Kimi ni Todoke (Reaching You)
Number of Episodes: 24 plus a mid-season recap
Production Company: Production I.G.
Brief Overview: Kuronuma Sawako has an unfortunate physical appearance and awkward demeanor that's reminiscent of the character "Sadako" from the movie The Ring. In reality she's a sweet, if socially-stunted, girl who would like nothing more than to make friends and be more like Kazehaya, an outgoing boy in her class. When Kazehaya goes out of his way to help her feel included, Sawako realizes that her feelings of admiration may be transforming into those of love.
Thoughts: While I often find myself drawn towards the gritty cyberpunk tales and violent, dramatic narratives for which the anime medium is most well-known (in the West, anyway), it's also become clear to me lately that a steady diet of these types of shows tends to leave me feeling a bit grim. While I'm in no way looking to embrace the shallow pleasures of the moe genre, as I've gotten older I've begun to be more appreciative of series which base their narratives around characters who simply act decently towards each-other. It sometimes seems as if the majority of anime series, and especially those which deal with high-school romance (or high-school-age children in general) pride themselves on introducing characters who are distinguished more by their bad attitudes and miserable family lives than the ways in which they build and maintain friendships and create fulfilling experiences for themselves. This isn't necessarily a surprise; it's much easier to make a story interesting when there's dramatic conflict to stir the pot, and conflict is more readily available to characters who, as part of their very nature, bring it upon themselves by undermining their own happiness and spreading that social disarray to others. What's challenging, though, is creating and maintaining a story which centers around people who are fundamentally nice; Kimi ni Todoke not only goes against the grain by accomplishing this very thing, but doing it well, banking on the lovable innocence of its teenage characters and its viewers' own nostalgia for a time in their lives that is often similarly awkward-yet-exhilarating.
The story is mainly told from the point-of-view of Kuronuma Sawako, a first-year high school student whose yearning for social interaction is only outweighed by her awkwardness in those very situations. Her attempts at conversation are often rebuked simply because of her strange appearance; there are even rumors that she has the ability to summon ghosts and commune with evil spirits. She often catches herself admiring Kazehaya Shouta, a boy who's kind, popular, and easy-to-talk to, and who, even in their limited interaction, treats her like every other person in the class. After a class "test of courage" during which Sawako volunteers to play the ghost, the two begin to spend more time together and it's very evident that Sawako's admiration of Kazehaya is beginning to grow and change. She also begins to build closer friendships with some of her classmates, including Ayane, a street-smart and relationship-savvy individual, Chizuru, a tomboy, and Ryuu, a strong, silent and brutally-honest sports enthusiast.
These new friendships prove important when Sawako finds herself in negative situations not of her own doing. She's first accused of spreading rumors about her new friends (accusations which, of course, turn out to be false), and then finds herself in conflict with a beautiful girl who has had her eyes on Kazehaya since they were in middle school. She also needs a little help from her friends when it comes to defining her feelings towards Kazehaya; having never felt romantic love before and being the literally-minded girl that she is, she spends a lot of time trying to decide whether or not what she feels in her heart is truly love or something more akin to deep admiration, before the final couple of episodes make their relationship more clear. Sawako's friends also get their time in the spotlight, with Chizuru and Ryuu both dealing with their own unrequited loves during a particularly emotional string of episodes.
Shoujo anime and manga are perhaps only second to shounen tournament fighting stories in terms of how trope-filled and predictable they tend to be. Personally, I tend to expect shoujo to wallow in melodrama and employ every manner of character misunderstanding to falsely extend their narrative. While Kimi ni Todoke is, in essence, yet another story of two Japanese kids who are too shy to come right out and reveal their feelings towards each-other, what ultimately elevates the narrative is the simple fact that both the characters and the story avoid falling into the genre's expected traps.
I've noticed that there are a lot of discussions in fan circles regarding character realism in anime. I recall that when the anime club I attend was showing Toradora!, many other fans in the audience would often remark that they were impressed by the realism of the characters. However, in my opinion it's not so much that the characters in that series emulated the actions of real human beings, but more that they tended to subvert (somewhat) or avoid the expected behavior that their character types would otherwise exhibit in similar genre series. I'd argue that many of the characters in Kimi ni Todoke are just as realistic as those in Toradora!, which is to say, hardly at all. Sawako's social awkwardness and naivet� is such that her lack of knowledge about everyday interaction is nigh unbelievable, and Kazehaya's kindness and cuteness are only outweighed by his one-dimensionality as a character (which may be remedied during the soon-to-be-broadcast second season, to be fair). And yet, unlike Toradora!, what these characters lack in believability they make up for in unabashed niceness. In short, they aren't realistic, but they are genuine to a fault. They're the people who I would have liked to have known when I was dealing with my own high-school woes; one thing definitely worth mentioning is that, while Sawako's social naivet� is difficult to believe in a logical sense, her feelings of isolation and desire for friendship and understanding are conveyed so well and hit so close to home at times that it makes my own heart ache for what I wasn't able to achieve at her age. Kazehaya's blushing and embarrassment at trying to call Sawako by her given name is almost quaint when most high-schoolers these days are already experimenting with casual sex, but at the same time I think there certainly was a period (for all of us!) where holding hands and hugging was the pinnacle of our own romantic experience, enough to give us the sweats and release flocks of butterflies in our chests.
Additionally, the secondary lead characters themselves are provided a surprising amount of depth, so much so that they're what really distinguished the series in my mind. Not only is the aforementioned side story about Chizuru, Ryuu and Ryuu's brother Tohru perhaps one of the best-written and bittersweet story arcs of the season, in general those characters as well as Ayane actually help to provide a sense of grounding to the narrative that's woefully missing from many shoujo anime. I mentioned that the story avoids falling into most of the shoujo genre "traps" that it encounters, and this is mainly due to how well the characters navigate the various situations that arise. The show is rife with the misunderstandings that are normally employed to facilitate melodrama, and yet the intelligence of the characters and their unwillingness to believe the lies told about their friends serve to nip those situations in the bud, leaving room for further story development. When Sawako is accused of spreading rumors about Chizuru and Ayane, their first reaction is to come out and say that there's no way they'd believe that about her. This in turn sets up a very heartwarming situation during which Sawako is able to elaborate upon how much she values their friendship (cue some well-earned tears from the audience). Ayane's world-wise logic also helps out during various other prickly situations, the most entertaining of which is during Kurumi's story arc; she sees right through Kurumi's manipulation and, during a very heavy conversation in the school locker area, lets her know that she's got her eye on Kurumi. The moment is brilliantly tense and very unexpected considering the normal trajectory of most shoujo anime; in the end, it's Sawako's "unrealistic" kindness that helps to explain her friends' very real, intense devotion to her and her social development.
I think it bears mentioning at this point that I've noticed a very real, unfortunate backlash (at least amongst anime fans local to me) against characters whose defining personal trait is that they dare to be kind, optimistic, and guileless. Sure, there are times when it's really thrilling to see characters take charge and fight back against people who are tormenting them, but to me that entirely depends on the type of people they were to begin with. Expecting someone like Sawako, whose best defense against Kurumi is to tell her she truly believes that Kurumi wants to be friends with her(which, of course, undermines Kurumi's manipulative M.O. in a fabulous way) to suddenly turn around and pop Kurumi in the face ignores the very essence of her character, and yet I found that a lot of people with whom I was watching the show the second time through (at a public anime club) were audibly disappointed when blood didn't fly during their inevitable verbal confrontation. It's... unfortunate that somehow along the way the comedic relationship violence particular to moe tsundere-style characters and the hazing of over-the-top school bullies have become the default problem-solving mechanisms and methods of driving the plot forward in these types of school tales, but I've found that my personal method for dealing with this is to embrace the types of characters who might otherwise be labeled "naively-sweet" (or, less flatteringly, as "goody two-shoes'"). At their worst, these types of characters could also be said to be inspired by the desire to elicit protective feelings from the audience and thus also play right into the moe aesthetic, and yet the Hanato Kobato's, Suzuki Sora's and Kuronuma Sawako's of the anime world, those gentle characters whose stories are all made more compelling by their desire and ability to accomplish things through kindness and determination rather than Machiavellian means and comic violence, are ultimately much more satisfying for me to watch. They earn my admiration by avoiding the easy way out and using their warm natures as the best ammunition in the fight for what they're trying to accomplish. Yes, this is more difficult to write and it often takes some faith on the part of the audience to believe in someone who might at first seem to be too-good-to-be-true, but the outcome is ultimately much more satisfying.
While the main part of the show's appeal is based on the character interactions, I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't at least mention the series' visuals which fully embrace the visual tropes of shoujo anime and manga and also demonstrate the appeal of subtle but unusually accomplished character movement. Most shoujo anime is known for its use of what my friends and I have come to call "shoujo-bubbles," those illustrative embellishments that lend romantic scenes a magical, dreamlike quality. This series makes heavy use of shoujo-bubbles to the point where I'm convinced that the production staff were jokingly (and lovingly) parodying the genre. It becomes something of a running gag, and therefore it becomes fairly difficult to be annoyed by the trope's utter pervasiveness.
As for the character animation, I've read plenty of criticism online faulting the series for not featuring more of it; Production I.G. is well-known for series like Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex and Eden of the East, which are action-based tales that are made more exciting by their various chase scenes and hand-to-hand battles. Kimi ni Todoke is a story about normal, everyday kids and doesn't really feature any opportunities for the animators to demonstrate their action chops, but that doesn't mean that the animation is bad. So much can be told through a character's facial expression, bodily movement, even the shedding of their tears, and here the animators take advantage of every moment they can to demonstrate this. There are also some particularly well-rendered scenes that take place during the school sports festival that are worth mentioning, including the scene where Sawako is saved from a collision with a baseball by Ryuu's timely intervention. The characters don't flip through the air wielding cool weapons, but there's certainly an argument to be made that the use of animation in this series is as appropriate and well-done as with a series where those types of theatrics are the main draw. It's also not often I get the chance to mention a series' background art, but in this case it would be a crime not to; the backgrounds are rendered in a watercolor style that's highly unusual but absolutely beautiful. The color scheme is based not around cutesy pink colors like one might expect, but watery blues and deep purples, which results in a look that's much more atmospheric than a typical high school anime.
Lest I sound overly complimentary (at this point, though, there may be no way to remedy that!), I should note that there are a few instances where some of the subject matter of the series seems mishandled. There's one black mark in particular that seemed like a real missed opportunity to me. Ayane shows up at school with a bruised face, and explains that her (now ex) boyfriend slapped her when she broke up with him the evening before. Both times I watched this scene, there were audible gasps from the audience around me; relationship abuse is really no laughing matter (and I should note that the fact that people were so immediately shocked by the situation makes me happy because it demonstrates how seriously we've learned to take such things). The show, however, seems to gloss over the situation, and some of the characters' classmates seem more concerned that Ayane will be sad because she'll now be alone on Christmas rather than horrified that she was the victim of abuse. Cultural differences? Maybe. However, considering how well I've seen other anime series deal with similarly shocking subjects in the past, I simply can't let this particular case go unmentioned. There's also little-to-no closure by the time the final scene rolls around; while most romantic tales would probably feature a well-earned kiss between the two leads, this show is chaste to the very end with just one instance of hand-holding to keep us fans satisfied until the second season. I don't necessarily consider this a fault on the show's part; the series is called "Reaching You" after all, and Sawako is able to symbolically reach out to her friends and classmates as well as Kazehaya before the final credits roll. Fans who are more used to more concrete demonstrations of affection might feel a bit less satisfied, however.
A few years ago I would have considered this series a shoo-in to be licensed in North America. It has a relatively active online fan base and most people who've watched it seem to be complimentary to some extent. However, the truth is that, in practice, straight-up shoujo simply doesn't seem to stand much of a chance against the more male-focused moe romance that's become more popular lately. While I may have my complaints about Toradora!, it's also a big hit; the same can't really be said for other series like Honey and Clover (which is technically Josei but has a lot of similar attributes to shoujo anime and manga and doesn't seem to be doing spectacularly in its US DVD release), Maid-Sama or Skip Beat (which both got streaming exposure but don't seem to have had a whole lot of staying power in the minds of anime fans). So my hopes aren't especially high when it comes to seeing an actual release of the anime stateside (though at least the manga is available and I've already purchased a few volumes).
I recently participated in a survey run by a Japanese student who attends the anime club I frequent, and one of the questions he asked was in regards to this very series; he wanted to know if we were embarrassed watching this type of "pure-love" romantic story. On the contrary, I find this type of romantic tale to be in woefully short supply. Rather than basing its drama around characters with fabricated attitude problems or comical physical cruelty, it features characters who are fundamentally kind and gets the audience to root for that kindness. While this approach might come across as cutesy to some, it's one of the main attributes of the show that charmed me from the beginning.
- The main characters are all fundamentally nice; they might not be realistic, but they're certainly more genuine than the norm.
- The romance is relatively chaste, yet the story of the main characters' relationship is compelling in its innocence.
- The visual style is unusual and the background art is more accomplished than one might expect. The animation is also subtle but good.
- The instance of relationship abuse is glossed-over.
- The culmination of the central relationship isn't what viewers might expect.
Recommended? Absolutely. Fans of shoujo romance will definitely want to check this out, but the audience certainly isn't limited to those viewers. While many anime fans will be more accustomed to the moe-style romantic scenarios that are currently more prevalent and available, I think that the sweetness of the central relationship here, as well as the more humorous parts of the narrative, are enough to convince a few of those fans that this type of show has its own merits.