Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Jul 26th 2014
Say I Love You.
GN 1 & 2
Bullied as a child, Mei Tachibana has decided to live her high school days out as a loner. People, she feels, cannot be trusted, something that her classmates seem to reinforce everyday. One day she can't take it anymore and lashes out at her tormentor – but she accidentally kicks Yamato, the most popular boy in school – instead. Yamato becomes fascinated by Mei and begins to court her. But can Mei allow herself to trust him enough to have a real relationship? Is it really all right for her to become a normal girl?
If you think you know this story because you watched the anime, think again. Say I Love You's anime incarnation was much tamer than its original form, and the manga was originally published in the magazine Dessert, which is for a slightly older audience than the usual shoujo romances we get in English. The result is that Kanae Hazuki's story treads some ground we don't always see covered to give us a romance that is both a little unsettling and far from sickly sweet.
The heroine of the story is sixteen-year-old Mei Tachibana. After she was wrongfully blamed for the death of her elementary school class' pet rabbit, as well as deliberately excluded from class parties, Mei decided that friends were far more trouble than they were worth. Now in high school, she's made good on that decision, and is generally regarded as the emo weirdo. Because of this, she still gets some bullying, and it is when her classmate Nakanishi decides to show off and flip her skirt on the staircase that the story really starts: Mei, fed up, whirls around to deliver a roundhouse kick. Only she doesn't land her foot on Nakanishi – she hits super popular Yamato Kurosawa instead. Yamato is instantly fascinated by the triple facts that she stood up for herself, that she delivered a kick as retaliation, and that she was wearing leopard-print underwear. He immediately begins pursuing her, much to Mei's discomfort.
In some respects, Say I Love You portrays high school romances in a much harsher light than softer fare. Yamato is physically aggressive, constantly kissing and touching Mei even when she explicitly tells him to stop. He wants a physical relationship much more than she does, and he rarely backs off when she tells him to. While Hazuki almost never plays this for laughs, she does make light of it, seeming to encourage readers to view it as a sign of his great love for Mei. Perhaps as a young adult reader that might fly, but reading this as a grown-up, it is less romantic and more uncomfortable, and it certainly does not depict a healthy relationship. On the other hand, Hazuki also goes out of her way to show how protective of Mei Yamato is and how much he does enjoy spending time with her – the bowling chapter in volume one is a prime example of this, as are the first and last chapters of volume two. This does help his determination to touch Mei when she doesn't want to be more believable, at least from the perspective of a teenage boy, but it still may bother some readers.
Mei herself is a very true depiction of the bullied girl. She doesn't trust easily and hides her more attractive self under boyish clothes and 19th century bathing costumes so as not to stand out. She's floored by Yamato's interest in her to the point that she argues with him that he can't possibly have an erection because of her (despite the evidence) and when he tells her that he thinks of her as his girlfriend, she's floored. (In her defense on that one, he never really asked her out.) While some readers might find her continued reticence annoying, from personal experience, I can tell you that it is a very realistic depiction. In fact, believable characters are probably the greatest strength of this series – Nakanishi is a jerk because he's uncomfortable, Aiko's self-image problems have led her to be incredibly mean, and Hayakawa's childhood devoid of love and comfort has turned him into the playboy jerk he is today. You may not like the characters, but you understand where they're coming from.
Unfortunately Hazuki's art is not quite as compelling as her story. Her grasp of anatomy, particularly of the male, is tenuous. Torsos are disproportionately long, giving legs a stubby look, and most of the boys look as if they're wearing their pants at mid-crotch. Yamato's hair is fairly awful – apparently he wore his hair decently before he became popular – and Asumi's large breasts do not fit on her skinny frame. There are very few backgrounds drawn, and screen tones are used fairly well, never overwhelming the page. Kodansha's translation makes use of contemporary slang and reads well, and both volumes include essay-style freetalks by the author. Volume one also has an interesting interview with Hazuki; in all three of the prose pieces, she discusses her motivation for writing about a girl like Mei, revealing different, more serious, personal details than mangaka often do.
Say I Love You's first two volumes are significantly racier than the animated version, with several sex scenes and a fair amount of implied sexual activity and lots of touching that the heroine isn't entirely comfortable with. But it is also a story about a girl learning that all people aren't bad and not to be afraid of herself and how people will perceive her. Yamato may have an overly strong hand in this, but at the end of the day, it is Mei who decides how much she is comfortable changing. It isn't a perfect story, but it's very readable with human characters and fairly relateable situations. It also answers some questions in these first two books that were only hinted at in the anime, so even if you've seen it, it's still worth reading the source material. This is a harsher shoujo romance than we tend to see in English, but in some ways, that's part of its appeal.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : C+
+ Characters seem very real, Mei is still in charge of her own evolution. Feels a little more believable than the average shoujo romance.
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