I've said it before and I'll say it again, but one of the very best things about anime is that there is so much choice. I honestly can't remember the last good Hollywood romance I saw (maybe Definitely, Maybe, but how many freaking years ago was that? 7? 8! 8 years, sheesh), but there are *GREAT* romances put out every year in anime format. It's awesome.
Here are some recommended romance anime shows and movies. Some of these I've reviewed before, others are still on the to-be-reviewed list. All of them I think are worth your time, and a few contain some of the greatest moments in fiction I've experienced the last few years.
(There are also great romance plotlines in other great genres, but I'll try to keep it to primarily romance genre shows and movies here.)
Note that even though I used Usagi and Mamoru in the cover image, I don't really consider Sailor Moon (美少女戦士セーラームーン) a "romance" anime or manga. If you want some Sailor Moon romance however, there are AMAZING fanfics on the internet that remain some of the best romance stories I've ever read. I'm sure other series have similar, but Sailor Moon is at least somewhat unique in that its popularity has been rather consistent over the course of the last 20 years AND there are some great couples in the show (Usagi x Mamoru, Rei x Minako, etc) so there's a ton of choice.
Kimi ni Todoke (君に届け From Me to You)
This is an adorable anime with an equally adorable lead character. The art style can be a bit distracting at times (it looks old), and I wished I could fast forward the second season to get to the conclusion because I loved the main characters so much. One of my favorites.
It's a high school romance between Sawako—who looks so much like the girl from the Ring that everyone is afraid of her—and Kazehaya—the most popular boy in the class. Sawako is such a cute, endearing, helpful character that it is almost impossible not to root for her, and you get pretty annoyed with Kazehaya for not being a little more competent in love and relationships because she is of course faultless (because of her pure heart and complete isolation from EVERYONE).
(In case it's not clear, that was sarcasm: a lot of the drama comes from her taking on too much to try to spare others and not knowing how she should act with friends and Kazehaya/not believing that they will like her. Still, she's the best.)
Ah! My Goddess (ああっ女神さまっ)
In any form, Ah! My Goddess (or Oh My Goddess! or Ah! Megami-Sama) is a wonderful experience. The love between Belldandy and Keiichi never feels artificial even though it starts so immediately. It may superficially resemble a harem show, but there is never a relationship between Keiichi and any of the other characters. Besides Bell's sisters, other female characters come and go and have various impacts on the story, but Bell is fantastic. There's a pretty nice mix between gearhead/racing action and complications arising with the Heaven, Hell, Goddess, Demon systems that keeps the stories moving.
The manga recently finished and the ending was very fitting, even though it called back to the movie ending from a few years ago. By the way, the manga was the longest-running manga in America. So you have lots of awesomeness to catch up on if you haven't experienced this story.
The recent two anime series did a great job adapting a ton of the manga, so if you want to really jump in and get to the end right away, you might want to start there and then switch over to the manga from the end of the second series.
My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (やはり俺の青春ラブコメはまちがっている。 My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong as Expected)
What a great show. The main character is practical and can't seem to help others without making himself the bad guy, but his interactions with the two leading ladies are something to look forward to. There are two series and I believe plans for a third, and I cannot wait for more of this. I haven't gotten into the manga yet, but I am looking forward to it!
Is it a love triangle? Is it just high schoolers that have no idea what love is? Hachiman and Yukino both have a hard time connecting with others, but are forced to interact with each other as part of the school's Service Club. Yui clearly has a crush on Hachiman from the get-go and joins them after they help her out in an early episode (first episode maybe? It's been a while). The three of them are great and I can't wait to see where it goes. I love Hachiman's commentary on everything because he is so pragmatic and has given up on so much for himself.
Vampire Knight (ヴァンパイア騎士)
This isn't necessarily one of my favorites, but it's hard not to put it on the list. If you want paranormal vampire romance, look no further. This series started a long-running joke with my fiancee where I would look at the cover and see a ridiculously attractive male supernatural character next to a human female character and say, "Looks like something you would like." This joke is never not funny no matter what she says.
Anyway, it can be cliche at times (such as the whole entire setup), but it's an interesting show and HEY! one of the leading characters is named Zero. That's always a plus when that happens. Not to mention that the art is freaking gorgeous, especially in the manga. I haven't read the conclusion to the series, although I've heard it was a little disappointing, but the anime series is pretty solid and worth your watch, especially if you like the whole supernatural-male-characters-romancing-the-human-female-characters . . . genre? Can we call that a genre now? (P.S. It actually is a genre, but they call it paranormal romance). Oh, and there's action and stuff too.
I'm being a little rough on it (because it's fun), but I genuinely enjoyed the show and read the manga all the way up until it started taking months to release a new tankoubon. It's a love triangle between the human Yuki, the vampire Kaname and the vampire hunter Zero, all three of which live and attend school together at a special academy consisting of a day class (for humans) and a night class (for vampires). Yuki and Zero work together to make sure the vampires aren't exposed and the vampires have agreed not to be vampires. Sounds like an arrangement that will work out GREAT with NO problems.
Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches (山田くんと７人の魔女)
This is a freaking adorable show, although the conflict near the end of the first season feels a little artificial/forced. Apparently, it's explained in the manga, but I haven't gotten that far. Yamada and Shiraishi are two high schoolers that fall down a flight of stairs and end up kissing at the bottom. Perfectly reasonable, except in the act of kissing they switch bodies. Turns out Shiraishi is one of 7 witches that occupy their school, each with a different power. Told from the POV of Yamada, it's great to see him develop feelings for Shiraishi and work through the conflict of finding the other witches and what that entails. The manga covers and the art style in the opening are super gorgeous. Worth watching just for the opening! But the story is good too.
Rosario + Vampire (ロザリオとバンパイア) (manga)
Here's one where the anime is practically unwatchable and the manga is pretty darn good. They even follow the same storyline, but the anime adds so much over-the-top fanservice and repetitive art/phrases/actions, that it makes you question the reality that the manga was any good. I really enjoyed the manga, and although I suppose it's a harem romance, the main guy Tsukune seems pretty devoted to the main girl Moka, and I liked watching their relationship together. I haven't read the second series of manga yet, but the first series is highly recommended. Tsukune couldn't get into any high schools, but somehow manages to get into one he's never heard of. Turns out that he got into a monster high school where no humans are allowed. He is immediately bitten by Moka, a beautiful vampire that really likes the taste of his blood.
Moka apparently has two personalities though, one that is cute and charming, and one that is deadly and powerful. The "true" personality is unlocked by taking off the rosario she wears, something only Tsukune is able to do. I really recommend the first series of manga (10 tankoubon volumes), and I recommend that you actively stay away from the anime series. I haven't gotten around to watching the second season of the anime because the first was so disappointing so maybe it gets better then.
B Gata H Kei (B型H系)
Here's a funny one. It follows a girl named Yamada that wants to have sex with hundreds of boys in high school and CANNOT WAIT, except she's pretty insecure when it comes to the actual act of it and turns down everyone. She searches for a loser to lose her virginity to and falls for, or rather, falls on her classmate Takashi, an unremarkable individual she is sure is a cherry boy. The perfect target.
The rest of the anime is her trying to seduce Takashi (and usually sending mixed signals), with him being blissfully unaware that she is only interested in him because of his inexperience. Of course, you can't try to seduce someone for so long without either losing interest or actually developing feelings.
Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (あの日見た花の名前を僕達はまだ知らない We Still Don't Know the Name of the Flower We Saw That Day)
Here's where we start getting into the "feels" department. Anohana is a pretty beautiful story involving six kids where one dies and the group splits up. Years later, Jinta is visited by the ghost of Menma. Thinking he's hallucinating, he doesn't really do much until he realizes that in order to help her pass on he needs the help of the rest of their friends.
The relationships here pass beyond just romance and the friendships are equally rewarding. The question or romance between the members of the group and the ghost herself is definitely lingering throughout the series. It's a really beautiful story.
I almost didn't include this one because it's very much a series of gags following the antics of the part-time employees of a family restaurant. However, the third season recently concluded and I've got to say that the relationships developed throughout the three seasons and really made progress in the last. Definitely romantic, and every episode makes you laugh too. A lot of fun.
Takanashi loves cute things and is recruited to work at Wagnaria by the young-looking Popura, someone he thinks is in elementary school, but actually ends up being a year ahead of him. Every character at the restaurant and in the families of the workers end up being total whack-jobs in very amusing ways (with the exception of Maya, who is excessively normal and avoids everyone else). Inami in particular is androphobic, something which Takanashi ends up trying to help her with.
Here's another one that is more of another genre than romance. I included it because from the very beginning, the two male leads are in love with the female lead even though she's completely oblivious to their feelings and is wayyy more interested in karuto, a Japanese card game (and as such, most of the time it feels more like a sports anime than a romance). The romantic elements never progress as much as you'd like in the anime, but the manga has been making some movement in those directions. The series remains one of my favorites and I'm really hoping for a third season soon. I heard there is a live action movie being made (or has already been made), and I can only expect that they will emphasize the romance elements there, but I haven't seen it yet.
Sakura Trick (桜Trick)
Here's an absurd one. This is yuri out the wazoo. The two female leads were best friends throughout their childhood, but in high school they're seated on opposite sides of class. To ensure their friendship they start kissing each other. Sounds reasonable, right?
Teeth-rottingly sweet. Not a ton of drama, but just a saccharine yuri show that is hard to turn off.
Golden Time (ゴールデンタイム)
Here's one that I stumbled upon. Never saw it recommended, never heard about it. Read the description on Crunchyroll and jumped in. Great idea! It's good.
Main character Banri develops amnesia after graduating high school and forgets all of his childhood friends, family, everything. He takes a year off and goes to college where he makes good friends with Mitsuo, who happens to be stalked by the rich and beautiful Kouko. Banri develops feelings for Kouko, but the spirit of his youth haunts him forcing him to recall the feelings he had for a girl in high school. More tension comes about as the two Banri's fight over his body, with present Banri feeling like he will forget his current self if his past memories come back.
It is one of the best romances I've watched in years. Unlike some of the others on this list, the focus is entirely on the romance, relationships and friendships of the characters. Extremely good and if you are a romance junky, this one is for you. It's also refreshing that the characters are in college. I don't have any problem with characters of any age, but it feels more significant of a romance when the characters are at least partially grown up.
Nisekoi (ニセコイ Fake Love)
Here's a take on Romeo and Juliet that is rather refreshing. Raku and Chitoge are the heirs to rival gangs (one classic yakuza, and the other more of an American mafia) and the only way to keep the gangs from killing each other is to lie to all of the members that Raku and Chitoge are dating. The two are forced to pretend to date each other, but the waters are muddied by the fact that Raku is in love with his classmate Onodera. The waters are further muddied by Raku promising to marry a girl from his childhood that he can't quite remember, with Chitoge, Onodera, Marika, and Yui all being present during that time of his life, who is the girl he promised to be with and will that change his feelings for either Chitoge or Onodera once he finds out?
I really love Nisekoi. Although there seem to be lots of cliches and even the inspiration for the whole thing is Romeo and Juliet which itself wasn't the most original, it tends to do even the most cliched parts at elite levels of awesomeness. It feels fresh and familiar, and both Chitoge and Onodera are wonderful female leads.
The first season is far superior to the second in my opinion, which starts to fall prey to the whole, let's-drag-this-out-so-we-can-keep-making-money schtick. The manga was just as strong in the beginning and fell prey to the same thing, but recently has started making actual plot developments. Knocking out two of the romantic rivals that had started to hang on. I'm very hopeful moving forward!
Anyway, your best bet is S1 of the anime if you want the most resolution currently available, but if you can't get enough of these characters S2 is definitely entertaining and the manga has recently started picking up the pace.
So here's one that may not be for everyone. It revolves around Kyousuke and Kirino, a 17 year old and his younger 14 year-old sister. His actual sister, not a younger girl that just refers to him as older brother (which is surprisingly a thing in Japan). I'm not going to lie and say that it isn't weird. There's definitely some uncomfortable parts of this show, but the characters themselves are pretty solidly built and everything does feel natural. For a good portion of both seasons, their relationship is that of an estranged brother and sister that are trying to become better family for each other, but there's always the hint of something more lurking in the background even as Kyousuke likes and even dates other girls. The other girls are all awesome by the way. This is one of the few anime where I would have been satisfied no matter who the main character ended up with.
I can understand and agree with the characters' decisions based on their motivations and past actions. That being said, for the actual conclusion to the two season show, you do need to watch the OVA, and you can look it up for yourself, but most people say you should stop it 5 minutes before the end.
Apparently, even for Japanese companies, what was originally planned for the series was too controversial, so they took everything back in a way that is probably completely unsatisfying for everyone no matter what side they were on or who they were rooting for. I mean, the actions the characters took leading up to this ending are completely absurd if you take the ending as canon, but if you stop it just a few minutes early, it is a complete story.
Oh, actually, they did something similar in the first season too. They ended the season one way, then in the OVA said that actually isn't what happened, here's what happened. It can be pretty confusing going from S1 to S2 if you're not aware of that. I had to look it up online since only the main seasons are available on Crunchyroll.
ANYWAY, if I haven't scared you away, it really is a cute show, although with heavy hinting of incest so be aware of that going in (of course, I think the title probably should have given that away).
Plastic Memories (プラスティック・メモリーズ)
Here's a Blade Runner-y setup of a show. Replicants (or whatever they're called . . . edit: Giftia) live next to humans and occupy many roles throughout society, but many people take them in as parts of their family. The issue here is that they can only live for about 9 years. After which, if they aren't taken offline, they go completely berserk.
Tsukasa ends up getting a job at Terminal Service, the company responsible for taking Giftia offline at the end of their lifespans. He is the spotter to the Giftia Isla, and supports her as she helps other Giftia end their lives. Unfortunately for Tsukasa, he ends up falling in love with Isla, and her lifespan is pretty close to up also.
I guess watching this one is an exercise in making yourself upset. Although the relationship between the two can be frustrating and it can be sweet, the inevitable end is, well, inevitable. The only thing up in the air is how the two of them are going to handle it, how it will affect their relationships with their coworkers, and how exactly it goes down.
White Album 2 (ホワイトアルバム2)
Here's a realistic romance if there ever was one. The characters are pretty freaking real (albeit very talented) and their manipulations of each other are something else entirely. When you finally get to the end you feel like you yourself have gone through a love and been wrecked by everything that has happened.
I loved Touma and even Setsuna. They're both incredible characters with their own flaws and attractive qualities. The male lead Haruki is a little more passive than I would have liked, but it never seemed as though he wasn't a realistic character either. I will warn you that when the ante gets up, it gets WAY UPPED. All-in upped.
Also, if you watch it on Crunchyroll, don't read the episode descriptions before you watch them. They give too much away.
Although White Album 2 takes place in the same universe as White Album, there's no need to watch the first and 2 is usually considered better than the first critically (secondhand information, I haven't watched the first yet myself). Finally, if you can't get enough, there is information online about what happens afterwards because White Album 2 was originally a visual novel in two parts. The second part picks up years later. However, I really didn't like where the characters went in the visual novel.
For what this show did emotionally, I highly recommend it, but maybe don't watch it with your significant other.
My Love Story!! (俺物語!!)
So much cuteness. Takeo is a bear of a high school student that constantly saves the day because of his incredible size and strength. He does the right thing to a fault. He has the unfortunate habit of falling in love with girls that only want to date his friend Makoto, who promptly rejects the girls (usually because they're shitty to Takeo).
Takeo's enthusiasm is one of the highlights of the show, and I was expecting Makoto to be a dickwad, but he ended up being a good friend in spite of how gorgeously he is drawn. Anyway, one day Takeo sees a molester on the train and saves the girl he was trying to molest.
Rinko is instantly enamored, but Takeo—after being rejected so many times—thinks she's only interested in Makoto.
This is the show to watch to restore your faith in humanity after it was wrecked by White Album 2. Super cute, super sweet, and way more interesting than you might expect when the characters so obviously love each other.
Angel Beats! (エンジェルビーツ!)
I consider Angel Beats! a romance, even though it's probably pretty firmly in the supernatural action genre for most people. Otonashi has died, and wakes up in a strange high school. Immediately recruited to be a member of the Afterlife Battlefront by its leader, the teenage girl Yuri. Apparently, all of the kids in this school have died and are in some weird limbo before they can pass on, but they don't want to pass on. Enter Angel, the white-haired girl that tries to force them all to follow the rules and pass on—and the primary opponent for the Afterlife Battlefront.
No matter what any of them do, they can't die again, but the threat of passing on and the threat of losing your soul to become what the kids call an NPC (non-player character) keeps tensions high. Still, Otonashi can't help but feel a mysterious attraction to the girl the others call Angel . . .
Also firmly in the realm of probably not a happy one (since everyone's dead and all), but it has some great moments.
Love Hina (ラブ ひな) (manga)
Love Hina was super popular back when I was first getting into anime and manga (beyond the initial gateway drugs of Sailor Moon and Dragonball). The anime can be amusing, but the art is pretty low quality (one of the first digitally drawn/colored anime, but with frequent strange deformations that just seem lazy). The anime also moves away from the heart of the manga and devolves more into gags and cheap jokes. On the other hand, the manga is everything the anime isn't. The art is fantastic, the characters are much more complex and less frustratingly stupid, and the story line isn't just in service of the next gag. Naru is also WAYYY less of a bitch.
It's really night and day. I enjoyed the anime, but compared to the quality of the manga, it is nothing but a disappointment. The basic plot is Keitaro is a ronin—not the cool kind, the post-high school, unable to get into university kind—and his parents won't support him any longer. He goes to stay with his grandmother at her onsen, the Hinata House, but when he gets there she is gone and it's been converted into an all-female dorm. About to be kicked out (or killed), his grandmother sends word that he is to become the manager of the dorm.
Marmalade Boy (ママレード·ボーイ) (manga)
An oldie but a goodie, Marmalade Boy definitely has an interesting premise. Miki is a content sophomore when her parents go on vacation to Hawaii. When they return, they announce that they're getting a divorce and swapping partners with another couple they met while on vacation. Since both couples have children, they decide to all move in together. Miki is immediately forced to meet her new step-brother Yuu, who is kind of a jerk at first until they become friends and start to fall for each other.
If you can find this manga, it's well worth the read. Sam and I liked it so much that we went crazy finding the out-of-print DVDs of the anime series. When we finally got them all, it was a pretty big disappointment. The anime is pretty crappy and drags on way too long. The manga is great though!
Marmalade Boy is also notable for the interesting arcs the supporting characters go through as well. Many of them are very fleshed out and take some surprising turns.
Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions (中二病でも恋がしたい! Even With Eighth Grader Syndrome, I Want to Be in Love!)
I haven't been able to find more about chuunibyo or "eighth grader syndrome", but it sure seems like it's a form of autism, or at least is more likely to affect children with autism (living in your head or living a fantasy life sound familiar?) Everything I've found on it describes it more as "delusions of grandeur" than anything else. Apparently in Japan especially, sometimes eighth graders will be ridiculously embarrassing and pretend to have magical powers or be some sort of hero or villain (going beyond cosplay and just playing). Those that "graduate" from this state can't help but be embarrassed out the wazoo by their past behavior. To me, this seems like an intersection of Japanese culture with being on the spectrum, but I haven't found much research on it (really need to brush up on my Japanese reading and writing skills).
Anyway, Yuuta is a past chuunibyo that just wants to put that part of his life behind him when he goes to a high school that he knew none of his middle school classmates would go to. Unfortunately, he happens to live a floor below Rikka, a chuunibyo that never grew out of it. Yuuta ends up helping Rikka out with many things, you get the feeling because he feels like she is helpless. Their relationship develops throughout the show and they work through being a chuunibyo together and with their friends that have various backgrounds themselves. I'm actually partway through the second season of this one at the moment, but it's definitely worth watching.
If you have any sort of background with being on the spectrum or have people in your life like that, you may see some things that are a bit embarrassing for yourself, so it's easy to feel sympathy for Yuuta. It also may bother you when he is rather merciless with Rikka, but I found that aspect of their relationship one of the most realistic and entertaining parts of the show.
Although you really want to yell at the screen and have the characters just enjoy being chuunibyo as play and not have it consume their lives. Still, that's why it's a syndrome and not just an inconvenience.
Howl's Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城)
Ah, Studio Ghibli. And a Miyazaki film at that. What else needs to be said? The film far surpasses the original English novel (although that's worth a read also; the two are actually pretty different in terms of content), and depending on how long it's been since I've seen it, it sometimes tops my list of favorite Studio Ghibli films (beating out Princess Mononoke). It follows Sophie, a young girl that has been cursed into an old lady as she moves in with the wizard Howl. The two are often at odds with each other and bicker and fight. Howl's been cursed as well, and is sought after in two different kingdoms to try to help in the war between the kingdoms. Watching Sophie's relationship with Howl is a real treat, and the film is beautiful in the way only a Studio Ghibli film ever is. If you haven't seen it yet, put it at the top of your list.
Here's one I couldn't get into, but after Sam's recommendation and watching a couple AMVs featuring the show, I gave it a second shot. I'm so glad I did. The romance and relationship quickly gets past the annoying start of the show and I couldn't get enough of it.
The near-end was mind-boggingly frustrating and annoying, but I mean, they are kids so in hindsight I totally get it, and the very-end was satisfying. The entire show is highly recommended and I love the characters. It's one of those shows where after it's over, you just want to experience more with the characters, whether that's drawing or making AMVs or writing/reading fanfiction. Great great show.
Your Lie in April (四月は君の嘘)
And here's the trauma again. I can't even think of this show without tearing up. Anytime someone puts a scene of Your Lie in April in an AMV, I shout at the television. "FUCK YOU! WHY!"
It's an incredible journey from start to end. The events, the characters, the background, the relationships, and the end. Impossibly beautiful and a true needed experience. Of all these shows, several being in my all-time favorite list, none have affected me quite like Your Lie in April. Truly beautiful.
The show itself is gorgeously drawn and animated with a blow-all-the-money for the finale that was as incredible as the entire series is. The characters are impossibly lovable. Kousei, the child prodigy pianist that had a breakdown and can no longer hear the music as he plays. Kaori, the free-spirited violinist that shakes him from his torpor both musically and emotionally. Tsubaki, Kousei's childhood friend that can't deny the feelings she has for him even through his depression and rehabilitation by another.
The music aspect of the show pushed it over the edge for me probably, although some scenes showcasing Kousei's inability were painful to watch. If you're not into classical music, the romance parts will probably still keep your attention.
What do you think of the list? Did I miss any you think deserve to be on the list? Some popular ones I left off include 5 Centimeters Per Second (秒速5センチメートル) and Clannad (クラナド) amongst others (I couldn't get past the slow start to 5 and Clannad is good, but feels a little too inorganic in my opinion—you definitely feel the visual novel origin to the show).
Thanks for reading!