Say “I Love You”

When Mei Tachibana was a primary school student, she was unfairly blamed for the sudden death of her class’s pet rabbit – and even her friends joined in ostracizing her in order to avoid being caught up in the process of recrimination. From this bruising experience, Mei concluded that all human relationships were shallow and self-serving, and that people would betray her when it suited them to do so; accordingly, it was better for her to not have contact with others. By the age of 16, in her second year of senior high, she is lonely and isolated, dismissed by her peers as an anti-social weirdo. Yamato Kurosawa, by contrast, is among the most popular people in Mei’s year, good-natured and generous and entirely oblivious to his popularity among the female students, many of whom he has dated on a casual basis. When a chance encounter between Yamato and Mei – precipitated by Yamato’s ineptly lecherous friend Kenji – results in Yamato being floored by one of Mei’s roundhouse kicks, he finds himself intrigued by and attracted to this girl whose personality is unlike any other he has known. Mei rejects Yamato’s initial attempts to establish a friendship, even though he does succeed in giving her his phone number; and when Mei finds herself stalked by a customer of the bakery where she works part-time, she has no option except to call Yamato for help after her mother (the only other phone number in her phone directory) fails to respond to Mei’s calls. Yamato deals with the situation by pretending to be Mei’s boyfriend, and even kisses her to decisively discourage the stalker; and thus begins a long and complex process through which Mei and Yamato not only get to know and trust one another, but Mei also begins to open up to others and negotiate the complex dynamics of inter-personal engagement…

Adapted from the popular and long-running manga by Kanae Hazuki and produced by animation studio Zexcs, “Say ‘I Love You’” originally aired on Japanese television between October and December 2012. Conventionally but attractively animated using a mix of 2D and 3D animation techniques, and featuring a colour palette reminiscent of the style perfected by Kyoto Animation, “Say ‘I Love You’” carries all the standard tropes one expects to see in a teenage romance piece: the “odd couple” consisting of charismatic insider and self-conscious outsider; the comic relief best friend; the curvaceous ditz; the ice-princess and fashionista rivals; the long-lost ghost from the past. Yet for all this, it manages to humanise even the most stereotypical of characters by providing them with convincing back stories that reveal the existential and experiential scarring behind the facades they present to the world. In the same vein, “nice guy” Yamato’s personality is more than once presented as a kind of emotional carelessness, insensitive to the impact which his easy charm has on those around him. Undemanding and highly bingeable viewing, the series’ relaxed pacing and understated atmospherics helps it resist the potential drift toward syrupy melodramatics, in turn enabling “Say ‘I Love You’” to make more meaningful observations about the confusions and vulnerabilities of adolescence than most offerings in this over-crowded genre.   A live-action adaption screened in 2014.    

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