Being a Better Man: The healthy masculinity of MY love STORY!!

By: Garrick Schultz August 19, 20220 Comments
Sunakawa, Takeo, and Yamato from My Love Story sitting around a table together. Takeo and Yamato are both blushing comically, surrounding by little flowers

Spoilers for MY love STORY!!

In the third episode of MY love STORY!!, Takeo, an oversized, overzealous high school boy, is having a conversation with Yamato, the sweet girl he has a crush on. He’s convinced that Yamato is attracted to his cool, handsome friend Sunakawa, just like every girl he’s ever had a crush on. Despite how much it hurts him to give up on her, he’s committed to helping Yamato get together with the person he thinks she’s in love with. “Don’t worry,” he thinks, “I’m a man. I won’t make you uncomfortable by confessing my feelings to you.”

Of course, what Takeo doesn’t realize is that Yamato’s in love with him. After Sunakawa helps clear up that misunderstanding, the stage is set for twenty-one more episodes of tooth-rottingly adorable rom-com shenanigans. But I find myself thinking back to this moment a lot, how Takeo frames putting Yamato’s feelings first as “manly.” So often in stories, when characters talk about “being a man” or “what a man would do,” it’s to reinforce toxic ideals of masculinity, such as aggression, sexual dominance, or emotional suppression. But in MY love STORY!!, the protagonist is framed as manly for respecting  the feelings of the girl he likes. If Takeo truly loves Yamato, the show posits, then the manly thing to do is to support her in her pursuit of happiness, even if there was no “reward” in store.

This little moment encapsulates My Love Story’s greatest strength: its portrayal of healthy masculinity. Beyond the fantastic production values and adorable chemistry between the leads, this show is a shining example of how masculinity can be a force for kindness and compassion, a force that lifts up men and women alike; often directly challenging and subverting toxicity. Truth be told, it may be the single most healthy portrayal of masculinity I’ve seen in fiction.

Takeo gripping Sunakawa by the shoulders, openly weeping with rivers of tears going down his face. Subtitle text reads: Suna, you're the manliest of men!

There’s a lot of reasons why, but chief among them is Takeo himself. Because he looks like a big, scary hulk, a lot of people assume at first glance that he’s a dangerous guy and keep their distance. But beneath that exterior, he’s a big softie who cries when he’s emotional, openly admires all his friends, and throws himself into being a good person with the intensity and dedication of a samurai on a mission for his shogun. In direct contrast to toxic masculinity, which says men should repress their emotions and hide their feelings from those they care about, Takeo wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid who sees it. There’s not a shred of ego in this boy: he just wants to make people happy and do right by his loved ones. And while his intense nature can be overbearing, a flaw he learns to work on throughout the show, his heart is always in the right place.

Nowhere is this idea better expressed than Episode 7, when Takeo is roped into helping out the judo club at the expense of spending time with Yamato. It’s presented as a classic dichotomy between doing Manly Things and being a softie for his GF; his opponent on the dojo mat explicitly refers to Takeo’s love for Yamato as a weakness, proof that he isn’t “man” enough to be the best judo fighter. But he wards the misogynistic judo boys off with a simple statement: “Girlfriends… are wonderful.”

Throughout the episode, Takeo’s strength in the world of sports isn’t at odds with his love for Yamato. Quite the opposite, in fact: they support each other. He stays in contact with her outside of training, and knowing she’s watching helps him put his best effort in, triumphing over his opponent who thinks he’s too much of a wimp. This episode’s message essentially boils down to “Men openly caring for the women in their life makes them stronger than emotional repression.” 

The judo club gathered around Takeo and Yamato. Yamato is much, much shorter than the boys. Subtitle text reads: I want you watching from up close!

That’s not to say Takeo never makes mistakes. Indeed, that intense desire to do good coupled with a lack of social awareness means he can be bad at stopping to think about the actions he’s taking, and what the consequences of those actions might actually be. Sometimes, he messes up, such as when he inadvertently slut-shames Yamato by saying he values her purity, despite her growing desire to get more physically intimate with him. In his mind, he’s doing the right thing by being respectful of her boundaries, but he doesn’t realize he’s boxing her into a role she doesn’t feel comfortable with.

To Takeo’s credit, though, he’s at least aware of how dense he can be. And when he realizes that Yamato’s uncomfortable with what he said, he doesn’t just shrug it off; he tries to understand what might be troubling her because her happiness matters to him. He rightfully recognizes that Yamato could stand to be more open in communicating with him as well, but he knows that ultimately, what matters most is that he understands what’s bothering her so he can be the best man for her he possibly can. And my god, the moment he finally apologizes to her and re-affirms his love for her, physical intimacy and all, made me break down crying on the spot. It is so damn powerful to see a male romantic lead own up to his mistakes and commit to doing better for her.

(There’s also a really good conversation to be had about how this show’s positive portrayal of female sexuality, but that’s an article for another day.)

Closeup of Yamato clasping her hands together and looking out of frame. Her eyes are sparkling and her head is surrounded by love hearts

What’s especially refreshing about MY love STORY!!, though, is that it places as much importance on platonic friendship as it does on romance. Takeo’s friendship with Sunakawa isn’t just ancillary; their relationship is just as important to Takeo as his relationship with Yamato. Ever since they were kids, they’ve been a positive force in each other’s lives. Sunakawa helps Takeo out of trouble and shares in his embarrassment, while Takeo’s earnestness helps Sunakawa through the darker moments of his life, such as his father’s health troubles.

In addition, despite Sunakawa being a magnet for so many girls’ affections, he always turns them down for one reason: these girls were always talking about Takeo behind his back. It’s another moment that’s explicitly described as “manly”: being a man means being there for your friends and valuing their happiness just as much as your own. Throughout the show, Suna’s friendship and Yamato’s romance are presented on equal footing, both important relationships for Takeo that don’t need to overwhelm or compete with each other.

This isn’t just reserved for same-gender friendships either. One of toxic masculinity’s most harmful lies is that men and women can’t be friends; they can only ever interact as potential mates because it’s “coded in our genes” to see the so-called opposite sex through a purely romantic and/or sexual lens. But once again, MY love STORY!!  takes that toxic idea and throws it in the trash. There’s a pair of arcs later in the series in which Takeo and Sunakawa deal with unrequited crushes from other girls.

Closeup of Sunakawa, his expression neutral. Subtitle text reads: Who'd want to date girls that talk smack about your friends?

Neither of these crushes work out, of course. Takeo’s fully committed to Yamato, and Sunakawa just generally seems content not to be in a relationship at this point in his life (personally, I read Sunakawa as aro/ace). But they remain friends with these girls all the same, because despite not reciprocating their romantic feelings, they still like them and appreciate the bonds they’ve developed. 

The antagonist of the show’s final arc, an arrogant patissier named Ichinose who tries to woo Yamato, is characterized as the antithesis to Takeo and Sunakawa. He’s rude and dismissive to those he sees as below him, he doesn’t try to understand other people’s feelings, and the only thing he cares about is his own self-betterment. He has no respect for the people around him and actively steps over the line trying to impose his will on them. He sees Takeo as nothing but a brutish oaf whom Yamato would be better off without, and he attempts to win her over as if it’s a matter of common sense that such a “delicate flower” would be better off with a sophisticated, gentlemanly guy like him instead. 

And yet, despite how different Ichinose and Takeo are, they actually do have one thing in common: both of these boys are deeply insecure about their self-worth. Thanks to a lifetime of rejection, Takeo sees pretty much everyone else as better than him in some way—more charming, more sociable, more ambitious, more worthy of the good things in life. As such, while his presence makes everyone’s lives better, he’s always quick to sacrifice his own happiness to achieve that result. Ichinose, despite how much work and effort he’s put into being a patissier, still has very little faith in his abilities.

Closeup of Ichinose, surrounded by dramatic blue and white text. Both subtitles and this text read: I'm a better fit for Rinko for sure!

So when he falls in love with Yamato, he seizes on the chance to turn her into his “muse,” acting as if just having her around will be inspiration enough for him to become a legendary chef. He projects his success onto her because he doesn’t believe himself capable of accomplishing great feats on his own.

This, too, is evidence of the difference between healthy and toxic masculinity: how one responds to perceived weakness.Toxic masculinity teaches boys they have to be tough, that showing or feeling weakness is a sign that you should just toughen up and deal with it. It’s an incredibly harmful mindset that leaves boys and men unable to process their emotions, and Ichinose is a prime example of just how badly that mindset can mess someone up. If he were just able to accept how scared he feels about not measuring up, and look for ways to improve where he feels he’s lacking, his life would be a lot easier. But because he’s convinced himself he has to be strong no matter what, he ends up lashing out in deeply concerning ways. His mindset is harmful both to himself and the people around him, stunting his own emotional well-being while threatening the happiness of those caught in his wake.

These notions of masculinity bring us back to the “manly” moment I discussed at the beginning of this article, and make it particularly fascinating. Because while Takeo putting Yamato’s feelings before his own is certainly the right thing to do, it’s also another form of emotional suppression. While it’s nowhere near the selfish, self-serving delusion of Ichinose, the show makes it clear that Takeo isn’t the best at addressing his own emotional needs. Far from ignoring his imperfections, he’s so painfully aware of his imperfections that they come to dominate his self-image. He has no problem helping other people; he’s just not very good at helping himself in the process.

Takeo, Yamato, and Sunakawa walking together against a dark blue night sky. Subtitle text reads: Yamato, I want to become a great man.

So when Takeo describes putting Yamato’s feelings first as “manly,” is it a positive representation of masculinity that seeks to uplift others? Or is it a negative representation of masculinity that pushes one’s own feelings down and tries to tough it out? In the end, it’s both. MY love STORY!! sees both sides of the “manliness” portrayed in this moment, and from this starting point, it sets Takeo on a path to disentangle the good from the bad.

As the show goes on, he becomes more comfortable pushing past his initial assumptions and trying to meet people on their level, and more capable of examining himself and figuring out exactly the kind of person he wants to be. He learns to wield his desire to help people more effectively, and he learns how to do so without sacrificing his own emotional well-being. His efforts to make other people happy are never criticized; it’s only his failure to attend to his own happiness that he must work to overcome.

That’s what ultimately makes Takeo different from Ichinose: he tries. He’s aware of his flaws, he works to overcome them, and he actually takes the time to puzzle out his emotions when he can’t reconcile them. Even when struggling with jealousy towards Ichinose, he never hesitates to support Yamato’s desire to learn from him or help his not-quite-romantic-rival out when he’s in a pinch, because not even jealousy stops him from caring. And because of that, he’s able to do the one thing that Ichinose can’t: grow. He grows into someone who can understand both himself and others more deeply than ever before, someone who can easily balance his needs with the needs of the people he loves. Through Takeo, the narrative constructs an ethos of masculinity where there is nothing more manly than being honest with yourself as you strive to be a better person for your own sake and for the people you care about.

Sunakawa, Takeo, and Yamato from My Love Story sitting around a table together. Takeo and Yamato are both blushing comically, surrounding by little flowers

Healthy masculinity is a complex web of concepts that can be hard to come by in fiction. For every positive portrayal of what “being a man” looks like, there are countless more than revel in poisonous power fantasies or uncritically hold up tenants of toxic masculinity as goals to strive for. But through its characters and their relationships, MY love STORY!! supports a vision of masculinity where boys and men can be openly emotional and not be shamed for it. Where you’re allowed to struggle and be unsure of yourself as long as you’re always trying to be better. Where caring deeply about the people that matter to you is a strength, not a weakness. Where romantic and platonic bonds alike are something to be cherished equally. This is the kind of masculinity the world needs more of, and I could not be more thankful to MY love STORY!! for providing such a fantastic blueprint. I only hope the next generation of boys grows up to be more like Takeo and Sunakawa, and the healthy masculinity they represent, than the toxic mindsets this show does such a good job subverting.

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