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Buried Treasure
Boys over Flowers (Hana Yori Dango)

by Justin Sevakis,

As a guy, I've always wondered what the hell it is women see in us. Guys are big, brutish, and occasionally smelly. Compared to women we tend to be slobs, as most of us spend little time or effort on personal upkeep. That anybody, let alone half of the human species, finds us even marginally attractive is completely mystifying to me. For the most part, the anime scene has done nothing to explain this, as most of the popular male characters appear to be suffering from a testosterone deficiency, and therefore have little in common with the traits I expect to be so universally repellant. It appears, among anime fans at least, that even straight women don't really like us, and settle for artwork that settles into a nice compromise somewhere between the genders.

In fact, one of the only romance anime that I think even comes close to an honest discussion of the dynamics of gender relations is the seminal Hana Yori Dango. And though it has its share of heart warming moments, there are aspects of it that are nothing short of disturbing.

Boys Over Flowers (Hana Yori Dango)

Tsukushi Makino comes from a dirt poor family, but thanks to her hard work she's managed to get into a top school. This school happens to also be the home of the richest, most elite students in Japan, and the gang everybody -- even the faculty -- fears most is the F4. Despite the ludicrous name (the F is for "flowery!"), the F4 more or less run the school as if it were their gang turf, frequently resorting to brute intimidation and violence to get their way. They're also the richest in the school, and since everyone fears the power of their families, they pretty much just take the abuse.

Makino, however, has nothing to lose. She stands up to the F4's ringleader, Tsukasa Domyouji, and pisses him off to the point where he decides to give her a "red card" -- a command for the rest of the school to bully her as much as possible. But Makino won't go down without a fight, and her tenacity intrigues Domyouji. As she quietly becomes acquainted with his more mild-mannered best friend Rui Hanazawa, Domyouji begins to think more and more of Makino as a woman.

And that's when things REALLY start to get weird. Makino slowly finds herself hanging out with the gang more and more as Domyouji slowly begins to court her in the most awkward, ham-fisted way possible. She's utterly lost in this world of the super-rich, and doesn't know what to make of the guy (or all of his catty cling-ons that now want her dead). But the brash, angry and violent side of Domyouji doesn't just go away over night, and the two seem to butt heads more than get along. And yet, it's hard to ignore that there is, in fact, a spark there.

Based on one of the best-selling shojo manga in history, the animated verision of Hana Yori Dango (called HanaDan by its fans) was the last of the trilogy of Toei's cross-over shojo anime, after Ai Yazawa's Neighborhood Story and Marmalade Boy. Though all three were created with the intent of appealing to a more mainstream audience (and feeling more like a TV drama than an anime), HanaDan takes a decidedly more mature route. Its characters are deeply flawed, and the cuteness is few and far between. It's the most realistic of the three, and by far the darkest: Domyouji and those that would do his bidding are genuinely scary, and there are moments where Makino's life truly appears to be in danger. (As with the other two, girly toy product placement rears its ugly head, to much more of a bizarre effect in such a mature show.)

Artistically, the show is quite ambitious. Despite what is clearly a confined budget, the series is quite inventive in its use of surreal watercolor backgrounds, Dutch angles, artistic framing and a stringed orchestral soundtrack that adds to the air of elegance gone wrong. Director Shigeyasu Yamauchi wields the dramatic timing and tension with surprising dexterity (surprising, since his previous pedigree included things like Dragon Ball Z movies and Saint Seiya).

Hana Yori Dango has found even more life in live action form than it has in animated form, a testament to the manga's huge crossover appeal all across Asia. For the first part of this decade one could not walk into a Chinatown DVD store without being inundated by posters for the two Taiwanese series known as "Meteor Garden" and the fangirl-melting boyband spawned from its leads (officially marketing themselves as "F4"). Japan itself rebooted the series as a TV drama in 2005, continued it in 2007 and finished it with a movie last year. Last winter Korea began broadcasting an adaptation, and mainland China has yet another in the works.

I quite like the English version, despite how ordinary it sounds; a distinctly middle-of-the-road job by The Ocean Group. The English adaptation is simple and effective, and Kelly Sheridan is fantastic as Tsukushi, but at the same time the dub suffers from too-perfect enunciation (mostly from Michael Adamthwaite's Domyouji) and occasional awkward lines. It's not a noteworthy dub, but quite watchable.

The appeal of HanaDan can be explained in one word: its writing. Makino is a smart girl and a strong one, but at the same time is no superwoman. As the F4 begin to wear away at her defenses, she has days of dread and worry, where she makes terrible mistakes and failures of confidence. Even at his most unsympathetic, Domyouji seems more like a kid acting out than a monster, and he's easy to take pity on despite everything he has going for him. The dynamic between Makino and Domyouji is raw and real: a battle of wits and wills made complicated by mismatched social standings and hormones. It's an intellectually honest look at the interplay between teens, something that is disappointingly rare even in shoujo romance anime. The remainder of the F4 include two shallow playboy types and the mature and dignified Rui, who despite his already having found the love of his life, really has no amount of wisdom beyond that of his peers.

But after finishing Hana Yori Dango, I must confess that I'm now even more confused about what women want than before I started. I understand the appeal of the lifestyle the F4 represent: a life of glamorous parties and expensive luxury, and of escape from the day-to-day drudgery of the middle and lower classes. I understand the appeal of having a partner who is physically strong, nice to look at, and politically powerful. That said, (SPOILER ALERT) I find Tsukushi's ultimate choice of partner unconscionable, to the point that I fully expect her to end up in a shelter for battered women 5 or 10 years hence, perhaps clutching the hands of a well-dressed but bruised toddler, and perhaps hiring a lawyer to drain a certain ultra-successful family of their entire fortune. The idea of a strong woman like her seriously loving someone psychopathic, who has threatened to attack her sexually, made her fear for her life, and actually hit her in anger... that's just wrenchingly depressing.

I don't consider this upsetting ending to be a negative for the show itself. The conversation that a show with a twisted message can inspire is, itself, valuable, and I'm not altogether convinced that the undertone of hesitation in the ending isn't intentional. Is it an indictment of the tastes of hormone drenched teen girl fantasy, wherein a girl will happily give herself up for a man that represents fame, fortune and a little bit of danger? How girls coo for a bad guy with issues turned benevolent? In the end Tsukushi has resigned herself to living by the standards of someone else, someone potentially dangerous. She can stand up against him to a point, but then again, so could Tina Turner.

Perhaps such an ending is more acceptable in Asia than it is in the West. Americans tend to take for granted the "be anything you want to be" expectation of upward mobility that comes attached to the land as a birthright, even if it's usually an unrealized dream, and Tsukushi's crushing poverty perhaps doesn't feel as much of a dead end with the promise of reinventing oneself playing such a prevalent role in our society. Different attitudes about women's rights aside, in my experience Asia has a higher number of unassertive, weak men, so perhaps such a my-way-or-my-fist personality is a bit more refreshing in those parts of the world. We certainly have no shortage of jerkbags like that here.

Gender roles in society are changing, and I maintain that this is a positive thing. The role of domineering violent asshole is no longer the exclusive domain of men, and the soul-crushing role of subservience that was for centuries the role of women can now be found in the male half of marriages all around the world. These changes don't come easily, though, and it's all too easy to end up back where we started. For all of its escapist fantasy and girly surrealism, Hana Yori Dango is a reminder of the pull of tradition, and a reminder of how hard it is to stand up and truly change things. After all, even a girl like Makino doesn't stand a chance.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
The American release was a gigantic bomb; a combination of low demand (shoujo never did do very well in the States, with few exceptions) and a poor release strategy by Viz. A niche series like HanaDan was always a tough sell in the States, and Viz's insistance at releasing the 51-episode series in 12 individual volumes priced at $25 each... well, that was simply a non-starter for nearly everybody. Many fans were able to snag the entire series in one purchase a few years ago when Right Stuf blew it out for dirt cheap, but since then the show has gone out of print and is getting hard to find. The DVDs feature serviceable subtitles and video quality, so if you should happen upon the opportunity to pick it up, you might not get another chance.

Meanwhile, the myriad live action dramas are getting fansubbed like crazy, and a few are probably even available on DVDs that have subtitles. I once tried to watch Meteor Garden, but found it to be too cheesy and quickly turned it off.

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