It’s not always easy to be aware of your own habits. In my case, I really didn’t realize how much I love reading romance manga until I started writing the Quick Manga Reviews series and noticed I had to put in extra effort just to make sure the mini-reviews were varied enough. I adore this genre, I really can’t help it. However, reading this much of a single genre has made me wary of some of its trappings and tropes. This is also why I really wasn’t too fond of the anime adaptation of Citrus.
While the review was positive, this was another one of those anime that was drifting in the 5 or 6/10 territory. In the end, it was its stellar romance scenes and the interesting conflicts between its main characters that pushed it towards an overall recommendation. What almost caused me to drop the show and made me consider a negative review was its use of a trope that really annoys me and for which I do not know an official name. TV Tropes was no help in this matter either.
Basically, this annoyance comes down to a bog-standard plot twist that usually comes in the middle of romance stories. After the first half of the story has established the lead couple, a monkey wrench is thrown into their plans by introducing a rival. In many stories, this will be some friend that was previously watching from the sidelines or perhaps an older flame. In any case, this development puts a challenge before the new couple, as now one (or sometimes both) lovers must make a decision on how to proceed.
It sounds simple, but the implementation I often find lackluster. Anytime a rival like this is introduced when half the story is already told, you can already guess that the original couple will stick together. If there is a story where the main couple actually breaks up and goes different ways I either do not know it or have forgotten; if you do have examples I’d love to hear it (beware of spoilers though). Citrus was a particular offender here because it pulls this twist twice. First in the form of a pink-haired childhood friend looking to get between Yuzu and Mei, and a second time with a friendly stranger falling in love with Mei and confidently pursuing her interest in her.
It covers two different flavors of the same idea, the romance between Yuzu and Mei being challenged by an outside force and the girls having to choose if they want to remain together. The difference lies in the details, but on a surface level it feels the same and it’s a twist seen in countless other works. When Citrus introduced these characters I instantly knew where it was going and had a pretty solid idea of how it would end. I could have skipped from episode 6 straight to 12.
What makes this twist particularly upsetting is that it frequently paints the romance as particularly weak. It gives the impression that these characters whose love is special enough to earn them an animated show can’t solve even the smallest disputes between them, or that their feelings for each other are always at risk of falling apart. It’s telling that some of my favorite romance shows either have very interesting ways of presenting this twist or don’t feature it at all. Toradora is about two teens helping each other score a date with the other’s best friend, Chobits’ dilemma is about main character Hideki being unsure if he can have feelings for robot girl Chi or if he should even see her as human.
For a show that uses this trope well, look towards Mermaid Melody. There the existing romance between Lucia and Kaito is challenged when Kaito ends up in an accident while on holiday that leaves him with a heavy dose of memory loss. He becomes lovey-dovey with the girl who nursed him back to health, only to return home and find a girl he can’t remember getting upset him at him over it. As Kaito begins to slowly retrieve his memories, he is faced with the difficult choice of returning to Lucia or staying true to the romance with the girl he met and dedicated himself to while suffering amnesia.
When done well and given a good twist, this trope can be a strong part of the story. Hell, if done even slightly well its inclusion can even be mostly harmless. However, like many other tropes, just blindly tossing it in there will be boring and leaves your story feeling predictable to anybody genre-savvy enough to have seen it at least once or twice before.