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Dated 7 October 2006: Hachimitsu to Clover

As much as I complain about anime lacking realistic couples, and how frustrating it is that said couples are so adamantly platonic, I sure got tired of Bokura Ga Ita really fast. I blame a cast of unlikeable characters and an unsettlingly pastel color palette.

Actually, that's not true. I did like one character, but she didn't get much screentime, being dead and all.

And I can't really blame Bokura Ga Ita's pastel color palette, either, because Honey and Clover also has a pastel color palette (and an almost watercolor feel to almost every scene), and I can't get enough of Honey and Clover. I really should have started watching it earlier, because Honey and Clover is excellent.

Takemoto, Mayama, and Yamada
Yamada really isn't like Naru. Honest.

Now here's a show with realistic couples, and often painful themes of envy, despair, and the pangs of unrequited love. Not everyone in the cast is always likeable, but like real people, the characters in Honey and Clover have their good moments and their bad ones. For a show with such an idyllic title and such serene art (accompanied by beautiful music) there's an unexpected amount of pain in Honey and Clover.

I do mean that in the best of ways, because part of what makes Honey and Clover so good is its frankness in acknowledging that love and pain often go hand-in-hand—or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the show suggests that love and pain should go hand-in-hand. Yamada is the show's most sympathetic character because sometimes her love for Mayama is pathetic.

Mayama and Yamada
Mayama and Yamada.

Honey and Clover balances Yamada's character perfectly to generate sympathy from the viewer without inspiring contempt. This is just one of many successful balancing acts Honey and Clover artfully manages. The show also swings between comedy and drama skillfully, and juggles a number of different plot lines over the course of nearly 40 episodes. Actually, "nearly 40" is an inapt choice of words. Honey and Clover is consistently excellent, and could easily stand to run another 40 episodes if I had my say in the matter. Even then I suspect it wouldn't be enough.

Dated 26 October 2007: Lovely Complex and THE UNREQUITED LOVE

Koizumi
Koizumi.

I was wrong about Lovely Complex in that Koizumi and Otani do not, in fact, get together early and often. I had high hopes after an early resolution to the "friends that could be more than friends" question. Instead, the show is about unrequited love, which is fine with me since the matter is addressed with the same honest despair depicted in Honey and Clover.

Koizumi and Otani
PUSH HIM DOWN!

I'm confident that our odd couple will get together by the end of the show, but Lovely Complex manages to make me fear that things might not work out for the two of them after all. Honey and Clover creates a similar sense of foreboding with Yamada's pathos, but the tone of Honey and Clover makes fears that Yamada is throwing her life away quite reasonable. Partly for that reason, Honey and Clover is a better show than Lovely Complex, but the latter catches me at a time when its underlying romantic optimism is more appealing, so I'm still enjoying Lovely Complex a great deal.

Dated 11 November 2007: Re-watching Honey and Clover because Lovely Complex ended too soon

Takemoto
Takemoto contemplates his fate.

I'm re-watching Honey and Clover, and it's all Lovely Complex's fault. At least this does give me the chance the write about characters I mostly ignored the last time I wrote about Honey and Clover. First up: Hanamoto Hagumi. She's the tiny, kinda troll-like girl who is supposed to exceedingly cute. The first time I watched Honey and Clover, I didn't like Hagu until almost the end of the second season. Since I did end up eventually liking her, I do appreciate her character more during my second look at these early episodes.

Hagu
A typical Hagu moment.

For one thing, I notice that she's the one who introduces the viewer to Yamada (my favorite character). We see Yamada in the background, but the early episodes are about Hagu, and Yamada does not interact with the rest of the cast until she meets Hagu. Yamada does already know the other characters, but it isn't until Hagu encounters her that the viewer formally meets Yamada.

Yamada and Morita
And then Yamada asserts herself right quick.

But Hagu. She's the focus of one theme that I suspect is not treated seriously most of the time: Love at first sight. Takemoto falls in love with Hagu literally at first sight. Honey and Clover is as much about his love for her as it is about Yamada's unrequited love for Mayama. That Takemoto falls in love at first sight is particularly significant because the Honey and Clover characters, all artists, frequently wonder what it's like to see the world through Hagu's eyes.

Hagu
Takemoto sees Hagu for the first time.

I'm not sure if I should categorize Hagu as a prodigy or an idiot savant. (She is a very strange girl, and at 18 too old to still be considered a prodigy.) The other characters recognize that her talent exceeds their own to such a degree that she is fundamentally different on some level that they can't comprehend. But we don't get to see the series through Hagu's eyes; we see it though Takemoto's. From his vantage point, Honey and Clover invites the viewer to see what the world is like through the eyes of one who can—and does—fall in love at first sight. To that end, Honey and Clover does not merely entertain. It instructs and edifies.

Dated 28 February 2009: Toradora! is good, but it's still no Honey and Clover

Taiga
I really wasn't expecting an Ayu cameo.

I had moderate praise for the first half of Toradora! However, I also implied it wasn't as good as Honey and Clover. Others disagreed, again invoking Honey and Clover. After 21 episodes, I still believe Toradora! is the best series of the current season, but I maintain that it is still not nearly as good as Honey and Clover.

Minori
Minori is still the Best Girl, but I might just be saying that because
of Yui Horie. And because she throws right, bats left.

This is not meant as a slight against Toradora!, as it is still quite enjoyable. It rises above the conventions of its idiom and exceeds the assumptions and expectations I had for the series. I thought I knew what Toradora! was going to be about, and I thought I knew how the plot was going to play out, but thankfully J.C. Staff still has a few tricks up its sleeve, and keeps Toradora! from languishing in the morass of high school love comedies that plague anime. Nevertheless, although Toradora! is much better than I expected, it still suffers from a number of potentially damning flaws.

Ami
It's hard to deny Ami, though. Ami is awesome.

[Warning: Minor spoilers hereinafter for episode 21. Nothing you wouldn't have easily guessed by now, though.]

Ami
Back away from Ami.

First—and let's be honest here—Toradora! is still a harem comedy. It's not your typical harem comedy because Ryuuji isn't a spineless tool, but although decent male protagonists are rare, they are not unknown among harem comedy males. Kazuya from Hand Maid May comes to mind, and if you're willing to characterize School Rumble and Nadesico as harem comedies (look, not exclusively, but they still are), then Harima and Akito qualify as well. But the problem with harem comedies is that most of the romantic tension is defused. The question isn't if Male Protagonist will get together with someone, but when. Usually, with whom isn't even an issue, as the First Girl He Sees Clause proves quite reliable in this respect. At this point in Toradora!, Ryuuji has three viable love interests. The remaining drama in the show boils down to which girl he will pick, and what is to happen to the rejected. That the answer is not entirely obvious at this point (although smart money should heavily favor the worst girl) lends credit to Toradora!

Yamada
Even Ami can't compare with Yamada, though. Poor girl.

Compare this with Honey and Clover. The earlier J.C. Staff production offers multiple story lines regarding unrequited love. In each case, there is no assurance the characters in question will find love and happiness. Quite the contrary, for the most part, their romances seem more doomed with each passing episode. It is this balance of hope and despair that drives Hachimitsu to Clover.

Taiga
Taiga? She's a frickin' slob.

Technically, all harem comedies include tales of unrequited love as well, at least regarding the girls not chosen. But harem comedies lack the aforementioned despair component, as Male Protagonist could surely offer each of the girls his love were it not for Simple Contrivances and General Spinelessness. Perhaps more importantly, harem comedies also focus on the object of everyone's affection (i.e., the male lead), which changes the dynamic entirely unless the show also includes a primary love interest within the harem for Male Protagonist to actively and indefatigably pursue with incorruptible loyalty despite no assurance of potential dere-dere B.S. reciprocation.

Ryuuji
Ryuuji isn't an ass clown, but he's still kind of a putz.

Make no mistake. Toradora! is told from Ryuuji's point of view. Because of this, Toradora! is ascendant during episodes and moments when he is obsessed with Minori. Likewise, the unrequited love stories of the other characters elevate the show as well. But after episode 21, I am hard pressed to imagine the series avoiding a sharp dive in quality unless it takes the courageous route by taking the story in unexpected directions. I'm hoping for this (presumably crueler) ending to Toradora! It is not a happy way to wrap up the series, but it is the respectable way to go, and it is a damn sight better than the ending episode 21 is apparently establishing. Quite frankly, though, I fear J.C. Staff does not have the sand for it. To do so, it will have to make a lot of "shippers" unhappy and disappoint a lot a viewers. It will make for a better show—too late to catch Honey and Clover, but perhaps sufficient to avoid stumbling before Shikabane Hime should Kuro finish unexpectedly strong. (It's Gainax. You can't count that possibility out. Maybe it'll end like Mahoromatic, but perhaps it will end like Top wo Nerae.)