I started watching Spice and Wolf last week. This show has been on my "Must Watch" list since it came out, which would have been three years ago. I'm not really going to get into a review of it here, maybe some other time when I actually finish it.
I'm on episode four currently, and something happened that made me finally say, "Thank God that cliche is finally going away." Spice and Wolf isn't the first modern series to do this, its been a trend I've been noticing over the last few series I've been watching, this was the one that pushed it over the top for me personally.
The cliche, or plot device, I'm referring to is the male lead who can't make a move on the female lead despite both having an obvious attraction for each other. They will both flirt and misunderstand each other for most of the series and then at the end of the series they might hold hands, and if you are lucky, an implied kiss.
Some, but not all, offenders include: Tenchi Muyo!, Love Hina, Ah! My Goddess. Of course those are all Harem shows, and Spice and Wolf certainly is not a harem show, but I think you catch my drift. Pretty much every anime in the 80s and 90s prescribed to this formula, most likely due to the shows being written by people who had never been involved in a romantic relationship, or at least thought the audience could only identify with a insecure male lead who didn't know the first thing about the opposite sex.
Thankfully, this plot device is going the way of the dodo, as the people who grew up on this type of anime are now in charge of making it themselves, and can say, "You know that was total bullshit when I watched 50 episodes of Tenchi and he never even hinted at a girl he might have possibly been interested in."
Earlier this year, Bakemonogatari was the show that made this point really clear to me. By the third episode the male lead and female lead are officially dating as boyfriend and girlfriend. Bakemonogatari even has some Harem elements, as every arc introduces a new female character, that has an attraction to the main character. But it doesn't matter because he is madly in love with his girlfriend and they progress naturally as a couple.
Though he is still timid in making a move on her, there is no mistaking they are a real couple.
Spice and Wolf, although I don't know how it will all turn out, at least by the forth episode, Lawerence, the male character, and Holo, the female love interest, have a nice intimate scene where he tries to kiss her and then something happens and they don't actually kiss. But at least he put forth some kind of effort.
Also, there was no scene were he sat with some worried expression, saying nonsensical dialog like, "Should I kiss her? What are these feelings I feel inside me? But she is the spirit of a wolf and I am a human, how could this work?"
None of that. He sees her looking vulnerable, they look lovingly at each other and he goes for the kiss. Subtle, and effective.
Even more testosterone filled shows deal with these issues on a more regular bases. Gurren Lagann has a few good romantic couples. The somewhat oblivious Kamina, realizes the beautiful Yoko has the hots for him and doesn't even take a second to think about kissing her. Even something like Code Geass has a better implied romantic relationship between CC and Lelouch then any of the scenes between Keitaro and Naru in Love Hina.
Of course this isn't the case for all modern anime and we still have a lot of shows with the spineless male lead who doesn't know the difference between a vagina and a hole in the ground (read Yuji of Shakugan Shana). But there some standout hits that discard this tired formula.
What I'm getting at is that, even though Modern Anime takes a lot of crap for mostly being shallow and derivative in a lot of regards, there are some elements that are pushing the genre forward and out of some of the old stereotypes. In a way we are in the wild west of anime, where a lot of things are being tried, and tested while the industry sees what sticks. This means a lot of moe and ecchi, but lets be honest, moe is just the new harem and ecchi has been around from the beginning. In fact now that I think about it, moe is probably a direct response to shitty harem anime where the male lead never made a move on the girl. It makes sense to just get rid of the idiot male character and watch the girls do cute things. If you hate moe, then blame the harem anime of the 90s. These things just cycle over and over, it's nothing new.
As long as some of these advances, like dealing with character relationships on a more mature level are part of the elements that stick, then future anime will only improve as a result.