Tired Tropes: the Tsundere

Welcome to Tired Tropes, in which I dissect popular tropes I find annoying. While tropes are tools, they can be overused or done badly, and Tired Tropes are especially gregarious examples of them. Here, I take on the tsundere.

The tsundere is a staple of Japanese media. She—for the overwhelming majority of tsunderes are female—is defined by switching between harsh (‘tsun’) and lovestruck (‘dere’) personalities, due to how she feels towards a love interest and her reaction to having these feelings. While Tropes are Not Bad, it takes great skill to properly utilise tsundere archetype, and many, many, many creators have failed to do it properly.

When people think tsunderes they think Type A tsunderes: harsh and aloof as her default setting, but sweet or vulnerable towards her love interest…eventually. And by ‘harsh’ I mean abusive. Examples abound in media: Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere from Zero no Tsukaima, Ayatsuji Tsukasa of Amagami, Kirisaki Chitoge in Nisekoi, and so on.

Type B tsunderes, who have dere as their default setting, are also abound, but I haven’t encountered (too many) problems with their portrayals. This post will focus exclusively on the ultra-Type A tsunderes: the abusive types.

In the real world, abuse has consequences. It inflicts horrendous psychological damage on the victim over time. More assertive individuals would simply refuse to have anything to do with such people, or turn to the authorities (or arrest them, if they are the authorities). In fiction, for some reason, abuse is rewarded with love.

Louise physically and emotionally abuses Hiraga Saito throughout the entire series, including berating him, whipping him and punishing him whenever she gets jealous of another girl who talks to him—and they become the official couple. Ayatsuji blackmails Tachibana Junichi into helping her by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault when he accidentally picks up her diary—and in her route she becomes his lover. Kirisaki Chitoge is abusive, haughty and violent towards Ichijou Raku, especially in the early chapters—and he falls for her anyway.

Writing is about truth. Tropes are a tool to point the reader towards truth. And the truth of the world is that if a woman were arrogant, abrasive, manipulative and outright violent towards anyone, she is not girlfriend or wife material. This is a clear indicator of intimate partner violence—better known as domestic violence. And yet the relationships described above are portrayed as loving relationships.

Consider what would happen if the gender roles were flipped: if male tsunderes abuse their female love interests. There is no expectation that the relationship would end well. Yet this portrayal of female tsunderes endures. After all, Abuse is Okay if it’s Female on Male.

This is not to say that the tsundere archetype should be abandoned, rather that it should be deployed with skill.

Instead of playing abuse for laughs, especially in a serious work of fiction, it should be explored to the bitter end. Unflinchingly explore the consequences of being around someone who switches between harsh and sweet at the drop of a hat. The result is confusion, a tendency to walk on eggshells around her, and a dysfunctional relationship. More assertive characters will stand up and put a stop to such nonsense, or ruthlessly cut out these people from their lives.

If the tone of the story is comedic or light-hearted, downplay the violence or abuse to the point where it won’t actually harm anyone. Imagine the female lightly punching a male’s arm or softly bouncing her fists against his chest without actually hurting him, or limiting the use of insults and retorts. This provides insight into her character without crossing the line. Or, as in the case of Kaze no Stigma, the female may be lashing out at the male with full force, while the male easily avoids or no-sells the attack with boredom or amused mastery. In either event, it is immediately clear that what happens isn’t abuse, as it doesn’t actually affect the target in any meaningful way.

If the male does have a background in martial arts and/or a profession that requires the regular use of force (soldier, mercenary, police, etc.), show the real-world results of attempting to abuse that person. Force will be met with force, dodged or redirected. These are survival mechanisms, so deeply ingrained that they cannot be turned off so easily. Such people will also have no tolerance for abuse: either the tsundere shapes up or is dropped.

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An example of the Type A tsundere romance done right is Steins;Gate. Makise Kurisu is a classic Type A tsundere, who developed her acerbic tongue after being looked down on for being the youngest scientist in her lab. Okabe Rintarou roleplays a mad scientist all the time, to the point where nearly everyone thinks he acts like a twelve-year-old, and also displays classic tsundere characteristics. Unlike other media, the character dynamic is both hilarious and realistic, thanks to the way it’s handled.

While Makise and Okabe bicker over literally anything, their interactions showcase both chemistry and growing respect for each other. Makise maintains her tsun side by talking in scientific terms when annoyed, acting cynically towards Okabe, and (in the Japanese version) by using rude forms of address, while reserving her ultra-tsun moments for times when it’s justified—such as reacting to a perverted joke about her, usually with a sharp remark. And she doesn’t abuse people who don’t annoy her, like Shiina Mayuri. Okabe, in turn, feeds off her energy, responding with aplomb and genuinely hilarious comebacks.

Most importantly, when the chips are down and push comes to shove, Makise drops the tsundere act. She demonstrates her brilliance as a scientist, supports Okabe through difficult situations, and acts as a loyal member of his lab team. In this sense, Makise is more than just a two-dimensional character; she is a complete character who drives the story. And in the end, she (mostly) drops the tsun act and acts more affectionately towards Okabe.

Looking at Steins;Gate we see an instance of effectively deploying a Type A tsundere without alienating the audience. She doesn’t go overboard with her harshness, or when she does it’s met with resistance. She shows character development over time instead of flipflopping back and forth. Most of all, she is more than just an archetype: she contributes meaningfully to the story, becoming more than just a set of clichéd behaviours.

The tsundere archetype in of itself is not bad. But when poorly handled, it is a portrayal of female abuse and generates violent dissonance with the truth of the world. Properly crafting a Type A tsundere requires careful calibration of her character, showing her harshness without crossing the line into unchecked abuse, while giving her opportunities to be more than just a cliche.

Sunrider Academy: How NOT to Write A Romance

Sunrider Academy is a spin-off from the Sunrider series. Set in an alternate universe, Sunrider Academy reimagines the main characters as high school students. The Sunrider series is a collection of visual novels powered by the Ren’Py engine, with gameplay sections interspaced with VN storytelling segments. Where the original game was a turn-based strategy game featuring intense battles between starships and mecha, Sunrider Academy is a time/stat management dating sim.

I don’t play dating sims, and visual novels only rarely. If not for its tangential connection to the Sunrider series I wouldn’t even have picked up Sunrider Academy. That said, I enjoyed my overall experience with the game. But it could have been so much better.

In Sunrider Academy, you play the role of Kayto Shields, Vice President of the Student Council. In the beginning of his second year, he promises his kid sister Maray that he would get a girlfriend. When he goes to school, his childhood friend Ava Crescrentia, President of the Student Council, charges Kayto with turning around three sports clubs in danger of being disbanded by the school. And, Kayto has to keep his grades up to retain his position. The player must juggle Kayto’s studies, club affairs and love life over an increasingly hectic school year.

The common route, spanning the first few months, is chock-full of in-jokes and moments of hilarity. When you choose a girl to pursue, the humour gives way to drama, teenage angst, and romance.

Or tries to.

While Sunrider Academy delivers competent stories for all four routes, it is hamstrung by its Japanese influence. Sunrider Academy relies on a number of well-established VN, anime and manga tropes: the overachieving childhood friend, the moeblob, the genki girl, the emotionless girl, conveniently contrived clumsiness leading to predictable perverse positions, and so on. Tropes are not bad in of themselves, but the developers relied far too heavily on them to carry the plot instead of building on them to build better stories.

To illustrate this, I’m going to break down the romance routes in the story. Warning: unmarked spoilers ahead!

Chigara Ashada

I’m a pessimist, so I’ll start with the worst route: Chigara’s. Chigara is the captain of the science club. She’s a genius, but she’d rather be a baker. She is also meek, innocent and girlish, the very definition of a moeblob.

The conflict in her route is driven by her twin sister, Lynn. Where Chigara is a genius, Lynn is not. Where Chigara is all sunshine and bubbles, Lynn is broody and depressive. Chigara just wants to get along, but Lynn wants to take everything from her sister. After all, Chigara is the favored daughter — created by their parents to be the perfect girl.

As the story progresses, Lynn tries to impersonate Chigara and steal Kayto from her. Worse, Chigara gives in to her sister’s whims, allowing Lynn to take her place in the Academy. It gets to the point where Kayto can’t tell who is who anymore. [To be honest, neither could I; somehow Kayto could read them better than me.] This could have been the setup for a psychological thriller.

Instead, the story is resolved in an extremely convenient fashion: as Chigara coaches Lynn to act like her, the sisters find common ground to bond, and resolve their differences. By the story’s end, they have made up and stopped impersonating each other.

Heartwarming, certainly, but with one problem: Kayto had nothing to do with it.

Throughout Chigara’s route, Kayto becomes increasingly passive, focusing solely on his club responsibilities and studies. The entire resolution occurs off-screen, delivered only by exposition. The final reconciliation was also unsatisfying: it’s hard to imagine that Kayto would suddenly welcome Chigara back into his life after the sisters put him through so much emotional stress. The more likely and realistic outcome would be Kayto cutting ties with the Asadas permanently.

This is a romance story, though, and there must be a happy ending. There’s a simple fix for this: have Kayto refuse to give up on the Asadas, and instead push them towards reconciliation. Have him engage both sisters throughout the route, and convince them to make up. This makes him involved in his story, giving agency to the player. This would be far more emotionally satisfying than simply having Chigara say they made up.

Ava Crescentia

Ava is a perfect embodiment of the overachieving  childhood friend: she is the top student of Sunrider Academy, the President of the Student Council, and a stickler for the rules. She is cold and harsh towards everybody, demanding every student to obey every regulation, no matter how inane. Her default expression is a frown, and she almost never smiles during the story sections. She bosses around everyone she meets, earning the ire of the entire student body, and picks out Kayto for particularly difficult duties (taking charge of the problem clubs is just the beginning!).

So why is there a romance?

Kayto’s motivation is obvious. Being neighbours, they have a shared history stretching back years. Plus, Ava possesses certain ‘assets’ no hotblooded male will fail to notice. But Ava? There is no hint that she is interested in Kayto, or even respects him as a person. She is almost always seen giving him more work or berating him or otherwise treating him as an extra pair of hands to clear the never-ending pile of paperwork.

The moment she took the opportunity to make out with Kayto came as a shock, to him and me. She had been nothing but harsh and domineering, and he in turn (mostly) placative and resigned. Kayto himself thinks she sees him as little more than an insect. Why is she suddenly interested in him? Why is he interested in her?

Near the end of the game, she hints that she came to love Kayto because he had always supported her. But that doesn’t ring true with me. Loyalty and support are hallmarks of friendship; romance requires more than that.

The Kayto-Ava dynamic just isn’t convincing enough. Instead of a hard-won love, I see the classic signs of emotional abuse. At the very least, I see Kayto being a hen-pecked husband and an unhappy marriage.

To make this romance work, the route needs two major improvements. There needs to be more signposting of Ava’s intentions and emotions. She has a sugar and ice personality, but the writer focused on the ‘ice’ aspect to the exclusion of ‘sugar’. The script needs to make her attraction to him more obvious from the start, giving Kayto hope that he has a chance.

As for Kayto, he needs to be stronger and far more decisive. He comes off as a Typical High School Boy, which is the wrong approach to take. For instance, after a key moment of intimacy, he said, “Well, after we did that, I thought we were going out.” This comes across as wishy-washy and utterly cringeworthy. A better line would be, “After doing that, why wouldn’t we be going out?” This signals strength and places the ball in Ava’s court, forcing her to examine why she did what she did and to face her growing attraction to Kayto. Likewise, he should stand up to Ava whenever she makes idiotic decisions instead of quietly following orders and getting into worse trouble.

Women like Ava only respect people as strong as they are — any less and they simply will not give the time of day to, much less consider as a romantic prospect. To make this story work, Kayto has to step up his game, and Ava has to show more vulnerability.

Asaga Oakrun

This route is a marked improvement over the other two. Instead of high drama or contempt, this route is filled with passion. Asaga is the very model of a Japanese genki girl, and she drags Kayto right into her orbit. He mans up and proves himself worthy of his affections.

Eventually. The weakest point of the story is in the middle, when Kayto finds himself overwhelmed. Asaga becomes increasingly intrusive, and her personality leads to clashes with other clubs and the Student Council, causing Kayto more trouble. It all comes to a head during a climactic Student Council meeting (puns very much intended), and Kayto decides to break things off with her.

Fortunately for all involved, the lovers reconcile quickly. But a bit too quickly for my tastes. Kayto stomps angrily away from the relationship, Asaga apologises in tears, and they make up.The remaining drama in the route is due to external shenanigans, which reinforce their feelings for each other — but not necessarily how they act. What I would have liked to see is how they influence each other for the better: Asaga becomes less impulsive and puts in more effort in paperwork and studies, while Kayto lets himself relax and be more spontaneous. This is only vaguely hinted at the penultimate story section, the day before the Most Definitively Final Exams.

Sola

Sola in this game is a mysterious girl adopted by the head priest of the city shrine. She speaks with a flat register, but uses formal and sophisticated vocabulary. Unlike the other routes, this one is tied intrinsically to the main Sunrider storyline. This Sola is in danger of being erased from the universe, and Kayto must find a way to save her.

This route was the route released as the public demo, and the devs clearly put in a lot of time polishing it. The route mixes moments of drama, intrigue and tenderness. Unlike the other routes, this Kayto isn’t wishy-washy or indecisive: he swears to save Sola, refuses to give up on her no matter how hard she tries to convince him to abandon her, seeks solutions, and at the climax confronts a de facto god — and wins. Likewise, Sola also shows character growth — though I have to say, it’s easier to show character growth for someone already established as a flat, if eccentric, girl.

This route would have been magnificent, but for the ending. It boils down to Kayto telling the abovementioned god to give Sola back, and the god agreeing just like that. There is no drama, no sense of resistance, no insight into the god’s motives or actions. It just happens. A far more satisfying ending would have Kayto debating the god — and winning. A crowning moment of awesome is a far better fit for the game than a deus ex machina.

Gameplay and Story Segregation

Sunrider Academy is a stat management game, and the gameplay layer is painfully segregated from the story elements. During the girls’ routes, there are moments when the characters are betrayed or in emotional distress. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t affect the stat building sections. Kayto can continue to improve the stats of a club led by a girl who hurt him as though nothing had happened. This is, frankly, quite jarring — but this may be due to engine limitations.

Throughout the game, you are given plenty of opportunities to interact with the girls. You can give them gifts, engage in conversation with them, or attempt to charm and flirt with them. During the common route, this is key to raising their affections, which unlocks their individual route. But afterwards, save for the girl you’re pursuing, this mechanic has exactly no impact on the story that I can tell.

More than that, there seems to be no penalty for flirting with or charming a girl who isn’t your girlfriend. None of the girls show signs of jealousy, and there is no impact on your chosen girlfriend’s affections. When you think hard about it, it kills immersion.

Not for Dating Sim Fans

The developers took a gamble by jumping into an entirely new genre for their spinoff. While I recognise their courage, I think they have much to learn about writing convincing romance stories. In romance VNs, players want to see the hero and heroine(s) grow together, to be given a sense of agency through meaningful decisions, and to experience a realistic facsimile of romance. This requires excellent storytelling and a keen insight into human nature beyond faithful recreations of anime and manga tropes. VNs are novels: they live and die by their characters and writing, and the writing here isn’t up to scratch. Further, I think the devs could have tried to close the gap between gameplay and storytelling, improving overall immersion.

Ultimately, if you’re not a fan of dating sims or stat management games, Sunrider Academy offers repetitive clicking through huge swathes of the game on easy or waifu mode to unlock story content that isn’t quite up to par. Quite fortuitously, on Steam it’s currently being offered at a 60% discount. But to properly enjoy the game, you need a walkthrough or risk missing key events necessary to propel the game.

I think Sunrider Academy will appeal mainly to people who enjoyed the main series. The writing isn’t as tight as I would like it to be, but fans would appreciate the humor and references. Gamers or VN fans seeking a plausible romance should look elsewhere, or at least wait until the game is on sale.