Say “I Love You”, Vol. 1

By Kanae Hazuki. Released in Japan as “Sukitte Ii Na Yo” by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Dessert. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

(This review is based on an advance copy provided by the publisher.)

For every manga series out there that the reader immediately falls in love with the moment they read the first chapter, there are four others that take a while to get cooking. This can be dangerous, as readers are very casual these days and can drop a work fast if it doesn’t reach out and grab them. But even in works that aren’t lights out, there is a spark of something, be it a background, a secondary character, or what have you, that keeps you wanting to come back in hopes of getting more. That’s where I am with this manga, whose first volume I found flawed yet intriguing at the same time.

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The author, Kanae Hazuki, may be familiar to reader with long memories and a habit of buying everything – her one-shot volume Voices of Love was published by Aurora under the LuvLuv imprint, their unsuccessful attempt to jumpstart a market for romantic and slightly smutty josei manga here in North America. This title is her breakout hit, and runs in Kodansha’s shoujo/josei borderline magazine Dessert, so I suspect it won’t get as explicit as most of her other works, but you never know – the lead male is hinted to be sexually active, something you rarely see in the fluffier shoujo titles.

The premise is ‘popular boy meets bullied girl and finds her interesting’, not exactly the most original one in the book. But Hazuki, in an afterword, notes how she wanted to focus on the bullying aspects, and it’s done quite well – by the end of the volume Mei and Asami may be friends, but the majority of the class is still not above being vicious to her, and Mei is not about to get any help from others – indeed, at one point after getting beaten by a couple of girls in her class, Mei notes to Yamato, “I fell.” This manga appears to have a more serious tone than My Little Monster, the other Dessert title Kodansha recently picked up, and that all starts with Mei. She has low self-esteem and most of her emotions have been repressed for years, so when Yamato shows interest in her she’s even more confused than before.

As for Yamato, his popular guy conceals a dark past, and we see why he would be nice to someone like Mei, who the rest of the school seems to delight in abusing. (Teacher figures are entirely absent from this volume, of course.) In fact, a lot of his behavior in this volume makes more sense in retrospect after the final chapter where he talks about his middle school years, and I honestly spent most of the volume not really liking him much. It didn’t help that his friend Nakanishi is the loud obnoxious type and his own romantic relationship was resolved, in my opinion, far too quickly, possibly so that there can be a couple that each of the leads can go to for advice later on.

There was a lot of awkward here. The characters didn’t reach out and grab me except for Mei, the pacing read like the author intended it to be another one-shot and was startled at having to expand it into multiple volumes, and there are a few consent issues here as well. At the same time I liked the basic themes, I want to see Mei’s character development, and I want to read more about how the cast battles back against the culture of bullying they live in. This volume is a bit half-cooked, but tasty enough that I’ll stick around for more.

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