Toradora is, simply put, the anime rom-com. It’s a hilarious, heartfelt story of teenage emotions and affections, peppered with iconic moments and all building to a crescendo of final episodes that yank hard at the ol’ heartstrings. There’s nothing especially out-there about Toradora’s structure, but the execution is one-of-a-kind. Fluid, exaggerated character animation allows for elevated gags and potent emotional climaxes. Zesty, deliberate writing breathes additional life into each of its characters with every episode. To sum it up, Toradora manages to capture and articulate the nuanced natures of five high-school kids as they grow into entirely new people from their interactions with each other. I’d trade half my soul to watch it again for the first time.
Toradora can be found on Crunchyroll and Hulu, and I’d actually recommend the English dub for this one, although both versions are great.
White Album 2
This isn’t a sequel, I swear. You can watch this without doing any homework. White Album 2 is for the drama lovers, and is by far the most story-driven show in this section, focusing its efforts on portraying the dynamics between its three leads and how drastically they alter each other’s trajectories. The show is melodramatic to its core: it relishes in lush, sentimental sunset shots throughout its run, integrates a melancholy twang into all its music, and makes sure to stuff its episodes with knowing glances and shaded eyes. Luckily, the story is great, and all that heart-on-sleeve storytelling is put to good use by the end of the show’s short yet impactful run. White Album 2 is the kind of show that can stick with you.
White Album 2 can be found on Crunchyroll.
Spice & Wolf
It’s a miracle that this show is as good as it is. Adapted by a studio who hasn’t produced a single other piece of animation worth watching and starting with a premise that involves a naked girl with wolf-ears, I wouldn’t blame anyone for passing over this. Well, Don’t. Spice & Wolf is magnificent in every aspect: it’s an atmospheric fantasy tale, capturing the melancholy of dying magic in a medieval world on the brink of industrialization. It’s a story of economics, and the uncertainties of staking one’s livelihood and future on the ability to read the economy. But most importantly, it’s a romance–beautiful and compelling, scratching a deep itch for character chemistry and infallible bonds. Dazzling, nostalgic, and adorable, Spice & Wolf is one of a kind.
Spice & Wolf can be found on Funimation and Hulu. This is the other show where I’d recommend the English dub if you can find it.
Considering that it’s a show about judging souls once they reach the afterlife, Death Parade falls in a bit of an odd place in this section: it’s not necessarily dark, but it can be quite morbid. Unlike the other shows in this category it’s structured in a vignette format, with a new set of recently-deceased souls getting the spotlight each episode. Still, it does have central, continuous characters, and it’s a show that’s undeniably fixated with human relationships and interactions, putting an emphasis on character evolution that scratches that specific itch. If you’ve seen The Good Place, I’d consider this another take on that concept, and while they’re tonally quite different I’d say both of them do a good job at it.
Death Parade can be found on Funimation and Hulu.
Kyoto Animation has a way of taking a totally innocuous premise and making it unforgettable. Euphonium follows Kumiko, a high-school girl who joins band and meets the uniquely talented Reina. What follows is just, well, an excellent story of two girls who are in a high-school band and grow from the time they spend with each other and their other band-mates. I cannot overstate how miraculous the visuals of this show are: the whole thing looks like a high-budget movie, and the performance sequences are a sight to behold. The music is incredible, demonstrating without using words the difference between what sounds ‘good’ and what sounds ‘great.’ However, the heart of the show lies with Kumiko and Reina, and the ways they change one another.
Sound! Euphonium can be found on Crunchyroll.
There’s some needlessly long light-novel title for Oregairu that you might have to look up if you want to try to watch it, but I will not soil my list with that jumble of words. Oregairu is a cutting look at some of high-schools more realistic personality types, transcending such one-note characters as ‘the bubbly one’ and ‘the athlete’ for more specific, relatable mentalities such as ‘the cynical loner who thinks that being socially aware and socially competent are the same thing’ and ‘the trendy girl who tries to embody various personas and thus struggles to find her own.’ The result is a slew of captivating drama, romance, and character growth with a cast that feels surprisingly real. It does fall into light-novel doldrums occasionally though, so have your patience goggles ready.
Oregairu can be found on Crunchyroll and Hulu.