Many of the best anime series harness the power of animation to capture soaring emotions, something seen in the medium’s standout dramas, high-octane sports shows, and pulse-pounding battle shounens. However, this tendency is particularly potent when combined with romance, a genre that even outside the form is traditionally associated with these types of poignant swings. Out of the countless meet-cutes, doomed love triangles, and cathartic confessions, here are five of the best romance anime series to keep you cheering and sobbing this Valentine’s Day and beyond.
Kaguya-sama Love Is War
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From the start, Kaguya-sama Love Is War quickly proved to be one of the most visually inventive and gut-busting anime around, its non-stop gags conveying the lengths that its two protagonists were willing to go to avoid confessing their true feelings. Here Kaguya and Shirogane, the heads of the student council at an elite high school, come up with increasingly intricate schemes to make the other slip. Their heavily calculated ploys are brought to life with frenetic, art-style-switching creative fervor that accomplishes the difficult task of keeping a single gag fresh through dozens of episodes. However, although it’s carried by the strength of its animation and comedy up front, later seasons give its cast depth by establishing their previous hardships and current struggles. Most pointedly, these trials and flashbacks clarify the deeper reasons why many of its characters are in love in the first place, with past moments of kindness and inspiration bubbling to the forefront. It turns out that there are more interesting reasons for why Kaguya and Shirogane engage in psychological skirmishes than just being prideful, boneheaded teens. While its maelstrom of aesthetically expressive gags hasn’t let up, this series’ ambitions have grown with its protagonists, transforming a humorous romp into a genuinely affecting romance story.
Bloom Into You
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While many anime and manga fall into negative tropes in their depictions of queer romance, Bloom Into You avoids many of these stumbling blocks, largely portraying the burgeoning relationship between its leading heroines with care. The story begins after Yuu, a freshman in high school, runs into Touko, a popular girl in line to become the next student council president. As the two begin falling for each other, things become complicated by Yuu’s confusion over what it means to be in love and Touko’s survivor guilt over a personal tragedy. One of the series’ greatest strengths is how its direction extrapolates the mental state of its characters, using visual metaphors to capture Yuu’s alienation regarding her perceptions of romantic feelings and Touko’s unresolved grief that pushes her away from others. These two working through the dissonance between external expectations and how they truly feel ties in with the series’ broader exploration of the social stigmas faced by those in queer relationships. Additionally, its representation of multiple LGBTQ+ pairings, including one between adult women, provides a greater range of perspectives while also pushing back on longstanding harmful stereotypes in anime that portray being gay as an “adolescent phase.” There are a few blunders, but this story captures the authenticity of Yuu and Touko’s love, its strong aesthetic identity making their feelings hit home. While the show doesn’t fully adapt the source material, the manga has a perfect conclusion and is a must-read if you enjoy what’s here.
My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU
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Defined by its witty repartees, nuanced characterizations, and well-conveyed relationships, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU is a whip-smart coming-of-age tale that communicates the interior lives of its cast. At its center is Hachiman, a cynical high schooler who finds himself the newest member of his school’s Service Club, joining Yukino, a fellow social outcast, and the bubbly Yui. Together the three work through their classmates’ problems while addressing their own, helping fix friendships, untangle convoluted student body politics, and plan school events. One of its most striking elements is how well it portrays social dynamics and character psychology, digging into various low-key problems with the same type of thorough analysis that would befit a mystery yarn. Despite its protagonist’s initial misanthropy, this story is deeply interested in people, and there is a rewarding density to its writing and characters. This depth is particularly impactful when it comes to its slow-burn romance, longstanding foibles, and journeys of self-discovery acting as obstacles to confessions. But as the title implies, it’s not all heavy material, and it’s also rife with hilarious verbal sparring matches between potential love interests that establishes their chemistry. Although the wordiness of its writing can be a tad imposing at times, it all comes together in a cathartic conclusion that makes good on all its internal monologues and complicated relationship dynamics, communicating these people’s growth with overwhelming emotion.
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Fruits Basket’s exploration of deeply rooted familial trauma hits like a truck. We follow Tohru, a high schooler who recently lost her mom in an accident and subsequently finds herself taken in by two classmates estranged from their influential family. She quickly learns their secret: that Yuki and Shigure bear a “curse” that runs in the Soma clan, causing them to occasionally transform into zodiac animals. While this begins as a wacky setup, the series eventually explores the abuse wrought by those with power in this family, as Tohru meets and aids the other bearers of the curse. Although the age of the source material occasionally rears its head in ugly ways, at its core, this is a story with a great deal of empathy, and it is incredibly rewarding to watch our plucky heroine help these people heal and confront the status quo. However, what makes this work as a romance tale is that this kindness isn’t a one-way street, and in return, Tohru’s companions help her confront deeply buried pain as she fully processes the loss of her parents. By its second half, the show grows into a consistently excellent narrative about familial healing, earning its romantic conclusion through building friendship and then more between its protagonist and her partner. If you check it out, make sure to bring some tissues.
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Screenwriter Mari Okada is well known as the queen of writing messy teens, and the beloved rom-com Toradora! is no exception. Our leading pair are both misunderstood based on their appearances; Ryuuji is a kind-hearted boy with an unfortunately intimidating face, while Taiga is a tiny girl with a fiery personality. Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common, but become accomplices after discovering that they have crushes on each other’s best friends. Although misconceptions regarding the two’s appearances are frequently played for laughs, as the show progresses, it fully engages with what it means to struggle with others’ perceptions and to live behind a façade. Amid the chaotic backdrop of adolescence, it explores how its characters come to shed their masks so they can truly be themselves, growing from walking cliches into fully formed, vulnerable people. This story crashes between juicy melodrama and comedic asides with reckless glee, excelling in both modes as it conveys the ups and downs of this maelstrom of confused feelings. It’s an emotional roller coaster that perfectly embodies that sense of yearning and release that defines the best romantic tales, hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure.
Elijah Gonzalez is a freelance writer and former Paste intern. In addition to playing the latest indie games, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.
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