I love a good love story. I find watching the struggles of two people come together to be more exciting than any action-adventure story or fantasy setting could ever be. But just what is it that makes a good love story, and even more importantly, a good couple? There are literally hundreds of romance manga, yet only a handful of couples have carved a place in my heart as my favorites. After thinking about it, I came up with several elements all that are present in all of the love stories I’ve enjoyed most, so I thought I’d share them with you guys.
Interesting characters: No matter how great a love story may be, if either of the characters in a relationship with each other are boring or unmemorable, I won’t feel the need to care about them. Take Hana-Kimi, for example: I never found myself particularly attached to either Mizuki, who is a cherrful-yet-typical shojo heroine, or Sano, who is pretty-yet-dull, and thus they never stood out to me in comparison to other manga couples. Even if one character is unique, if the other character is flat or outright annoying it makes it impossible for me to have strong feelings towards a couple, such as in The Devil Does Exist, which features a pretty intriguing male lead in Takeru but a disappointingly dense heroine in Kayano. This is probably why my favorite couples also consist of my favorite characters, particularly Kodocha‘s Sana and Akito.
The power balance is equal: There are too many series that glorify romantic pairings in which the woman is in a subservient position. While I probably don’t even need to mention magical-girlfriend/harem series such as He is My Master, a (sadly high) number of shojo series feature relationships in which passive girls are dating guys who hold power over them – which they use to the fullest extent. In Black Bird, Kyo’s often cruel treatment of girl-next-door Misao is treated as ‘romantic’ because he is her protector, while in Hot Gimmick Hatsumi is blackmailed by her jerky neighbor Ryoki, which eventually turns into ‘true love,’ warts and all. Dengeki Daisy offers an interesting case: although Kurosaki is Teru’s protector and a few years older than her, the worst he ever does is tease her, while Teru’s brighter and spunkier than either Misao and Hatsumi could ever hope to be. Thus, they feel more like equals than many other manga couples, and this has helped me latch onto the couple as one of my most recent favorites. But it’s not just the power balance that’s important: both characters also need to feel equally in love with each other. In Itazura na Kiss, Kotoko spent six years pining after Naoki Irie before he confessed his love. The two married shortly after, but Naoki still rarely showed his affection for Kotoko, often putting his work ahead of her and being just generally indifferent to celebrating anniversaries and going on dates. Even though it’s obvious that he does love her, it’s hard for me to love Naoki and Kotoko as a couple as much as I love their love story because their relationship feels so imbalanced.
They’re comfortable around each other: Over at Beneath the Tangles, TWWK wrote a great post on the myth of chemistry. As TWWK writes, if Kimi ni Todoke‘s Sawako and Kazehaya were a couple in real life, many people would say that they ‘don’t have chemistry’ because they are always blushing and awkward around each other. The post goes on to say that chemistry is unimportant because finding out more about the other person is more important than focusing on your own feelings. However, I have to wonder: isn’t being nervous around someone the opposite of getting to know them better? Getting to know more about the other person should allow both individuals involved to be more comfortable not only in their relationship, but in showing their true selves. All of the couples I love in anime and manga bicker with each other, and while on the surface that may seem dysfunctional, it actually shows how close they are that they’re confident that an argument won’t tear them apart – and confident that they know the other person well enough to call them out on their crap. I appreciate how unique Sawako and Kazehaya are as a shojo couple – he’s not the stereotypical bad boy and both of them are adorable together – but they’re missing that ‘spark’ that I need to completely fall for a couple, and thus I think I admire how different they are more than I actually like them.
We actually see them fall in love: I cannot stress enough how important this is. The most important factor in determining my feelings towards a couple is that I understand their reasons for falling for one another. Thus, I tend not to care much for shojo series where the girl has feelings for her boyfriend-to-be prior to the series start. This is not only because I enjoy watching the process of characters falling for one another, but also because the backstory of why the girl fell for the guy tends to be pretty shallow (e.g, he lent her a handkerchief while flashing a dazzling smile)., and don’t convince me that the couple was meant to be together. But it’s not just important for me to know why a couple loves each other: it needs to actually be shown. One of the problems I had with Marmalade Boy‘s Miki and Yuu was that Yuu’s reasons for liking Miki were told instead of shown. He tells her that he loves her because she’s honest, which to me seems like a very vague reason to fall for someone because it could easily be applied to another girl in the series who had a crush on him. Thus, we need to see the ‘chase’ as the relationship unfolds: how the characters met; the struggles they went through to realize they’re in love with each other, in order to fully share the couple’s joy once they finally get together.
And then they build a relationship: Several anime bloggers have pointed out that a flaw of romance anime is that they often focus solely on the drama before two characters get together. Many fans believe that very few series highlight the main couple maintaining their relationship, but actually I’d argue that there are many shojo series that do (His and Her Circumstances, Sand Chronicles, Mars, and Love*Com are several examples among many others). It can be kind of unsatisfying to see a couple you like confess and kiss at the very end of the series, without ever getting to see them be happy together. This type of ending often leaves me wondering: what kind of couple will these characters be like together? What separates couple A in series A from couple B in series B is their dynamic with one another, and I feel this is best shown once the characters are dating. Of course, there is some truth to the opinion that the ‘before’ is more interesting because the characters’ are faced with odds that prevent them from being together, and because once the couple has gotten together there aren’t many storylines left. But I think seeing a couple build on their relationship to become closer to each other and watching them resolve problems that young couples naturally face (going to different colleges, etc.) can be interesting if it’s done well. Thus, most of my favorite couples are from series that highlight both the before and after: we get to see them meet and slowly fall in love, then they eventually together and we are allowed to truly get to know and feel for them by seeing how they’ll make their relationship work. Both Akito and Sana from Kodocha and Tsukushi and Tsukasa from Boys Over Flowers go through each of these stages, and that is why they are my favorite couples in anime and manga.
There are many reasons why the audience might love one couple over another. What is romantic is subjective, and in terms of manga at least, readers may all be looking for different things. While some people prefer romances that are written as though they could happen in real-life, others prefer fantasies that some would label ‘dangerous.’ For those of you who have couples you love: what is it about those couples that makes them stand out above the rest? And what do you feel is the most important factor in being engrossed by a romance? Share your thoughts, guys!