything she felt, and that makes it so beautiful.

    Tomoe faced her truth eventually, and atoned for her sins by letting Kenshin live at the expense of her own life. It’s so much like Romeo x Juliet: they should’ve been together (and I bet many people would agree with this), yet Tomoe’s death morbidly was expected. I’ve not seen any romance in anime that reached out to me as much as theirs, but I have seen some noteworthy ones along the way (Sorrow-kun has mentioned some).

    Perhaps the other anime I can think of that gets very close with the torrid romance is Nana, but it is melodramatic several times during the course of the show.

  5. @Elineas
    Trying to think off the top of my head, one of the few great American romance films that I can think of is Casablanca. It was such a dramatic film because of the dilemma Bogart’s character faced, and it was also a very torrid romance story, because it dealt with past loves. But you’re right; when it comes to anime, the more subdued approach to romance in the better shows allows the drama to be, potentially, very powerful. It’s much easier to take something seriously when it’s not quite so over-the-top.

    @zzeroparticle
    Damn, you’re quite right. My mistake. Fixed.

    Analogously, for Nodame, Chiaki helped her see a more serious side of music, and that the scope of her potential audience was far beyond just a quiet Japanese kindergarten class. They both allowed each other to see a new side of music, and to appreciate it in different ways, which allowed them to become better people. I love romance stories like that, where two people grow because of each other.

    @TIF
    That last couple was torrid. AC’s next example is a pretty good case of that as well.

    @AC
    Well, torridness and melodrama usually go hand-in-hand. The example from Rurouni Kenshin… yeah, absolutely agree. If anime has a torrid love story, this is it. It’s really hard to think of any romance in anime which is quite as tumultuous and dramatic as Kenshin and Tomoe. The fact that their relationship was essentially built on so much death and set to a background of revolution makes it all the more epic and tragic.

  6. You’re right, there aren’t many ‘torrid’ romance in anime…although I did come here thinking that this post was about torrid romances in anime.

    I like the word torrid as a description. I mean, lot of romance are passionate and emotional, but torrid implies that their bond is so strong and irrationally visceral, it comes with that destructive force that’s waiting to engulf those enslaved by it. It’s different from lot of anime romance, where there are lot of introspection, and even for romance that never fully materialised (like in honey clover), there is that transience, regret, and not destructive element that drives the lovers along the cliff.

    One example I can think of anime is, hmm, Kemonozume, that was pretty raw and torrid.

  7. What I really like about Nodame Cantabile‘s approach to romance is that, particularly in the first season, the romance isn’t necessarily the focus; rather, it develops as a natural consequence of Chiaki and Nodame learning more about the joy of music together. There isn’t really one event in the first season that shouts, “THESE TWO LOVE EACH OTHER”. It just happens.

    As far as American movies go, I find that most of the best American “romance” movies focus on the melancholy side of romance. Casablanca (as you mentioned), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the recent 500 Days of Summer, and so on.

    For most movies that exist to get the guy and girl together, I usually end up enjoying them for reasons other than the romance. Like Bringing Up Baby, for example, is enjoyable because Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are hilarious and have great chemistry, not because of the romance.

  8. What a nice article! I think that romance anime’s greatest strength is it’s ability to create realistic emotions. To me, there is nothing more irritating and unrealistic than watching the protagonist shout “I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT YOU!” As someone who lost his father as a teenager, I absolutely hate melodrama. Real drama, real sadness, is subdued. The most emotional situations are when almost nothing is said. Of all the shows, movies, and books I’ve read, Kanon 2006 and After Story have had the greatest emotional impact on me. Not that that means very much, as a 19 year old, I can’t say that I’ve seen enough to have a very valid opinion of all entertainment. I can say, as someone who has experienced real drama, that the emotion behind both of those shows is solidly grounded in reality.

    Why is it that in most popular anime sex is almost never involved? In practically every PG-13 movie in America, there is going to be a sex-scene. Sure, anime has its jiggly breasts and awkward-main-character-falls-on-top-of-girl-of-interest, but I feel like actual sex is much more taboo. It just surprises me that a culture that we regard as shockingly sexually oriented has romance that is so anti-torrid.

    I think it is a damn shame how the Romance genre of anime goes relatively unnoticed. It’s a genre that I only recently discovered it rummaging though high-rated shows on Nihon Review.
    Do you think that romance anime is going in the right direction? I am not aware of a single, good romance anime before 1995. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me it seems like the quality of this genre is only getting better and better.

  9. I am not aware of a single, good romance anime before 1995.

    Kimagure Orange Road.

  10. @gaguri
    Is this where I should say “ha ha, trolled you”? I still think, to a large part, it’s a strength of anime that it manages to remain fairly subdued and innocent, even when it deals with very dramatic subject matter. One word that describes Koi Kaze is “tender”. The romance in Koi Kaze itself has the markings of a torrid love: it’s forbidden, taboo and the lovers involved are on a dangerous, possibly destructive, path. Maybe there was an intentional irony about Koi Kaze that, despite the nature of the relationship, it was still so introspective and so aware and careful with its portrayal of emotions. Or maybe, as others have alluded to, this is just the natural Japanese tendency towards approaching romance. It obliquely reminds me of Radiohead’s “True Love Waits”. That’s such a tender song, but when you look at the lyrics, there’s an implicit objection to love… or the idealization of love.

    @Shinmaru
    I haven’t seen Bringing Up Baby myself (your knowledge of old films just continues to amaze me), but from what I’ve heard, it’s just an absolute classic of screwball comedy that came from screwball’s golden age. I’d love to see more screwball anime. About the only rom-com anime that I can think of that even closely resembles screwball is Itazura na Kiss.

    @blue cheez
    Along with TIF’s suggestion, there’s also Maison Ikkoku and Touch, among several others. (Neither of which I’ve unfortunately completely seen, but I am about half way through Maison Ikkoku). Some people argue that the 80s was something of a golden age for romance in anime. If anything, it was probably the 90s where things got a bit dour for romance and I think it was probably Kare Kano (and, yeah, OK, Love Hina) that really revived the genre again.

    @TIF
    I reckon it’d be a fun exercise to go and list all the classic romance anime from the 80s. I, unfortunately, am not too knowledgeable about anime from that era.

  11. Love Hina revived the romance genre!? Wow, I knew it was popular, but I guess I didn’t realize how successful it was. That really brings back memories! It was a show that I stumbled on in middle school that really triggered my interests in shows past Adult Swim. Looking back, it feels more of a guilty pleasure than a show that actually had an impact on anime.
    Regarding old romance anime, I’ll have to put Maison Ikkoku, Kimagure Orange Road and Touch on my list of shows to watch. It’s probably my age that is the greatest factor, but I’ve never really heard of many great anime in the 80’s at all, let alone romance anime in the 80’s.

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