Of course, sometime the newer shoujo series tweak those formulas in more subtle ways. Sometimes they choose to take a more realistic approach to relationships, giving their heroines some more compelling issues than "I'm too shy!" or having their lead couple be interested in more than just holding hands. Does this approach work? If they're anything like today's work, I'd say it's definitely a step in the right direction.
SAY 'I LOVE YOU' (Suki-tte Ii na yo), by Kanae Hazuki. First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2014.
Mei Tachibana can get along perfectly fine without any friends, thank you very much. Based on her experiences, other girls do nothing but bully and betray others just as they did to her before, so who needs that kind of trouble in their life? Her years of self-imposed loneliness is interrupted by a chance encounter with class playboy Yamato. He's intrigued by Mei's prickly attitude and flashes of spunk, and bit by bit he wins he wins her confidence. Mei is reluctant at first, but bit by bit she starts to find herself pulled into his circle of friends as well as towards an even deeper relationship with Yamato.
Say 'I Love You' is a shoujo series that seems somehow stuck in the middle. While its plot follows the tried and true romantic formula, there are little flashes of personality that peek out which give the story some well-needed color.
Too many shoujo heroines are unpopular not because of their personality or actions, but simply because they're the victims of circumstance. Mei is not that sort of girl. No, her social awkwardness is all of her own doing. She was burned by others as a young girl, and because of that she puts up a hard front of sarcasm and indifference to hide the loneliness she feels. Her social awkwardness and discomfort are almost uncomfortably real in their portrayal, and anyone who was ever an awkward, unpopular teenager will likely relate to her. Still, that same awkwardness is exploited in-story in a lot of all-too-typical ways. Her lack of social experience is all the excuse Hazane need to pull the 'why is my heart beating so fast?' card around Yamato, which suggests that this will be a relationship that will be dragged out as long as humanly possible. It also makes it easy for her to come up with a few throwaway mean girls there to antagonize Mei for daring to exist in the same space as Yamato for the sake of conflict.
A lot of shoujo love interests tend to be boys who are either impossibly saintly or douchey and abusive to the extreme. While Yamato tends towards the perfect princely type, he's got a surprisingly dirty mind which helps to ground him a little. He makes no secret of the fact that he's physically attracted to Mei, which means there's a bit more making out than what's usually seen in these sorts of stories. He does walk a thin line at times, though, because he's clearly trying to push Mei's physical boundaries a little, and those attempts tend to end with Mei crying and freaked out. Still, he's also the one who tries to ease Mei into his social scene, and that goes a lot more smoothly. Mei soon bonds with the perky, busty Asami, who herself is picked on for her big boobs, and being experienced with such things Mei tries to help. It doesn't go all that well - while Mei's blunt, common-sense advice is taken to heart, her attempt to confront the bullies doesn't change a thing. Still, it's a positive moment of growth for Mei and it's a more realistic take on this well-worn scenario.
Say 'I Love You' is an interesting yet conflicted story. The characters are slightly more complex than usual, as they struggle with issues and awkwardness that are more reflective of real teenagers' lives. On the other hand, the story tends to follow the same old story beats, and the effect is like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
Hazuki's art, much like Mei herself, doesn't quite fit the standard shoujo mold. While everyone tends to be good looking and stylishly coiffed, there's a sort of awkward gangliness to the character designs which makes them stand out. While that means that they tend to look a bit odd from certain angles, it doesn't detract from their ability to express themselves well. Appropriately for a series that isn't all sparkles and sunshine, the backgrounds here aren't the usual assortment of spangled screen tones. Instead, they tend to be rather plain and subdued, and the story looks all the better for it. The art in general tends to be presented in a understated sort of way, and it helps sell the reader on the seriousness of the story.
There are the usual batch of translation notes, but there's also a surprisingly insightful afterword from Hazuki herself. In it she reveals that a lot of Mei's attitude comes from her own experiences as an awkward, bullied teenager. Learning that helped me understand why Mei's experience was so vivid and relatable - it's practically biographical.
Say 'I Love You' at times threatens to become just another boring, rote shoujo romance but it distinguishes itself by not whitewashing the darker or more awkward qualities of its cast and story, and it feels more rewarding because of that.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 13 volumes available. 5 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.
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