Ah, romance anime: a saccharine world of blush lines, reluctant crushes and 15th episode first kisses. It’s not the classiest genre, but on days when you’re feeling lonely or need a pick-me-up, it can certainly feel like home.
Here are my top five romance anime picks:
Clannad is equal parts hilarious and heart-fluttering. Tomoya Okazaki is a self-admitted sarcastic asshole whose dad ran their home into the ground through excessive drinking and gambling. Down on life, Okazaki meets a somewhat frivolous girl named Nagisa Furukawa, who wants to start a drama club but has no acting experience. Four other girls, with wildly varying personalities, find themselves wrapped up in Furukawa’s dream to put on a play. After a little whimsy is introduced to Okazaki’s life, his nihilism melts away and he learns how good altruism can feel.
Clannad was originally a somewhat polarizing dating simulator game, which was later made into an anime. Harem anime aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But each of the girls is well-thought-out and far removed from (most) tired anime tropes. Clannad is a wild, wavy roller coaster. And the show’s second season, Clannad After Story, is infamous for its devastating, heavy romance arcs that I still haven’t gotten over.
You know when people are like, “Ugh, romance anime. It takes them, like, twelve episodes even kiss.” My Love Story is like that and it rules. Don’t question it.
My Love Story’s protagonist, Takeo Goda, is weird as hell. He’s monstrous in appearance. He’s huge. He’s super intense and loud. He’s mega-popular with the guys at his school due to his incredible strength and overwhelmingly selfless attitude, but girls love his waifish, handsome best friend instead. One day, Goda saves a very small girl named Rinko Yamato from a groper. When they start talking, Goda falls for her amazing baking skills, but he assumes she’s into his friend. The next 20 or so episodes follow Goda and Yamato as they slowly fall in love with each other’s idiosyncrasies.
My Love Story is pretty classy as far as romance anime goes. Goda and Yamato’s relationship is build on respect. Unlike lots of romance anime, they never go through an “abusive” stage before reaching a mutual understanding. The message of the show is that, by being yourself, you’ll eventually find a partner who appreciates you for who you are.
Misaki Ayuzawa is a girl who attends what was once an all-boys school. Mastering academics, athletics and the school’s social scene, Ayuzawa eventually becomes the school’s first female student body president. Her goal: to make the school more comfortable for women. In the process, she gets a pretty nasty reputation with the school’s rowdy boys as an uptight, boy-hating tyrant. The only thing poised to undermine her reputation is her part-time job at a maid cafe, which she took to support her sick family. When the school’s most popular playboy discovers her secret, he begins attending the cafe as a patron.
Maid-Sama is a problematic fave, but a fave nonetheless. It’s fun to watch both of these hard-headed characters thaw the more they get to know each other. Maid-Sama definitely shows an unsettling side to working at a maid cafe, and how creepy patrons—even the male protagonist—can act toward the maids. Ayuzawa oscillates between being a strong, self-sufficient woman who takes no crap and one who tolerates the playboy’s somewhat creepy stalking behavior. I found that tension interesting, but for others, it might feel a little formulaic.
If you were one of those ‘00s teens huddled in the manga aisles of Borders Books, surely, you’ve heard of this classic.
Tohru Honda is homeless after her mother dies in a car crash. Living in a tent and working herself to the bone, one day Honda learns that she’s been sleeping on the property of Yuki and Shigure Sohma, members of a family who are possessed by the spirits of the Chinese Zodiac. They offer her a room in their home, where she quickly discovers their secret. Over time, as Honda gets to know Yuki and his volatile cousin Kyo Sohma, romantic feelings emerge.
Fruits Basket is sweet, but it also has lots of dark moments. Characters’ backstories can be somewhat traumatizing, but that’s what makes their connections to each other so moving.
Sometimes, romance isn’t between two people, but between one person and their favorite fictional ‘ship. Kiss Him, Not Me, in my opinion, is redefining the romance anime genre. It’s a compelling argument for the idea that “real love” doesn’t have to be “real.”
Kae Serinuma is a by-the-book fujoshi, or a girl who is mostly just turned on by two boys kissing, either in real life or on the pages of a serialized manga. She wants to know who’s a top, who’s a bottom and where she can find fan art of it. At the beginning of the series, Serinuma is quite chubby, but after she learns that her favorite Mirage Saga character might die, she loses a ton of weight. Predictably, boys at her school begin to notice her. To get her attention, they participate in all her ridiculous fujoshi activities, like a choreographed dance to Puri Puri Moon. As the show goes on, the boys start questioning their notions of masculinity and whether their love for Serinuma is shallow.
What makes Kiss Him, Not Me a stand-out romance anime? Serinuma never wavers from her love of fictional boys. She never self-actualizes as a “hot girl,” reveling in her new appearance. She stays herself. Sometimes, girls don’t want to be kissed. And that doesn’t change because they’re considered attractive.