We all remember our first love. It happened in high school for most of us, middle school for a few of us, and much later in life for those of us who were less fortunate. It was that shy, awkward time in our lives when our hormones were raging, our need for intimate one-on-one companionship was impossible to ignore, and after putting forth more and more effort until it felt like we were just screaming our ears off into a dark abyss, we finally managed to convince the object of our desires to invest some time in us. Well, that, or you were the one being persuaded, and you eventually gave in and relented, but either way, we finally found somebody that we could call our own… Somebody we could say was ours, to spend all of our free time with, all while people gossiped behind us about what may or may not be going on behind closed doors. For the first time, we found somebody that we wanted to do all of that mushy stuff that grossed us out when we were children with. We were finally one half of a couple. You never forget something like that.
For Mei Tachibana, first love isn’t the subject of nostalgia… It’s coming for her, and it’s coming hard. While she was used to spending time by herself, avoiding all of those phony, blood-sucking, backstabbing social circles who have burned her before. With no interest in impressing anyone, Mei retreated into the background, not wanting to attract any attention to herself… Which, ironically, attracts the attention of Yamato Kurosawa, the most attractive and infamous boy in school. Having fallen in love with her at first sight, Yamato will stop at nothing to make her his, even while admirers, a former flame, a famous model, and even his own little sister try to compete with her for his attention. She is of course attracted to him as well, but how can she let down her defenses for him, when she’s been hurt before? How can she give herself over to someone, to trust him as he trusts her, when she has no idea what his intentions are, or what a plain, ordinary girl like her can possibly offer someone as perfect as him? Oh, what’s a troubled young girl from Forks… Um, I mean, Japan, to do?
Say I Love You was animated by a company named ZEXCS, which is apparently pronounced like Zekushizu. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that name before, but they were also partially behind the production of Diabolik Lovers, so I must have. Taking a closer look at it’s history, it was apparently formed by a former JC Staff producer, and yeah, now I’m starting to put this company into context. The work that I’ve seen from JC Staff have been wildly varying in terms of quality, but I’m kind of surprised to say that in this case, we have a title that’s wildly varying in quality all by itself. Say I Love You was clearly a low budget series, as evidenced by the plethora of shots where people are frozen in the background like mannequins, stuck in time in the middle of their conversations, but it overall isn’t bad looking animation, either. Thankfully, this kind of show doesn’t need to be heavy on movement, as a lot of it’s story is told through inner monologue and long wistful stares, so the constant dips in budget don’t ever get too distracting.
Well, I say that, but the material they may have wasted a bit too much on is also present more than a few times. That’s not to say saving money for the sake of scenes that require more movement is a bad thing, but the frozen backgrounds become a bit less forgivable when you’ve got money to waste on pointless shots like animations of children running at a distance as well as other similarly blurry, shaky-cam looking shots that I’m still not sure what they were trying to do with. Like I said, though, this isn’t a genre that really needs to be told through a lot of movement,and considering how fluid the little movement it has actually is, this show actually looks slightly above average compared to others of it’s ilk. They put a lot of effort into making basic motions and interactions such as minor scuffles and walk cycles look realistic, even if characters freeze a bit too often when they’re talking to each other. Aside from the few key visual tropes of a shoujo anime, character designs skew towards realism, and while the backgrounds are adequate overall, there are brief moments where the artwork and lighting are so beautiful that you might actually forget the few nagging budget issues.
The music for the series has a very pleasant tone to it, as do most Shoujo based soundtracks, but this particular composition by Yuuji Nomi just had that little extra bit of effort and diversity behind it. Some of the tunes are a bit loopy, and can become annoying when played on endless repeat in the background of scenes where nothing’s really going on, but the ones with actual purpose and intentions behind them are kinda genius, using a number of different instruments to bring a soft, melodramatic feel to the story. From the xylophone to the violin, every note is played with the right atmospheric pace, with vibrations in all the right places to convey the wavering hearts of the cast. Unfortunately, the opening theme Friendship by Okazaki Ritsuko, is a bit more on the generic side. If you’re heard a shoujo opening song before, then you’ve heard the one, which honestly just feels like a bland version of the op from Fruits Basket. It’s not necessarily bad, per se, but you won’t miss anything by skipping it, and the same goes for the ending.
Likewise, the English dub isn’t bad, but it’s really kind of unremarkable, as it mostly just goes through the motions. Honestly, they didn’t even bother matching the lip flaps in a lot of scenes. Actors Greg Ayres and Monica Rial, who should have been breaths of fresh air in any dub they’re in, play disappointingly close to their most common typecastings, with Ayres playing the pervy girl-crazy best friend, and Monica playing the likeable, bubbly best friend. The same could be said for Andrew Love, who once again plays a somewhat dimwitted tough guy role, but since he gets misused a lot easier than those other two, I’ll just consider his playing to type a good thing. If there’s an especially sour note among the cast, it’s Leraldo Anzaldua, who I’ve never been a particular fan of, and they gave him the lead role. His approach to the character seems to almost be inspired by Robert Pattinson’s approach to Edward Cullen… Play him as you see him, even if that interpretation is a negative one, and Leraldo plays Yamato like a wet rag with all the personality and enthusiasm you’d expect if Shyamalan was directing him.
There are a few beaming lights, though… Caitlynn French does a way better job with Mei Tachibana than the role actually required, all while giving just as honest a portrayal as Leraldo gave. She plays the role as sometimes bitchy, sometimes preachy, while never becoming unlikeable in either tone, and she even made her character’s depression feel a lot more crushing than the original Japanese seiyuu did. There are some lines she had to speak in this show that were downright uncomfortable, and probably not by design, and she still did surprisingly well with them. Emily Neves was also a gem as the snooty, duplicitous Megumi, and while that’s not really a surprise as she’s always been a bit of a chameleon, you don’t really get the full effect of it until she breaks down towards the end of the series. Oh, Brittany Karbowski and Tiffany Grant also get small parts in this, and while that alone should be a selling point, they’re roles are limited, both in time and in content. I can’t really condemn the dub, as there are a few really good performances in it, but I feel like if I’m being honest, I’ve gotta recommend the sub.
You know, I’m not immune to the charms of a good shoujo anime. I really don’t think anyone is, even if they protest that fact. They’re like anime chick flicks… Sometimes, even hardcore action and gore fans need to sit down for a feel-good viewing of The Princess Bride. Likewise, I’ve yet to meet an anime fan that didn’t enjoy Princess Tutu and Ouran High School Host Club, and while those two shows do deliberately contain a lot of dual appeal, I don’t really mind the more stereotypically shoujo anime, either. I liked Fruits Basket. I love Ikuhara’s work. Those of you who remember my Vampire Knight review will know that I consider the first season to be a major guilty pleasure. I don’t mind the giant eyed heroines with absurdly rendered pupils and eyelashes. I don’t mind skinny bishounen males with haircuts that are ultimately dated because they’re based on whatever’s popular at the time. I’ve got nothing against the genre or it’s tropes, so I don’t want you to think I’m biased when I say that my first time watching this series, almost exactly one year ago, I dropped it after three episodes.
Before I get intro why, let’s go over some of the more persistent problems hiding right in plain sight just beneath it’s flowery surface. Starting with the main character, Mei Taniguchi, we’re told early on that she’s not like other girls. She’s not like the gossipy girls who play social games for their own benefit, and she’s also not like the girls who alter their natural appearances to impress guys. Okay, we know what she’s not, but what is she? We know she has a tragic backstory where some rotten kids blamed her for something they did wrong, and that’s caused her to become distant and bitter even several years later, and we know that she’s honest, and occasionally has wisdom to offer people, but aside from all that, I’ve gotta be honest, she’s kind of boring. She’s a textbook Mary-sue character, who’s only real flaws are her shy nature and mistrust of others, and she doesn’t do a whole lot to solve these problems. Other people do. Hell, she rarely ever makes progressive or active choices as a protagonist.
And her boyfriend Yamato Kurosawa is even worse. This isn’t really my biggest problem with him, but his biggest problem is objectively the fact that he’s so damned inconsistent. There are a ton of examples I can bring up, but I feel like one of the most obvious is when we find out that he’s not a virgin. It’s explained to us that it’s because he’s really selfless and kind, and he slept with a girl because she made him think it would make her happy. Well, this happened in the same episode that he invited himself along on Mei’s trip to the salon to get her hair cut, but he immediately hijacked her plans in order to take her out on an abrupt date. She misses the salon, upon which he says that he likes her with long hair. Oh, NOW you have an opinion? Your pants fly off because a girl asks for your dick, and you’re totally a martyr, but when a girl thinks her hair is getting too frizzy to manage, THAT’s something you’ll voice your opposition to? When it comes to character development, actions speak louder than words, and his actions in this case just felt controlling and manipulative.
And that’s not even him at his worst. People often give him shit for kissing Mei without permission in order to get rid of her stalker… Which, while effective and somewhat excusable, feels a bit overkill. As a wise red dragon once said, never play an ace if a 2 will do. They seem to forget that in the same episode as the salon incident, towards the end, he catches her hiding and watching him, and takes the opportunity to kiss her without permission again, ultimately pinning her against a wall and kissing her into submission. If she hadn’t been receptive to that, she could have had him behind bars for sexual assault. He ditches her for hours in the middle of a date because his friend had something to give him, he went over to another girl’s house for weeks after school without telling Mei, and he doesn’t even make a habit of asking her what she wants to do until the final third of the story… Up until then, it’s always “Let’s do this,” or “You should…” I am honestly convinced that the anime adaptation skipped over some info dump about him suffering some kind of brain damage as a child, to explain the way he behaves throughout the series.
See, this isn’t just a shoujo romance series. It’s something far more insidious. It’s a self insert wish fulfillment fantasy boyfriend series. Mei isn’t supposed to be an interesting character, she’s supposed to be a blank slate for the audience and presumably the writer to imprint themselves onto, so that they can live out the experience of having a popular, handsome boy getting all up in their business. Yamato isn’t supposed to be an interesting character either, he’s supposed to be an unobtainable dreamboat who only has eyes for the main character, much to the dismay of, like, oh my god, the entire school. It’s like Twilight without the sparkling vampires, or 50 Shades of Grey without the BDSM and torture devices. Hell, the only torturing device involved was my own DVD player. Don’t get me wrong dudes are guilty of this too… We tend to get a lot of stories that depict us as badass loners who get bothered by sexy girls who fight with us but eventually succumb to our awesomeness through no real change of our own, like Steins;Gate and Sword Art Online, but Say I Love you takes this concept to a special new low, because I have a very specific person in mind who might be dreaming it up.
Just for fun, I’d like you to imagine Tomoko from Watamote… Yes, we’re really doing this… Alone in her room, bitching about the people in her life, when all of a sudden she’s like “Wouldn’t it be awesome if the most popular boy in school fell in love with me? That would show all of those losers. He’d be obsessed with me, and it would be because I’m different. I’m not like all of those back stabbing bitches, or those tramps who slather on gallons of make-up to whore themselves out to boys. He’ll fall in love with me at first sight, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’m not easy, though, so I’d play hard to get, and he’d come at me kind of rough, but that’s okay, because we both know we’re going to be together forever! He’d even turn down a model for me… no, wait, he IS a model! Oh shit, I’d better write this down! I can make a manga out of this!” And then after two hours of brainstorming, she’s like “Ooh, and then his friend comes back, and he totally falls in love with me because we like the same theme park, and they’d totally fight over me! Oh, and we get a hotel room, and… Nope, gotta think of my demographic. nothing happens at the hotel because he respects me, and while he’s more experienced than me, none of what he’s done before me matters, because none of it involved me!”
It’s mindlessly self-indulgent right down to the fact that backstabbing classmates are used as a constant source of antagonism, as well as being basically what every named antagonists’ backstory boils down to, and no attempt is ever made to humanize them. They come close to it as part of Megumi’s backstory, when they abandon her in favor of someone she refused to invite, but even then, the abrupt decision and hive mind element to the scene make no sense. Actually, there’s a lot of occurrences in this anime that make no sense, from Mei and Yamato leaving a festival early all because they’re friends decided to go home(They seriously wouldn’t take the opportunity to be alone?), to Yamato’s creepy relationship with his sister, who he seems to act as both the parent and the crush of, to how easily Megumi comes undone over her inability to ensnare Yamato, even though she literally just decided out of the blue that she wanted to date him based on his looks. The tragic part is that she’s clearly a rip off of Ami from Toradora, who was a much better written and explored character.
Earlier in this review, I referred to the relationship between Mei and Yamato as their first love, and I did so for a specific reason… It was my attempt at gently stating that, in all likelihood, it won’t be their last. Not only are such romances doomed to fail in real life, but the one between them isn’t even based on a solid foundation. Yamato’s love for Mei was decided and settled upon based entirely on his first impression of her, and he doesn’t even bother getting to know her before imprinting on her. Outside of his good looks, I can’t see what Mei sees in him, outside of his persistence and refusal to give up on her. Their love, respectively, is superficial and circumstantial. He didn’t even open her up to other people, like she claims… Once he picked her, other people came to her out of curiosity, through no effort of his own. In their own mutually exclusive ways, these two characters don’t even know what love is, and eventually, I can’t help but get the feeling that their relationship is destined to end with tears and heartbreak, with the school’s new power couple splitting up, and honestly? I’m okay with that.
With most high school anime romances, even the bad ones, you’re given a sense of purpose in the two of them staying together… Even in a shitshow like Clannad, where I wanted Tomoya to get remarried after his wife died, he was still destined to marry Nagisa before anybody else, as their emotional codependency formed too intense a connection to break. In the Love Hina manga, we get to see over time how the spineless dumb-ass Keitaro was able to win Naru’s heart. In a good show like Toradora, you know enough about Ryuji and Taiga’s friendship and backgrounds that we know they don’t make sense with anybody else. In Say I Love You, I didn’t get a sense of any of that. If they were to break up, with Yamato dating Megumi and Mei winding up with Kai, those relationships wouldn’t necessarily last forever either, but it wouldn’t feel like some major tragedy… It would just feel like “Ah, part 2 of the story!” And yeah, with this being the worst case scenario, the series lacks any real stakes, making it kind of tedious to get through. Honestly, the final episode was a joke, with the two of them being separated by a series of phone tag related coincidences. Yawn.
Say I Love You is available from Section23 films both on Bluray and DVD, and can also be viewed on Crunchyroll. The original manga by Kanae Hazuki is available stateside from Kodansha comics, and the live action film is apparently not available in the US, but from what I’ve heard that’s not such a bad thing as even fans of the anime and manga find it soulless and bland.
Much like the shoujo genre, I really don’t have anything against melodrama, but there’s a much clearer distinction to be made with that material… Melodrama tends to work best when it’s self aware. Anime like Bento and so many shoujo titles outside of this one were written by people who knew that the stories they were writing didn’t measure up to much in terms of stakes, so they compensated by amping up the emotions, infusing character development into the plot, and using themes to add flavor to what was going on. Say I Love You tries to do this, with a breaking bracelet symbolizing a broken heart, and cats getting along when their owners do, but for the most part, it does the bare minimum, creating a bad romance between two 2-dimensional characters that has no reason or power to stand the test of time. The music and the animation are above average, and to be fair, Mei and Yamato do become a lot more tolerable of a couple in the final third when Mei starts to show a bit more initiative and Yamato starts to treat her more like a person, but I think a romance where the guy sounds ten times happier about his new kitten than about his new girlfriend leaves a lot to be desired. I give Say I Love You a 3/10.