With February upon us and Valentine's Day less than two weeks away, the notion of love is just about everywhere you look. In the past I've looked at harems or reverse harems this time of year, but this year I want to do so something a little different. I want to look at the nonconventional sorts of romance one can find in manga, the sorts that could be described as "odd," "dysfunctional," "creepy," and sometimes even worse. Think of this month as a celebration of bad romance, no matter whether it's bad on purpose or by accident.
So let's kick this month off in style with one of the classics, the sort of story where boys meet girl, girls stands up to bullying boys, boys bully her in turn, only to start falling for her. Only in manga would this be considering the set up for a reverse harem.
BOYS OVER FLOWERS (Hana Yori Dango ), by Yoko Kamio. First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2003.
Tsukushi Makino is the lone middle-class student at the ultra-elite and ultra-rich Eitoku Academy, having been pushed into attending due to her parents' desire to show off to others. She can't begin to relate to the mindset, activities, or allowances of her classmates, so she mostly keeps her head down and does her best to suppress her frustration at the inequality around her as well as the activities of the F4 gang. They're a four-man group of the richest, most spoiled boys at the school, and their opinions shape who is and is not socially accepted at Eitoku. Tsukushi ends up catching their ire when she stands up for a friend, and the boys in turn declare social war upon her...at least, until their leader starts to fall for Tsukushi.
Man, if you want to experience a tonal shift that will leave you stunned, go read Boys Over Flowers. I'll give Kamio major credit for crafting a story around a truly strong heroine, but the sudden shift from antagonistic to almost comical left me feeling both angry and confused.
I complain a lot about the lack of strong, self-determined heroines in shoujo, but this manga is a merciful exception to that. Tsukushi has a strong will and a keen sense of justice, and her seething frustration at the obliviousness and lack of empathy around her is more than understandable to the reader. She has her occasional moments of self-doubt, but she has more than enough inner strength and empathy to stand up for the people she cares about and gives the bullies of F4 what they deserve, whether it's an angry lecture or (best of all) AN EPIC KICK TO THE FACE. It's so nice to see a shoujo story centered around a girl who truly can handle herself in most situations.
I have to say "most situations" because more or less from the outset, the F4 boys don't play fair. They set the usual sort of Mean Girls at her to cause Tsukushi all sort of humiliation, but the boys themselves prove to be downright sadistic in their actions. They actually bribe another group of boys so that they'll try to rape her. THIS IS A THING THAT SERIOUSLY HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK. Even by the standards of Shoujo Melodrama, that is crossing a serious line. We soon learn that this idea comes straight from the gang's leader, Tsukasa Doumyouji, and it's with him there the tonal whiplash starts. You see, Kamio tries to counter his sadism by trying to make him a comic foil as well by having him misuse big words in an attempt to sound smart. Then he convinces himself that's Tsukushi's resistance to him means that she must be in love with him (that, and that she reminds him of his older sister, which speaks to a bit of a complex on his part).
I find myself deeply conflicted about the notion of redeeming the F4 boys, Tsukasa in particular. On one hand, his misguided crush does lead to the rest of the boys gaining a begrudging respect for her, and they start to behave more friendly towards Tsukushi, which does help steer the story away from the very bad and melodramatic places it was going. On the other hand, their actions were so extreme that it's going to take more than just a few gestures of reconciliation to make things right, and I don't blame Tsukushi for being rather confused by their actions. I especially don't like the idea of building up any of them as potential love interests, much less the delusional Tsukasa, at least not without a lot of effort made towards forcing him to grow up and own up to his actions.
Boys Over Flowers is an interesting series to read, to say the least. It's got a great, sympathetic heroine whose strong personality and willing to take action allow her to survive the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot. On the other hand, the tone takes a hard turn halfway through towards something more lighthearted, and that shift is in equal parts welcome and uncomfortable. It's hard to say what direction Boys Over Flowers is going to take, but it's certainly not going to be a boring one.
Boys Over Flowers is very clearly a product of its time, and I suspect that will leave younger readers chuckling. The character designs are pleasant enough, but their style is firmly rooted in the early 1990s, which means that it's nothing but bad, warmed-over 80s fashion as far as the eye can see. It's especially bad with the F4 gang, who look like rejects from Color Me Badd right down to Tsukasa's weird mop of what are either tight curls or short dreadlocks. Otherwise Kamio's art is fairly plain, which is unusual for a shoujo manga of this age. There aren't a lot of backgrounds nor a lot of screentones and effects save for the occasional flourish of flowers. It's a classy, almost restrained touch that helps to counteract the tackiness of the then-contemporaneous fashion, which in turn makes the artwork here a little more timeless than it would be otherwise.
While I can't say that I'm completely crazy for Boys Over Flowers, I can respect its willingness to give its heroine a backbone, its relative sense of artistic restraint, and its overall unpredictability. I can see why this title would still be remembered by others, even two decades after its initial release.
This series was published by Viz. This series is complete in 37 volumes, and all are out of print.
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