Everyone’s seen an Anime where there’s been two girls in love with the same boy or two boys in love with the same girl. Anime is infamous for its Love Triangles and how it can make it the meat of a narrative. But is there a formula that makes a Love Triangle story work so well in some shows and fall flat in others. Of course there is, I wouldn’t have asked if I already didn’t have an answer and an explanation. Love Triangles are inherently a hard subject to talk about because they float on the line of relationship and friendship. Also there are many-many shows that incorporate Love Triangles just “because”. Like most things, a Love Triangle is a trope. But being a recently bastardized trope, much like the characterization “Tsundere”, I felt it was necessary to try to break down what a Love Triangle is and what makes one effective from a story stand point.
Most of the time Love Triangles are between two girls and a boy. That’s just the way Anime is, sorry ladies. Also it’s what I’m most familiar with. I’m sure I could go scavenging for some more “Two guys one girl” stories but that would be a different article entirely. Because surprise, the dynamic that two boys in love and two girls in love bring to a story are different. So I’ll only be focusing on the former. So to break down the term Love triangle I’m gonna do it Barney style and break down the phrase and then bring it all back together and hopefully it will fall into place.
Love is the key to a love triangle; not like, not infatuation, not lust, Love. It’s a very specific emotion when it comes to romance and it has to be present for a Love Triangle to work. We can’t have characters who aren’t in love, especially the main character. I’m gonna blow a lot of Love Triangles out of the water here so get ready. If your main character isn’t in love with both of the girls in the Love Triangle it’s not gonna work. I said before that love needs to be present and it can’t be present unless its being felt by all sides. I’m not saying a character can’t be confused about their love or how strong they feel it but it needs to be either growing or present in all the characters involved.
So what is the purpose of Love exactly? (Shit we’re getting into pretty nebulous territory fast) Love usually is to see something in someone else that you value so much that you want to share. Love doesn’t always begin as soon as you meet someone too. It takes time to figure out what kind of person they are and learning what you like about them as an individual. The reasons are endless so I wont get into that. If you’re in love you want to be with that person and that person alone and you want them to love you back just as much as you love them. But wait how can there be a Love Triangle then if romantic love means you only love one person. Well that’s where we get into the triangle aspect.
A Triangle has three points and three sides (basic but hear me out). In a Love Triangle the points represent each person involved. I made a diagram to represent the parts of a Love triangle and whats going on. I’m also gonna use my favorite Love Triangle to later demonstrate the point of it all and why the term Triangle is used.
So the first thing to remember about a Triangle is that all points are connected. There isn’t someone who’s not involved with each person. You don’t have a girl who doesn’t know the other girl exists, or a guy who is unaware of one of the girl’s who has feelings for him. Everyone has a relationship, even the girls involved. The red arrows are the girls love for the guy. They stretch all the way to him and are equal in intensity. The black arrows representing the guys feelings, are shortened however. For he is having the internal conflict on where to direct his love fully. Now his arrows can shift over time leaning more towards one girl or the other but the triangle doesn’t end until his arrow meets the same intensity and length as one of the girls. The rainbow is how the girls are connected. Yes, in a Love Triangle everyone has a connection. The rainbow line is the connection that the girls either develop or destroy along the Triangles progression. No matter who you are when you spend enough time with someone you’re going to form a connection. The rainbow line is all the possible emotions the girl will inevitably form, with each other and have an effect on their love towards the boy.
Bringing it all together we have an ever changing struggle between three people whose emotions are all connected but none are static. Love Triangles are a means to an end, and unsustainable. They exist only as long as the person whose love is unfocused doesn’t point to a single match. But Love Triangles are more complicated than what I can explain on a conceptual level. Since they are often woven into narratives, we as viewers have to buy into the Love Triangle itself. Love Triangles in real life don’t depend on viewers to be interested but in Anime and stories they are.
To delve into things that work lets look at one of the Franchise kings when it comes to Love Triangles, Macross. Every Macross series from Super Dimensional Fortress Macross that aired in 1982 to the currently airing Macross Delta, has a heavy portion of its narrative focus on the Love Triangle of the three main characters. Now all these series execute it to varying degrees of quality and I think the series that does it best is the 2007 series Macross Frontier and to even greater extent the 2009 and 2011 re-adaptation movies The False Songstress and Wings of Goodbye. Which so happens to be one of my favorite shows and favorite films. So to first understand the Love Triangle between Alto Saotome, Sheryl Nome, and Ranka Lee we’ll have to learn about these character individually, Barney style again, and bring it all around. I’ll try to be as simplistic with these characters as possible so I don’t end up writing a novel here.
Alto Saotome never wanted to be a kabuki performer. He went along with it because he was “the best” and it was his family’s legacy. When he discovered flying he realized that it’s not that he didn’t want to perform, but he wanted to find the right stage. A stage that he made for himself, not that he was born into. He joins the private military so he can fly at the cost of putting his life in danger to fight aliens.
Sheryl Nome was literally pulled from the slums of Macross Galaxy to become the hottest singer in the Galaxy. She is a puppet for the antagonists and her singing is causing her to slowly die. She love’s her fans and love singing so much that she will push herself to near death even after discovering that her fans don’t care about her. Her goal is to shake the Galaxy with her songs, and in doing so she’ll turn the place where she had nowhere to belong, into a place where she belongs everywhere.
Ranka Lee is tortured by memories and a family she can’t remember. She discovers her love of singing through one of Sheryl’s concerts and idolizes her every step of the way. When the Vajra aliens come and start attacking the Frontier she discovers her ability to communicate with them. Though the antagonists would use Ranka’s power to destroy the Vajra, she see’s it as an opportunity to connect with them. Her singing takes its own form as to be a voice of togetherness. As well as finding a way to tell the boy she always liked, Alto, that she loves him.
Somehow I think that Macross Frontier was supposed to be the ultimate Love Triangle story. The opening by Maaya Sakamota “Triangular” and all the imagery and connecting character themes makes it seem so evident the more I think about it. So let’s get into why this Love Triangle forms so naturally in the first place. All these characters each share something another character has either experience or can understand.
With Ranka and Sheryl its their love for singing. The progression for Ranka to eventually warrant Sheryl useless creates drama for their friendship and creates both perspectives that each character experiences and can understand. Both characters express their love for Alto in their singing both early in the story and after their position of importance have swapped.
Ranka and Alto have a difference of talent vs training. The narrative is them climbing the ranks together but in different ways. Ranka if fighting her shy nature while Alto is fighting against the powers that are surprising his talents. The connection they have gets stronger as they wish more and more for each other to achieve their goals. Ranks depends on Alto’s support because she is doing something outside her wheelhouse and Alto see’s her perseverance akin to him rebelling against his family’s art.
Sheryl and Alto share a longing for a place that will let them be free. For Alto it means a place where he can go wherever he wants. For Sheryl its a place that will accept her regardless of who she is, and thus be free of her lonesome past and insecurities. They both are cocky but insecure about their past selves so it’s easy to accept each other because they have experienced the same things. They also both understand the pressure that comes from being the best and what that means when you give that up.
As you can see none of that explanation really has to do with their personalities. A good Love Triangle will bring characters together because it means something for them to be together. Something grows as they interact and find things inside each other that they both share and have differences. This is where the Love Triangle is most effective. When characters all share different emotional bonds and eventually one becomes stronger than the others. It’s why we love to watch Love Triangles. We want to see where exactly our main character decides chooses who he loves and why. Or for the rare occasion for the girls to decide that their friendship is more important than them getting their heart broken.
I could go on but this got a little longer than I had anticipated. So for now I’ll just give some recommendation for shows that I feel execute the Love Triangle scenario I described effectively, and that have resolutions to their Love Triangle.
Golden Time -Everything else in the show sucks though
World God Only Knows – More like a love decahedron
Yurikuma Arashi – three girls but I still think it counts
Every other Macross show