It is one of the most easily recognizable names in Asian entertainment. The manga Kamio Youko created back in 1992 has now been adopted into an anime series, two movies, a Taiwanese drama, a Japanese drama and a Korean drama. Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) is that quintessential Cinderella story that took Asia by storm.
We all know the story. Makino Tsukushi attends the prestigious Eitoku High School. She’s a mere commoner, she can’t stand her elitist classmates and she hates the “F4”, the four most powerful boys in the school who rule Eitoku with an iron fist and handsome faces. But she has one and a half year more to go so she bears it quietly, hoping to be left alone by whatever it is the rich and the wealthy in Eitoku do. But as fate would have it, her wish is not granted and her life is soon entangled with that of “F4”. A whirlwind of quarrels, bickerings, love, confusion, friendship and heartbreaks ensue. The Asian entertainment world decided they wanted such whirlwind and on comes three dramas from three different countries – Taiwan’s Meteor Garden, Japan’s Hana Yori Dango and Korea’s Boys Over Flowers. What came after was the inevitable comparison between the three – which is the best Hana Yori Dango version of them all?
I pick that which nearly all the rest did – the Japanese version.
Here comes the inevitable comparison. Should I somehow cause offense to anybody, I don’t care. This is my blog, why don’t you go and bash my review in your own? (I’m saying that in a nice tone..)
METEOR GARDEN (Taiwanese)
The first of the three. I wouldn’t deny its ‘phenomenon-ality’. It swept Asia into a frenzy of squealing girls, opened numerous doors for its five stars and successfully dared to take the name of the “F4” and made it into one of the most popular Asian bands. Oh the screams and the many posters of different sizes I saw everywhere when it aired. Was it a very good television series? Perhaps, I guess it was okay, even if I was never taken aback by it. Although the acting improved as the series went on, no one acted very well, the characters weren’t that developed, and I couldn’t feel the closeness or the chemistry or the easy friendship between Shan Cai and the two other members of the F4, Xi Men and Mei Zuo (it actually made me think they weren’t that close at all), heck, I didn’t even feel any of the strong friendship the F4 supposedly represents. I didn’t like the production or the set design – instead of a luxurious, prestigious school, they presented a dull elite school shot with too much darkness and far less color. And the drama series dragged on. Where were the expensive brand names, the vibrant colors that showed luxury, the closeness between the characters? Where was Shan Cai’s youthful and spunky personality? Kamio Youko’s manga was not a chapter by chapter crying fest. It was an alternate, and a sometimes snychronic mixture of comedy, drama, and the touching moments in between them. Where was the comedy?
For all its faults, I would give Meteor Garden two things: one, they were the only ones who remained faithful to the manga; and second, they hit, spot-on, the ideal physical embodiment of the “F4”. They were tall, they were handsome, and their smiles did made girls giddy. And they had, physically at least, the most perfect version of Hanazawa Rui, or in this case, Hua Ze Lei.
BOYS OVER FLOWERS (Korean)
Here is a Makino who shouts at her mother. I hated their Geum Jan Di. I didn’t like her one bit. They didn’t get the character at all. She was suppose to be spunky, not loud – there’s a world of difference between the two. And she certainly is not supposed to be innocent and stupid.
Now that I’ve got that out, this is what I have to say:
I admire Boys Over Flowers for their ambition. They had taken a much too recycled plot line and gave it a refreshing tweak. Instead of taking the straight path so many had treaded on, they had dared to take the sidelines and walked the road not taken by those before them. Were they successful? Perhaps. Was it good? It was as any average Korean drama is – enjoyable. And therein lies the answer.
The truth of the matter was that it wasn’t good good. It was eyecandy toppled over a drama series that could have been better. It wasn’t among the best Korean dramas there is, dear God no. Where did it go wrong? Certainly not in the clothes, the look of luxury, the production design, and the style. Where then? They were too caught up in becoming the best version they didn’t realize that the drama has dragged on too much. They added a lot of twists that there were too many things going on that had nothing to do with the actual story. They looked at the big picture and tried too hard they forgot the little essential things – like understanding Makino’s (Jan Di’s) actual character, the development of all members of the F4, and the building of the main plot. It lacked proper direction and suffered from far too many wrong decisions in its script. And the acting was a mixed bag. The F4 gets the good side of that bag. The show promises that Lee Min Ho can, without a doubt, act. For a complicated character like Gu Jun Pyo, he played him well. Koo Hye Sun as Geum Jan Di gets the other side of the bag though. She overacted too much it made me cringe. And although she improves as the show progresses nothing will ever change the fact that she didn’t understand her character at all.
Did they aim too high they failed? Perhaps not. Korean dramas had never failed to give both the romance and the drama. Boys Over Flowers is not an exception. It made girls sigh and smile and await wide eyed as the drama unfolds. The F4 was as stylish, tall and good-looking as could get. If Meteor Garden had the physically ideal Hanazawa Rui (Hua Ze Lei), Boys Over Flowers had the physically ideal Domyoji Tsukasa (Gu Jun Pyo). My only complaint though is that they were styled too much it made them look so gay. Yoon Ji Hoo, for example, was too blonde I had to frown at his hair whenever he’s on screen. Why stylists would do that is beyond me.
Did Boys Over Flowers deliver? Perhaps for some. It was an average Korean drama that aimed a bit too high it missed the spot. Its popularity can be partly attributed to the good looks of its lead actors, the Hana Yori Dango obsession, and the reason why people watch korean dramas. But it was eyecandy. And for me, that isn’t enough.
HANA YORI DANGO (Japanese)
The Japanese version cannot boast to have the best looking F4. With the sole exception of Oguri Shun as Hanazawa Rui, they are not, physically speaking, the ideal F4. But they can boast to have the best Makino Tsukushi and they can boast that they were held by majority of those who have seen the three versions to be the best of them all.
The manga is 241 or so chapters long, Hana Yori Dango spans for two seasons, the first a mere nine episodes and the second with ten episodes. With a manga that long, you would think the directors and producers crammed it all up and in the process botched up the series. You are quite wrong. It is a highly focused show and no moment is wasted. But it respects the manga, it understands it and so nothing is quite rushed. The characters are perfectly fleshed out and developed in a short period of time with their relationships perfectly established and shown. It is well directed, it is well-written and with all the clothes, the luxury and the stylish brand names, it is well-financed. It is well acted as well. This is a fine example of a drama done right.
Here is a version that shows the friendship that borders on familial between the members of the F4, here is a version that shows the easy friendship between Makino Tsukushi and each of the members of the F4 (yes, that includes the other two). And finally, a version that has managed to introduce us to each and every member of the F4 and left none of them at the backburner.
It has topnotch character development.
We see Makino Tsukushi played to the teeth by Inoue Mao, spunky, youthful and kind as Kamio Youko has envisioned her to be. We watch as her feelings for Hanazawa Rui turn from crush to friendship, we watch at her surprise as she slowly finds herself falling for Domyoji Tsukasa, and we watch as she establishes a friendship with the group she had so previously hated (F4). From the very first few minutes of the series, we know they got the character of Makino spot on, and we like what we see.
Matsumoto Jun proved himself a highly capable actor, able to display the differing aspects that makes Domyoji Tsukasa a complicated character to play. The other versions never showed how violent and arrogant Domyoji Tsukasa can be, but here the show unapologetically introduces him as such and we are left disgusted and annoyed. But the want for justice is lost when we are shown just how lonely and vulnerable he is. We don’t wonder why the critics have penned Matsumoto Jun as the real Domyoji Tsukasa.
Hanazawa Rui is, without a doubt, Makino’s Prince Charming. He is and will always be her Knight in Shining Armor. He is that for the viewers as well. Played by Oguri Shun who certainly looked the part of a Rui who is really still so much a young child at heart. His acting may not be the best, but it’s believable. We still see the delicateness behind the cold, aloof and quiet exterior. The series makes sure that we are saddened that he didn’t realize his feelings for Makino sooner, had he did they would have been together. It sees to it that we still want him to get the girl for once, despite better knowledge.
The relationship between the three is well-established. We see the unbreakable connection between Makino and Rui, the love between Domyoji and Makino and the strong friendship between Domyoji and Rui. The love triangle is strongly shown and the emotional connections laid bare. There is a particular scene in an earlier episode where Rui and Makino are talking in that stairway corner that has always been strictly theirs, they are intimate and we see that they really have a chance to be together; Domyoji, who had been following Makino, quietly stumbles upon them. The look of guilt etches on Rui’s and Makino’s faces and our hearts break with Domyoji as he sadly and frustratingly looks at them both and quietly leaves. A touching scene that only a strong direction can pull off. In a lesser drama, they would have featured rotating camera angles, but here they do not, and by doing so, they capture the raw emotions as they are.
The other core characters are well-developed as well. We finally get to know the other two members of F4 – Nishikado Soujiro and Mimasaka Akira and the roles they play.
Nishikado Soujiro (Matsuda Shota) is the heir of a tea company and one of the two playboys in the F4. He is kind, he is a charmer, he is one who keeps the peace in the group but he loses his temper easily when things don’t go well. In the manga and in the other two versions it is shown that Soujiro and Makino’s close friend fall in love with each other, but here it isn’t. Which is a pity.
Mimasaka Akira (Tsuyoshi Abe) is the playboy who loves older women. Perhaps owing to the fact that he comes from a family who is powerful in the Japanese underground, he is the only member of the group who keeps his cool and rarely loses his temper. He is, inarguably, the most mature and kindest member of the F4 and is the glue who keeps the group together. Makino’s friendship with the two of them, especially with Akira, is shown and is unquestioned.
One of Hana Yori Dango’s strongest points is the chemistry between each of the lead actors. And for a mangaka who values character development in her works, each of the key players are laid bare. But is it without fault? Of course not. With all its character development and focus on the main storyline the romance aspect of the series suffered. Of course there were still romantic scenes but they’re not as romantic as the Korean version can present. The sidestory of Soujiro and Yuuki, Makino’s close friend, is left, to my disappointment, unexplored. Nine episodes is a short amount of time for some feelings to fully develop and when they do it seems like it comes out from nowhere even when there has been hints or explanations from the previous episode. Moreover, we are left to wonder exactly when and how Rui realized his feelings for Makino. – Luckily, all these isn’t too noticeable. They are faults and observations that are easily forgiven and are left in the corner owing to its strong direction, a well-written script and top-notch acting. Those plus an incredible number of background music impeccably timed, not to reflect, but to perfectly enhance the emotions of a scene.
The Japanese version of Hana Yori Dango is the best because it showed us a quality drama can be made over a recycled plot. It makes us laugh and cry without shoving the scenes or emotions down our throats. It is one of the strongly-directed, best produced, well-written and most entertaining shows that can be seen. The manga is noted for its high character development and quality story, it received the Shogakukan Manga Award and is considered as one of the best shoujo manga ever written. Finally, here is a live action version that gives the manga the quality it deserves.
*The Japanese version was not much of a hit in the Philippines. It is for the reason why Filipinos love Korean dramas, why we watch Philippine soap operas, and why Japanese dramas just don’t really market here. An unfortunate thing, really, for it is in Japanese dramas that I’ve seen two of the best drama series to have graced the small screen, one of them being Hana Yori Dango and the other Nobuta Wo Produce.
* This blogpost is owed to my mother. She who asked me to buy the Boys Over Flowers DVD and ordered me to download the Hana Yori Dango jdorama. It’s because I’m rewatching it.