Between the standard romance anime with a couple by predestination, and the harem anime where numerous love interests focused on a single point complement each other, lies the love triangle, where rivals vie for one person’s affections. A difficult choice and a painful rejection follow from the premise, so while the blows may be softened, by nature it’s the most drama-laden of the three.
Kimagure Orange Road was an early, example-setting love triangle series. First off, what does “kimagure” mean? I’ve seen it translated “capricious”, “whimsical”, or “unpredictable”. There isn’t any significant “Orange Road” in the series, though in one of the movies there are a few oranges stuck in, seemingly to give the title some basis. Initially a manga by Izumi Matsumoto that ran in Shonen Jump from 1984 to 1987, like many things from the 80s it made a comeback when the manga recently saw publication in English for the first time. The televised anime, however, has been available in English subbed since the heyday of the VHS in the 1990s, and the distinctive colored text subs can still be seen in some of the episodes widely available to stream, while the video tape box set collections are now pricey, aesthetic collectibles on eBay. When watching the 48-episode series, it’s important to keep in mind that it began in spring 1987 and concluded about a year later, meaning the manga was concluded months before the anime, and with a wealth of chapters to adapt there was no need for anime only “filler” episodes.
Middle schooler Kyosuke Kasuga has just moved, and is first seen walking up the stairs of a park near his family’s new place, counting the steps, but is interrupted when he sees a red UFO sail by above him! On second glance, it turns out to be a wide-brimmed woman’s hat, which he leaps and catches. The owner, on the top landing, is a gorgeous girl with long, dark hair. She calls out, “Nice catch!”, but they get to arguing whether there are 99 steps as she thinks, or 100 as Kyosuke’s just counted, and Kyosuke proposes they split it down the middle call it 99 1/2 steps. They share a laugh, and the girl runs off, letting Kyosuke keep her hat, but after the entrancing meeting Kyosuke realizes he still doesn’t know her name.
When Kyosuke arrives home to his twin younger sisters, Manami and Kurumi, we learn that he comes from a family of espers, all three siblings having psychokinetic abilities, can teleport, and have other powers. Inherited from their deceased mother, their normal human father Takashi works as a landscape photographer, but has his hands full trying to keep the powers secret: this was their seventh move, necessitated after Kurumi ran a 100-meter race in 3 seconds! He always tells the kids to never use the powers in public, but Kurumi is often inclined to take the advice lightly. We also get an anime-original addition to the family, their pudgy cat Jingoro, who despite his heft is often toted around town on otherwise canon errands, and even stars in some novel plots.
At school the next day Kyosuke—in addition to meeting Seiji and Komatsu, clingy girl-obsessed males with whom he rounds out something like the “perverted trio” in High School DxD—sees the girl he encountered before, but learns she, Madoka Ayukawa, is reputed a delinquent! Nicknamed Madoka the Pick, for her unlikely ability to throw a guitar pick as a projectile weapon, we see her rescue her younger, short light-haired friend Hikaru Hiyama from a bunch of male delinquents in a typical fight by an urban river bank; Madoka has the same reputation in the manga, but fights more in the anime, seemingly to bolster her cred. Then, as she‘s about to light up a cigarette, Kyosuke really catches her heart by telling her if she keeps smoking, she’ll never give birth to healthy babies. (Criminally, the studio omitted one of my favorite lines from the manga: while Madoka is briefly stunned silent, Hikaru exclaims, “What’d you say?! I’ll show you! I’ll have so many babies your head’ll explode!”)
Given the very visible chemistry, this might’ve turned into a straight, one-perfect-couple romance, but not long after, Kyosuke is playing basketball in a phys. ed. course, and considering using his powers to make a shot and impress the watching Ayukawa, but won’t do that and just misses. But later Hikaru, till now uninterested in Kyosuke, spies him sitting by the wall of the empty gym as he idly uses his powers to make an incredible shot. Something inside Hikaru flips, and from then on she has an abiding, ebullient love for Kyosuke, or more usually “Sempai!” or “Darling!” to her. As childhood friends, she confides in the much more reticent Madoka, and secures her blessing for pursuing Kyosuke. Our male lead, for his part, has none of the straightforward verve of other protagonists who have graced the pages of Shonen Jump, and allows himself to get tugged along on numerous dates with Hikaru. Rock concerts and movies are the most frequent destinations, but this is the 80s man, so sometimes they end up at Moebius, the local discotheque. It’s important to note that Kyosuke starts calling Hikaru by her given name almost immediately, but calls Madoka by her surname Ayukawa through almost the whole franchise.
This isn’t to say Kyosuke never has romantic outings with Ayukawa—they just come up more by chance, as circumstances bring the pair together. But when the trio is together, Hikaru isn’t shy about her public displays of affection, for which Ayukawa often gives him a scowl before coldly tossing her head the other way! Is this any way to communicate your feelings? Apparently, Ayukawa was a formative influence on the tsundere stereotype we know and love, but in many later series the tsundere is only a secondary love interest in a harem situation. For Kyosuke to harbor feelings for one versus someone who is much more open is a hard situation to be in, no doubt, but for me, he‘s pretty unsympathetic for letting one very devoted girl believe they’re a hot item and never saying otherwise. Normally it’s best to give nothing away, but when the author colors by tropes so, the conclusion is no revelation.
Most of the series is lighthearted gag comedy, and there is a decent amount of ecchi, much of it picked up directly from the manga. There is a supernatural realism to Kimagure Orange Road, as despite the esper powers that are used in most episodes, unlike in High School DxD or Bleach say, the center of gravity is still school, homework, and teenage recreation. The supernatural abilities come in handy if one of Kyosuke’s friends is in danger—or if he needs to teleport somewhere, and just happens to wind up in the girls’ changing room. No, really, unlike Seiji and Komatsu, who are always trying to do ecchi things with Manami and Kurumi, he’s just an accidental pervert, he swears. After Ayukawa gets a part-time job (it’s a secret) at the cafe-restaurant Abcb (pronounced ‘Abacab’), the cafe becomes a hub for characters to hang out, as well as the excuse for some really gorgeous coffeeposting.
How does the anime adapt the manga? Most episodes are derived from the source, but in a very inventive way. Instead of copying the manga scene for scene, almost every episode takes its plot from the manga, but intersperces added elements. Kurumi might get taken on a date, but brings Jingoro along, the fat cat beside her at the restaurant table, or the leads visit Moebius, with an original DJ character. There is also a pilot OVA from 1985 with much worse art than the later full series, which adapts an Okinawa vacation plot the TV anime never retells. At least one plot is seriously improved: the relay race episode is a lot more heartwarming and happy than in the manga. But I don’t think I can forgive the anime for foregoing the “Ladles of Love”, “Ladies of Love” joke.
One thing the anime keeps is the staggering amount of drinking, pretty amazing for middle schoolers, and more so for actually being shown in a youth-targeted medium. Dropped are these curiously persistent visual references to the Third Reich I picked up in the manga—a t-shirt mentioning the Berlin Olympics, a romantic movie featuring an SS officer, a skinhead with a swastika tattoo. I’d be very surprised if Izumi Matsumoto put them in to reflect her own beliefs! Likely they’re meant to reflect the punk culture of the day (did you know, the National Bolshevik movement took its symbol from a contemporary movie, which similarly “sanitized” its imagery by replacing a swastika with a hammer and sickle on the iconic white circle, red background). Kasuka’s younger cousin Kazuya—a rascal with his own girl problems, and the abilities to read minds with telepathy, or switch bodies with someone when they conk their heads together—shows up in timely fashion, but Kazuya’s older sister Akane, who can make herself appear to be someone else (only to one person at a time), only arrives at the last minute, in the 8-episode OVA released between 1989 and 1991; she develops feelings for Madoka, adding a touch of yuri. A pair of enamored strangers, Ushiko and Umao, seen only once in the manga if I recall, become a staple spouting Shakespearean lines of love as the leads pass by in most episodes of the anime. The anime wholly omits Sayuri, a highly attractive girl from another school, whose hobby is serial heartbreaking; she gets obsessed with Kyosuke when he refuses to fall for her, and on seeing him surrounded by girls at school, takes him to be a harem king, but you’ll have to read the manga to see that. Also, while three years gradually pass in the manga, the characters all remain in middle school in the TV series, only shooting up to high school sometime between then and the OVA; the compressed timeline leads to dropping a few plots centered around holidays.
Can there be a happy ending? In another series, another world, yes, and I think the height of Kimagure Orange Road is at a party, when Kyosuke realizes that the only way for everyone to be happy is to bring both Madoka and Hikaru as his dates. Why not? Sadly, this is no harem series, so the characters never seriously consider all ending up together. Alas, there is no Hikaru Genji able to juggle both Ayukawa and Hikaru Hiyama. Monogamy is an essential of modern life, and from different angles it can appear to be the divinely-ordained right way, the price of civilization, or a greatly unfortunate convention ill-suited to human nature. And while it is sometimes pretended there is one soulmate to every person, Kimagure Orange Road is too honest for that, entering the realistic situation where two girls, each in their own way, feel the same deep love for one guy. The easygoing comedy of most of the series can be deceptive. Much of the anime’s excellent, very period music, is laden with feeling and perfectly suited to bring out the drama. A real favorite is the insert song “Kiken na Triangle” by Masanori Ikeda. The love triangle isn’t resolved until the 1988 movie Kimagure Orange Road: I Want to Return to That Day, where the heartbreak of rejection, and the harshness of never returning someone’s feelings, even when you care deeply about her, instead letting her feel just awful to be loyal to the chosen mate, are on full display. The Kasuga powers don’t even show up in the movie, but reappear in an afterstory film from 1996, Kimagure Orange Road: Summer’s Beginning, which looks at Kyosuke, Madoka, and Hikaru a few years down the road. There is a scene where the three swim in a pool that is just beautiful, and in no wise to be missed, as is a delicate and affecting portrayal of the couple’s first intimacy.
Disappointed as I was with the impossible not to guess ending, I can’t harbor any ire toward either the fictional characters or the author and adaptors: Madoka is a good girl too, and has her own charm; it’s hard not to sympathize with her proud but shy nature. Yet, they could easily have lessened the hurt and satisfied many fans with a spinoff series or OVA special where Kyosuke chooses Hikaru, like the Clannad ~After Story~ special Another World: Kyou Chapter, where Tomoya ends up with Kyou. I’d have called it Kimagure Shining Road! Hikaru means shining!
But aside from the series’ age, Izumi Matsumoto died recently, so tampering with her legacy would be insensitive. Hence, we are stuck with this supremely moving series as-is, a lovely romance in all its untrammeled pain.