With the return of the ever popular and beloved Sailor Moon upon us, the people that grew up with it probably remember the series-long romantic subplot between Mamoru and Usagi (renamed in the original English dub as Darien and Serena, respectively). And a good deal of people also remember it being, as Doug Walker noted in his review of the series as the Nostalgia Critic, dragged out for longer than Pam and Jim from The Office.
Romantic subplots are a very delicate element in any form of creative work, and in anime, it can be difficult to make it work. Most anime of the harem genre tend to leave things unfinished, no “official couples”, no romantic conclusion whatsoever. The “maybe ever after” ending. And when it comes to anime adaptations of Light Novels with romantic subplots, it’s even moreso the case. It’s particularly frustrating because the story showcases the protagonist’s romantic feelings for the love interests and his choice on who he will end up with as a major plot point, if not the main one. And when an anime isn’t meant to be all about the romance and the romantic subplot isn’t given conclusion, it’s easy to wonder if there was a point to it in the first place. For Light Novel adaptations, it usually happens because there’s a lot more to the source material than the anime, and the anime isn’t always guaranteed to be successful enough to warrant a second season.
The question is, what makes the good romantic subplots out there work? First, we’ll be looking into a romantic subplot that pretty much sunk every ship out there, pissing off pretty much every fan, and then we’ll be heading into what tropes are commonly found in anime romance, from the good to the bad and on to the ones that make you want to punch your screen or throw your manga at the wall in frustration. Finally, we’ll head into how the good romances really shine.
So strap your belts and enjoy the ride! Spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution!
Caught in a Bad Romance: Oreimo
Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai (which translates to My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute!), Oreimo for short, is the tale of Kyosuke Kousaka’s rather strained relationship with his younger sister Kirino that defrosts with time. As per the norm of harem RomComs, Kyosuke has a lot of potential love interests and the second season had Kyosuke develop a very heartwarming romantic relationship with one of them, fan-favourite Kuroneko, as a subplot that lasted for a good number of episodes.
Eventually, however, Kuroneko decided to break up with Kyosuke. The message leaves Kyosuke heartbroken and, with some motivation and help from Kirino, he eventually decides to find Kuroneko to get answers from her. Once he finds her, she reveals that the break-up happened partly because she realizes that she likely can’t win against Kirino in the end. She also doesn’t want to hurt Kirino, who displayed a good degree of jealousy (to the point of getting a fake boyfriend to make Kyosuke jealous) while Kuroneko and Kyosuke were together. Then Kyosuke decides he isn’t dating anyone else until the whole issue with Kirino gets sorted.
And finally…we get to the fanbase divisor that was the series ending.
Kyosuke starts turning down every other girl with romantic feelings towards him including Kuroneko, whose relationship with him was on hold. Afterwards, he decides to confess to Kirino, with the help of Ayase, Saori and the scorned Kuroneko. Kirino rejects it vehemently until Kyosuke loudly declares he wishes to marry her…and she finally gives in and cries tears of happiness. And Manami, their childhood friend…
After a heated fight in which Manami unleashes her very jealous side, we get this…
After two seasons of teasing at who Kyosuke would wind up with, Kyosuke not only breaks the hearts of the girls who had a crush on him and aren’t related to him by blood, but also burns the potential bridges completely. That’s all to confess to his sister and set things up for a “wedding”, which basically turns out as a fling that lasts a few months before they hit the reset button.
It goes without saying that a lot of people were not pleased with this turn of events. Even people who were rooting for Kirino weren’t happy with how things were handled. This trainwreck (or rather, a SHIPwreck) not only alienated pretty much all the Oreimo fanbase, no matter which girl they were rooting for, but also turned the romantic plot into a detriment to the story as a whole.
Send in the Tropes
After witnessing such extreme failure, we proceed to this article’s core question: When can romantic subplots work, and what makes some fail? To find the answer, let’s start by looking at common elements found in romance stories.
The Dense Lead
This element has been long overused. If love were a Pokémon, this character would fail to catch it with a Master Ball. This guy can’t read the signs even though they’re more obvious than what happens when you try to mix Coke and Mentos. I admit that even I was one at some point. (THE SHAME!) A good example of this lies in Infinite Stratos‘ Orimura Ichika. Ichika has five girls, perhaps more, falling for him over the course of the series, and they all try to convey their feelings to him through many different approaches, but the romantic subtext in their actions goes over his head every…single…time. And because of that, the trope doesn’t cut it for Infinite Stratos. The general agreement is that the show would work a lot either if Ichika wasn’t so dense or if he just wasn’t a part of the show and the focus was on the girls instead. Thank god for fanworks, is what I’d say. The fanbase does a great job with making Ichika a more likeable character. Not to say he isn’t a likeable person, but how much of a blockhead he is can be pretty frustrating.
Most of you may ask, “What do those girls see in a dense guy like that?” Personally, I ask, “Where do the writers see that happening in real life? Because I don’t.” I like to think the dense male leads are the spawn of a single, sentient being that feeds on the negativity generated by the frustration and heartbreak from the girls across the multiverse that have to deal with their density.
On the other hand, Yukina Himuro from the shoujo manga Watashi ni xx Shinasai shows us how this trope can work well:
Yukina is a novelist, writing romances, but she doesn’t have any actual real life experience of love. Because of that lack of experience, she doesn’t actually know much about the depths of romanticism, and she is completely oblivious to people’s signs of romantic feelings towards her, thus making her come off as dense. As the plot progresses, Yukina slowly surpasses that problem.
From a fanbase point of view, a dense lead is acceptable when the character in question grows out of it and becomes more aware of other people’s feelings or doesn’t actually understand love like Yukina’s case, but it’s often frustrating to watch when that density becomes a constant, unchanging thing.
Refusing to be Direct
As a tie-in to the dense lead, some characters outright refuse to be direct with their feelings. For some given reason, they just won’t confess to a romantic interest. A female character of this type often wants a guy to notice her feelings, and in a tsundere’s case, she will get angry if the guy doesn’t take the hints and hit him for being dense. The latter, more often than not, will make the oblivious sap consider the possibility of the girl having feelings for him less likely. In another situation involving the dense male lead, the girl will more often than not continue to give hints that go over the guy’s head, while she herself ignores the hint that, if the guy is too dense to get it, flat out telling him is the best course of action.
This trope tends to fall flat because it adds to the dense lead’s repetitive quirks, unless they do eventually confess (and unless the guy is bright enough to get a direct approach as well). Infinite Stratos suffers from this as well. If any of the girls bothered with a direct confession at all, they probably wouldn’t have as much frustrations with Ichika (and he probably wouldn’t be as frustrating for most viewers). Hilariously, when one of the girls did try to confess to Ichika, it was unheard because of fireworks with very bad timing eating up the sound of her voice.
Inability to Confess Feelings
We’ve all seen and most likely lived this one at least once. A character has an object of affections, and personal issues prevent them from confessing or taking any action on said feelings. The manga Maga Tsuki has such an occurence. For a brief sum up, Maga Tsuki tells the story of Yasuke Arahabara, who is shown to be working up the courage to confess his feelings for his childhood friend Akari Inamori. A perfect chance comes when they’ll have dinner alone at his family’s shrine, a chance ruined by Yasuke’s clumsiness in breaking a sacred mirror that gets him cursed by a goddess. The curse has his soul stored within the goddess, and so he needs to keep close to her otherwise he will die. A subplot here is that Akari also has feelings for Yasuke, but cannot bring herself to confess to him for reasons that are explained in a later chapter.
The goddess in question found out about Akari’s feelings and questioned her about it, in front of Yasuke. Akari’s solution?
Later, Akari voices her troubles in regards to confessing and further elaborates on her thoughts on the subject, saying that the whole time, she’s been afraid that she couldn’t be as close to Yasuke anymore if he knew how she feels. At that point, Akari reveals to the goddess that she is, in fact, in love with Yasuke…but is scared of things changing for the worse and wants to keep them this way. This too, tends to be a common source of conflict within this plot device. It is a believable situation, given how close to reality it can be, but like the dense lead, it if goes on for too long without any sort of progress being made, it fails to work well.
Earlier in the same chapter, Yasuke is asked why he doesn’t just go for it and confess, and he has yet another believable reason why he won’t confess.
A situation such as the above is also an optional sub-element to the character that can’t confess due to personal issues, where both parties have feelings for each other but aren’t aware of the other party’s feelings and their own barriers preventing them from confessing gives space to a good amount of conflict.
Tsunderes (You idiot!)
We all know them. The brash girl that goes, “It’s not like I like you or anything.” She goes out of her way to use her abrasive exterior to hide her sweeter side and, with it, any romantic feelings she could have for the protagonist. The same holds true for a gender-swapped situation, minus the part where the tsundere guy hits the girl he likes when she acts stupid or ticks him off, for obvious reasons.
The tsundere is about the most overused element in romantic plots, besting even the dense lead and often going hand-to-hand with it. Up to this point, the definition of tsundere may seem similar to a character that refuses to be direct with romantic feelings, but the latter isn’t limited to tsunderes, although it’s often part of the classic tsundere’s personality. Tsunderes have trouble being true to their feelings overall, not just in romance. Tsunderes come in two flavours:
- Type A: Prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside. The most seen kind of tsundere. Tends to be nice to everyone, but more abrasive towards the object of affections. A female tsundere might be more abrasive towards any male characters acting perverted or stupid, not limited to her love interest.
- Type B: The opposite of the above, the Type B tsundere is the one that is prickly to everyone BUT the love interest or the object of affections, romantic of not, to whom the nicer side is shown.
We also have 3 sub-categories:
- “Wolf-Girl” Tsundere: Can’t or won’t be honest about her feelings, is quick to jump to bad conclusions in regards to her romantic interest (or the main character in a harem comedy) , and usually pelts him with violence at the slightest provocation, real or imagined.
- Discipline Tsundere: Usually a fellow student assigned some role of authority, who is rather strict in rules enforcement. She is quick to blame the love interest for breaches of etiquette and tries to punish him for it. This usually surprises him in that he’s getting singled out for attention over others. Romantic interest seldom comes to mind as the reason (at least until he gets wind of further evidence).
- Tragic Past Tsundere: This kind, as the name suggests, has a troubled past that makes understanding her feelings, let alone expressing them, highly problematic for everyone, including herself. As such, approaching her requires bomb-disarming levels of care and precision, and if she approaches someone else, misunderstandings, good or bad, are to be expected. While violence towards the Love Interest is not required, it often occurs.
Making a tsundere character work is very difficult, about as hard as clearing Dark Souls without dying once. A good deal of tsunderes either end up being a disliked character, or at the very best, a divisive character within the fandom.
They’re hard to write because a balance between a tsundere outer facade and the inner sweet side is hard to find. Most tsunderes have their harsher side exaggerated in anime adaptations as well, which is the case with Kirino Kousaka from the aforementioned Oreimo and Naru Narusegawa from Love Hina. Rare as it is, Kirino does have a sweeter side and knows how to show appreciation for what people do for her, but despite this, she also tends to act very spoiled and entitled and can be unnecessarily rude to people. That attitude can rub the viewers the wrong way to the point that, even when the story shows that Kirino keeps her hobbies and her feelings of fraternal admiration for Kyosuke (feelings that Manami, who felt Kirino was a threat, told her were unnatural and something to work on burying) a secret because she’s afraid people will judge her, it’s still hard to sympathize with her. In Naru’s case, beating up Keitaro over the slightest misunderstanding and not getting any comeuppance for it doesn’t earn her any sympathy points with the fanbase, either.
If the tsundere becomes softer with time, she has better chances of being a likeable character. If she isn’t a harsh tsundere, the odds are also good. If she has a good reason for being that way and softens up as the series progresses, it works too. But if a tsundere is excessively harsh, suffers no comeuppance for her harshness, shows little to no growth or development and/or has a weak reason for being the way she is, at the very best, she’ll be a divisive character. It’s all knowing how to handle her writing.
Yui Kotegawa, a fan favourite among the To-Love-Ru fandom, is such an example of a successful tsundere. Played much softer than normal, especially as she becomes nicer to the main character with time, Yui is also shown to have a thing for cats, and her softer side is very endearing.
The Spineless Punching Bag
Goes hand-in-hand with the tsundere. It’s the guy that female characters, especially the tsundere, walk all over. It’s the guy that has no guts to stand up for himself, the guy that will continue to take all sorts of abuse and never grow a spine, or grow one too late. One of the best known examples is Keitaro Urashima from Love Hina. Another overused character archetype, the spineless punching bag tends to be a secondary trait of the dense male lead. In an odd case, this archetype isn’t particularly disliked, but it can affect the quality of the work it’s part of, because of the repetitive gimmick often associated with it:
Any time there’s a misunderstanding, no one gives the guy a chance to explain himself. He gets beaten up, and eventually, the misunderstanding is cleared, though possibly not immediately. An apology from misunderstanders is optional. Rinse and repeat.
The misunderstanding in itself is yet another major element found in romantic stories:
Misunderstanding and Conclusion Jumping
Any story has those, but especially the RomCom genre. It’s pretty much the most seen source of conflict, particularly in the Harem subgenre.
A single misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a given situation is a heavily used plot device for conflict. A pre-judgement is made of the poor, misunderstood sap and thus, life gets harder for him or her. (Usually him, because we can’t have a shonen RomCom without our male protagonist suffering, can we now?)
Having a character jump to conclusions like this is another occurrence that needs to be used in moderation. Once is fine, good for a few laughs. Twice is good too, if needed. Constantly? It gets tiresome and overall hurts the plot. And of course, most stories sharing Nisekoi‘s genre prey on those like non-sparkly vampires on human blood.
That’s about all for the most commonly found elements in romances, but stay tuned next week, when we explore how the good subplots work! But now that you’ve seen our analysis of how tropes can succeed or fail in a romantic story, what do you feel is important for a romantic subplot to work? Feel free to share in the comments!
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