A fan-revered classic of anime’s ‘golden age’ of the 1980s, Kimagure Orange Road is now too seasoned of an age to pull punches about its identity. It’s a romantic comedy drama from the 80s, featuring very 80s kids doing very 80s things, usually to the backing of very 80s music. It’s an animated series that simply screams ‘New Wave’ from the very first second of its poppy opening credits, which are so saturated in the vibe of the era that you’d be forgiven for expecting some VCR flicker to occasionally pop up during its episodes. But this series isn’t all neon night clubs, Polaroids and leg warmers. There’s a distinctly timeless story it puts to track in its ‘coming-of-age’ saga, about a trio of junior high teenagers and the love that blossoms between them - unrequited or otherwise. It also manages to throw in an interesting (and often humourous) paranormal angle into the mix, giving it a unique edge even among present-day romance yarns, and creating a thoroughly more engaging drama than its age might not reveal.
Its protagonist, Kyosuke Kasuga, is certainly an interesting 15-year old - he’s an esper, in fact. He and his family are possessors of “The Power”, a hold-all term for a list of supernatural powers that among other things enable the use of telekinesis, teleportation and time-travel. You’d think wielding these talents would produce more benefits than problems, as long as they weren’t used in public. But the Kasugas are an accident-prone bunch. Every time they’ve mistakenly exposed their secret powers, they’ve had to move to a new town. Needless to say, they’ve had to move quite a few times, and the TV series starts after yet another one of these emergency migrations. Kyosuke has to start all over again at a new junior high, which might be a solace away from his crazy family if it wasn’t for the fact that his 12-year old twin sisters, the mischievous Kurumi and the markedly more reserved Manami, will be joining him there too. With father of the house, Takashi, unable to exert any real discipline on them (as the only non-esper of the family, he’s literally unable to), paranormal antics are likely to follow the pair wherever they go. With trying to fit in at his new school and keeping his siblings from forcing him out of it, Kyosuke has plenty to keep his hands full - and barely enough time to cultivate his own teenage life.
Luckily, he doesn’t need to do much for his new school to define it for him. He immediately settles in with his classmates Komatsu and Hatta, two typical teenage boys with more-than-typical appreciation for the opposite sex. It also isn’t long before he starts to attract the affections of that contingent either. Hikaru Hiyama - a freshman who hides a child-like demeanour beneath her brash talk and the biker company she keeps, is one such admirer. Kyosuke didn’t even need to work hard at winning her over - not when accidental uses of the Power can do it for him. While hanging out at the school gym, he absent-mindedly flings a basketball into a hoop from behind his back, unwittingly using his telekinesis. Little does he realise that his magic trick has been witnessed by a peeking Hikaru, who with no awareness of his abilities, sees the stunt as the epitome of ultimate cool.
But if there’s one girl that can pull off ultimate cool in Kyosuke’s eyes, it’s the enigmatic Madoka Ayukawa - a fellow attendant of his new class. She’s also a girl whom he first meets in a chance encounter on the weekend before his first school day, rescuing her wind-swept hat for her as he’s wandering through his neighbourhood. In that initial rendezvous, Kyosuke finds her to be cheerful, jokative and beautiful. When he then discovers she goes to the same school as him, he is shocked to see a completely different side to her nature - hostile and aloof, but still beautiful. The cigarette-smoking, girl-gang leading persona she puts on during academic hours could not be in greater contrast to his initial impression of her. So naturally, he does what most adolescent males would do when faced with such a girl - he becomes completely smitten.
In typically amour-guided fashion - ‘star-crossed’ lovers and all that schmaltz - Kyosuke is able to build a friendship with Madoka despite a rocky start, and her cold demeanour is soon revealed to be largely an act. It’s the same way for Hikaru too - having already been friends since childhood with Madoka, she too inevitably gets acquainted with him, while giving him no choice in getting acquainted with her. With her going as far as appointing him as her boyfriend before a date is even scheduled, it’s the kind of situation any girl-chasing teenage boy might ask for - except for one small problem. Kyosuke can’t say ‘no’ to either of the girls - he’s too attached to the mature allure of Madoka, while also being charmed by Hikaru’s innocent cheer. About as indecisive as a leaf in the wind, Kyosuke constantly flitters between the pair of them, knowing that one day he’s going to have to make a choice. As the three of them embrace the beginnings of their mid-teenage years with late nights out, vacation getaways and plenty of other memories in the making, Kyosuke will have no shortage of situations for love to flourish and help him choose the girl he wants - if he’s brave enough to cause the heartbreak that’ll come with it.
Something of a generational phenomenon in its native Japan, Kimagure Orange Road started out as a manga written by Izumi Matsumoto which ran from 1984 to 1987, becoming essential reading for a horde of lovelorn teenagers (male and female alike) in the process. Its ubiquitous success in print form naturally made it a perfect franchise for a TV series, which also swept up the airwaves before its story eventually concluded with a final, equally acclaimed movie in the latter end of 1988. Like a number of quintessential 80s animes, it also found success when translated to foreign audiences too - runs on both French and Italian television followed its exemplary home achievements. Neither its status as a fan-considered classic or its export successes should be passed off as simple feats, either. If anything, both are big indicators of Kimagure Orange Road’s ability to tell a universally engaging coming-of-age story in expert fashion. Additionally, it still possesses plenty of other strengths too, that also help to further drive home this fact.
One curious thing about Kimagure Orange Road is how unique it still looks, despite its datedness. Its animation has definitely suffered, offering a choppy and often static flow that looks bad even for an 80s TV show. But the art style on display remains charmingly vivid and distinct, not just when compared to its rival shows of the time. The digital age may have pushed animation into a time of clean, computerized brilliance, but these old shows still find ways to persist because of what they can still evoke. Age has not diluted KOR’s ability to capture either the times in which it ran, nor a level of emotive depth that keeps its characters immensely likeable and relatable. It succeeds not just as nostalgic 80s animation, but also as a snapshot of the youth who lived through that decade. The fashions, attitudes and activities of today’s cool kids may have changed, but the yearning for freedom, fun and young love will never die - and ultimately, that’s what the style of Kimagure Orange Road is all about too.
Specifically, it’s the cool kids of the show who will stay with you once the series is done. Kyosuke is, frankly, a great lead character, a regular kid caught between his capricious teenage passions and his insecurities - a combination that teenage boys definitely can relate to. Being prone to the habit of internally monologuing in Wonder Years-esque fashion, some of his best development actually occurs when none of the other characters are on-screen. It’s a depth of personality that is equally shared by his opposite number Madoka - a girl who is just as intriguing and as whimsical as Kyosuke is (the ‘kimagure’ of the title is Japanese for ‘whimsical’, after all). Granted, she develops into a bit of a Mary Sue as the series goes on - aside from being a tough gang head, she’s also from a well-off family, and plays saxophone and bass just as masterfully as she can surf and skateboard (did we mention horseback riding too?). But she never loses her air of mystery and elegance, and most importantly, it’s obvious that beneath these self-protective traits, she’s just as endearingly vulnerable as Kyosuke is.
The social dynamic that therefore exists between the pair is abundant in amorous tension - with all the adolescent implications that come with that. There is absolutely no sexual content in the series, and whatever slight nudity does appear is used primarily for gag purposes only. But this is a show about teenagers that is insistently frank about the compromising situations that can arise when kids of age grow romantically interested in each other. Most importantly, it delivers this plot element in a largely mature fashion - something it deserves a ton of credit for. I say ‘largely’ though, because there are certain characters in the series who seem to exist just to derail that notion.. and they come under the guise of the two overt horndogs that have all the charms of a dead trout.
Komatsu and Hatta, Kyosuke’s school buddies, are a couple of reprehensible perverts who serve as the show’s jokers. This would be a fine thing if most of their jokes weren’t dedicated to ogling girls and trying to coerce Kurumi and Manami into dates with them when their brother Kyosuke isn’t looking. If the concept of 15 year-old school-boys chasing 12 year-old first-years isn’t uncomfortable enough (it definitely wasn’t done at my high school), then rest assured - these two find many ways to plumb further depths of creepiness, bringing other characters you’ll think better of into the mix as well. Their ability to grate does wane as the show wears on, but they remain a constantly cringeworthy obstacle to get through in order to keep appreciation of the show’s better moments.
But the irritations among the cast don’t just stop there - Hikaru’s charms can wear off real quick at times too. Bubbly and adorable, shrill and sickeningly cutesy, she is a character who zig-zags across the threshold of tolerance with all the enraging perkiness of a manic chipmunk. It can be a genuine challenge to put up with her on screen - even when she’s saying nothing, the mere presence of her daft bowl haircut annoys. In a twist of irony though, she’s also the main reason why the love triangle between her, Kyosuke and Madoka remains so engaging. Her uncanny ability to insert herself unannounced into the other two’s more tender moments, and her status as both love rival and cherished friend to Madoka, make her obtrusive demeanour a surprisingly effective device for generating tension. Whether she’s supposed to be teeth-grindingly irritating is another thing. But for better or worse, she is absolutely an effective antagonist when the story demands her be.
The double-whammy of aggravating characters and juvenile misogyny is, unfortunately, enough to turn Kimagure’s heartful teenage ballad into an intermittent slog. It can be quite trying at times to overlook the show’s antiquated attitudes to keep a focus on the good that has remained. When it does decide to be an everyday love drama, it can still produce some incredibly touching moments. It still brings some very funny ones too, even with the aforementioned failure of some comedic characters. Kyosuke’s entire family are a laugh (especially their cat Jingoro), and Yusaku, who emerges as his love rival for Hikaru’s attention, is one of the great likeable losers in anime history. But there’s also plenty of plot ideas during the show’s 48 episodes that either serve as odd, unnecessary diversions away from the main story, or simply don’t work at all. Why exactly one episode is entirely dedicated to a skateboard duel between Madoka and a rival-gang leader is a puzzle. Why exactly another episode involving Hikaru feeling betrayed by Kyosuke decides to take on an air of arthouse French cinema is also another riddle. But the show still manages to be incredibly charming and incredibly fun at times, and it does retain a satisfying, if abrupt finale. It’s just a pity that you’ll have to work your way through some very time-worn episodes to get to it, especially when it’s obvious by the series’ halfway point which girl Kyosuke wants - and that she wants him too.
Still, Kimagure Orange Road has aged pretty well - its authentic 80s verve, classic look and wonderfully empathetic writing at times all combine to make its cheesier, awkward moments worth the perseverance. Best of all, it’s a show that just seems to get the magic and invincibility of youth in a way that a lot of shows of its kind couldn’t, and still can’t. For that alone, Kimagure Orange Road deserves reverence. And if you’re either a junkie for romance or just the anime of old, it still deserves your viewing time as well.