It was tempting to review each romance separately, but I resisted.
The series image is a little misleading - it looks like there's only one couple, but there are actually storylines for four separate couples. Every one of the main characters is in some way involved in publishing, specifically shoujo manga publishing. Individual episodes deal with only one couple at a time - romantic storylines are not mixed within episodes.
Onodera x Takano - This is the series' main couple. Their story is told in episodes 1-4, 7, 11-14, 17, 19, and 22-24. Onodera is the son of the head of a major publishing company. He was happy as a literature editor, until he learned that everyone thought his successes were due to nepotism. Wanting to prove himself, Onodera quit his job and got an editing position at another company. Unfortunately, although he wanted to edit literature, he got assigned to the shoujo manga division. He figures he'll stay for a bit and then transfer to the literature department, but he finds himself actually enjoying his work (when he isn't exhausted by the pace and everything he has to learn). He also finds himself torn over Takano, his brilliant and handsome boss. Onodera doesn't remember right away, but not only did he and Takano know each other in high school, they were also lovers. Onodera had a huge crush on Takano, but a Big Misunderstanding pushed them apart. Now, Takano is determined to make Onodera say "I love you" again, and Onodera is equally determined not to fall in love again. Yokozawa, from the sales department, was Takano's lover after Takano and Onodera broke up, and he's less than pleased by Onodera's presence and Takano's interest in him.
Chiaki x Hatori - Hatori is another shoujo manga editor, in the same department as Onodera and Takano. Hatori and Chiaki's story is told in episodes 5-6, 10, and 15-16. Hatori has been secretly in love with Chiaki for years, but Chiaki never even noticed. Now, Chiaki is a shoujo manga artist/writer who hides behind his pseudonym out of fear that his fans will be upset if they find out he's male, and Hatori is his editor. Chiaki notices the tension between Hatori and Yuu, Chiaki's friend and one of his manga assistants, and assumes that the two men have feelings for each other. When he and Hatori become a couple, Chiaki thinks Yuu is upset because Chiaki took Hatori away from him, not realizing that Hatori and Yuu were both interested in him. Can Chiaki figure out who he really wants to be with and save his friendship with whichever man he doesn't choose?
Kisa x Yukina - Kisa is yet another shoujo manga editor in the same department as Onodera, Hatori, and Takano. Kisa and Yukina's story is told in episodes 8-9 and 20-21. Kisa may look young, but he's actually 30. He doesn't feel like his life is going anywhere. He's doing well in his career, but he hasn't accomplished anything special, and he feels like anyone with a bit of training could do the work he does. He doubts the series' he edits will ever be as successful as anything Takano has edited. All his friends are getting married, while he is not only gay, but also unable to settle on any one guy. Kisa isn't even sure he can really fall in love - he only ever seems to be interested in his lovers' handsome faces. There's one particular face he's been attracted to for a while now - that of a sales clerk named Yukina who's in charge of the shoujo manga section at the bookstore he works at. Yukina is young, vibrant, and seems very much heterosexual. When he indicates an interest in Kisa, Kisa isn't sure what to think. How could someone like Yukina be interested in him? Can their relationship survive Kisa's grueling work schedule?
Isaka x Asahina - This couple's story is told in episode 18. Isaka is the senior managing director of the publishing company all the series' shoujo manga editors work for. He's also the son of the head of the company. At one point, he wanted to be a novelist, but he later figured out that his real talents lay in finding future bestsellers. Isaka has had a crush on Asahina since they were children, when Isaka's father took in Asahina's family. Isaka thinks that Asahina, now his secretary/caretaker, is in love with his (Isaka's) father.
Wow, this show was addictive. When I first started watching, I was a little iffy about it, because I was kind of annoyed by some of the things the characters did...and then I noticed that I had just watched 6 episodes without hardly realizing it.
Looking at my descriptions of the various relationships in this series, it's surprising that I enjoyed this show as much as I did. There were so many things that usually get on my nerves: love triangles; wishy washy characters who had me yelling at them to finally tell the freakin' truth; characters whose idea of seduction was pushing the other character against the wall or onto the floor and kissing them, even if the other character showed signs of resistance; characters who declared their love for each other even though they didn't even know each other. The list could go on. And yet I plowed through this series like it was nothing and would totally snatch it up if it any company in the U.S. ever made it available on DVD.
So, why was this show so appealing to me? I've been thinking about that, and the best answer I can come up with is that all the emotions in the series were ramped up to a 10 and that the series' pacing made it easy to ride on that wave of emotion. All of these couples may have been adults (the final episode, a flashback to the beginnings of Takano and Onodera's relationship, was the only one that took place almost entirely in high school), but the intensity and level of uncertainty in their relationships reminded me of high school romances.
A lot of the things that I consider to be this series' strengths are also its weaknesses – I'll get into that some more later. For now, I'll just say that other factors of this series that I found appealing were its pleasing-to-the-eye character designs, voice acting, and variety of relationships/types of stories.
I'm sure everyone who watches and enjoys this series has a favorite couple. Although I liked all the couples at one point or another (and disliked them all, too – again, more on that later), my favorite couple was Kisa and Yukina. Even though their story was told in only 4 episodes of the 24-episode series, I enjoyed it immensely. Every other relationship took place between two people who also worked together, so Kisa and Yukina had the additional complication of not getting to see each other nuch due to Kisa's insane work schedule. They were also the only couple that didn't have a lot of history together and the only couple with a big age-difference. As long as I viewed Kisa and Yukina's relationship as the beginning of a romance, rather than as a romantic story told in full, I loved it – their relationship is part of the reason why I wish there were another season. At the very least, I'd love to read the manga (assuming that the anime hasn't told their full story).
As much as I enjoyed this series, I also recognize that it has a lot of weaknesses. Some of those weaknesses are tied in with things I liked about the series. For instance, although I liked the character designs, I'd also like to add that they were confusing as heck. At episode 5, when the series switched, for the first time, to telling the story of a couple besides Takano and Onodera, I was confused. Takano and Onodera's character designs were so similar to Hatori and Chiaki's character designs that my first thought was “Huh? What's going on? Why does Onodera look so happy and relaxed around Takano?” Even after I learned to expect the series' couple hopping, I still had moments of confusion. Although, in previous episodes, I hadn't thought Isaka looked at all like Chiaki, when episode 18 began my first thought was to wonder why Hatori was helping Chiaki take a bath.
Another issue this series had was a fairly strict adherence to BL stereotypes. It was pretty obvious that characters with a typical uke appearance could only ever end up with characters with a typical seme appearance. Hence, it was impossible for Takano to ever choose Yokozawa, who had a seme-style character design, over Onodera, who had an uke-style character design. The same went for the love triangle between Chiaki, Hatori, and Yuu. Yuu, with his more uke-style looks, could never have ended up with Chiaki. The only time where the series didn't strictly follow the usual stereotypes was when it made Kisa, with his uke looks, the older and more experienced character (when it came to relationships with other men). Still, Yukina of course turned out to be the more confident character, in keeping with the usual stereotypes.
This also ties in with BL stereotypes a bit, but characters often tended to do things that I found to be either annoying or overly pushy. Onodera and Takano, the series' primary couple, were, in my opinion, the biggest offenders. Despite Onodera's insistence that he wasn't interested in Takano, Takano pressed on and employed the “forced kisses” technique (romance novel readers are likely familiar with this). Onodera often said things that weren't true because he couldn't bring himself to be honest about his feelings. Several of the characters were guilty of wishy washy behavior and lying. Lack of communication was a HUGE problem in the series – just about any time a character did or said something that could be misconstrued, the other half of the couple, feeling hurt and betrayed, left and cut off all communication, without giving a single reason why. That was how the rift between Onodera and Takano started, and Kisa and Yukina's relationship nearly ended for the same reason.
Once the series had sucked me in, my aggravations with it were probably also part of the reason why I kept watching – I wanted to see all these non-communicative idiots finally work their relationship issues out. In the anime at least, not everything is completely resolved. I consider Kisa and Yukina's relationship to be just a beginning, rather than a complete romance, and Takano never does get to hear Onodera say “I love you” without a later denial. It's also unclear how things will go with Yuu – I was glad Chiaki finally told him how he felt, but I kind of wanted a happy ending for Yuu too. Same for Yokozawa, who I felt would have been a less annoying and confusing person for Takano to end up with, however obvious it was that Onodera and Takano were intended to be a couple.
Before I wrap this review up, I should also mention that another appeal of this series is its manga publishing world backdrop. I can't say for certain how accurate all of it is, but, from what little I know, it seems like a lot of the information is probably good, with a few things taking clear artistic license (like the all-gorgeous-male editorial staff working in girlie surroundings). I enjoyed getting to see a little of what a manga editor does. Really, if this is at all what the manga publishing world is like, it's amazing that manga ever gets finished on time and looks as good as it does. I'm not surprised that quite a few manga artists end up with health issues, with work schedules like this, and it wouldn't surprise me if manga editors have their own stress-related health issues.
Overall, as flawed as this series is, I enjoyed it a lot and am glad I have Junjou Romantica, which many Crunchyroll commenters said is pretty much the same thing as Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi, waiting on my To Be Watched pile.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Animation Runner Kuromi (anime OVA) - If you want more romance, this is not the series for you. If you loved getting to learn about manga editing and creation, however, you might like this. Animation Runner Kuromi takes a similarly humorous look at the world of anime creation, from the perspective of a newly-hired, inexperienced, and completely-out-of-her-depth head of production. I have written a review about this anime.
- Junjou Romantica (manga) by Shungiku Nakamura; Junjou Romantica (anime TV series) - I haven't seen this series yet, but, from what I've heard, it is very much like Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi - the manga it's based on is even written by the same person who wrote the manga Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi is based on. A couple notes: the manga may be difficult to get, and I'm not sure if it has graphic sex scenes. I imagine the anime, like the Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi anime, has lots of kissing but no graphic sex scenes.
- Drawn Together (book) by Z.A. Maxfield - [Note: I've linked to Loose Id's e-book version, but you can also get this in paperback form.] If you loved Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi and would like to try out the world of m/m romance novels, you might want to give this book a try. Just be warned that it contains graphic sex scenes and isn't as light and fluffy as Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi. Rory goes to an anime convention, excited to finally meet the girl of his dreams, his favorite artist, only to learn that "she" is actually a "he." Ran Yamane is used to people making that mistake and thinks that's the end of it. However, he finds himself attracted to Rory who, as far as he knows, is heterosexual. Ran and Rory end up traveling together as Ran tries to deal with a crazy fan from his past.
- Magic's Price (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Technically, this is the third book of a trilogy you should really read in order (the first book is Magic's Pawn). However, I thought I'd add this as a read-alike suggestion for those who enjoyed Kisa x Yukina. Similar to that relationship, this book stars a couple with an age-difference (Vanyel is, I think, 20 years older than Stefan and worries that Stefan's affection is just some kind of hero worship). As in Kisa and Yukina's relationship, it's the younger character who more actively pursues the older character. Be warned, though, this more a fantasy novel than a romance, so the ending isn't a traditional happy romance ending.
- Tramps Like Us (manga) by Yayoi Ogawa - This manga features heterosexual romance. Those who don't mind that and would like another romance involving a very career-focused character might want to try this. The main character is a career woman whose career has taken a bit of a hit and whose personal life is doing even worse. When she comes across a guy passed out in a cardboard box, she takes him home with her. She half-jokingly tells him he can only stay with her if he agrees to be her pet and, to her shock, he does. I know this series sounds a bit...sketchy...but it's actually pretty good. I've written about the first two volumes.
- The Tyrant Falls in Love (manga) by Hinako Takanaga - This BL series features graphic sex scenes. Tatsumi is tyrannical and homophobic, while Morinaga is secretly head-over-heels in love with him. Those who'd like a similar mix of comedy, sexual tension, and high levels of emotion might want to try this.