This week, I’m catching up with Say I Love You, a shojo romance that’s been garnering strong reviews here and elsewhere since Kodansha began publishing it last August.
Back in the 1980s, filmmaker John Hughes peddled an intoxicating fantasy to thirteen-year-old girls: you might be the class misfit–the kid who wore the “wrong” clothes, listened to the “wrong” music, and had the “wrong” friends–but the hottest guy in school could still fall for you. Better still, he’d like you for being a “real” person, unlike the two-faced girls who inhabited his social circle. You’d have a bumpy road to your happily-after-ever, of course, since his friends felt compelled to say that you weren’t in his league. In the end, however, your sincerity and quirkiness would prevail.
Say I Love You reads a lot like a John Hughes script; anyone familiar with Pretty in Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful would immediately recognize Mei, its heroine, as a kindred spirit to Molly Ringwald’s Andie or Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts. Mei is a loner who endures daily harassment from her classmates. In an only-in-manga scenario, she mistakenly believes that Yamato, the most popular guy in school, has tried to peek up her skirt, and sets him straight with a powerful roundhouse kick. Yamato is dazed but intrigued by Mei’s display of bravado and does what any bruised soul would do: he asks for digits.
Their fitful courtship provides both the emotional and comedic grist for Say I Love You. Mei is initially bewildered by Yamato’s affection, as are all the girls (and boys) in Yamato’s clique. As Mei soon discovers, however, Yamato’s own personal history is more complicated than she assumed–especially where dating is concerned. She also discovers that Yamato’s good looks belie an earnest, vulnerable personality that seeks the best in other people. Small wonder he puts up with Mei’s tearful outbursts and mixed signals.
And speaking of mixed signals, Say I Love You is refreshingly honest in acknowledging the full spectrum of teenage desire. Some characters embrace their lust in healthy ways; others use sex to fill a void in their emotional lives; and still others are just beginning to explore their sexuality. Though many of the sexual encounters in the series are ill-advised, the teenage logic that underpins them rings true; an adult may feel an uncomfortable pang of recognition while reading Say I Love You.
The series’ greatest strength, however, is that author Kanae Hazuki is unusually generous with her supporting players. We’re privy to both Mei and Yamato’s thoughts, of course, but Hazuki also pulls the curtain back on other characters’ interior lives. In volume two, for example, mean girl Aiko becomes the temporary focus of the story, narrating her own transformation from a plump, pretty girl to a skinny, angry young woman who is furious that Yamato doesn’t like her. Her blunt self-criticism and body hang-ups remind younger readers that everyone wears a mask in high school; even students who seem outwardly blessed with good looks or talent are wrestling with the familiar demons of self-doubt and self-loathing.
If I had any criticism of Say I Love You, it’s that the plot twists are a little too by-the-book, with beach visits, Valentine’s Day agita, and misunderstandings of the “I saw you kiss her!” variety. In volume three, for example, Hazuki introduces Megumi, a model who’s hell-bent on making Yamato her boyfriend. When a direct approach doesn’t work–Yamato, of course, rebuffs Meg’s initial proposition–Meg transfers schools and ropes Yamato into becoming a model himself. I realize that “model,” “celebrity,” or “singer” epitomize a thirteen-year-old’s dream job, but the artifice and obviousness of diving into the modeling world feels like an unnatural direction for such a finely observed romance.
Perhaps the best compliment I could pay Say I Love You is that it has all the virtues of Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful: it’s got a proud, tough heroine who’s skeptical of popularity, a sincere hot guy who can see past her bluster, and a veritable Greek chorus of peers who chart the ups and downs of their relationship. All it needs is a killer soundtrack.
Reviews: At Brain vs. Book, Joceyln Allen sings the praises of Takehiko Moriizumi’s Mimi wa Wasurenai, an untranslated short story collection. “It’s okay if you don’t read Japanese,” she explains, “you can just stare at the beauty on every page. Moriizumi makes manga like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Go see for yourself!
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