This post includes some spoilers.
Season 1: Sawako is a gentle, sweet, naive girl who wants nothing more than to be friends with everyone in her class. Unfortunately, she bears a striking resemblance to Sadako, the creepy girl with long black hair in The Ring. Everyone in Sawako's class calls her Sadako, and the more she tries to connect with them, the more she creeps them out.
The only exception is Kazehaya, the most popular boy in Sawako's class. He goes out of his way to be nice to her, and he understands her when no one else seems to. Ayane and Chizuru decide to befriend Sawako as well, and Sawako finds herself overflowing with gratitude that she has met such nice people. Although Sawako eventually realizes that Ayane and Chizuru have grown to genuinely care for her, she continues to think that Kazehaya is only treating her as nicely as he does everyone else in their class. What she doesn't realize is that Kazehaya has a huge crush on her.
With Ayane and Chizuru's help, and the interference of a rival, Sawako finally recognizes that her feelings for Kazehya have grown from admiration into love.
Season 2: Once Sawako realizes her true feelings for Kazehaya, she finds it impossible to treat him normally. Kazehaya notices this and has no idea what it means or how to deal with it. Does Sawako no longer want to be around him? Is he bothering her? Kazehaya feels guilty as he realizes he's always done whatever he wants around Sawako and never taken into account her feelings (I disagree with this, but it's how he stated he felt). That never seemed to be a problem before, but now Sawako barely even looks at him or talks to him anymore.
Interference from a well-meaning-but-clueless classmate named Kenta only makes things worse. Kenta misunderstands a comment of Kazehaya's and tells Sawako that Kazehaya is in love with someone else. Kazehaya becomes more and more concerned that he's causing problems for Sawako. As the misunderstandings pile up, it seems like the rift between Kazehaya and Sawako will widen until nothing can bridge it.
When I first heard that NIS America had licensed this, I couldn't wait to get it on DVD. Then I learned that buying the whole series would set me back anywhere from $140 to $210. They looked like nice boxed sets, true, but that's still a lot of money, so I resigned myself to waiting, possibly forever, for a more affordable release. Then Crunchyroll announced that it had acquired the streaming rights to the series, and I thought to myself, “Hurray, a way to at least watch it without breaking the bank!”
If you've read the manga and enjoyed it, you'll probably enjoy the anime, too. Although I've only reviewed the first three volumes, I've read quite a few more. Season 1 followed the manga pretty closely, and I'm guessing Season 2 did as well, although I suspect some of the “wrap up” stuff in the final episode was anime-only.
Just like in the manga, all the main characters were likable and/or interesting. Sawako and Kurumi were probably the most complex and well rounded characters. At the beginning of the series, Sawako was socially crippled and incapable of behaving normally around her classmates. By the end, she could laugh and talk with other girls, recognize her own feelings for Kazehaya, and flat-out tell him those feelings. I also liked the glimpses of her home life (I loved that her dad was awkward and prone to freaking out, while her mother was much more laid back).
For those unfamiliar with the manga, Kurumi would probably be the most surprising character. Even having some idea of how things turned out with her, I still couldn't help initially hating her. What made her so great was that she wasn't just an evil popular girl – the story of how she came to like Kazehaya, and why she didn't just ask him out, made her much more sympathetic that she might otherwise have been. I loved that the second season didn't just leave her behind, and if anyone can think of a series (manga or anime) starring a girl like her as the heroine, do tell me about it. It'd be fabulous if there were a Kurumi spin-off, but somehow I don't see that ever happening.
Kazehaya was probably the nicest shoujo love interest ever. According to him, he was easily jealous, selfish, and not the perfect guy Sawako seemed to think he was. I very much disagreed with his assessment of himself. Instead of pushing Sawako into dating him and being his girlfriend, he held back for almost the entire two seasons, waiting for her to become more comfortable with social interaction. He got jealous when he thought Sawako might be interested in Ryo or Kenta, but, if she had indicated a genuine interest in either one of them, I'm pretty sure Kazehaya would have sucked it up and bowed out for Sawako's sake. Then there was his habit of almost always knowing the right thing to say and do. How many teenage boys do you know of who would have handled Kurumi's confession of love so sensitively, without resorting to lying to her?
Sawako was maybe too naive to be believed, and Kazehaya was maybe too perfect, but I didn't mind. They, as well as Sawako's super-supportive friends, were part of what made watching this show so enjoyable. I liked watching things turn out well for such nice people.
I must say, however, that I preferred Season 1 over Season 2. Season 1 was lovely and sweet, a gentle and often hilarious progression of Sawako's relationships with others. I loved seeing Sawako form her first friendships with other girls, and I loved seeing her niceness win out against Kurumi's deviousness. Sawako and Kazehaya's “date” made me feel all mushy inside. It went so well that I couldn't help but expect even better things at the start of the next season.
Then the second season started, and it was like each episode took Sawako and Kazehaya a step or two backwards. After 25 episodes of “clearing up misunderstandings,” Kimi ni Todoke suddenly became nothing but one misunderstanding after another. It was excruciating to watch, and those who despise Big Misunderstanding stories in their romance novels will probably find themselves having to resist beating their heads against a wall. There was a pretty decent payoff near the end of the series, with both Sawako and Kazehaya finally being open about their feelings, but I couldn't help but feel that it took a touch too long for them to get there. The ending was a little sudden and not quite satisfying – I would have liked to see them as a couple for a little while longer. Oh well, I guess that's what the manga is for.
All in all, this is a lovely, sweet show. The first season was excellent. The second season was agonizing to watch, ended a little suddenly, and didn't answer all the questions I still had about some of the characters, but at least the buildup to Kazehaya and Sawako's romance was given a proper resolution.
My favorite quote in the series, said by Pin to Kazehaya: “You think she'll understand if you don't staple it to her face?” Pin may have been an immature moron who should never have been allowed to become a teacher, but his occasional insightful moments made me cheer.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- The Wallflower (manga) by Tomoko Hayakawa - This manga has also been adapted into an anime, but I haven't seen it and don't know how similar it is to the manga. The main character of this series, Sunako, is similar to Sawako in that she looks like Sadako and has a tendency to frighten people just by existing. Four handsome guys are told they can live in Sunako's aunt's mansion for free, the only catch being that they have to turn Sunako into a "lady." Gradually, the guys learn that, when she's not crippled by her fear of beauty or wallowing in her love for horror movies and all things creepy, she's actually beautiful and really awesome. Although this series has some romantic elements, do not read this if you'd primarily like another romantic series - you'll only end up disappointed, as Hayakawa goes so far with the romance and no further for volume after volume after volume. What this series is best at is humor. I've written about volumes 15 and 16 of the manga.
- High School Debut (manga) by Kazune Kawahara - Haruna, a cheerful tomboy, has never had a boyfriend. Now that she's in high school, she's determined to change things. Unfortunately, she has absolutely no idea how to become more feminine and attract a boy's interest. When she meets handsome and popular Yoh, she gets him to agree to teach her about dating and what boys like. The only condition: Haruna must not fall in love with Yoh - and of course she and Yoh both fail miserably at this. This is another sweet romantic school story featuring a likable heroine who tries way too hard. One of the things I love about this series is that Haruna doesn't end up with Yoh because she changes herself, but rather because Yoh gets to know her and likes her for who she is. I've written about the first four volumes of the manga.
- Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - After Tohru Honda's mother died, she went to live with her grandfather, but, rather than get in anyone's way while his house was being remodeled, she opted to live in a tent in the woods. When Yuki Sohma, the most popular boy at school, and Shigure Sohma find out about her, they offer to let her stay at their place. Tohru soon learns that the Sohma family has been hiding a big secret: when certain members of the family become weak or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into one of the animals in the Chinese zodiac. Those who'd like another series featuring an incredibly nice heroine might want to try this.
- Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - Another high school romance series starring a couple that needs to learn to be more open about their feelings. The heroine of this series is the closest to being a Kurumi-type character I can think of off the top of my head.
- S.A. (manga) by Maki Minami; S.A. (anime TV series) - Those who loved Kazehaya's frustration over his seemingly unrequited love for Sawako may enjoy this series. Just one warning: I don't know how the manga ends, but the anime, if I remember correctly, doesn't really wrap up the romance in a satisfying way. I have written about the anime.
- Natsume's Book of Friends (manga) by Yuki Midorikawa; Natsume's Book of Friends (anime TV series) - This is a supernatural slice-of-life series, rather than a romance. Fans of Sawako may like Natsume, another character who has spent most of his life friendless and alone. While Sawako had her parents for support, Natsume only had vague memories of his father's love. Those who'd like another lovely tear-jerker of a series with an incredibly kind main character should check this one out. I've written about all four seasons of the anime.