Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Say, "I Love You".
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Burnt by a childhood betrayal, Mei lives life like attachments don't matter. Awkward and antisocial, she doesn't cultivate friendships or brook nonsense. She dresses frumpy, doesn't primp, and takes the nastiness of others as a matter of course. She is alone and prefers it that way. Until she meets Yamato. Yamato seems perfect: well-liked, friendly, kind, stunningly handsome. He's curiously uninterested in romance though. Then one day Mei mistakenly kicks him in the head. Yamato is smitten. He isn't nearly as simple a boy as his perfect façade makes him seem, and to him blunt, wounded Mei is beautiful and fascinating. So he woos, and slowly Mei opens up.
One of the great pleasures in any entertainment medium, be it book or film or anime, is to discover a minor gem hiding behind some unpromising lump of a premise. It's the pleasure of being surprised, intimately intertwined with the pleasure of discovery and the pleasures of the book or the series itself. If there's one thing Say, "I Love You". provides, it's that pleasure. Again and again it approaches some deal-breaker of a shojo-romance cliché, and every time it surprises with its honesty, its sensitivity, its quality. Always it is smarter, more poetic, more touching, just plain better that you think it is going to be. Every episode is like finding that gem behind that lump. And every time it's a pleasure.
It's tempting to put I Love You's knack for freshening up stale tropes down to execution. And the urge isn't entirely misguided. It's a wonderfully executed show. It's blessed with superbly detailed background art, often bordering on photorealistic and always closer to real, living, breathing places than mere “background art.” Mostly they live and breathe melancholy, the sweet sadness that is the series' lifeblood. An abandoned school where Yamato confesses his inglorious past to Mei, a dark alley lit by city lights during a stolen kiss, the sanitary emptiness of Mei's own home—every setting looks as if it's being remembered sadly, a familiar place filtered through an achingly accurate nostalgia for a long-ago romance.
The series is also blessed with cleanly-drawn designs and an eye for the telling details of the human face. Eyes speak and lips betray, whether uncertainty or anger or desire. Everyone, even reputedly dumpy Mei, is adorable or beautiful or glowingly handsome—though with one ugly expression they can turn that immediately around.
The show doesn't have music so much as thoughtful sound design: perhaps a few plucked strings here, or a tinkle of keys there, but mostly just expressive incidental noise, blended to evoke a sense of place or heighten a mood. (The influence of the lovely opener, by the late and lamented Ritsuko Okazaki, shouldn't be dismissed however).
But more than anything, I Love You is beautifully directed—in this case by a tag-team of veteran animator Takuya Satō and relative newcomer Toshimasa Kuroyanagi. Satō and Kuroyanagi are directors in the classic sense: helmsmen who steer scenes, who coax meaning from images, emotions from edits. They don't just show an event; they interpret it, draw out its meaning, draw us inside to feel what is happening. It's difficult to describe in the abstract. Good direction doesn't just make a show look better; it adds layers to it: nuances of emotion, insight into plot and character.
Take one of the opening scenes, in which Mei faces the scorn of some female classmates at a train stop. As the girls giggle and point, Mei focuses on the music from her earphones. The chords crash and build, the station fades into blue sky piled with bright nimbus clouds, and Mei stares into the beauty and tranquility—the girls gone—until a rushing train wipes away the sky. The scene tells us, without a word spoken or even a non-diegetic musical cue, everything we need to know about how Mei deals with the world—and more than a little about how she feels about her place in it.
In a later scene the camera moves in to linger on the curve of Mei's nape, the shine of her lips, the backs of her bony teenager's knees, and we know immediately the unpleasant possessiveness of the older customer looking at her. A smile as he turns away tells us he plans to act on his covetous urges. Instant tension. There are countless such examples. The attention and craft the duo brings to bear is unusual to put it mildly.
Focusing only on I Love You's execution, however, does a disservice to the rest of the show. It isn't just polish and directorial care that allow the series to continually surprise us. Though admittedly, that's a large part of what carries the first episode or two. Without the texture that Satō and Kuroyanagi coax out, the first episode—with its predictable last-minute rescue and girly wish-fulfillment—would have been a mere collection of generations-old shojo clichés: the plain outcast, the uber-popular wonder-man, the inevitable blossoming of love.
But as the series moves forward, other strengths emerge to surprise and delight us. Like Mei. She may be an embittered loner who has cast away hopes of love and friendship for fear of getting hurt, but she's also a wounded, complicated girl. She understands what she's missing, and isn't so clad in frost that the barbs thrown her way don't hurt. She is clumsy and earnest with those she cares about, and when challenged can reach into a deep well of strength and courage to battle with even the scariest of enemies. After Yamato's initial rescue (from the over-possessive customer), Mei resolves nearly all her problems alone: turning aside a ferocious girl from Yamato's past with a thrust of sharp insight and some well-placed sympathy, winning over Yamato's lonely sister with kindness, skewering a nasty friend of Yamato's with brutal honesty. She's one wallflower that you can understand a mega-hot guy falling for.
And Yamato is a mega-hot guy you can understand falling for a wallflower. Haunted by his own obsession with being liked, he seeks out those who trend in the opposite direction and loathes those who make judgments based on appearances. He's forceful and unapologetically sexual, but clearly not as emotionally experienced as he lets on. He is unwaveringly honest, and not easily put off. A perfect match, in short, for Mei.
Mei and Yamato aren't alone in their strength of personality either. That girl Mei turns aside is fierce and driven, but also damaged and vulnerable to anyone who knows where to attack. The nasty friend is thoroughly vile, but also clearly unaware of his own vileness. Mei's first friend Asami is a clingy girly-girl with an outsized bust, whose bond with Mei arises first from mutual ostracism and then from fierce loyalty, bought with Mei's courage in the face of anti-Asami hecklers. Yamato's best friend is a goofy bag of libido, whose boob obsession is a cover for tenderness that he doesn't know how to express.
Their interactions with Mei and Yamato and each other are surprising and involving; sometimes warming, sometimes touching, sometimes vastly satisfying. It is they, just as much as Satō and Kuroyanagi, who keep the predictable arc of the show interesting, who push it to exceed our expectations, showing us the gem behind the lump.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ Polished, classic shojo romance that somehow always exceeds expectations; intelligent direction, excellent characters, interesting interactions.
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