Review: Hana Yori Dango (Season 1)

Okay. I have a secret confession to make.

Hana Yori Dango was the first official Japanese drama that I have ever watched. At that time, I was still a neophyte drama-watcher, and had neither exact expectations nor awareness of conventional drama formulas. Hana Yori Dango was my first love, a little darling that, like its earnest heroine Makino, tried its best in its endeavor to produce a lovable story. And it did, for the most part, do so, albeit with a few minor blunders. The show was an altogether cute and watchable treat, not unlike Japanese dango (sticky and sweet rice balls).

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The title of the series Hana Yori Dango quite literally translates to Sweets Over Flowers, a Japanese saying that refers to the idea of valuing substance over appearances. In this case, although flowers represent the physical aspect of beauty, they are quite useless for an individual in a practical sense, just as dango (a symbol for food) does not represent a visual statement, but is rather a nourishment for the body. This contrast refers to the differing lifestyles of F4, four elite male heirs to mega-corporations, and Makino, our frugal daughter of the middle-class. While the rich and entitled students at Eitoku High School flaunt their wealth and status through material possessions (in the beginning of the first episode, there are bragging rights of designer jewelry and exotic vacation locales), Makino lives day-by-day with her sole purpose of studying and living on her basic necessities. The representation of the four heirs as examples of the extravagant, aesthetic lifestyle are inherent in their name “Flowers 4”. In fact, Kamio Yoko, the author of this series, twists the pun in that she substitutes the kanji for boys for food, so the translation could be meant as “Boys Over Flowers” (which consequently the title of the adjacent Korean drama).

This drama is the first major break-out role for Inoue Mao, who was actually close to her character’s age (a tender age of eighteen) when the first half of the drama was shot. Matsumoto Jun (dubbed Matsujun by his worldwide fandom), a member of the famous ARASHI band, takes the role of Domyouji, the iconic bad-boy. I will forever associate him with that curly mop of hair, because he plays the role of Domyouji so well. Actually Matsumoto Jun, Inoue Mao and one other actor, Oguri Shun, were both exactly how I imagined the real-life portrayals of the manga characters to be. Oguri Shun portrays Hanazawa Rui with all his subtle nuances, which is difficult because due to Rui’s taciturn nature, it is easy to portray him as flat and one-dimensional. The rest of the supporting cast did an excellent job with their characters as well, from the elegant and timeless Shizuka Todo, as well as Makino’s adorable younger brother Susumu.

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We start off with our introduction to our main heroine, Makino Tsukushi, whose first name translates to a sturdy type of mountain grass. Harkening back to our flower analogy, Makino is equivalent to a weed that can grow anywhere, even on rocky soil, because she has the drive and work ethic to survive. At her elite prep school, Eitoku, Makino is surrounded by “flower” students, girls and boys who have been cultivated in an enriched environment since they were young, and most likely would not be able to withstand the barer conditions of a lower-income life. Aware of her inferior status at school, Makino strives to remain as anonymous as possible, simply hoping to graduate within four years. But that doesn’t happen because of her unfortunate encounter with F4, who turns her life upside down. 

F4 is an uber-elite clique composed of the four sons of extremely wealthy Japanese families. Mimasaka Akira, portrayed by Abe Tsuyoshi, is the son of a powerful gangleader and has a taste for older women. Nishikado Soujiro, played by Matsuda Shota, is an art museum heir, and is an expert pottery-maker just as he is a prolific playboy. Hanazawa Rui is the grandson of a political party leader, and is a reserved young man with an unhealed heartbreak. Finally, Domyouji Tsukasa is the modern prince of the financial world – his last name is the title of Japan’s largest conglomerate. Due to the joint political and monetary power the group commands, the four informally rule over the school, and use it as their territory for carrying out “punishments”, or retributions for anyone who dares to threaten their authority. Underneath all the glitz, the four are simply playground bullies who exert their power through belittling others. Because of their impressive and formidable backgrounds, all of the girls at Eitoku high fawn over them, and all of the boys command their utmost respect to them, as their leaders.

Makino’s righteous nature cannot stand F4’s treatment of others in school, but her desire to stay out of trouble forces her to stay quiet. That is, until the day that Tsukasa confronts her first friend, Sakurako, for accidentally dropping her lunch tray on him. Sakurako has just returned from overseas, and is surprisingly nice towards Makino, much to our heroine’s delight. Despite the girls’ difference in social status, Sakurako and Makino quickly become good friends. During one lunch, Makino brings her mother’s homemade rice balls, and offers one to Sakurako. Although Sakurako has only eaten the high-dining cuisine before, she tries one, and her eyes widen in surprise at its good taste. That, however, is broken when Domyouji’s shoes get dirtied from Sakurako’s clumsy hands. In his anger, Domyouji begins his verbal rant against Sakurako, but is interrupted by Makino, who delivers a bounce, bounce, and resulting high kick.

tumblr_lnmtjxg5W51qewbrbOkay, this scene gets me giggling every time, possibly because of the slow-motion shot of Makino’s punch, replete with Domyouji’s defeat on the floor, and his accompanying facial expression of confusion to shock.

Yep, the almighty Domyouji Tsukasa has just been hit by a girl.

The school king lies helpless on the ground, staring up at Makino in bewilderment.

I find the scene hilarious because in the more serious scenes, you can tell that Domyouji is a good fighter – he takes on multiple guys at a time, and is a threatening force to all of the boys in the school. But no matter how much of a bad boy he may seem on the streets, he, for once, gets defeated by a high school girl. I think this is also part of the bigger motif of Domyouji being pushed around by all of the women in his life – his mother, his sister, and now, Tsukushi.

399That expression.

Excuse my strange animal analogy, but it kind of reminds of a cross between a whimpering puppy and a lion cub out to take revenge.

After the incident, Domyouji’s interest is piqued by the one student who has the nerve to talk back to him and not follow his supreme command. At this point, he’s fixated with Makino, and subconsciously begins to like her. But as the son of the Domyouji Corp., who had been entitled to anything he had wanted since he was in diapers, it’s difficult for him to discover what it means to have something out of reach, something unobtainable by wealth, status or power. Other women would faint for the chance to be with him, but then again, Makino is no ordinary girl. But Domyouji mistakenly does place her mindset to be similar to other women, and in that context, he sort-of kidnaps her into viewing his ostentatious mansion. He rations that Makino would prefer the life of luxury and prestige to her current poor and mundane living conditions. He buys her an incredibly expensive dress and jewelry, sneering at the fact that it would take lifetimes for Makino to pay it all off.

Much to Domyouji’s shock, rather than being flattered, Makino is repulsed and immediately demands her original uniform back. Fleeing from the room, she gets lost in a maze of dining halls and pool tables (In one memorable line, Makino runs into a large dining common and explaims in disbelief “what is this, Harry Potter?”), before finally escaping the mansion.

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But while Makino harbors a strong dislike towards Domyouji’s arrogance, she is taken in by Rui’s quiet and gentle nature, and harbors a bit of a crush on him. Contrary to Domyouji’s loud and brash nature, Rui is somewhat of an introvert and likes to spend time by himself. The two coincidentally first meet when Makino runs to a balcony and yells out her frustration with regards to Domyouji. She’s interrupted by a voice, belonging to a boy taking a nap a few steps below the balcony, who is amused at her annoyance with Domyouji. Since then, Makino sometimes runs into Rui on the balcony, and she sometimes uses him as a confidant for her troubles. But Rui has a few troubles of his own, including his own bittersweet romantic past.

The most important person in Rui’s life returns from her time overseas, and F4 hosts a party to celebrate her return. The young woman is Todo Shizuka, Rui’s past love interest and an elder sister figure to the rest of F4. Shizuka is also the reason why Makino decides to attend Eitoku Academy, because she had given an inspiring speech as an alumni, and is a living example of a model-turned-international lawyer (so the beauty and the brains). Coincidentally, Makino is also invited to the party, although when she shows up she is a little bit out of place, due to the formal attire required by the event.

Mean, meaner, and meanest – three of the snobbiest girls in Eitoku high, stick their noses up at her and make fun of her low social status. Makino’s identity as a “commoner”, compounded with the fact that she has attracted the attention of F4, throws the three girls into a fit of jealousy, and in a fit of spite, the girls pour their drinks over her head.

The girls are caught by Shizuka and Rui, however. The former expresses her disappointment with the girls and teaches them a “practical lesson” by giving them a taste of their own medicine; the latter watches with disapproval.

Gently, Shizuka offers her hand towards Makino, and the two ladies head to the upper floor of the mansion to help Makino get cleaned up. When Makino heads downstairs again, a hush falls across all of the guests, who see her in a new light.

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snapshot20070503222242-copyDomyouji is irritated, Rui is appreciative, and Domyouji’s observation of his best friend’s gaze towards Makino causes a flare of jealousy, to which escalates into a bit of a shuffle between the two F4 boys. Domyouji’s insult of Makino, and subsequent brush-off of Shizuka’s defense causes Rui’s consternation, and the two seem close to duking it out when Makino intervenes. A trip of balance, much to shock of the party-goers (not to us drama-watchers, we could have seen this a mile away), this is the resulting scenario:

76d03d127c967e63030ad589902a7edd1226972817_fullAWKWARD.

A part of myself wants to ask whether it is actually even possible for two individuals to fall and end up in this compromising position…but another half of me just wants to just let it go, and enjoy the romantic development. And the next few episodes do give us that, as they continue our hero’s progress at winning Makino’s heart, with the introduction of a few more side characters along the way. We get a glance into both the Domyouji and the Makino household, and the different social spheres that the two inhabit.

Domyouji, since he was small, has grown up in the finest luxury possible. In addition to being raised in an extremely privileged environment, Domyouji has also been raised in a family of dominant women – his mother, Kaede, and his sister, Tsubaki. It’s a humorous gender subversion, to see Domyouji serve as the leader of immense power amongst the male-powered F4 and as a whimpering, powerless man amongst the Domyouji girls (including Makino, harhar). Kaede is an easily-hatable villain (Domyouji calls her the “witch” and fittingly so), and essentially encapsulates every quality a dictator/horrible mother-in-law would have. Tsubaki is a headstrong female lead, but mercilessly teases her younger brother. As the youngest member of his family, Domyouji is the most easily bossed-around at home, in that sense tries to find dominance in the arena of the school. In a very suffocating family, Domyouji tries to find reprieve through exerting his frustration in physical fighting, but this only leads to a vicious cycle of violence in order to fulfill his entitlements. He is essentially a spoiled child used to receiving whatever he wants, and in being able to receive infinitely anything, is never truly satisfied. That is, of course, before he meets Makino.

Makino, on the other hand, was raised in an environment of self-sufficiency and determined work ethics, being almost like a bread-winner (her family brags about her getting into Eitoku consistently). Her family serves as comedic relief, with Susumu and her father periodically getting drilled on Japanese Idioms by her mother (it’s a nice running theme, because the title of the drama itself is a play on words). In a cute, parallel reversal, we see that Domyouji is absolutely hopeless with Japanese puns (or perhaps just the Japanese language in general), and his misinterpretation of other’s sayings have also served as comic gags throughout the episodes. In one example, he attempts to defend Makino, but his arguments end up sounding like a convoluted logic puzzle…

Domyouji Proof

Premise 1: Even for you, sleep talking is talking when you’re sleeping.

Premise 2: Talking when you’re awake is not sleep talking.

Premise 3: If it’s sleep talking, talking when you’re awake is okay too.

Premise 4: If it’s not sleep talking, it’s talking when you’re awake.

Premise 5: Talking when you’re awake means you’re not sleeping.

Conclusion = Makino: What are you saying?

Haha.

Domyouji. Such a lovable idiot.

Makino also works at a dango shop (yet another reference to the title), where boy-information is consistently spoken about by her boss while her coworker Yuki, who also happens to be her best friend, listens to her plights sympathetically. Later on Yuki and Soujiro have a little bit of their own romantic story (and perhaps her boss with Akira, as he does prefer older women), and through Yuki we get to see why Soujiro acts so jerk-faced towards most women and has such a love for pottery.

It’s such a joyride to see the two main characters, and their completely different worlds collide, just as it is a pleasure to see the palpable chemistry between the two main leads. I don’t think I was the only one who secretly hoped that Inoue Mao and Matsumoto Jun dated secretly in real life. Their interactions on screen were like genuine first-time lovers, at times awkward, at times cute, at times downright irritating, but nonetheless full of heart.

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The soundtrack of the drama is also very memorable, especially several of the instrumental songs – which are variations of the same theme. The subtle, mellow version of the theme, titled Blue Mind, plays in the background of many emotionally-charged scenes. Despite its simplicity, Blue Mind is a heart-moving, climatic piece that, in my opinion, reflects the storyline of Makino’s love towards Domyouji – from her initial aloofness to the melting of her heart (ahem…excuse the cliche-sounding phrase, I hope you’ll understand more by listening to it).

The settings are very pretty, and overall the drama is directed in a well-done manner. Although it is a little exaggerated at times, it is a manga adaptation onto a live-action series, and I do think that the true spirit of the original story is kept on screen. In any case, the cast are adorable together, and have excellent camaraderie with one another, as evidenced below.

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Simply adorable.

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