After the Rain, Ristorante Paradiso, and the delicate art of the age-gap romance

By: Dee March 9, 20180 Comments
Two side-by-side shots of a young woman with short hair (Nicoletta) and a teen girl with long dark hair (Akira). Reflected in both of their eyes is a different middle-aged man.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of adults preying on minors. SPOILERS for the first three episodes of After the Rain and Ristorante Paradiso.

At first glance, Ristorante Paradiso and After the Rain bear remarkable similarities. Both are anime adaptations of manga series written by women that center around a May-September romance. Both star a young woman and a middle-aged divorcee. Both even feature characters who work at a restaurant together! So why does Ristorante Paradiso leave me with the warm fuzzies, while After the Rain just leaves me feeling vaguely skeevy?

Ever-curious about my own reactions to media, I sat down with both series to look at how they were telling their stories and how that affected their overall narratives. Since early episodes set a tone and strongly shape an audience’s expectations, for the purpose of this piece I opted to focus on the first three for each series (I have seen every available episode of both and maintain that these early impressions hold true, though).

What I found were several small differences that came together to form two major ones, which can best be summarized as “power” and “perspective.” Through its premise, dialogue, and visual language, Ristorante Paradiso is a story that’s clearly told from its female protagonist’s perspective and directed at a female audience. After the Rain, on the other hand, seems mostly directed at the (straight) adult men its seinen magazine is so obviously targeting.

A close-up of a middle-aged man in glasses (Claudio) holding a teacup and smiling somewhat sadly. The subtitles are in italics to denote internal monologue and read: "He's so much older than I am... I've never felt like this before."

The art of writing responsibly starts with the premise. In the case of most romances, this begins with power dynamics. Now, many relationships won’t have a perfectly even power balance, and skewed dynamics aren’t inherently unhealthy or abusive. But the more power is in one person’s corner, the greater the chance they could abuse that power—and the more stories that feature those kinds of imbalances, the more likely readers may be to miss the warning signs in real life. (We talked about this in detail in our age-gap roundtable, so I’ll direct readers there for a primer.)

As such, a thoughtful writer will take care to balance the power, especially if their premise is based on an inherent imbalance, as is the case with age-gap relationships. By their very nature, the older party will have more lived experience and probably (though not definitely) more stability in their career, which gives them a measure of power over their younger partner. There are, however, ways to mitigate that imbalance in other areas and make the story an enjoyable romance for the younger party instead of a predator’s dream.

A young woman (Nicoletta) in a turtleneck holds up a hand and closes her eyes, annoyed. She says "Enough! Why does everyone treat me like a little kid?"

To that end, Ristorante Paradiso utilizes just about every tool in the shed to keep Nicoletta and Claudio on even footing. Crucially, Nicoletta is 21 years old, past the age of majority just about everywhere (including Italy, where the story takes place, and Japan, where the target audience lives). This ensures that she, at the very least, has the same legal rights as her romantic interest. It’s a low bar to clear, but one that a surprising number of series trip over, so it’s still worth noting.

Nicoletta and Claudio are also of basically the same rank at the restaurant where they work. Not only is he not her boss, but the two don’t even have the same job title (she’s an apprentice chef while he’s a member of the wait staff). Claudio’s worked at the restaurant longer and can serve as an experienced voice for her to learn from, but their paths are side-by-side instead of up-and-down.

Nicoletta, her hair tied back in a kerchief, looks down seriously and says "I plan on using this opportunity to learn everything I can about cooking."

These are both obvious, surface-level ways to help even out the power dynamics, but there are other, more subtle ways that fiction can maintain a balance between its younger and older characters. These are deliberate decisions baked into the story itself, so let’s refer to them collectively as “narrative power.”

A great deal of narrative power comes from how much the story focuses on aspects of the younger character’s life outside of their relationship with the older character. Is their entire existence centered around their romantic interest, or do they have other goals, troubles, relationships, and so on? The fewer additional positive attributes, the more isolated and emotionally dependent the younger character is on the older one, and the more dangerous the narrative becomes.

Nicoletta and Claudio, wearing winter coats, walk outside together. He looks at her as she smiles, looking up, and says "I didn't start working at the restaurant just because of you."

Ristorante Paradiso understands this and takes pains to give Nicoletta a rich, layered life beyond her interest in Claudio. She initially comes to Rome to confront her mother, who’s been largely absent in her life since she remarried when Nicoletta was a child. Their contentious, complicated history takes up a large chunk of these early episodes, and serves as the driving force behind many of Nicoletta’s actions.

Annoyed that she’s relying on her mom to pay her living expenses, Nicoletta decides to become more independent, chiefly by finding a career to pursue. When she realizes she might have a future as a chef, she quickly lands a job at her stepdad’s restaurant and trains diligently at it, forming connections with other members of the staff as well as their families. Her desire to spend more time with Claudio is a large part of why she chooses this particular restaurant (and, to Nicoletta’s credit, she’s already had a few conversations with him, as opposed to Akira’s two minutes with Kondo), but it isn’t the be-all, end-all of her life.

A close-up of Nicoletta saying "I want to try and pursue something I may be good at."

When it comes to power dynamics, After the Rain is quietly but dramatically different. Of course there’s the huge, huge issue of age: Akira is 17, a minor in high school and under the age of consent who’s legally dependent on the adults in her life (she couldn’t even marry Kondo without her parents’ permission).

This is a serious problem in and of itself, but it’s further compounded by the fact that Kondo is also the manager in charge of scheduling her shifts at the restaurant where they both work. Her financial independence is one of the few ways she does have power, and Kondo even has control over that. The fact that Akira consistently refers to him by his title (“tenchou“) only serves to drive home the amount of authority he has over her.

A middle-aged man (Kondo) in a restaurant uniform stares at himself in a bathroom mirror and thinks "Otherwise, why would a 17-year-old like an old man like me."

This is a dangerous situation rife for exploitation (and exactly the kind of thing many real-world predators dream of), but in the “safe space” of fiction there are still ways to make it work. After the Rain could have used its other elements to grant Akira enough narrative power to make this a more balanced relationship, even if it was an inherently problematic one.

Unfortunately, After the Rain’s broader context and story elements only serve to further isolate Akira and make her even more emotionally dependent on Kondo. While we are given glimpses into other aspects of Akira’s life, they’re all negative instead of positive, defined by past loss instead of future possibility.

A long shot of Akira sitting at a desk in front of a track field.

When we meet her, she’s recovering from an injury that caused her to quit the track team—effectively cutting her off from both the activity she loved and the one friend she seems to have been close with. In these early episodes especially, she’s depicted as having no goals, no close relationships, and no interests outside of Kondo. Even her part-time job was something she took solely so she could be near him.

Akira’s defined by a significant lack of power both practically and emotionally, which puts her in a precarious position. Ristorante Paradiso’s narrative balance makes it easy to cheer for Nicoletta in every aspect of her life: that she settle things with her mom, grow into a talented chef, and forward her relationship with the older man she’s fallen for. After the Rain just makes me want Akira to get the hell away from this situation before it turns into the same predatory nightmare many teenagers have gone through.

An extreme close-up of a teen girl's (Akira's) eye, with an uncomfortable Kondo reflected in it.

Even with all that having been said, none of the above elements make a story automatically toxic. It’s totally possible that After the Rain intends to start Akira in a place of isolation and expand her world going forward (and recent episodes suggest it might). As long as Ristorante Paradiso and After the Rain are stories that belong to the young women in them and directed at the young women reading them, then they still have the potential to be ultimately inspiring, empowering, or even just safe-space escapism.

Ultimately, the bulk of narrative power comes from two related questions: The in-universe question of “Which character’s story is this?” and the meta-question of “Who is this story being written for?” Creators answer these questions through structure, dialog, and framing, guiding the audience’s eyes and ears in certain directions. Where are we looking, and how are we looking at it?

In the front of the frame, Claudio sits and sips tea under a soft light. In the background, Nicoletta stands at the window watching him out of the corner of her eye, thinking "I can't take my eyes off him."

In the case of romance stories, this often comes down to perspective. A character can be completely passive in a relationship, but as long as the story is filtered through their eyes, focusing on what they see and feel, then it’s still their story. It may not be a particularly healthy story, as demonstrated by many “bodice-ripper” romances or some of the more troubling shoujo/josei titles, but it’s still a story written from a female character’s perspective with a female audience in mind.

Every medium has its own visual language to let the audience know which character’s perspective we’re inhabiting. Thanks to techniques popularized by shoujo manga artists over the decades, romance in anime and manga is often denoted by bursts of light, bubbles, flowers, and soft-toned, idealized images of the couple—what we’ll for simplicity’s sake call “The Glow.”

The Glow is a visual representation of a character’s emotions, usually their romantic ones. Speaking in somewhat broad terms, it’s utilized in two main ways: to express how characters feel, and to show how other characters look to the perspective-character. While the female protagonist can certainly emit The Glow as an indication of how she feels about the person she’s crushing on, it’s far more often used during interactions between the two.

A soft-focus shot from below of Claudio and Nicoletta, outside under bare branches in winter clothes, looking at each other and smiling. They are lit by a soft, glowing lens flare.

The romantic hero frequently emits The Glow, his features idealized and shining because that’s how the protagonist sees him. Or, The Glow will encompass them both to show how the protagonist feels when she’s near him. In other words, The Glow is primarily a visual cue to let the audience know how their perspective-character is feeling—which means it’s also a visual cue to tell the audience whose eyes they’re looking through.

The visuals in Ristorante Paradiso are fairly grounded, but in the few moments when it uses a restrained version of The Glow, it follows these visual cues. Claudio is literally lit with a halo when Nicoletta first meets him, while Nicoletta is drawn in a more standard, non-romanticized fashion (she’s pretty, because this is anime, but she’s “normal” pretty in the way a lot of shoujo/josei leads are intended to be “average” like the reader).

Nicoletta is the main character, so we follow her expressions and actions more than Claudio’s, but she’s never idealized in the way he is. Claudio is Nicoletta’s romantic interest, and the visuals want us to feel about him the same way she does.

A middle-aged man (Claudio) wearing spectacles smiles pleasantly while a halo of light glows behind him

As for After the Rain… Well. We sure do spend a lot of time watching the idealized Akira. Watching her glossy, painted eyes stare into our own. Watching her clothes stick attractively to her in the rain or her hair fall in perfect strands across a pillow. We even watch her in sadness and pain—but gracefully, poetically, seated in a position no one with a serious ankle injury would ever assume because it would actively twist and put pressure on that ankle.

Yes, we watch Akira. Ephemeral, idyllic Akira, regularly wrapped in The Glow when she’s with or thinking about Kondo. Frequently beautiful, occasionally cute, but almost never neither.

Now, idyllic, lovely artwork isn’t a crime in and of itself. A lot of shoujo artists employ these same tactics across entire casts (see: Riyoko Ikeda, CLAMP, Arina Tanemura, and many others). But that’s the thing: it has to be employed across the board, otherwise it’s not “an aesthetic” but “a cue to the viewer about how they should see the world.”

A teen girl (Akira) staring at a button-up shirt in her hands. Soft lights and bubbles are shining around her.

This is where After the Rain trips up, because Kondo doesn’t get the same idyllic treatment. In these first three episodes, he gets exactly one shot in The Glow: it’s from a distance, seen through a restaurant window. One instance compared to constant, countless shots of Akira.

What’s more, Kondo never gets the close-up, paint-brushed, fairy-like treatment Akira gets. We never see him through Akira’s eyes. We only see him as he is: bumbling, amiable, and unremarkable-looking. The same way many female shoujo protagonists are depicted, so as to make them more sympathetic and relatable to their female-targeted audiences.

The visuals are telling us that we’re seeing Kondo through his own eyes—or, at the very least, through the “unclouded” lens of the storyteller. On the flip side, while we aren’t always seeing Akira through Kondo’s eyes (although the camera is frequently from his point-of-view angle), we are seeing her through the eyes of a creator who wants us to view her as a romantic figure. She’s the ideal, the fantasy, the person the audience gazes upon. She gets The Glow. Kondo does not.

Akira, in profile, blushes with soft glowing lights around her as she says "I like you, Mr. Kondo."

Perhaps the most telling example of how differently these two series utilize The Glow comes at the end of each show’s third episode. In Ristorante Paradiso, Claudio opens a doorway for Nicoletta. In a sequence of three shots, the light strikes him, then flows to Nicoletta, and then finally encompasses them both. It’s conveying the metaphorical “light” that Claudio gives off and Nicoletta feels when she’s with him, placing the audience firmly in Nicoletta’s headspace.

Meanwhile, over in After the Rain, Akira whirls on Kondo when he mentions going on a date. In one shot, Akira sparkles and bubbles, and in the very next shot, Kondo physically shies away from the light emitting from her. That Kondo is “seeing” and reacting to her “light” tells us these are not Akira’s feelings, but Kondo’s. This is the way he sees Akira, the way she shines in his eyes in the same way Claudio shines to Nicoletta. Just because he’s startled by it doesn’t change whose head the audience is in.

A mid-range shot. In the foreground is a teen girl (Akira), framed from chin to waist, one hand on her other elbow. Soft balls of light are glowing around her. Behind her, frame from head-to-chest, is a middle-aged man (Kondo) blushing and looking at her. The soft bubbles around her don't reach him.

This sense of closeness (or lack thereof) to the younger character’s perspective is further compounded by the dialog in each series. Right from the start, Ristorante Paradiso’s script is packed with Nicoletta’s internal monologue. Whether she’s worrying about her future, complaining about her mom, or admiring Claudio’s gentlemanly ways, we’re in her head and with her all the way.

Granted, the story does spend a few moments with Claudio when Nicoletta isn’t around, meaning that it isn’t a perfect first-person narrative, but we’re never given a direct window into his thoughts. Nicoletta is our narrator, our perspective-character, and there’s never a moment when that’s in doubt.

A young woman (Nicoletta) in winter clothing smiles, eyes half-shut, and thinks "He's kinda sexy."

After the Rain is almost the polar opposite. Akira has a few bursts of internal monologue, but it’s almost all surface-level thoughts, the kinds of things she could have just as easily said out loud. Again, we spend a lot of time watching Akira, but very little time listening to her.

As with the visuals, this isn’t inherently an issue. Plenty of series avoid internal monologues altogether, seeking instead to convey their characters’ feelings through action and cinematography. (This season’s A Place Further than the Universe is a particularly strong example of this storytelling style.) And, to After the Rain’s credit, it does convey a fair amount of information through its visuals, some of which are quite strikingly or skillfully handled.

In the foreground, the bow on a waitress uniform. In the background, Kondo looking down a bit morosely. He thinks "Something tells me that this isn't a dream nor a prank."

The issue, once again, is one of balance. Because while we’re largely locked out of Akira’s direct thoughts, we spend a significant amount of time listening to Kondo’s internal monologue, whether he’s voicing his insecurities or considering the way Akira makes him feel. The series even goes so far as to have his internal monologue drown out Akira’s dialogue on two separate occasions. If this were truly Akira’s story, wouldn’t her words, at the very least, take precedence over his?

This isn’t anything especially subtle or tricky. Internal monologues are a well-worn and common narrative tactic, a cue to let the audience know which direction to face—which character they’re supposed to embody and whose “shoes” they’re supposed to fill. Time and again, in these three episodes and the ones that follow it, the answer is overwhelmingly Kondo, not Akira.

Kondo in his work uniform looks at Akira and a blonde coworker, both in their restaurant uniforms. He thinks "Must be nice to be young."

All of these small power and framing differences between Ristorante Paradiso and After the Rain culminate to form two narratives that have similar beats with vastly different connotations. In these first three episodes, both stories feature Nicoletta and Akira taking the initiative in their relationships with these older men. Akira confesses to Kondo (twice!), while Nicoletta goes so far as to mount Claudio so she can figure out if her feelings for him are “the real thing.”

Because of Nicoletta’s other relationships and goals, the way the camera frames her and Claudio, and how much time we’ve spent listening to her thoughts and seeing the world from her perspective, this scene serves as an entertaining, almost empowering moment. It’s the story of a young woman conflicted about her feelings who decides to take control of the situation and figure things out for herself.

In the foreground we see the back of a long-haired woman leaning against a door frame; in the background a young woman (Nicoletta) is crouched practically in an older man's (Claudio's) lap, his shirt disheveled, both looking towards the door in surprise.

In a perfect world, it would work this way for Akira, too. But because After the Rain has so carefully established Akira’s own powerlessness and dependence (both practically and emotionally) on Kondo; because the art design has gone to great lengths to make her an ephemeral, ideal beauty for the audience; and because Kondo’s internal thoughts are such a consistent, pervasive part of the dialogue, Akira’s active role just becomes one more red flag in a long string of them.

She looks dead into the camera because her confession isn’t for her, but for the audience who’s been visually cued to want her. It doesn’t feed into the safe-space fantasy of a young woman pursuing an older man, but into the much more dangerous real-world fantasy of a predatory man taking advantage of a young woman. It’s the old “she came onto me, officer!” song-and-dance, seeking to absolve the adult of responsibility. In this scene, all After the Rain is doing is echoing the same exploitative narrative that’s been told for ages, both in fiction and out of it.

While I know there are girls and women enjoying or finding value in After the Rain (and hey, that’s fine, I’m not here to take that away from anyone), the visuals and script make it clear this is not a story targeted at them, nor a story that’s primarily seen or felt through its female character’s eyes. Whether by accident or intent, After the Rain has crafted a narrative that idealizes, isolates, and silences a high school girl. And all the pretty rain animation in the world can’t wash away the increasing sense of griminess I feel when I watch it.

Akira and Kondo from behind, wearing their work uniforms, both encased in a pastel glow.

I’m a firm believer that there aren’t any stories that are inherently, universally off-limits. Through the unreality of fiction, age-gap relationships can be explored in nuanced or even healthy ways, as long as the creators are aware of the story they’re telling and the responsibilities they have in telling it. This is why Ristorante Paradiso was such a surprising delight for me.

Where After the Rain is careless (at best) in its handling of its story, Ristorante Paradiso is keenly aware of the fantasy it’s indulging in and takes pains to ensure it handles that fantasy as responsibly as possible. Heck, even its setting—a “mysterious restaurant” in Rome where all the servers are attractive older men in glasses—is gleefully self-aware, existing a half-step removed from the real world.

From premise to framing, Ristorante Paradiso is clearly written from its layered, active younger character’s perspective, encouraging its audience to place themselves in her shoes and enjoy crushing on the gentlemanly Claudio for 12 episodes. It’s a masterclass in age-gap relationship writing, a May-September romance that’s easy to fall in love with, and the kind of responsible escapist storytelling we need more of in fiction.

Claudio and Nicoletta stand in a warmly lit, glowing doorway, smiling at each other.

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