This is an anime that is not so much horrible as it is horribly dull—I like to call it an "atrocity of mediocrity." I'll get deeper into the plot and characters later but, fundamentally, the cardinal flaw with this show is that it is an ecchi series without very good ecchi. There is all the lack of plot and weak characterization you might expect from a major ecchi series, but very little of the fanservice-filled payoff. It’s like porn without the porn—nothing, in other words. 26 episodes of vapid, vacuous, banal, stale, insipid nothingness. And who would consider watching nothing for 26 episodes an enriching way to pass the time?
Of course, To LOVE-Ru does, in fact, have the very vaguest semblance of a plot (at least in the first few episodes). Our main character, a man with a propensity for falling down on top of attractive women, is named Yuuki Rito. He lives a normal high school life... that is, until something shocking happens in the bath one day. While the unsuspecting Rito is minding his own business, a naked alien girl named Lala (who looks indistinguishable from a human besides her bright pink hair and tail) falls on top of him out of nowhere. Through a series of extraordinarily contrived misunderstandings, Rito accidentally proposes to this girl despite actually being in love with Haruna Sairenji, another girl at his school. Naturally, being utterly incapable of expressing himself to girls his age, he finds himself unable to call off the accidental proposal, and likewise unable to profess his love to the real girl of his dreams. To make things worse, the reason Lala ended up in Rito’s bath in the first place is that she is the crown princess of one of the most powerful civilizations in the galaxy––the Devilukeans––and was trying to escape a political marriage. As a result, any attempts by Rito to break off the engagement would likely offend the Devilukeans and might end not only in his death but the death of the entire world. So, with tensions as high as they are, Rito is obviously immediately inspired to go out and face his problems, clear up any misunderstandings and—just kidding, he acts like the hero he is and continues with his daily life as though nothing is wrong.
Yes, while a number of other aliens show up to either try to assassinate Rito or convince Lala to cancel the proposal, and countless other girls show up and dilute the situation further, as far as progress, there is none to be seen. Instead, the show remains in an awkward limbo, with Rito clearly in a situation in pressing need of his attention yet making only the most feeble and infrequent attempts at remedying this fact. In truth, most of the episodes don't even mention the main plot at all. Rather, they resort to episode long filler plots which range from bad to appalling. We see everything from Lala bringing in some alien tentacle monsters (animated with horrible CG) to cook and getting groped by them instead, to some insignificant side character dreaming about being in feudal Japan.
To summarize, the story is questionable and mostly ignored—there may as well be no story. But as I wrote above, in an ecchi show such as this one, sacrificing plot for fanservice is common practice—I daresay I prefer it that way. No one in their right mind would watch this show hoping for a complex or emotional story to blow them away, as that would only get in the way of what really matters here: the fanservice. What they might hope for, however, is a plot that would facilitate as much fanservice as possible. And here, is the heart of the issue. Despite advertising itself as "a romantic comedy full of slapstick humor, sexy girls, and outlandishly lewd moments that defy the laws of physics," To LOVE-Ru contains a surprising dearth of lewdness. 90% of the fanservice in this series is composed of little more than panty shots and Rito being an accidental pervert by falling on top of girls, and the other 10% is rarely much better. Sometimes the series will go for almost an entire episode with very little fanservice, instead caught up in its lackluster filler plots—filler plots like the one about feudal Japan I mentioned above, which create practically no good opportunities for sexual moments. How could this become a flagship of the ecchi genre when it does ecchi in such a mediocre way? From what I have heard, this situation was largely caused by the anime deviating heavily from the manga, which is apparently much better. Certainly, if there is one good thing about To LOVE-Ru it is the character designs, which were taken directly from the manga.
On the topic of characters, I think it is high time I discussed them. To get straight to the point, they are cliché and uninspired. And unlike with the plot, being ecchi is absolutely not an acceptable reason for bad characters. Series like Nisemonogatari are proof that fanservice shows are perfectly capable of having well-written and unique characters. Now, rather than talk about them broadly, I think the best thing for me to do at this point is to scrutinize each and every character in needless detail.
So, without further ado, let's begin.
Rito Yuuki: From head to toe, Rito is comprised of little more than the standard elements of your friendly neighborhood harem protagonist. He's nice, bad at talking to girls, clumsy and if the size of his harem is any indication, the most attractive man in the galaxy. Only one little thing: he is absolutely, 100%, completely and fully opposed to anything even remotely sexual. Just imagining a girl in a swimsuit is too much for his sex-averse mind to handle. In this way, this show’s failures stem largely from the failures of this one aspect of this one character: someone thought it would be a good idea to make the lewdest show around about a kid who doesn’t like lewd things. It is one thing to have the protagonist of, say, a battle shounen be sex-averse, but for the main character of an ecchi anime to act that way is like trying to make a sports anime about a character who has a grudge against sports. Pure and simple: it doesn’t make any sense. I realize that such timid protagonists are not uncommon in ecchi harem shows like this, but I have always found this fact baffling, and this show certainly does nothing to reduce my confusion.
Of course, the show does at least make feeble attempts at addressing this obvious contradiction, and it does so rather creatively by attempting to have Rito become the preeminent accidental pervert of the anime world. And this, to be totally and completely honest, is not actually such a bad idea. Now, instead of having some unsympathetic loser who goes around groping women as our main character, we have a fine, respectable young man who just… accidentally finds himself groping women sometimes. In a good anime, this could be a resounding success, creating lots of fanservice in an interesting way, but this is not a good anime. The vast majority of Rito’s accidental perversion takes the form of him falling on top of girls, and in doing so, finding his hands and/or face where they really don’t belong. Sometimes these scenes are amusing, but by the end, they are so overused and so rarely varied upon that they quickly become tiresome more than anything.
Ultimately, Rito is mostly generic, and where he does deviate from the norm, he rarely achieves anything of particular note. With such a weak foundation on which to build the rest of the show, it is little surprise that To LOVE-Ru is so spectacularly unsuccessful.
Lala Satalin Deviluke: Rito’s fiancée Lala is nothing groundbreaking either character-wise, but she remains one of the stronger characters the show has to offer. Her personality is bubbly, upbeat, and... well, not very complex, but her demeanor is so resoundingly positive that I have great difficulty maintaining any lasting dislike for her. In essence, she is a bundle of joy, and while she is not the most richly wrought character to ever come out of the world of anime, her frequent presence is one of the few features that make this slog of a show bearable.
Besides her personality, the other main aspect that sets Lala apart is her inventing abilities. Though she never comes off as particularly intelligent, we are told to believe that she is, in fact, a genius who regularly invents devices capable of nearly anything. Naturally, To LOVE-Ru being the show that it is, “nearly anything” usually takes the form of a device that causes fanservice-y shenanigans in some capacity. Be it a teleporter that causes the teleportees to lose their clothes along the way, a machine that swaps the genders of its users, or a pair of glasses that allows one to see through clothes, Lala’s inventions never fail to impress. As one of the few consistent producers of quality fanservice in the show, it is always a delight when an episode centers on one of these, though like all the good things this anime has to offer, they don’t seem to appear as often as they should.
Haruna Sairenji: Rito’s dream girl could best be described as blandness incarnate. The reason for Rito’s attraction to her, if we are to surmise from the two minutes dedicated to the subject during the first few episodes, is her extreme kindness. At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this, but as the show progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that the reason that Rito finds her kindness to be her most appealing characteristic is largely that it is her only characteristic of note. Despite being one of the most important characters in the show, her personality can pretty comprehensively be described with the word “nice.” Though she never does anything actively offensive, her oppressive boringness made me quickly come to dislike any time she appeared on screen (which was quite frequent given that she is a major character). This dislike was only compounded by the fact that every time Rito is in her presence, he immediately becomes a blubbering, retarded cow of a human being and finds himself utterly incapable of expressing even the most basic of thoughts without stuttering seven thousand times. Even given that this kind of awkwardness is typical of anime romances, the extreme to which Rito takes it quickly makes it change from endearing and cute to tiresome and grating.
Konjiki no Yami (Golden Darkness): The “Golden Darkness” is a cold and distant alien assassin capable of transforming any part of its body into a weapon. It was sent to the earth to murder Rito so that Lala could be married off to some other alien prince. After it meets Rito in person, however, it discovers that he is actually kindhearted, and decides that killing him would be wrong. For the rest of show it remains officially still carrying out its mission to off Rito, but really just living on earth because it has come to like it there.
Oh, and it takes the form of a cute girl that goes by “Yami-chan.” Obviously. Cute girls can be cold-blooded killers too!
Yami as a concept is probably the most compelling any character in To LOVE-Ru gets, though, between her appearance, her dispassionate personality, and her status as a living weapon, she draws a few too many similarities with Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion to call her wholly original. If anything, she suffers from the same issue that Rito did: as an idea, she’s not bad, and in a good anime she would be a successful character, but (as has been firmly established) a good anime this is not. She’s given none of the development a character with a setup this interesting deserves, instead mostly being used as the token deadpan girl and occasionally using her turning-body-parts-into-weapons ability for slapstick humor. If there is one character in this show who deserves to be a part of a better anime then it is surely the “Golden Darkness.”
Run Elsie Jewelria and Ren Elsie Jewelria: A childhood friend of Lala’s that comes to earth aiming to woo her. Run and Ren are really two separate personalities that live in one body as an alien that switches between male (Ren) and female (Run) every time it sneezes. As an idea for a character, sneeze induced gender-bending is so bizarre that it’s hard to really criticize it, and actually, Ren and Run’s personalities are fairly unique as well. Ren tries to win Lala’s affection by performing various masculine feats in the hopes of outdoing Rito, and Run, after (unsurprisingly) falling for Rito herself, ends up becoming an idol to try and impress him. Run and Ren are among the more infrequently appearing characters in the show, but when they do appear it is always a pleasure to see them.
Yui Kotegawa: Yui Kotegawa is a tsundere. By reading that one sentence, anyone could come to understand the entirety of her character, because that’s really all there is to it. There are no other nuances, no creative new takes, nothing—she is nothing more a tsundere at its purest and most creatively bankrupt. Well, perhaps I should give her at least a little bit more credit: there is, at the very least, a backstory. She is the president of the school’s morals committee and finds Rito’s accidental perversions repugnant, yet simultaneously she realizes that she is attracted to him for some poorly explained reason. Whatever her feeble reasons may be, though, the fact remains that Yui Kotegawa is a walking cliché.
Mikan Yuuki: Mikan is Rito’s responsible little sister who essentially acts as his mother while their actual parents are conspicuously absent for nearly the entirety of the show. She appears frequently early on, but her influence wanes as the show progresses, to the point that she gets relatively little character development. This is really too bad, because, while not stunningly original, she has a sort of snarky air in the first few episodes which was one of the few things in this show that I found amusing. Plus, I find that it is always interesting to see the reaction of those close to harem leads as things get crazier. Alas, like so many elements of this show, any interest Mikan might have held was crushed by awful execution.
Kenichi Saruyama: Saruyama is the perverted best friend at its most tired and bland. He is so bland, in fact, that he holds the impressively unimpressive distinction of being my least favorite character in this show. His personality is so utterly formulaic that it could have been replaced with countless other similar characters from other shows and I suspect no one would even notice. To make matters worse, rather than appearing infrequently for (unfunny) comic relief like most characters of his ilk do, he often appears prominently, even taking the spotlight in a few places. Not only is he the main character of the bizarre and out of place feudal Japan episode I mentioned above, but he also is the focus of perhaps the worst episode of the entire show (although there are many candidates for this), in which an ugly alien creature gives birth in the school clinic and Saruyama is forced to help with the birth and later become a father figure for the child. God knows what extraordinary lapse of judgment must have occurred for the writers to think that making an episode about a side character helping an alien give birth was what this show needed.
Principal: Why does this character exist? The principal is the disgusting old man who runs Rito’s school and appears regularly as so-called “comic relief” to make public displays of his lust for high school girls. Because that’s funny. The only saving grace for this abomination of a character is that even the writers seemed to agree that he’s awful, and he doesn’t appear very often. Additionally, unlike Saruyama, when he does appear, we don’t have to suffer through entire episodes with him as the main character.
Saki Tenjouin: Tenjouin is the token pretentious, arrogant “Ojou” character. When she appears, she is always accompanied by two of her lackeys and tends to spend most of her time flaunting her class and purportedly extreme attractiveness. Her main purpose, however, is to serve as something along the lines of Lala’s rival in the early part of the show. I say “something along the lines of” because Lala more or less ignores her presence, and she spends most of her time making a fool of herself in fanservice-y ways. She’s irritating, but intentionally so, and honestly the episodes where she appears prominently tend to be some of the better ones in the show, so I harbor relatively little animosity towards her.
Shizu Murasame: The award for the most pointless character in this show must surely go to this ghost girl, who appears in one episode about a haunted old school building and then just sort of continues showing up for some reason. She never really contributes anything to the show—she doesn’t appear to share any meaningful relationships with any other characters, never adds anything of value to the plot, has no comedic purpose, has no interesting dialog, never plays a part in any fanservice, she simply exists. It is as though the writers felt that some scenes seemed empty, so they created a new character, but couldn’t be bothered to give her a reason to be there.
Risa Momioka and Mio Sawada: These best friends and classmates of Rito exist more or less entirely to compare the boob sizes of girls in Rito's class… and then grope them just to be sure. Now, while I feel a deep admiration for anyone who has found a purpose in life as enviable as this, I do slightly question if this show needs not one, but two characters dedicated to showcasing it. At any rate, necessary or otherwise, these two are a staple of the show, appearing frequently to spice things up with a little sexual harassment.
I suspect it was probably a little excessive of me to go through all of these characters, but I hope I have made my point clear: most of the side characters can be defined by a few characteristics, the major characters are shallow and dull, and those characters that are interesting either appear infrequently or are poorly executed. The exact significance of having such weak characters may vary from person to person, but for me, it is the final damning blow in cementing To LOVE-Ru as a truly hopeless affair. I have not dedicated 2,000 words to lambasting these characters purely because it is fun (although to be fair, it is quite fun), but rather because I find that good characters are integral to creating a good show. Not only are they the foundation on which every other part of the work stands, they are the aspect of the work which most directly connects it to the reader. If I can empathize with a character, it makes the entire story all the more meaningful to me. And if, as with this show, I cannot connect with any characters, then it makes the experience merely a distant and pointless waste of my time.
For the most part then, the character designs are really the only good things the characters have to offer, and without any fanservice of particular merit, these designs are rarely put to good use. It is, I suppose, worth mentioning that the quality of the character designs also extends to the rest of the show’s appearance—the art style is certainly one of the very few strong points To LOVE-Ru has to offer. Although this is purely speculation, I suspect that the reason the character designs and art style stand out so much from the rest of the show is that they come directly from the manga, of which this anime is likely a botched adaption. Perhaps the blame for this animated abomination does not lie with Kentaro Yabuki—the To LOVE-Ru manga’s artist—but rather with the fine folks at Xebec animation studios who thought it would be a fantastic idea to take a successful manga, use its characters and scenarios, and then make an entire season of brainless filler content instead of actually following it. Granted, I’m sure the manga is not high art either, but I am certain that it, at the very least, has the decency to compensate for its lack of depth with some honest-to-god fanservice.