I’m breaking away from my regular articles this week to write about a topic that my column is no stranger to: love. Not true love, though. No, this week we’re talking about a far more picturesque and far less realistic form of love. A love found only in such masterpieces of television as Korean dramas and Japanese romance anime.
This past summer, in lieu of any major pre-professional commitments, I went on a short romantic anime trip. I spent my time clocking in to various streaming sites of questionable legality, ripping through shows like Toradora!, Oregairu, Horimiya, Komi can’t communicate and Kaguya-Sama: Love is War.
Over the summer, my family and I watched the breakout hit K-drama Lawyer extraordinaire Woo which, while not technically a romance show, has a romantic subplot that falls in line with many K-drama tropes. I wanted to even out the ratio of anime to K-drama for this column a bit, so I did too Twenty-five Twenty-onea coming-of-age romance drama that came out earlier this year.
The show that inspired this column was the 2021 anime Komi cannot communicate, so let’s start there. The show’s two seasons follow middle school student Komi, an intelligent, soft-spoken girl who struggles with social anxiety and selective muteness. At the center of the show is her budding friendship with fellow student Tadano, a boy described as ordinary in just about every way.
Komi cannot communicate uses Komi’s shyness and timidity to fuel the fantasy behind her and Tadano’s relationship. The audience is meant to envy the exclusivity that Komi’s anxiety brings. The whole point of the show is that Komi struggles to communicate with others, so both Tadano and the audience can rest assured that her affections won’t go to anyone else, despite Tadano seemingly having no upside besides being a general well-behaved person (although I suppose even that is a rare trait today).
Horimiya presents a similar setup. The male lead Miyamura Izumi is a social recluse who rarely interacts with his peers at school. Female lead and class beauty-and-brains combination Hori Kyouko falls for Izumi, and the two start dating surprisingly early in the show. Izumi is clearly meant to be a self-effort for male viewers to imagine what it would be like to be loved by the most popular girl in school, despite being completely socially withdrawn.
On the K-drama side, Lawyer extraordinaire WooThe main romance sees a similar imbalance between romantic leads. The show’s main character, Woo Young-woo, is a novice lawyer who has autism and savant syndrome. Her romantic counterpart is Lee Jun-ho, a young man who works in the legal department of Young-woo’s prestigious law firm.
Jun-ho is one of the few characters who shows Young-woo genuine understanding and friendship. The problem is that he’s written and acted with little discernible personality, and is more or less meant to be the recipient of all of Young-woo’s quirks, like her ability to recite copious amounts of facts about whales on command. Jun-ho embodies a lot of “golden retriever boy”-isms, AKA the “we need a handsome male protagonist but can’t give him any real character traits so we don’t disrupt viewers’ self-imposed romantic fantasies” archetype. .
That brings us to Twenty-five Twenty-one, which is also burdened by an uninteresting male lead. Actor Nam Joo-hyuk is no stranger to such roles, having portrayed a similarly bland character in the 2020s Startup, which I’m not a big fan of either. Nam Joo-hyuk’s character i Twenty-five Twenty-oneBaek Yi-jin, is even less convincing compared to the dynamic and well-acted female lead, Na Hee-do, played by Kim Tae-ri.
My main gripe with Baek Yi-jin’s character is Nam’s acting. I regularly burst out laughing at how inexpressive and distracting his character was, to the point where his good looks were the only thing keeping my willing suspension of disbelief from violently snapping. The casting decisions made it clear that Baek Yi-jin’s unique characteristics were not particularly important to how the main romance was written.
Obviously I’m a tough crowd when it comes to romance stories; realism isn’t usually the goal of this kind of show. Korean dramas and anime have very different audiences, they are mostly female and mostly male respectively, but both rely on self-imposed fantasies for viewers to build their ideal romances around.
Anime viewers love to imagine being the only friend of a gorgeous, shy intellect who hangs on every word. Likewise, “golden retriever boy” characters like Jun-ho and Yi-jin give fans tall, broad-shouldered, blank canvases onto which to dump their ideal-man fantasies. As we all know, real life is never that simple. Romance requires a lot more than good looks and listening to your partner’s whale stories, and real people rarely reciprocate your feelings in exactly the way you want.
I’ll end by mentioning one last show that I think has a good balance between the intrigues of the romantic leads. Kaguya-Sama: Love is War follows the student council president and vice president, Shirogane Miyuki and Shinomiya Kaguya, respectively, and their ongoing war to force a romantic confession out of each other.
It’s clear from the beginning of the show that the two like each other, but both are too proud to admit it for reasons that are given more depth in later seasons. The psychological warfare between the two leads is heartfelt and entertaining, while avoiding the pitfalls that can set themselves in place. Both characters are charismatic, intelligent and popular with their peers. Viewers can become invested in their romance, not because they want the creepy fantasy of living in a romance drama, but because the love that Kaguya and Miyuki have for each other is relatable to our actual lives and crushes.
In short, everyone should go and see Kaguya-Sama: Love is War. It’s a refreshingly realistic take on a genre that can feel extremely spectacular at times. I’m always on the lookout for more romance shows to watch, so my inbox is always open for new recommendations. Just no golden retriever boys, please.
Noah Do is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Noah’s bow takes place every other Sunday this semester.