Thoughts on ... Boys Over Flowers // Hana Yori Dango (review)
Boys Over Flowers (BOF), or “silly girls falling in love with trash boys” is a manga series written by Yoko Kamio. It is insanely popular, but I never knew exactly how seminal this text was until I had read twenty chapters or so, after which I decided to give it a quick Google search to determine whether or not I was wasting my time. It turns out that Boys Over Flowers, written between 1992-2008, is the best-selling shojo manga of all time, and based on the premise, quite a few shojo romances that I’ve enjoyed over the years have been inspired by the story in some way or other. I read it because I was looking for a fun shojo to read, and the Shonen Jump Twitter page announced that it had been added to their vault. For £2 a month I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much manga I have access to now, and I’m really hoping that Hakusensha and other companies follow suit in the future.
Tsukushi Makino is a poor girl with insufferable parents who attends the exclusive Eitoku Academy for rich elite kids. Four boys, dubbed the F4 (Flowery Four), rule the school in the most sadistic way possible. They are all sons of some of the biggest companies in Japan, and their de-facto leader, Tsukasa, is heir to the Domyoji empire. When the F4 decides they don’t like someone, they leave a red slip in their locker, after which the entire school relentlessly bullies the victim until they finally give up and leave permanently. Even teachers join in. Due to an altercation, Tsukushi receives a red slip in her locker and goes to war with the rest of the school, eventually coming head-to-head with the F4 and Tsukasa.
It’s an interesting premise and I like how headstrong Tsukushi is at the start of the story. She’s not a pushover, and unlike her predecessors, she doesn’t allow the red slip to stop her from attending the school, in fact, she faces challenges head on, much to the surprise of her peers. But the series has a lot of issues, and I wonder if it is a victim of its time, when violent masculinity as a mask for affection was still seen as cute, and the slow depreciation of a strong female lead as a result of her falling in love was just accepted as normal young adult behaviour. I don’t know. But there is a lot of that sort of thing in this story and at almost 250 chapters it gets tiring very quickly.
Let’s look at the F4. Tsukasa is the heir of the Domyoji company, a global powerhouse that pretty much keeps the Japanese economy afloat. He is violent, headstrong, unable to articulate his feelings without shouting or resorting to insults. He also has abandonment issues because his parents never looked after him as he grew up, resulting in his “spoilt rich kid” persona. His larger than life personality inevitably makes him the head of the group. Rui Hanazawa is the aloof airhead, and the person who Tsukushi initially falls in love with. I genuinely think he’s the only decent member of the group. Sojiro and Akira are both self-confessed playboys who run through several women a week, although Akira spends a lot of time sleeping around with grown married women despite him only being a high school senior. I wish we were given some sort of STD-side story with these two, because their sexual habits are incredibly unhealthy. They also like to pressure Tsukasa into having sex with various women, but he’s immature and a prude so it never works out.
Overall, I don’t really think any of their personalities are glamourised. but they aren’t challenged, either. No character faces proper consequences for their behaviours: Tsukasa smashes a homemade cake in a girl’s face, and the scene changes humorously. Rui Hanazawa fools around with Tsukushi knowing full well that his best friend Tsukasa is in love with her, but after a few chapters and a basketball game, the tension dissipates. Tsukushi’s parents are gold-digging freeloaders, but there’s never a proper conversation between the family to address their shameless antics at trying to marry her off to a rich man so that they don’t have to work, very unlike the difficult mother-daughter relationship explored in another Shojo romance-comedy, Skip Beat! Other characters are hurt or display extremely unpleasant personalities, like Umi from the hospital, but she is forgiven quickly and the blame for her trying to manipulate a sick and amnesiac Tsukasa is placed on Tsukasa himself. It’s very frustrating to read.
There’s also the violence. Early on in the story, during her ordeals, Tsukasa physically abuses Tsukushi and then attempts to rape her. Because she cries and gets scared, he stops himself. Neither party recalls this incident again as their love develops, and his previous behaviour is never countered or challenged by his friends. I knew early on that Tsukasa would be the main love interest, but after the slap and rape attempt I was thrown a little and thought “oh, maybe she does end up with Rui Hanazawa after all”. It then became increasingly disturbing that Tsukasa’s initial violence towards Tsukushi is never addressed and blown off as his awkward way of telling her that he has feelings for her.
I understand that this is a romcom so obviously I’m expecting hijinks and mishaps, but after a while the whirlwind becomes so tiresome. New characters are introduced into the story every few chapters, and every one of them becomes a love rival to disrupt the main pair’s relationship. It’s almost as if Kamio’s editor said “we need another conflict to pad the story here” and up comes another rando to drag the story on for far too many chapters longer. Even though I think they’re a toxic couple, I was begging them to get together, just to take me out of my misery and put a stop to the pointless stalling. Tsukushi’s deliberations about whether or not she loves Tsukasa, even though it was obvious she does, quickly loses their charm and the long-awaited coupling drags on for probably 100 chapters. Also, it’s interesting that this story started in school but halfway through , no one is in school anymore. Tsukushi is in her uniform, but she is regularly whisked away from her classes by some member of the F4 to visit cafes, taken on shotgun holidays, spirited away to remote islands and yacht parties, flown to New York, and forced to spend the night with Tsukasa in various forms by their friends, who just want the two of them to fuck.
There are several things the story does well, though. Rui Hanazawa is an interesting character, and he is regularly the voice of reason. Without him, the plot would never move. Yuki’s evolution as Tuskushi’s church mouse side-kick to confident and assertive young woman, haircut and all, is really nice to see, and I like the dynamic between Tsukushi and the rest of the school. Like her or loathe her, she really does transform the people around her, like a deranged version of Tohru from Fruits Basket, and the character evolutions are natural and well-paced. It’s also a very funny series. I laughed out loud more than once. It’s clear the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, and any scene with the long-suffering Kazuya is a treat. As an aside, the artwork has a drastic change halfway through the series. At first it was very dated, very 90’s in style, and then it grew to be extraordinarily pretty, before devolving a little bit towards the end, with everyone’s facial features melding into cookie-cutter copies. At some point I couldn’t tell the difference between Sojiro and Rui Hanazawa, and Yuki started to look strangely similar to Sara and Shigeru.
The ending is probably the biggest disappointment. 243 chapters, and we never see Tsukasa return to Japan to continue his relationship with the girl he beat up half the school for. After all their circling around each other, we don’t even get a wedding? No final chapter with kids? No flash-forward to their joint empire, with Tsukasa finally taking the reins after his father’s declining health, and Tsukushi becoming… wait, what did she even want to do with her life, anyway? Almost 250 chapters, and we’re never told what her plans are after she finishes school. I’m aware that there are two spin-off series, but based on the synopsis of the main one (Boys Over Flowers: Jewelry Box), the things I was expecting to see as a fitting end to their crazy relationship drama are still nowhere to be found. Give me a wedding.
This review is harsher that I thought, but I think my feelings are still raw as I finished it very recently. I just spent a fortnight off work. Two weeks of very little contact with friends and family, just me, my snacks, my computer and my manga. I began A Game of Thrones (the novel) before my annual leave started, and it stared at me wistfully every day whilst I ignored it. This time off will be for manga, I told myself, incestuous war dramas can wait a bit while I finally catch up on all the series I never really get to read during my working weeks. To think that I spent so much time on Boys Over Flowers made me a little depressed in the end. Thankfully, I spent the evenings re-reading Berserk. I’m currently on the Falcon Of the Millennium Empire arc, which is great.
I dunno, “read this if you want” is the message here, if only to witness a bit of historical significance. It’s not too harmful, but the problematic elements will really jump out at you if you’re used to reading more sophisticated shojo. Maybe this is sacrilege because BOF came before, but if you want a fun story about a poor girl fumbling her way through elite life then I don’t think you can go wrong Ouran High School Host Club. Similarly, Maid-Sama is another series about a headstrong girl who remains headstrong, butting heads with a rich elite boy who never disrespects her or tries to rape her at all. Also, we get our wedding.
I’ll give this a 6/10.