Without sugar coating anything, I am a pure, unadulterated fangirl. So it’s not really a surprise that as soon as I come off my hiatus, I ended up binge watching. What is more of a surprise, is that I didn’t start with anime.
In a moment of nostalgia, I made the impulse decision to revisit a series I started when I was sixteen, but never finished. Hana Yori Dango, was my first (and only) foray into the world of J-Dramas, but I doubt it’ll be my last.
Based on the shoujo manga by Yoko Kamio, Hana Yori Dango follows the story of Makino Tsukushi, and her life in the prestigious Eitoku Academy. As a girl from a poor family, she is a weed in a garden of flowers, never quite fitting in. Matters are made worse when she confronts the F4, rich heirs of large corporations and the gang that literally rules the school. She quickly becomes the target of large-scale bullying, complicated by one of the F4, Hanazawa Rui, intervening. After being saved by Rui, she develops feelings for him, only to find out that he is in love with her idol – the model and Eitoku alumnus, Shizuka Toudou. As if Makino wasn’t confused already, the ringleader of the F4 and the reason for her persecution, Domyouji Tsukasa, asks her out on a date.
Hana Yori Dango’s popularity is no doubt influenced by the legendary boyband Arashi. Not only do they provide the openings for both seasons, but member Jun Matsumoto stars as Makino’s second love interest – Domyouji Tsukasa. This is not his first acting role, as he debuted on television seven years beforehand, but it is his most popular by far, earning him two Best Supporting Actor awards at the 47th Television Drama Academy Awards and the 10th Nikkan Sports Drama Grand Prix. While the appeal of talented attractive young men is not Hana Yori Dango’s only charm, it definitely helps with the teenage girl demographic.
Because I have no interest in bishounen beauty, the main storyline and drama was the main selling point for me. While the rags to riches, will-they-won’t-they, and love triangle tropes are ridiculously cheesy, overused, and predictable, Hana Yori Dango somehow seems to make it work.
In fact, it wouldn’t be the same without the cliché.
Makino’s confusion between her feelings for Domyouji and Rui drives the majority of the plot. In many series, this can quickly become boring. But Hana Yori Dango manages to give both love interests a fighting chance, making either option believable until the last possible moment. In true love triangle style, I decided where my loyalties lay relatively quickly, but unlike other shows, they weren’t set in stone from the start.
One reason for this was the character development. While Domyouji starts off as an arrogant man-child pretending to be a playboy, he gradually softens to show his sensitive side. While he finds it difficult to be completely honest about his feelings a lot of the time, and often seems rude, he legitimately tries to become a better man. Because of this, Domyouji Tsukasa is a more interesting character to follow than Hanazawa Rui. While Rui has to decide between his feelings between Makino and Shizuka, his development is found in his choices and not his growth as a person. He is a valuable character but he stays relatively the same throughout, making Domyouji’s personality more multi-faceted and exciting.
The other two members of the F4 may be sidelined in comparison, but their backstories and characters are also explored, with Mimasaka Akira becoming a more respectable businessman and Nishikado Soujirou confronting his commitment issues. They start using their wealth for good, rather than their own greed.
One thing I would have like to see developed more is Domyouji dealing with his violent urges and managing his anger. While part of his attempt at being a good boyfriend was not fighting as much, he was still impulsive and aggressive at the end of the series.
Overall, Hana Yori Dango is the perfect guilty pleasure. Despite the fact that it can
cross the line into cliché territory very regularly, the characters are well rounded enough to overcome the cheesiness. The antagonists are believable, if not a touch melodramatic, and while the increasing misfortune of Makino’s family does become somewhat frustrating, it does drive the plot for the majority of the first season. To fully appreciate the series, you do need to let yourself go and just enjoy it, but in this case, that isn’t too hard to do. The chemistry between the characters, particularly Domyouji and Makino, turns this drama into pure escapism – which isn’t surprising given that the actors, Jun Matsumoto and Mao Inoue, are getting supposedly married this month, almost a decade after the first episode aired.