This is a re-posting of an item that originally appeared on Livejournal.
I think it was "dagbrown" who told me that in Japan, December 25 is like February 14 in North America - it's not so much a family holiday as a couples' holiday, the day you give your lover gifts if you have one, or feel sad and alone if you don't. Maybe he told me that or maybe I just inferred it from the Irresponsible Captain Tylor Christmas episode. Either way, this seems like a good opportunity to post some thoughts about romance in anime. This may contain spoilers for Inuyasha, FLCL, and Saikano, and if you aren't familiar with those series, you probably won't get most of it anyway.
So. Consider Inuyasha, specifically the relationship of Kagome and Inuyasha. My friend "mad_and_crazy" has mentioned how cute Kagome is enough times for it to be statistically significant, and okay, fine, whatever, she is sort of cute and maybe his aesthetic is a little different from mine. (He's also a fair bit younger than me, and that makes a difference.) Kagome has the whole kawaii short-skirted schoolgirl thing going on. But... she just doesn't do much for me. Watching the anime, Kagome just leaves me cold. It wasn't until I read someone ranting about her on a Web BBS recently, that I realized just why. The rant really opened my eyes. I won't link it here because my participation in the other place is under an alias I don't want to link to this one, but to summarize what I got out of it: the problem is Kagome's relationship with Inuyasha.
Kagome may be cute, but the way she deals with her quasi-boyfriend is really unappealing. There's a big power gap between them: she can walk away from him at any time, go live in her own world, and hey, she even has a cute boy waiting for her there. Her investment is small. On the other hand, if Inuyasha wants to be involved with her, that demands a huge investment on his part. He has to give up being a demon and become human, which means becoming weak and mortal and making enemies of all the other demons. He's forced to commit to her to some extent whether he wants to or not, because of the whole sacred jewel and reincarnation business; and he's got plenty of trouble comprehending her actions and feelings because not only is she a girl, but she's human, and from another universe, making her a completely alien being from his point of view. Nonetheless, he makes an effort to try to deal with her. How does she respond?
Not very well, actually. Kagome demands that her priorities come first, always. If Inuyasha doesn't understand her random teenage moods, he's to blame and she'll go off in a snit. When she shows any kindness or understanding towards him it's because she wants something from him, and when she gets tired of manipulating him in more subtle ways, "SIT"! It's a situation comedy, and it isn't even funny anymore after the first dozen episodes or so. This isn't a functional or enviable relationship. One way of putting it is that Kagome's behaviour is childish and immature.
I have seen Kagome do one mature, romantic thing: she went back to her own universe, intending not to come back, to prevent Inuyasha from putting himiself at risk trying to save her. That might redeem some of her other behaviour and show that she was growing up a bit - hey, she did something based on its consequences for him - but I'm not sure how far it really goes. I'd say she's still just a child.
So my next thought was, can I think of an example of a more mature anime couple? This may be an odd choice, but my first thought was Mamimi and Naota in FLCL. Now, Mamimi is way more fucked-up than Kagome ever was - she latches onto Naota after his brother leaves, as a sort of substitute, he's not particularly into that, and the age difference makes her look like some kind of creepy child molester. By no means an enviable relationship. However: Mamimi at least has some grasp of what makes other people tick. When she manipulates Naota, she does it consciously and deliberately, taking into account his feelings (even if only for her own purposes) and there's some interaction in both directions instead of just one way. She's more mature than Kagome. Kagome is a child; Mamimi is a teenager. I wouldn't want to be either one's boyfriend, but Mamimi is a lot more fun to watch because she's a deeper character.
And Naota himself is an even deeper, more interesting character, because we get to see him grow up, over the course of the six-episode series. At the start, he's Mamimi's toy. By the end of the series, he's matured past her, taking on adult responsibilities like saving the world, and we see her lose interest in him because she sees that she can't use him as a toy anymore. It's really worth watching the director's commentary on the FLCL DVDs, because it makes much clearer what's going on in the story. The whole growing-up thing is conveyed with this bizarre symbol vocabulary (Guitars! Robots! Fake eyebrows! Bitter canned coffee! Super spicy curry bread!) but the underlying plot makes a whole lot of sense.
So, what's the next level? Can I think of an anime couple with a really good, mature romantic relationship? I pick Chise and Shuji in Saikano. That's what English-speaking anime fans tend to call the show; it's an abbreviation of the Japanese name "最終兵器彼女", which I've seen translated as both "She, the ultimate weapon" and "My girlfriend, the ultimate weapon" because 彼女 has a double meaning. Yes, I said that only to show off my nifty Unicode input configuration. Chise and Shuji may not be any older than the other couples I've named, in chronological terms - but they are unquestionably adults. One distinguishing feature is that they each pay a whole lot of attention to the priorities of the two of them together as a unit, and to the other's priorities, not just their own. We also get to see growth and change as Chise and Shuji develop as characters, just like with Naota in FLCL. Fuyumi to Shuji: "It's too bad you had to grow up." Fuyumi reminds me a whole lot of Mamimi in that interaction, but she's aware enough to be able to say it consciously; Mamimi only realised semi-consciously that Naota couldn't be her toy anymore. (Mamimi to the robot terminal core: "You have to be Takkun now.") Fuyumi wuold rank somewhere on the maturity scale between Mamimi and Chise.
The big thing I like about Saikano is that every one of the several times there is sex in the show, it really matters, and there are consequences for everyone involved, not even just the two people present at the time. Atsushi and Akemi, Akemi and Shuji (didn't happen, but that was important too), Shuji and Fuyumi, and finally Shuji and Chise - every one of them important. Saikano actually shows us, for most of the duration of the series, a situation where two characters want to have sex with each other, are able to do so, and nonetheless decide not to because of the consequences for each other. Chise to Shuji: "Why shouldn't I want to sleep with you a thousand times as much as that woman [Fuyumi] does? I'm your girlfriend, dammit!" And even then, they still didn't. It's hard to imagine North American pop culture depicting such a thing in a dignified way; the only other times I've seen it have been in situation comedies on the level of Inuyasha. The bottom line is that even though Saikano is a show about Armageddon, the war that destroys the world, and lining up the three women I've discussed, Chise is the least good-looking of them, the Chise/Shuji relationship is nonetheless the one I'd most prefer to be part of.