What’s it about? When amateur photographer Mitsuyoshi Tada agrees to take the adventurous but absent-minded Teresa Wagner’s picture for her, it triggers a string of chance meetings, culminating in the two becoming neighbors and classmates.
I’ve been shouting for director Yamazaki Mitsue (Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Magic-kyun Renaissance) to get an anime-original project for over a year now, so when Tada Never Falls in Love (TadaKoi for short) was announced I was ridiculously excited but also terrified that the monkey’s paw was about to curl one finger. Based on this first episode, I’m happy to report that my fears were unfounded: The TadaKoi premiere is vibrant, charming, and consistently funny, with a cast of likable characters and the potential to be an engaging (romantic?) comedy.
I’m going to mostly be lavishing praise on this one, so we might as well start with the visuals: TadaKoi looks great. Studio Doga Kobo consistently produces some of the best character animation in the business, and that holds true here, whether it’s conveying small changes in expressions, bombastic motions, or just how fluffy the cats are (oh, did I mention TadaKoi is full of cats? Because TadaKoi is Full Of Cats).
The background art is also excellent, with lots of little personal touches that give the Tada family’s cafe and home a real sense of character. This premiere is largely about establishing the premise and meeting the major players (and hopefully making the audience laugh), but the visual details go a long way in establishing a cozy, grounded tone, dropping hints of future story and character development, and reassuring the audience that a lot of thought and care has been put into this world. More than anything, a good premiere needs to convince its audience to trust in its story, and TadaKoi succeeds with ease.
The narrative itself is fairly straightforward—boy meets girl, girl meets cat, boy’s friend’s face meets girl’s friend’s foot—but it’s executed with Yamazaki’s trademark charm and exquisite sense of comedic timing. The cast already has a natural chemistry, and there are smart shifts in the interpersonal dynamics depending on who’s interacting with whom (for example, Mitsuyoshi is always fairly stoic, but he’s softer with his family, blunter with his friend, and more detached with Teresa).
While the characters all feel familiar, drawing on a lot of rom-com anime archetypes (the cheerful ditz, the cool-headed dude, the flirt, the overprotective best friend), there are humanizing touches that make them feel fresh and genuine instead of like cardboard cutouts. Teresa, for instance, is chipper and flighty, but there are moments when it’s clear her optimism is forced (such as her insistence that things are “fine” when she and the rescued cat are lost and drenched), and she slips into more pensive melancholy when she’s alone with her long-time companion Alec.
Mitsuyoshi’s little sister Yui is another great example of a common character done really well, largely because she’s an actual little sister and not an Anime Little Sister™. Instead of being suspicious of the new girls or possessive of her big brother, Yui befriends Teresa and Alec almost as quickly as the cat does, finding shared points of interest to help bridge the cultural gap between them.
Speaking of those cultural gaps, I suspect that’s TadaKoi‘s running theme, and so far it’s being handled with both nuance and optimism. While the series by-and-large avoids tired “gaijin” stereotypes (no over-the-top accents or excessive touching), it also doesn’t pretend Teresa fits right in. Mitsuyoshi initially assumes she can’t speak Japanese, Kaoru wants to know if her hair is naturally blonde, and a little girl on the street turns around to stare at her. On the flip side, Teresa’s knowledge of Japan primarily stems from a historical J-Drama (the very silly Rainbow Shogun), and she makes her own assumptions as a result.
Even so, TadaKoi maintains an upbeat tone throughout, showing how misunderstandings can occur through popular media but also how that same media can help people connect. Yui in particular latches on to pop fiction as a bridge between her and the new girls, as she notes that her grandpa also loves Rainbow Shogun, ties the girls’ home country (the fictional Larsenburg) to the home country of her favorite manga’s protagonist, and offers that same manga to Alec when she shows an interest in it.
Popular fiction is often the first way young people come into contact with other cultures, and while that can certainly create its own set of assumptions and stereotypes, it can also provide a way for people from different places to find common ground and shared interests. I’m delighted to see TadaKoi acknowledging and tackling both those angles, and would love to see it continue to address those ideas going forward.
There are, I think, two possible weak points in the narrative, and even those will depend on your tastes. The first is the character of Kaoru, Mitsuyoshi’s flashy, flirtatious friend. He’s harmless but a bit annoying, and much more archetypal than everyone else. He’s also voiced by Miyano Mamoru (because of course he is), and while Miyano is clearly having a blast, his over-the-top performance feels out of place among the more grounded vocals of the rest of the cast.
The same is true of a lot of Kaoru’s comedic beats. TadaKoi‘s humor had been mostly low-key, character-driven silliness, so when Kaoru bursts onto the scene with a torrent of slapstick in his wake, it’s like finding a hot pepper in a meal you could’ve sworn was supposed to be mild. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly—it just doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the dish.
Some of the slapstick gags work better than others (I loved everything with the cat, but rolled my eyes at Alec kicking Kaoru into a wall), and comedy is extremely subjective, so you may enjoy him more than I did. Kaoru is a character best taken in small doses, I think, so I hope the series either tones him down or gives him limited screen time, otherwise he could get exhausting in a hurry.
The other potential weak point for TadaKoi is that, despite its undercurrent about cross-cultural connections, I doubt it’s going to be a show that reinvents the wheel. Based on the Roman Holiday homages in the opening theme and the hints that Teresa is probably-definitely some kind of Larsenburg royalty, this is shaping up to be a reimagining of a classic, bittersweet rom-com.
Now, it’s true that Mitsuyoshi currently shows zero romantic interest in Teresa, so there’s always a chance the title is prophetic and Tada never will fall in love (and I’d be down for that twist 100%, as the world needs more boy/girl friendship stories). That said, this series has been marketed pretty heavily as a romance, so I’m going to temper my expectations accordingly. If you’re looking for something completely new and different, this will likely leave you craving more.
Even so, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling a familiar story if you tell it well, and so far TadaKoi is telling it very well. If it keeps developing its characters, exploring how people from different upbringings can find common ground, and filling 22 minutes each week with good goofs and cute cats, I’ll be more than happy to call Yamazaki’s anime-original debut a resounding success.