Anime has seen its share of love stories over the years, but I can think of very few series that are so heartfelt and so thoroughly uncynical as Kimi ni Todoke. For any fans of the 2001 Fruits Basket TV series, in fact, I’d call this indispensable as something very much in the same spirit, albeit with less of its zany humor.
A huge part of what makes this show fulfilling is that it’s really about the process of growing up in the context of a love story, and not solely about the drama of a romance in and of itself. The first thirteen episodes of this show saw its heroine, Sawako “Sadako” Kuronuma, start to develop from a chronically and comically shy shirking violet to someone who slowly but steadily dares to open up to others and bare her feelings. The catalyst for her change is Shota Kazehaya, who is doubly blessed as the most popular person in her class and the nicest guy that could possibly exist. As Kazehaya reaches out to her and Sadako breaks out of her shell and builds bonds with the people around her, Sadako’s final emotional hurdle to clear proves to be the greatest at all. She feels great admiration and gratitude toward Kazehaya, both for the kind of guy he is and what he’s done. But as these feelings make inexorable progress to love, can she find it in herself to act on them – to believe that Kazehaya could truly feel the same way about someone like her?
This all sounds simple enough, but the meaning of the subject matter is deepened by the fact that unrequited love is a prevalent theme in the latter two thirds of this series. Collection 2 opens with Sadako’s friends Ayane and Chizuru exposing their fellow classmate Kurumi for starting nasty rumors about her in a bid to undermine her in the eyes of Kazehaya, who Kurumi’s carried a torch for for years. In keeping with her kindhearted nature, Sadako defies the expectations of her friends and Kurumi herself when she forgives and empathizes with the latter while also earnestly refusing to give an inch on her own feelings toward Kazehaya. The conflict’s resolution is interesting: defeat doesn’t mean friendship here, but it does drive Kurumi to finally unsuccessfully confess to Kazehaya and start to move on. After this point it’s fair to say that her new obsession is Sadako herself, as the irony of losing to a love rival who inspired her to vent her feelings and yet meets such difficulty doing the same for herself is not one she enjoys. On another front, a substantial arc sees the relationship between Chizuru and Kazehaya’s good-natured but quiet friend Ryu go through a rough patch. Ryu likes Chizuru but she’s smitten with his much older brother, who turns out to be both oblivious to those feelings and spoken for when he comes home for the holidays. Chizuru’s crushing disappointment isn’t helped by some frustration and jealously fueling Ryu’s insensitivity in response, and it’s up to their circle of friends to talk them through things and ultimately get them to a place where they can clear the air and set things right with each other again. In all this it seems to me the show is championing the virtue of honesty to its credit, and left unsaid but very apparent is the message that there is life after heartbreak and disappointment. For the teenage crowd this thing is aimed at, these messages are both relevant and worthwhile.
The latter part of the series is moving but also occasionally frustrating as the narrative focuses in on the ultimate payoff of Sadako and Kazehaya finally and officially getting together as a couple. In the way of this outcome are plentiful hurdles in the form of misunderstandings that bolster Sadako’s insecurities about confessing to Kazehaya, which in turn sparks angst in Kazehaya as he worries that Sawako is growing away from him – and toward Miura Kento, seemingly a third wheel male character introduced in the final season who’s very open with Sadako and not shy about fostering the impression that he’ll pursue her if Kazehaya takes too long to make a move. The reasons for the pair feeling the ways that they do are well thought-out and it makes for good drama, although here the show pushes viewer patience to the edge and stops just short of shoving it off. Everyone close to these two perceives the feelings they have and the pair’s hangups could be solved by just a few short moments of simple, honest and straightforward communication, but time and again some contrived event or the untimely arrival of another character defers the big moment. That said, I have to admit that the payoff is immensely cathartic, and there’s plenty of time spared for a denouement to the whole affair at the end.
NIS America’s “Premium Edition” release of this series is a typical one for the company, which means first class treatment and packaging that is a collector’s dream. Both Blu-ray and DVD discs are included and the video encoding on both is nothing less than superb, bringing out the very best of the series vivid colors and expressive animation and designs. The cases for the discs come in oversized sturdy boxes, which are covered in attractive and unobscured character artwork. Aside from offering eye candy, the size of the boxes is necessary to contain the bonus hardcover booklets that are packaged in with the discs. In the case of this show the books are very basic, essentially amounting to a glorified episode guide adorned with some nice screenshots and artwork. Rather than deliver summaries of the episodes though, the books take a more minimalistic and interesting approach and single out key quotes that help communicate the mood of an episode and the essence of what characters were thinking and doing at the time.
All in all Kimi ni Todoke isn’t exactly exploring new territory, but as shoujo romance goes this is as good as it’s ever been done and it stops just short of overstaying its welcome. The design work on Kimi ni Todoke, by the way, is simply brilliant. For a show so full of romantic (melo)drama it’d be a simple and sensible approach to keep the characters looking “realistic” and on-model, but instead Production I.G. staff embraced the fact that this was a cartoon. This is a series completely unafraid to have characters take on simpler and goofier appearances during a comedic moment, and yet minutes it will be “real” and depicting such genuine tenderness. It’s a show that, early on, made an actual event out of an introvert like Sadako coming to genuinely smile without trying to force it, selling such a simple thing as a sublime transfiguration. This is a TV anime that thrives on expression, and in a better world such a thing wouldn’t be so exceptional.