Ah, February. The month where we all say "Wait, how is it Valentine's Day already?" It's also a convenient time for us romantics to shove our love of love down other people's throats under the guise of holiday celebration. But let us not forget the greatest February celebration of all: buying Valentine's candy on February 15 for 50% off. How can it possibly get any better? Why, with anime of course.
Of all categories, romance is one of the hardest for me to pare down to a single, non-exhaustive list, even using "favorite" in the title instead of "best" to weasel out of trying to sound objective and creating a separate list for manga titles. There are just so many romances to be found in anime that it's rarer for a show not to include one – even One Piece finally gave in and included some romance, albeit 800 episodes in and with an ending every fan predicted.
Stopping myself at just 10 was incredibly difficult, especially since I wanted to include different types of romance and at least a few non-obvious choices. Therefore, it's 100% certain I missed a show you consider the best anime romance of all time – in fact, I excluded several shows I think are fantastic! (Sorry, Escaflowne.) But that's okay, because we have social media now. Sound off with your own favorites on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and let me know how wrong I am. I'm pretty sure telling people their romantic choices are wrong is the true meaning of Valentine's Day anyway. For more variety in genres, check out my Top 10 Favorite Manga Romances.
Now that the excuses, caveats, and explanations are out of the way, on to the romance!
Clannad is a pleasant slice-of-life high school romance from Studio KyoAni (see also: Kanon, Air) with a dark undertone. After Story, however, goes beyond school to show what happens to our protagonist and his love after (get it?) the big confession. That means this is the rare anime that explores married life, including love, birth, and, well... loss. After Story is infamous for ripping your heart out, stomping on it, and grinding it into the dirt before wrapping things up so warmly that you not only forgive the show for doing that to you, you go out and recommend your friends have the same experience.
You know that joke where two characters just keep saying (or screaming) each other's names? In the late ‘90s, that joke was always about Fushigi Yugi. "Miaka!" "Tamahome!" "Miaka!" "Tamahome!" "Miaakaaaa!" "Tamahomeeeee!" And to be fair, they did say/scream each other's names a lot. It was only natural because Miaka and Tamahome loved each other but fate/plot constantly conspired to separate them.
To teenage-me, it was incredibly romantic that their love could survive anything. Not war, brainwashing, or even Tamahome's status as a character in a book Miaka accidentally got sucked into could keep them apart for long. (For the same romantic beats but set in modern times, watch Ceres Celestial Legend, also based on a manga by Yuu Watase.)
At just 45 minutes long, Garden of Words is barely a movie and presumably was licensed in the States strictly because of its famous director: Makoto Shinkai. I know, I know: doesn't he have another, rather more popular film I should have put here instead? But there's something about the romance in Garden of Words I haven't seen in other anime and it fascinates me.
The two protagonists are a teenager who wants to make shoes and an anxious woman in her late twenties. They meet up whenever it rains. That's the plot. The tone of the film relies heavily on the atmosphere of the lush, rainy garden rather than dialog, and the romance is one of connection rather than anything carnal (thank goodness), but I found the movie captivating and irresistibly human nonetheless.
His and Her Circumstances, aka KareKano, is notorious for three things: being directed by Hideaki Anno, aka "the Evangelion guy"; running out of money in the last few episodes, resulting in text and manga stills on screen for extended sequences; and being simultaneously hilarious, heart-warming, and tenderly understanding of the pressures of teenage life.
What happens when teenagers who've put everything into being as perfect as possible set those impossible images aside to be themselves? Obviously, given their place on this list, one of those things is finding love, but another is finding ambitions of their own beyond scoring first place on a test. There's something wonderful about watching two people becoming better together.
Yes, Marmalade Boy. The most melodramatic anime soap opera this side of Code Geass. The story opens with Miki's parents announcing they're getting divorced and marrying another divorcing couple - that is, Miki's mom will marry the husband of the other couple and her dad will marry the wife. Confused? So's Miki. It gets worse. The other couple has a son Miki's age and none of the four parents want to disrupt anyone's parenting just because they're getting remarried, so all six of them are going to live together from now on. It's that kind of a plot.
It's obvious where the story is going from the very first minute, and yet you'll find yourself pulling an all-nighter to watch "just one more episode" and see if these two idiot teens ever manage to have a happy relationship without the forces of plot driving them apart yet again. It's compelling in a way I don't think modern anime viewers get to experience very often now that shows are released in 13-episode seasons at a time, which is a real shame. Bonus: older anime fans will appreciate what a ‘90s nostalgia bomb the series is from start to finish.
Princess Tutu fully embraces the musical drama of ballet to create emotional sequences that resonate in ways anime fans aren't used to but theater fans will recognize and sigh in appreciation of. In the first half, Ahiru falls in love with a prince but can never tell him even as she battles to save his heart. It's straightforward (well, straightforward for story about a duck transformed into a girl who can additionally transform into a magical princess - did I mention Ahiru is a duck?) and incredibly poignant as only fairy tales can be.
In the second half, the fairy-tale rules begin to go haywire and new romances develop and deepen, this time much more "real" than fairy tale. Unabashed by open sentimentality, Princess Tutu goes straight for the heart with every pas de deux.
Ah, economics, the most romantic of the social sciences. Wait, what? Actually, while the plot of Spice and Wolf deals heavily in such exciting topics as differing currency values, the real subject it's teaching is chemistry. (These are the jokes, folks.) Lawrence and Holo's romantic relationship is what the fanfiction world calls a "slow burn," but their compatibility as friends is obvious right from the start. It has to be, because approximately 90% of Spice and Wolf involves Lawrence and Holo talking and if they weren't interesting conversation partners no one would have watched past episode 1. That slow burn makes it all the more moving when they realize and admit their true feelings. Oh, and the economics aspects are actually pretty interesting, too.
Honestly, I don't care what happens in any other arc – Sword Art Online gets its place on this list for the first half of the first season (aka the Aincrad arc). Right from the start, Kirito and Asuna act like mature adults about forming a relationship despite being teenage anime characters stuck in a video game with harem-genre undertones. Was it a little silly when they randomly adopted a strange girl they found in a forest? Yes. Did I eat those scenes up with a figurative spoon? Also yes. I will forever love that Sword Art took one look at every melodramatic romance trope and said "Nah, I'm good" to skip straight to the lovey-dovey stuff.
Pretty sure there would be a riot if I didn't mention Toradora! and the "Mou ichidou"/"One more time" scene. The plot? He looks scary but is really a softie. She looks sweet but has a temper. They've promised to help each other with their romantic goals, but will these two sorta-opposites attract instead? HMMMM, I wonder.
While not as melodramatic as Marmalade Boy (almost nothing is), Toradora! will hit you right in the feels as these teenagers place all-encompassing meaning on their high school relationships. It's understandable, though - they're in high school. To them, these really are the most important relationships of their young lives, and it's only fair that we recognize them as such. Plus, Toradora's pretty funny when it's not smacking your heart around.
Would the creators like me calling Yuri!!! on Ice a romance? Quite possibly not. Is it one anyway? Heck yes. What's incredibly interesting to me about the romance in Yuri!!!! is about ice skating, and all parts of the plot and characterization are in service to that. We get to see important moments, like Victor's "surprise" at the end of Yuri's amazing skate and Yuri picking out "good luck" rings, but only if those moments pertain to figure skating. Meanwhile, it's up to fans to infer what they will from hotel beds pushed together.
I honestly can't think of another piece of media I've consumed where the romance between two characters is an important, plot-informing undercurrent but not so important as to risk cutting time from a tertiary character's free skate routine to show it. It completely challenges my idea of what "romance" means and its importance to the stories I watch and read, and it's one more reason I love Yuri!!! on Ice.
So how did my list stack up against yours? It's probably pretty different. No My Little Monster, Your Lie in April, Golden Time... the list goes on. But that's the nice thing about romance: there are different kinds for everyone. There isn't any one right way to love somebody, and there isn't any one right way to tell a love story, either. Here's hoping I sparked your interest in trying something new, or at the very least reminded you to set a calendar alert for half-off candy on the 15th.-Lisa Marie Cooper
Lisa is a hopeless romantic and disappointed she couldn't include Hunter x Hunter on this list for multiple reasons. Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com.