The faces of tigers and dragons

Remember me? It’s Pontifus, that guy who has successfully ignored the blog he created for about a month! Why, you may or may not ask? Because I’m embroiled in another of my regularly scheduled methodological crises, and those are well and truly crippling. But that’s boring, so let’s move on.

I realized recently that Baka-Tsuki and its cadre of rogue translators are working their way through the Toradora light novels, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge. Normally I would resist; I don’t like to be in the middle of more than one adaptation at a time. But I’m willing to make exceptions when I’m far enough in one that I’m well past the beginning of the other, and when I really like the franchise in question.

In retrospect, I almost wish I’d exercised some restraint.

I really like the Toradora anime, and I mean really like it. A lot of people do, it seems. It reminds me so much of my own high school and college years that it’s painful to watch1 at times, which is, come to find out, a good thing by my reckoning. I suppose this means I’m even more predisposed than I normally am by pure literary douchebaggery alone to find flaws in the Toradora light novels.

And that’s all well and good, but why is it so? I have a few guesses, several of which may apply. There are, by my reckoning, two repeat offenders: disparity of written imagery and visual images, and disparity of narrative techniques. These differences are not in themselves bad things, but they go a long way in rendering my response to the Toradora light novels less positive than my response to the show.

Join me, if you will, as I examine a few lines from the first chapter of the first Toradora novel2 and try to explain what in God’s name I’m talking about (with the help of plenty of spoilers from the show, so if you haven’t seen much of it, turn back!).

A frustrated hand wiped the mist from the mirror. The run-down bathroom was foggy due to an early morning shower. So after wiping the mirror, it returned to being cloudy. It was pointless to take anger out on the mirror no matter how frustrated one was…

Make yourself gentle with floating bangs — That slogan was seen in the latest men’s fashion magazine. Takasu Ryuuji’s bangs were now “floating”. As the article instructed, he pulled his bangs at length, blow-dried them until they stood up, and then gently rubbed them sideways with some hair gel. He specifically woke up a half-hour early in order to make his hair resemble that of the model’s and have his wish granted.

Even though he had always wiped the steam off, even after spending a whole day last week cleaning out the mold in the kitchen and bathroom… All his effort had gone to waste in that horribly humid room. Biting his lips begrudgingly, Ryuuji tried to see if he could wipe off the mold with some tissues. Of course, it was never going to be that easy, and he ended up tearing the tissues to shreds.

Ah, right, this scene — you know, I barely recognized it at first as the same scene with which the anime opens. This is one of those narrative technique issues I mentioned. In the show, it’s a very kinetic scene, all movement and very little language, and it’s entertaining for that reason; we begin to get a feel for Ryuuji without any need for straightforward exposition. But, here, that movement is slowed by the explanation (maybe necessary, maybe not) of certain minutiae: we’re told that the bathroom is foggy in the aftermath of a shower, for example, and that Ryuuji has a habit of cleaning things. We could probably figure out the cause of the fogginess for ourselves, and the obsessive cleanliness could just as easily be shown later on — we can see it when Ryuuji attacks the mold immediately with whatever cleaning implements he has on hand. Note that this is not a criticism; the novel’s way of doing things isn’t necessarily bad, as it does serve the purpose of situating us more thoroughly in Ryuuji’s thoughts. It’s probably safe to say that film is better at conveying movement while literature excels at conveying thoughts and emotions, and the writers of the respective adaptations may have been playing to the strengths of their media. In this case, though, I prefer the movement, and while this may be the fault of bias set in place by my having seen the show first, I suspect it may have more to do with general personal preference; I like movement and physical response in novels more than long, unbroken tracts of description. I wouldn’t describe the above excerpts as long, unbroken tracts of description, mind you, but they certainly aren’t as active as the corresponding animated scenes, and again, maybe it’s a constraint of the medium.

Last year, just a few meters from the south side of this house, a ten-story luxury apartment building was built. As a result, the sun no longer shone through. This had driven Ryuuji to the brink of madness and frustration countless times already — the laundry could no longer dry; the tatami now expanded due to the humidity, curled at the corners and grew moldy; and sometimes it would even get frosty. The wallpaper was starting to peel, which must have had something to do with the humidity as well. It doesn’t matter since this is just a rented apartment, Ryuuji wanted to tell himself. Yet being extremely sensitive about keeping a place tidy and clean, Ryuuji just could not get himself to tolerate and compromise on such a thing. Looking up towards the white-tiled high-class condo, there was nothing those two poor people could do but stand shoulder to shoulder with their mouths open.

There’s something to be said for well-placed exposition, though. As someone who knows what’s coming, I like this description of Taiga’s apartment as a shadow over Ryuuji’s home and a blight upon his tatami mats — he’ll be tossed out of his comfort zone, and whether that’s a good thing is a matter of reader opinion, but it’s certainly a thing that happens to most (if not all) teenagers at some point. I wonder if first-time readers would find this passage tedious — the lead-up to the above paragraph seems to make it obvious enough to me that the apartment will be important later, but then, I knew that much from the beginning.

In order to give birth to Ryuuji, Yasuko dropped out of high school when she was still a first year, so she was not familiar with what life as a second year was like. Ryuuji felt a sense of sadness for a moment.

Wait, wait, wait…did they just make Yasuko tragic? I always wanted the show to give her more depth — single mothers are characters for whom I can muster a lot of sympathy — but I imagine it may have been hard for the writers to balance sympathy with her visual portrayal as altogether ridiculous. In animation (and probably any film, really), I suspect a character’s layers of depth will always be seen through the shadow of their physical form. Surely some film critic has written about that, but I don’t really know film criticism. It reminds me of literary mind-body dualism (which Cuchlann mentions toward the bottom of this post, if you’re curious), but unavoidable insofar as making judgments at first sight, however cursory, is unavoidable3. We might say that the dualism, if there is dualism, is an end rather than a means.

…[Ryuuji's reputation] could be partly blamed on his rough personality. He spoke in quite an unrefined way, which had something to do with his extreme sensitivity. This was why he rarely joked around or said anything foolish.

Interesting; I didn’t get “rough” or “unrefined” out of the show’s characterization of Ryuuji. Where social class is concerned, though, I suppose he isn’t exactly at the top of the pecking order. If anyone could give me this paragraph in the original Japanese, I’d appreciate it, as certain connotations of whatever words Takemiya used may have been lost when they became the English “rough” and “unrefined,” and I’d like to try to puzzle through it myself.

To use soccer as a metaphor, Ryuuji would be a center defender who hardly ever had any chance of participating in offense.

OH LOL, for lack of a better term. Ryuuji is a professional wingman, of course, a groundskeeper of the friend zone, and it caught me off guard when the novel came right out and said so. Maybe it shouldn’t have; it’s funny, I suppose, but Ryuuji’s unfortunate predicament is pretty obvious anyway.

Her various cheerful expressions.

Her delicate body and exaggerated movements.

Her innocent smiles and clear voice.

Despite his intimidating appearance, she still managed to keep her usual cheerfulness in his presence, even to this day.

That’s Kushieda Minori for you.

As I read, I found myself trying to poke holes in this description of Minorin in spite of better judgment, which tells me it’s best to consider adaptations as independent entities, at least during the initial reading of each. I wonder now if that’s even wholly possible — it may be possible for someone, but my record is perhaps suspect, and it’s not as if I don’t know better. Is it related to my broader inclination to compare things with other things often and at length? Is it possible that those who disparage the Toradora anime for not being more like the novels (just as I feel inclined to disparage the first chapter, if not vocally or with any belief in the objective rightness of doing so, for not being more like the anime, or perhaps for not being the anime) aren’t consciously at fault? Perhaps we’re dealing with some mechanism of reading here, some attribute of the body of narrative art. Or — and this is of course an implicit corollary of all artistic interpretation, analysis, and such — maybe it’s just me.

For my part, my impression of Minorin does include some of the novel’s descriptors, but is best summed up by the three particular incidents from the show which come to mind when I think of her — the first, representing her genki girl craziness, which rubs off on her friends once or twice…or thrice:

The second, representing her dedication and dauntlessness:

And the third and most recent, in which Ami throws all her flaws in her face (and for great justice):

These are the images which really stick with me, and pull the most weight in determining Minorin’s character for me — the first because it made me laugh for five minutes, the second because Minorin is fucking gar, and the third because I still feel anxious just thinking about it (for about an hour prior to the writing of this sentence, I’ve been jittery at the prospect of having to watch that scene again for the sake of grabbing the screencap). Regardless of their taking place later in the…not shared narrative, as the two adaptations give us two different narratives, but maybe the Toradora proto-narrative…I can’t help bringing these and other scenes with me when I read the novel. Perhaps they’re confounding influences, mere distractions, but even if they are, they exist; when the novel cues me with “Kushieda Minori,” I need to mentally construct a character to attach to that name, and if I’ve already done so for an alternate adaptation, I don’t know how I could completely and utterly disallow that Kushieda Minori from lending qualities to this one, considering the importance of prior knowledge and experience in reading.

Specifically, expressiveness, physical exaggeration, and cheerfulness are all things I associate with Minorin, and so I didn’t have trouble accepting those traits when the novel handed them to me. But “delicate body” gave me pause — maybe she looks delicate, but she’s proven her ability to hold up under physical duress more than once in the show, rendering half the connotations of “delicate” inapplicable. Granted, that may be attributable to a translation nuance, but “innocent smiles?” We viewers all know what lurks beneath that presumed innocence by now. Of course, there’s no way the novel could convey all that in one chapter, and Ryuuji doesn’t know Minorin well enough at that point to judge her accurately. I comprehend that on a conscious, logical, intellectual level, just as I comprehend that the two Minorins are not practically one and probably should not be considered as such, but that isn’t going to stop impatience and jadedness from being emotional byproducts of reading, and it isn’t going to stop my mind from being hypersensitive to possible “inaccuracies” against my will. Knowledge of the one version affects the experience of the other, and there doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it (and I try, believe me).

Oh, and let’s not forget that the light novel offers its own visual depiction of Minorin…

…which isn’t wholly analogous to the Minorin I’m used to lately, who is prone to romantic dilemmas and hitting people who point out her flaws. These alternate depictions and their discrepancies inform and perhaps confound one another, especially when the adaptations in question are fairly similar; I’m starting to suspect that whether they should or not is of little consequence.

Her long straight hair softly fluttered and covered the tiny body of the Palmtop Tiger.

Speaking of those illustrations present in light novels, I wonder if we should consider them separate in terms of characterizing influences from the descriptions of the characters they represent, and, if so, to what degree. I mention this because this…

…is not “straight hair.” Is this a minor discrepancy? Yes, but it illustrates that different creators bring different agencies to different depictions of the same character, and this isn’t mitigated by the two depictions coexisting in the same physical text. I don’t know how much this matters, but it could certainly lead to situations in which the reader must contend with differing adaptations in deciding, consciously or not, what to include in their mental image of the text.

At the end of the day, I’d maintain that adaptations of the same “proto-narrative” should be considered separate texts, and that “I like this less because it isn’t like the other thing” shouldn’t be considered an objective basis for making a value judgment. As Cuchlann more pithily suggests, we should at least try to appreciate varying adaptations on their own merits rather than simply throwing them against one another. But personal preference is a shifty bastard, and if knowledge from one adaptation creeps into the experience of another, I don’t suppose there’s a whole lot we can do to keep the resultant webs of influence from becoming significant and often complex.

Of course, much of what I’m talking about here depends heavily upon my own reading nuances, as those are the only reading nuances about which I can speak accurately. Maybe you can erect impenetrable walls between adaptations, in which case I’m curious to know what that’s like.


1See also Casshern Sins and Clannad ~After Story~. Damn this season is deliciously painful. Damn that last sentence sounds creepy in retrospect.

2You can find the chapter in question here, though, due to the wiki nature of Baka-Tsuki, the wording of the translation may have changed since I quoted it.

3See this recent article from New Scientist for more on that. I’m not so sure about “new physiognomy,” but I suspect that the idea of judging by appearances and the inevitability thereof carries over to fictional characters with visual representations. Even in the case of Ryuuji, whose fierce appearance is deliberately mismatched with his gentle personality, that sense of being mismatched is a ubiquitous element of his character, as we’re reminded of it by his physical form, central as that form is to the depiction of his thought, speech, and action.

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  1. Cuchlann

     /  2 March 2009

    First, re: judging by looks — in fiction we’re definitely going to, as no matter how detailed, the physical representation of a character is still a cherry-picking of the details that will represent the character. I would argue it’s a nature of the medium. I once provided only two physical descriptions of a character: that he had a nose like an axe, and that his right hand was green.

    Adaptation is always a freaky little sore point, I think. I don’t know if I’m accidentally better at separating them, if I trained myself to be, or if I’m full of shit and not better at all. I do *think* of stuff crossing over, even when I watch, but it doesn’t seem to affect my enjoyment. Different media always feature, not only different techniques, but different sequential demands. Movies move differently than books, and even from TV shows, while comics move differently from all of the above.

    Though I also find myself consistently disappointed by light novels, both amateur- and professionally-translated. The writing never seems to be up to my standards, though I dunno if that’s the “light” nature of the book or if it’s because I’m not all that versed in Japanese prose expectations. I do know I enjoyed the first Twelve Kingdoms novel on its own strengths. Hm.

    Also, if anyone’s wondering what my supposedly “more pithy” way of phrasing the need for no-worries when it comes to adaptations, I suspect Pontifus is talking about this post:

  2. Great read. I haven’t read much into the trope of adaptation decay though I’ve formed my opinions about it anyway – even if I only know one example wherein the visual adaptation was superior to the book (Fight Club by Palahniuk).

    What struck me though that I’m a bit miffed at missing out is the further layering of Ya-chan’s character. I hardly think that she’s as shallow as some people may hold her to be, but her missing out on high school and the resulting inability to relate to her son and what he’s about to go through is a richness that the anime did not have.

    However, here’s the rub: knowing this not from the novel, but through this post just elevated my experience of not only the character but the show itself. What do I make of this? Criticism enhancing the experience of the viewer regarding the subject text? Really? I’ve been given the impression it’s the other way around and it’s a one-way street.

    I can even imagine that learning it here prevented me from cluttering myself with the other comparisons should I read the light novels. But his is meta information! Well, at this point I don’t care. I just like the damn show.

  3. Turambar

     /  2 March 2009

    On the subject of the description of Minorin, are those three lines a static description of Minorin, or would them evolve and change as the story progresses?

    If I was to compare my impressions of Minorin in episodes one and two of the anime to the descriptions given in the light novel, I would have to say they are fairly similar. Her airheadedness, loud voice, eternally cheerful tone, and over exaggerated movements (that walk in the ED) were exactly how I percieved her in the beginning. The fact that she’s GAR, overly protective of Taiga, and still has trouble facing her own faults despite the constant attempt to “beat up” her fears were only made clear over the entire course of the last 21 episodes. Whether the light novel gives the reader a similar evolution of Minorin’s character is of course a question that I have no answer to.

  4. Pontifus

     /  2 March 2009


    I’m very hesitant to give much physical description when I write fiction, come to think of it. My point of view characters tend to get none at all, unless it’s so relevant that I can’t not describe them, and even then it’s limited. I think I do worry about what conclusions people will draw from appearances, which is strange, as it doesn’t bother me that I have no control over how readers will take everything else in the story.

    I’m quick to compare things anyway, which has a lot to do with the way I deal with adaptations, I think. It’s also probably related to my own dissatisfaction with light novels — whether it’s the nature of the medium, the loss of things through translation, or anything else, I’ve read good children’s/young adult books and good Japanese books in translation, and I habitually compare light novels to them until they shrivel up and die. Well, maybe shrivel up and die is too much, as I can generally find something to enjoy in them. Really, the issue here is that my enjoying the Toradora anime so much has made me more critical of the light novel than I would’ve been otherwise. I’ll keep reading, and the odds are good that I’ll get something out of it eventually, so I may elaborate later with another post, but I thought my initial reaction was interesting — I think initial reactions are significant for me, as I make judgments very quickly and without much basis, and modify them later (and often) as necessary.


    Criticism enhancing the experience of its subject doesn’t seem that strange to me. It happened to me quite a bit during school, not to mention after I got into anime blogging. Whether it enhances or muddles the experience probably depends on the reader in question; I, for one, like a lot of assorted information to play with, and I don’t much care about strict adherence to what’s “in” the text, for various reasons. But then, blog posts may amount more to informal discussion with friends than strict criticism, and my reading experiences have generally been more enhanced by the former than the latter. Maybe criticism is like grammar: you learn the rules in part so you know best how to break them.

    I just like the damn show.



    Yeah, my idea of a character will change constantly. I’ll drop old defining scenes and pick up new ones without much prompting.

    You’re certainly right that the show’s Minorin and the novel’s Minorin are similar in the beginning, but the problem is that I’m well past the beginning of the show, so I’m inclined to look for certain information in her character that isn’t there yet in the novel. It’s not a fault of the novel; as I mentioned, it can (and should, for that matter) really only do so much in a single chapter. It’s more a problem of certain predispositions making me feel impatient with the novel despite all logic, and lately, I’ve been interested in examining those things that happen in reading despite all logic. It won’t make me drop the novel altogether, but it does force me to pause, consider my reaction, and maybe write a blog post about it.

  5. Marmoset

     /  2 March 2009

    “…even to this day”. Why would prolonged exposure to him change her opinion for the worse? Ryuuji generally gives a bad first impression but I thought people liked him when they got to know him.

    Anyway, very interesting post, I may be talking out me arse here but it seems like a rare occurence to discuss how characters differ between adaptations. Most book vs. film or manga vs. anime comparisons depend on scenes or characters (Bombadil springs to mind) that exist in only one version or where the order of events differs, It’s a refreshing view.

    Speaking of tangents; I’m not sure I’m going to finish the anime series. It seems I picked a really bad moment to watch Bokura ga Ita because Toradora just feels too melodramatic. I’ll probably watch the end if it doesn’t have the RyuujixTaiga-but-we-all-still-get-along-and-live-happily-ever-after-god-the-ending-to-Kimikiss-was-annoying ending.

    • Pontifus

       /  3 March 2009

      I didn’t pay much attention to that line, but you’re right; it’s a little strange. And it’s not as if Ryuuji doesn’t know that people will come to like him despite appearances, given Kitamura, so it’s especially odd insofar as he’s the point of view character…maybe he’s particularly insecure or something.

      I suppose I’m not as interested in making conscious comparisons between adaptations as I am in charting the involuntary connections made during reading. Lately I’ve moved away from examining minutiae and more toward considering reading itself and trying to figure out how literature functions as a body. Comparisons, it seems, tend to be a byproduct of all that, or maybe a necessary stop along the way — and in any case I just have a tendency to make a lot of comparisons.

      I’m watching both Toradora and Clannad right now, and Toradora’s melodrama is pretty tame in comparison, so it doesn’t seem that bad to me (not that I don’t like both shows).

  6. Ubiquitial

     /  4 March 2009

    I do believe that the problem Lies not within the nature of the light novel, but the translation itself. English and Japanese are worlds apart in terms of linguistics and you cannot expect English to carry over the Majesty of the Japanese. Likewise, a traslation can never convey the power of Faulkner or Joyce.

    This is why I don’t read many translations. Except for Dostoevsky . So much of the style, alliterations, and maybe a few proverbs or allusions are lost over this immense cultural gap.

    Translations don’t work. Period.

    • Pontifus

       /  4 March 2009

      That’s why I like translations with a lot of translators’ notes attached. That’s no way to emulate the experience of reading in the original language, to be sure, but it’s better than nothing.

      On the other hand, translations of Murakami’s novels and stories tend to be quite good, so I think there is a way of capturing enough of the original flavor while making up for what’s lost. Translation is almost certainly a factor here, but I’m not willing to blame it entirely — there are good translators and bad translators, and I imagine the multiple-translator nature of Baka-Tsuki might make things difficult.

    • I’m of the opinion that translations can ‘work’, even for things like densely-written poetry, but only if the translator is a better writer – in both languages – than the original one.

      Funnily enough, I don’t read many translations either.

    • I think the reasons you’ve articulated are the same reasons why I find it very difficult to get into translated Japanese literature – either light novels or visual novels. There’s something about the narrative style that just doesn’t jive – I’ve found that Japanese texts tend towards the overly wordy, with far too many adjectives – the sort of English writing one normally attributes to fan-fiction.

      I have to agree with Ubiquital here: I think visual and narrative disparity probably account for some of the change of experience, but honestly I believe the difference can be better attributed to linguistic disparity.

      ToraDora, after all, is written in Japanese for Japanese audiences foremost, and as a light novel no less, implying some sort of simplified or easy reading. I mean, the English equivalent would likely be something like young adult fiction.

      But even then the similarity is hard to draw – written Japanese is very different from written English, being pictographic rather than phonetic, so a “complex” sentence in Japanese might be comparatively very different in terms of reading difficulty to English. Furthermore, what might sound good in Japanese might not sound so great in English, and vice versa.

      The ToraDora anime adaptation, on the other hand, suffers a little less from this “lost in translation” idea, I think. Sure, there are subtitles for the spoken dialogue, but we don’t need subtitles to perceive body language and movement. On the other hand, English words for similar looking actions are very nuanced with their own slight meanings – “sprint” versus “run”, for example – which makes a completely written medium, such as a book, more mutable in translation.

      The issue I’m raising here of course only really applies to literal translation, but I believe that’s what is usually done in regards to fan translation

      • Ubiquitial

         /  5 March 2009

        Well, Animes do do a better job, but I think thats because Expressions can be more easily expessed in subbed anime. I mean, the principle still applies to Dubbed stuff.

  7. As for the post itself, I don’t have much to add. The discrepancy between the description and the illustration of Taiga’s hair reminded me of the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript, which is noted for having amateurish illustrations for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight drawn by someone who knew the story but was a bit hazy on the details – as though he or she had heard it, but couldn’t read and so couldn’t check things. Sticking with hair, Gawain is a balding, bearded man in the illustrations but in the poem he seems to be young (the court as a whole is in its youthful stage – Arthur, who is Gawain’s uncle, is ‘sumquat childgered [somewhat childish]‘ and the Green Knight insults the court as a whole for being composed of beardless boys).

    . . . that’s probably not a very helpful digression, but the post touched one of the things I’m curious about: this curious double status of medieval stories, both very physically grounded in manuscript culture and strangely free floating (so that Chaucer describes the Trojan legend as a massive, heavy object born up on the shoulders of those who’ve written about it, rather than something in a book, and Malory writes of his tales as places he can ‘leve’ from and ‘go’ to). I’m sure some element of oral culture’s mixed in there somewhere, too.

    That was all digression too, wasn’t it? Erm . . . I guess I can say that I see similar issues in Old, Highbrow and Native texts that you’ve picked out in a text that’s New, Lowbrow and Foreign?

    • Pontifus

       /  6 March 2009

      Huh, I never thought of the parallel with medieval manuscripts and oral tradition, but now I’m excited about it. I wonder how a frequenter of a mead hall would feel reading Beowulf after hearing Beowulf, assuming he could get his hands on a written text thereof and knew how to read. It being your thing and all, do you think I could add something to my investigation into adaptations by looking into medieval literature (which I more or less ignored in college)?

      • Obviously as a budding enthusiast I think everyone could add something to everything by looking into medieval literature. I’m afraid I don’t know if there’re any books that helpfully synthesise material (Adaption in Medieval Literature: A Reader). Adaption seems to be the lifeblood of a lot of medieval writing, because there was a lot of respect for tradition and auctoritas/authority and some stigma attached to excessive originality. Medieval literature routinely claims to be based on a long-standing tradition, whether or not it really is, and certainly some of the authors I’ve read (Malory, for example) will claim to be recapitulating a previous text most frequently when they’re actually introducing the most original material. The only related theory that comes to my mind is Zumthor’s ‘mouvance’, which is examined critically here: (it does sound quite relevant).

        Another interest of mine is the potentially independent existence of characters away from any particular single text. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to play with its audience’s uncertainty about whether its Gawain is the Gawain of the English tradition (Arthur’s primary knight, a master of public courtesy) or the Gawain of the French tradition (a master of charming-ladies’-knickers-off courtesy who can be found, in the words of one editor, ‘pursuing consummation through an unremitting onslaught of magic swords and flaming arrows’). It turns out to be the English Gawain, but he later turns up at a castle only to find that its inhabitants seem to have heard of the wrong version and expect a masterclass in flirting.

        . . . digressing again. Sorry.

      • Further thought: a number of the medieval lit courses I’ve seen (on the Arthurian tradition, on stories about Troy) are essentially studies of a chain of adaptions. Maybe it would be worth tracking one? Arthur and Troy have both lasted to the present day.

  8. seiko 歩数計

  1. Notes on rewatching Toradora! episodes 1-8 « Pontifus

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