I’m away from my usual articles this week to write about a subject that my column is no stranger to: love. Not real-life love, though. No, this week we’re talking about a far more picturesque and far less realistic kind 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 brief romance anime stint. I spent my time clocking into various streaming sites of questionable legality, tearing through such shows as 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 Extraordinary Attorney Woo which, while technically not a romance show, heavily features a romantic subplot that falls in line with many K-drama tropes. Wanting to even the anime to K-drama ratio for this column a bit, I also watched Twenty-Five Twenty-One, a coming-of-age romance drama that came out earlier this year.
The show that inspired this column was the 2021 anime Komi can’t Communicate, so let’s start there. The show’s two seasons follow high 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 who is described as ordinary in just about every way.
Komi can’t 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 provides. The whole point of the show is that Komi struggles to communicate with others, so both Tadano and the audience can be assured that her affections won’t be going to anyone else, despite the fact that Tadano presents seemingly no upside besides being a generally well-mannered person (although I suppose even that is a rare enough trait nowadays).
Horimiya presents a similar setup. Male lead Miyamura Izumi is a social recluse who rarely interacts with his peers at school. Female lead and class beauty-and-brains combo Hori Kyouko falls for Izumi, and the two begin dating surprisingly early into the show. Izumi is clearly meant to be a self-insert for male viewers to imagine what it’d be like to be adored by the most popular girl in school, despite being totally closed off socially.
On the K-drama side, Extraordinary Attorney Woo’s main romance sees a similar imbalance between romantic leads. The show’s protagonist, Woo Young-woo, is a newbie attorney who has autism and savant syndrome. Her romantic counterpart is Lee Jun-ho, a young man who works in the litigation department at Young-woo’s prestigious law firm.
Jun-ho is one of few characters who shows Young-woo genuine understanding and friendship. The problem is, he is 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 many “golden retriever boy”-isms, AKA the “we need a handsome male lead character, but can’t give him any real character traits so we don’t interrupt the viewers’ self-insert 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 2020’s Start-Up, of which I am also not a huge fan. Nam Joo-hyuk’s character in Twenty-Five Twenty-One, Baek Yi-jin, is even less compelling when compared to the dynamic and well-acted female lead character, Na Hee-do, played by Kim Tae-ri.
My main gripe with Baek Yi-jin’s character is Nam’s acting. I regularly broke out into fits of laughter over how unexpressive 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 acting decisions made it clear that Baek Yi-jin’s unique qualities were not particularly important to how the main romance was written.
Clearly, I am a tough audience when it comes to romance stories; realism usually isn’t the goal of these kinds of shows. Korean dramas and anime have very different target audiences, being mostly female and mostly male respectively, but both rely on self-insert fantasies for viewers to build their ideal romances around.
Anime viewers love to imagine being the sole friend of a gorgeous, shy intellect who clings onto their every word. Similarly, “golden retriever boy” characters like Jun-ho and Yi-jin give fans tall, broad-shouldered, blank canvases to dump their ideal man fantasies onto. As we all know, real life is never this 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 want to close by mentioning one last show that I think strikes a good balance between the intrigue of its romantic leads. Kaguya-Sama: Love is War follows student council president and vice-president, Shirogane Miyuki and Shinomiya Kaguya, respectively, and their ongoing war to squeeze a romantic confession out of each other.
It’s clear from the beginning of the show that the two like each other, but are both too prideful to admit it for reasons that are given more depth in later seasons. The psychological warfare between the two leads is heartfelt and entertaining, all while avoiding the self-insert pitfall. Both characters are charismatic, intelligent and popular among their peers. Viewers can be invested in their romance, not because they crave the serendipitous fantasy of living in a romance drama, but because the affection that Kaguya and Miyuki have for one another is relatable to our actual lives and crushes.
In short, everyone should go watch Kaguya-Sama: Love is War. It’s a refreshingly realistic take on a genre that can feel extremely pandering at times. I’m always keeping a lookout for more romance shows to watch, so my inbox is always open to 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 Arc runs every other Sunday this semester.