(Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun and Sukitte Ii na yo.)
Episodes 1 – 2
Ratings: 4 of 5 for both.
General: A girl who has spent her entire school life friendless, seemingly by her own preference, is suddenly befriended by an energetic boy who pursues her despite her apparent indifference.
My Little Monster:
A girl, Shizuku Mizutani, who cares only for her grades and her long term goal of landing a high wage job as a result of those grades, is asked by her teacher to deliver some handouts to the boy, Haru Yoshida, who is supposed to be seated next to her in class, but has been missing since the first day of school because he was suspended for a violent attack on a group of upperclassmen. Upon delivering the handouts, he takes her bringing them as a sign that they are friends, because that is one of the things friends do in manga and anime, after all – bring handouts to sick classmates. (Never mind the fact that he is not sick, that she has only ever seen him in passing, and that they are only classmates in the sense that they were assigned to the same class, as he has never attended.)
The teacher has an ulterior motive, as his suspension has been lifted, since it was determined that, while he went a bit overboard, the upperclassmen were actually at fault. However, Haru has refused to respond to any of his teachers requests to come to school. Since school attendance is not compulsory at the high school level, there is nothing the teacher can officially do, so she tries an “end-around”, so to speak, by sending a classmate to try to convince him to attend.
Shizuku has no intention of encouraging Haru to come to school. She just wants to deliver the handouts and go home. Haru, has other plans though. He seems to have no real concept of how to function in polite society, alternating between violent, impulsive behavior and a naive desire to be friends with someone. He latches on to Shizuku as being “his friend” and even goes so far as to confess his love to her.
How will this cold-hearted girl and naive, impulsive boy deal with school and each other, now that she can’t seem to get rid of him?
Say, “I Love you:
Mei Tachibana has spent her entire life without either a boyfriend or friends of any sort. She doesn’t trust other people, feeling that trusting others only leads to betrayal. It is suggested that this opinion comes from past personal experience. One day, as a result of a misunderstanding, she accidentally injures the most popular boy in her high school, Yamato Kurosawa. Much to her surprise, this doesn’t result in him getting angry at her. Instead it has the opposite effect: he decides, quite unilaterally, that they are friends. She rebuffs his advances, even to the point of refusing to exchange cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses with him, but he gives her his on a piece of paper anyway.
Later that evening, when leaving her part-time job at a convenience store, Mei finds she is being followed by a creepy older man that had been shopping in the store. Fearing the worst, the attempts to call her mother for help, but cannot get through to her. Having nowhere else to turn, she ducks into a store and digs out Yamato’s phone number and begs him to help her. He comes to her rescue in a startling manner, leaving Mei’s previous existence as a loner-by-choice in definite danger of being shattered.
Can the girl who cannot, and will not, trust anyone learn to be friends, or perhaps even lovers, with a boy that could have his pick of the other girls in school merely by asking? Why does a boy with model looks and a winning personality want so desperately to win the affections of a girl who would rather be left alone?
On first glance, these two series seem to be cut from the same bolt of cloth, and it is not a shiny new piece of cloth to say the least! The “Lonely/Loser Girl” meets “Energetic/Popular Boy” trope has been done over and over in shoujo manga and anime, much like its counterpart in shounen land: the “Hapless/Boring/Loser/Nondescript Guy” somehow attracts the attention of the “Popular/Beautiful Girl” has been beaten into the ground. It is hard to do something fresh and new when the basic premise has been done so many times before. It is a basic wish-fulfillment story line aimed at the teenage girls who the manga the anime is based on is marketed to. Interestingly, both of these anime are based on manga that began their syndication in the year, 2008, in the same shoujo manga magazine: Dessert. I guess it is no surprise that they ended up being adapted to anime in the very same season.
Seeing how similar the basic premises of the stories were, I thought I would check them both out and see what made each one unique enough to warrant a coveted half-hour of Japanese late night TV broadcasting space. What I found was that, while the premises of the two are strikingly similar, the actual mood and delivery is startlingly different. A true testament to the way that two different creative minds can take the same basic idea and produce very different results. Interestingly enough, they both seem to have great potential to be among my favorite shows of the Fall 2012 season!
My Little Monster was the first of the two that I watched. The first episode gave me a strong Kare Kano vibe, with many of the same plot-points being used, such as the girl who is focused on grades and was mortified to find that she wasn’t the top scorer on the entrance exams for high school, the attractive boy who was the guy who outperformed her on those exams, and the guy falling for the girl early on in the story, only to be turned down. However, beyond these basic plot points, there was much that came across as fresh and different. Shizuku is a very strong lead female character. She doesn’t seem to have any deep emotional scars that cause avoid friendships and withdraw from society. On the contrary, she chooses to avoid the distractions of petty entanglements, concentrating on her grades and long term goals. Haru is also a very different character than you might expect. He is a loose canon! His grasp of social concepts is so poor that even the terse and isolated Shizuku is much more adept at understanding social situations than he is. The defining characteristic of Haru is a drive to find friends, something that Shizuku doesn’t really understand.
Say, I Love You starts out with a very different vibe. Mei is also a “loner”, who prefers to keep to herself and doesn’t have any friends, but in her case, it seems that this behavior is founded on past social failures and some fairly deep personal pain resulting from trusted friends turning on her and betraying her trust. She seems much more like a wounded flower than a strong, independent young woman. She doesn’t dress fashionably and other girls in the school pick on her because of it, making it clear that, even living her isolated lifestyle, she is not happy with her school life. Yamato, on the other hand, is the picture of the “School All-Star”. He is surrounded by hanger’s on, both male and female, the girls seeking to curry his favor and the guys just trying to pick up the leftovers and be seen as more cool by the girls, because they hang with the cool guy. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to seek this out or even enjoy the attention, though he does seem to earnestly respond to each individual with kindness and openness, despite the fact that they appear display none of those characteristics back to him. Everybody wants something from him and he doesn’t really want anything from anyone.
An interesting coincidence has these two first episodes featuring a “flash-back” scene of the lead females dealing with an elementary school classroom crisis: the death of the classes pet bunny. To highlight the difference in approach between the two stories, in My Little Monster, the reaction of Shizuku is lack of comprehension. She feels nothing when the bunny dies and can’t really understand why all of the other kids are so distraught about the death of a mere animal. (This does suggest that there could be some “issues” that she may have to deal with, such as a lack of empathy or a real emotional disability of some sort, and the story does take a bit of that approach as it goes on.) In Say, “I Love You”, the scene is played out quite differently. Mei is blamed for the bunnies death, because a “friend” singles her out as the person who got the bunny out of the cage, leading to the situation that lead to its demise. It is suggested that the accuser is the actual person that was to blame, but Mei is unable to defend herself and runs off in tears, relegated to pariah status by her immature and cruel classmates. This difference speaks volumes about how these two seemingly similar shows are, in fact, miles apart.
Another similarity between the two is the way the first episodes end and the similar impact the ending has on the heroine. In a break from the norm, both of these series end the first episode with a kiss between the male and female leads. In both cases, it is initiated by the boy and the impact on the girl is powerful, if a bit predictable, with Mei staring wide-eyed and blushing thinking “My first kiss…” and Shizuku having a more visceral, and comically displayed, reaction of a full face blush, visible sweat on her brow, and her heart beating audibly. Interestingly, it appears at this point that both of the young men involved are a not necessarily enamored with the leading ladies, based on the reaction after the kiss by one and the reason for the kiss with the other.
As the shows progress, we get to know some of the supporting cast, like the perverted friend of Yamato who caused the misunderstanding that lead to the two protagonists meeting, and his busty friend from middle-school who obviously has a major crush on him. It is also made clear that Mei is not the only girl in their school who has shared a kiss, or possibly even more than a kiss, with Yamato. As a matter of fact, it is rumored that he has kissed every girl in the school, except for the one girl he was rumored to be dating in middle school. Mei begins to wonder if his attentions to her mean he is really interested in her or if he is really some kind of womanizer.
Meanwhile, Shizuku is coming to the horrifying, for her at least, realization that the physiological reactions she has to Haru’s presence could mean that she’s falling in love with him. This is not something that she is prepared for, as she has studiously avoided any friendships or romantic entanglements. We also meet one of their classmates, Asako Natsume, a very pretty and athletic girl who needs help studying for her make-up exams so she can avoid remedial classes over break. Her reason is that there is a real-life meeting of an on-line community she belongs to that conflicts with the remedial classes. This portion of the story line brings into clear focus one of the key story lines of the show, at least so far: the difficulty some people have finding true friends. Haru doesn’t really know how to deal with people and is usually either starting fights or being taken advantage of by people, Shizuku claims to not want friendship, considering it a bother and a waste of her time, and Asako is pursued by boys because of her looks and shunned by girls for the same reason. The only people she has been able to become friends with are on the on-line community. Shizuku, of course, refuses to help her, but Haru, who was the top scorer on the entrance exam, agrees to help, if she will take him to this real-life meeting.
One section of dialog in episode 2 of My Little Monster really highlights this theme. Shizuku asks Haru if it really matter that people don’t like him. He responds first by telling her she is “really special”, then asking her this:
“Have you ever felt empty inside? So empty you can’t feel a thing. Surrounded by darkness. It really scares me. But I’m not scared anymore… because I have you.”
By the end of the episode, we have also met another classmate who plays baseball that went to middle school with Haru, learned that Haru is a horrible teacher, and had a variety of mishaps and arguments over a chicken. However, Shizuku has also come to the realization that it might be nice to live in a world where other people care about her and she cares about them, and she confesses her love to Haru. Quite a bit of progress for two episodes of shoujo anime. By contrast, as Mei learns more about Yamato, mostly from Asako, the more she starts to question his character, but at the same time she seems be more and more fixated on him. We also get to see a bit of how he is treated by his “friends” and it is pretty clear that, while he is almost always friendly with them, he isn’t particularly happy to be around them. Along the way, Mei seems to be developing a friendship with Asako, doing things like going out for coffee and using the same cell-phone straps. She also does a small amount of matchmaking, helping Yamato’s perverted friend decide to actually express his true feelings to Asako, after which, the begin to date. By the end of the episode, she confronts Yamato about his playboy reputation, and he, rather aggressively, teaches her about different types of kisses, and asks her if she loves him. She, in a manner of speaking, confesses that she does, and they share a “real” kiss.
So, by the end of episode 2, both of these shows have pretty much reached the same point in their respective stories, but have taken very different paths to get there. Interestingly, I can see shades of the shoujo romances that I am most familiar with each. My Little Monster has the mismatched personalities and penchant for super-deformed character transformations reminiscent of Kare Kano, as well as the crazy, outrageous comical situations of both Kare Kano and Ouran Host Club. Say, “I Love You”, seems to draw more from the serious side of Kare Kano‘s story telling style, with a realistic approach to dialog, and the downright meanness of some high school girls and much less broad comedy. The contrast extends to art style, with My Little Monster being presented in bright tones, with a clean shoujo style to the character designs, but a more sharp edges and exaggerated character reactions, while Say, “I Love You” brings a softer palette, with plenty of pastels and a strong shoujo/josei character style, similar to the more serious chapters of Kare Kano and shows like Kids on the Slope.
Both of these shows are fun to watch and have compelling characters. The stories, while not gaining many points for originality, aside from some rather bizarre side story sections in My Little Monster that feature a rooster that the tenderhearted, or possibly just tender-headed, Haru inexplicably wants to try to protect from the rain. What they do have, however, is generally impressive level of execution and enough freshness in the characters and plot lines to prevent them from seeming too old hat. The one thing that holds them both back, in my opinion, is some slight issues with word choice and character actions that seem a bit on the misogynist side of the appropriateness needle. It is hard to tell if that type of issue is due to real sexism issues or is more a case of cultural differences in interpretation.