Tsundere is a Japanese word combining two emotional states: tsun-tsun (irritable and pissy) and dere-dere (sweet and love struck). I guess you can think of a tsundere character as having the romantic and relationship characteristics of a person with bipolar disorder. While none of us would probably enjoy being around such a person in real life, there's something incredibly appealing about this character type in anime. It probably doesn't help that one of the very first anime I watched and adored years ago was Love Hina, featuring one of the greatest tsundere characters of all time in the form of Narusegewa Naru. This trend has continued since my favorite of the newer series I've seen since rediscovering anime around a year ago was Toradora, which also features a tsundere character voiced by Rie Kugimiya as the main character. It probably doesn't say much about my sense of taste that I find tsundere characters so appealing but they're absolutely adorable when done right. Then again, maybe I just figure all women are crazy and abusive anyway so you might as well find one that's sweet and sane at least part of the time.
So the two Rie Kugimiya anime I decided to watch were Zero no Tsukaima (Zero's Familiar) and Shakugan no Shana (Burning-eyed Shanna). Interestingly, in addition to having a common voice actress for both female leads the male lead in both is also performed by the same guy. This is far more unusual in anime then in Western animation from what I've seen. For most anime, every single voice part is performed by a different seiyu no matter how small it is while in Western animation you're more likely to see one single actor portray half a dozen different roles or more. For comparison purposes just think of say, Hank Azaria from The Simpsons or Billy West from Futurama. I guess in that way, the Japanese treat their voice talent more like actors then a particular subset of entertainer. Anyway, the fact that the leads all had the same seiyus across the two series made it easier to compare between them.
Zero no Tsukaima takes place in a Harry Potter-like world where magic exists and the characters are all living at a magical academy. The land is actually based off medieval Europe to some degree, much as you would expect to develop if the nobility had access to magical powers while the peasants didn't. As a rite of passage for each mage, they're required to summon a familiar which will aid them and be a companion for life. The main character, Louise, has shown absolutely no applitude for magic despite being a blue blood and because of her lack of skill has been given the nickname Zero. As the rest of the class begins summoning familiars ranging from moles to salamanders to dragons, she casts her spell and ends up with Saito, an ordinary Japanese High School student from modern day Earth. Cue hijinx.
Now, the story might not be very interesting if that were the end of it. After all, all we have is a magical incompetent and her fish-out-of-water familiar summoned from Earth. Instead, as the story develops, it's discovered that Louise only seems incompetent at magic because she doesn't have a normal affinity to one of the common elements of fire, water, air, or earth. She's attuned instead to the Void, which is considered a lost element for its rarity and generally seems to accomplish the impossibly such as dispelling other magic and blowing the crap out of everything in sight. Saito also isn't the average familiar, having been imbued with a power that grants him automatic proficiency with any weapon the minute he touches it. Add that to the fact that artifacts from the 'real' world often times ends up in the magical world and are thought to be magical items resulting in fun circumstances where he gets to shoot off rocket launchers (The Staff of Destruction) and fly around shooting things in a World War II era Zero (The Dragon's Mantle).
In the end though, the crux of Zero no Tsukaima is the relationship between Louise and Saito. She's an arrogant, stuck up noble who views familiars on the same level as we would dogs or cats and he's a slightly lecherous high school kid who can't seem to help himself from oogling other women. Cue sexual tension. As is normal in a lot of these shows, the writers can't really bring themselves to actually resolve the relationship problems because those are the crux of the show as far as the comedy goes. So what you get is the relationship tango where you take two steps forward and one step back. It's actually sort of sad that there is so little resolution because the plot would have been much more interesting if it had been allowed to develop instead of stagnating on endless episodes where Saito gets into some compromising position with another woman (deserved or not) and Louise explodes, beating the tar out him. I'm told that in the novels that the anime is based on the plot progression explores a lot more about the world, its politics, and the epic struggle between the few but immensely powerful Void users. The anime touches on some of this but is more likely than not to devolve into romantic slapstick.
That's not to say that it's not entertaining to a degree. I found it to be fun for quite a few episodes but the anime ran for 3 season of 12-13 episodes each, and it got a little old by the end. If we were to peg the age of the viewing audience this show was aimed at it would certainly be lower than that of Shakugan no Shana. There was a far greater episodic quality to the episodes and the characters were all pretty immature in one way or another. Speaking of Shakugan no Shana, I think I'll get to it and its comparison to Zero no Tsukaima later on. I've been pecking at this entry on and off for hours now and I think I should just put it to bed already.