Kimi ni Todoke is available on Crunchyroll and Hulu.
While I just recently wrote about how certain anime can have some miserable pacing issues – and why I don’t always consider that to be a flat problem – there’s definitely more than one way in which a series’ complete lack of urgency can actually work in its favor.
It can be thematic, for instance. Certain elements of our lives develop slowly and awkwardly, like how young people find themselves, deepen their relationships, and grow their social confidence. It stands to reason that a story focusing on these elements should likewise be drawn-out and cautious in its plotting.
Enter the near-entirety of Shoujo series.
Next to the highly visible long-form shonen shows and The Entmoot, shoujo probably has the next-most-infamous reputation for taking a long, long time to say or do anything to change its status quo – and that’s not entirely unearned.
Shojo romance shows adapted from manga in particular get bit harder than just about anything else in the anime space by having to keep pace with their source material. Unlike other adaptation, most of which can feasibly take regular breaks in order to let their source material get back ahead – I’m looking at you here, My Hero Academia, and I appreciate you – even the manga itself for shoujo series can get stuck in a holding pattern much of the time. The will-they-or-won’t-they element of budding relationships is a huge part of the draw to many series, after all; take a definitive step in one direction or the other, and you’ll change the fundamental relationship that readers come to the series for, and thus you risk losing that appeal for portions of your audience.
This isnt’ to dismiss the existing shoujo series that do allow their central relationships evolve and shift over time – Horimiya and Kokoro Connect are lovely, not-exclusively-romantic examples, and many others like the much-beloved CLANNAD benefit from their source material being of definite length withone or more complete romantic arcs – but unfortunately those are rather in the minority.
Most of the shoujo romance genre is populated with material much more like Kimi ni Todoke, a delightful and saccharine-sweet series that nonetheless seems petrified to let its protagonists do anything more risqué than holding hands.
To wit, Kimi ni Todoke’s multi-season, 39-episode anime covers about the first 44 chapters of the source manga. Its main couple won’t go so far as exchanging their first honest-to-goodness kiss for around another 30 chapters after that, about another whole 26-episode season that’s unlikely to ever get made.
But I still wouldn’t make the assertion that working at the relative pace of a slug is always the worst thing, nor even the least accurate. While some people surely have an easier time than others, it stands that an awful lot of high-school-age people are apprehensive about personal relationships past a certain depth, even in places where the social norm lands more on the friendly and open side. It’s functionally impossible to judge whether that effect is any more or less prominent in the cultural context of the series (e.g. modern-day Japan), but they sure do play up that hesitation to the Nth degree – and what would any drama be if it wasn’t playing things up?
It’s quite similar in a way to recent favorite Terrace House, which moves broadly at the same pace that people do in real life (which is to say, usually not much on a week-by-week basis). To wit, Terrace House dedicates more than a full episode length to the emotional betrayal and subsequent fallout an instance of housemates eating someone else’s food from the communal fridge without permission. Granted, there’s a whole mess of other baggage that comes through in that moment, but still, the idea stands: these dramas, either pre-constructed or not, can really linger and squeeze a lot of value out of small-scale incidents.
Not unlike how accidentally breaking your side-view mirror is probably a much bigger deal inside your head than it is to any outside observer, despite it totally being a breach of your self-confidence and meaning extra repair work and leaving your car looking miserable in the meantime and this definitely not being a thing I have done recently.
In the end, that’s what these emotional, character-driven shows are trying to do, right? They get us in the headspace of these characters and let us feel how their emotional and social lives develop – even and especially when that means doing so in real time. It’s much harder to empathize with a character when you’re only getting the CliffsNotes edition of their life, after all, and shoujo series in particular need the viewer’s empathy to truly thrive.
And when we reframe the series like this, we start to see other milestones than first-second-third base (those “bases” in anime terms being “first-name basis”, “hand-holding”, and “smooches”), which is something that Kimi ni Todoke in particular is chock-full of.
The main one, of course, is the story of Sawako’s personal growth, which is delightfully intertwined with the show’s romantic hook without explicitly relying on it in any way. For those who haven’t seen or read Kimi ni Todoke, she starts out as mostly the butt of some friendly jokes about her resemblance to the ghost-girl in The Ring; nothing malevolent or close to bullying, but still not exactly a paragon of popularity. Her slowly learning to be more relaxed around other people, engage in bi-directional friendships, and generally take better advantage of her social opportunities gives the series a lot of footholds that provide concrete story progression running parallel to her relationship with male lead and wholesome boy Kazehaya, though without changing the fundamental interactions between the two.
A show like this always benefits from a balance between multiple focus characters, too – and, wouldn’t you know it, Kimi ni Todoke is right on point. The cast of named characters is on the small side – no more than six recurring characters really matter here – but each of them adds to the central story in different ways without directly affecting it. Everything we see of wing-woman Ayane’s personal life reinforces her role as a pillar of support and maturity, fellow wing-woman Chizuru and Kazehaya’s friend Ryu have their own open-ended arc that helps to normalize how slow and uncomfortable the central romance is within the context of a similar uneasy relationship, and rival Kurumi represents a distinct clash of values with the rest of the cast that further illustrates why most of these characters gel so well together.
None of these directly move the romantic plot forward in any way (hence why it takes the manga ten books to get the main couple together and another seven to pucker up), but each distinctly informs how the audience sees the relationship between the two leads, deepens the support structure around the two, and makes their social circle better-realized. And in the end, even if the show doesn’t quite reach the same ending that a lot of dramas will settle at, I still felt a lot more connected to these two awkward kids than I did other shows and movies where the characters actually do end up in a solid and well-definied relationship. Because there’s more to these characters than just the end result of their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.
It’s not about the destination, but the journey taken to get there.