[Introduction, for those still not in the know]
hana yori dango originated as a manga 15 years ago; a modern tale of romance that spans the classes of Japanese society. Makino Tsukushi was unfittingly enrolled by her chronically pauperized parents into Eitoku Academy, the high school for Japan's most noble and prestigious. Not filthy rich and pampered like her schoolmates, Tsukushi has extreme difficulties socialising, and merely wishes to silently endure the ordeal till graduation. She succeeds with this plan for the first year, but an incident during her second year placed her directly in the path of F4, the gang of the four most powerful boys in school. The sheer influence of their families gives them absolute freedom and rule, even over the academic staff; ergo nobody dares challenge them lest they risk receiving a "red card" that signifies a declaration of war from F4. The unfortunate individual(s) is then subject to bullying by the whole school. Tsukushi being the rough and tough girl, puts up fearless defiance, and in the midst of tussle developed romantic links with two members of F4. Her life's involvement with the nation's rich and famous begins from there on.
Recent years of nauseating experiences watching productions has grown me into a default skeptic whenever a new drama based on a popular anime series is planned. Anime being a medium that gives directors unlimited flexibility in visualising scenes, makes it exceedingly difficult to be acted out and shot by real people. Without the necessary (exorbitant) budget to recreate the scenes propers, foolish producers end up with embarrassingly silly actions in the final product. My heart goes out to the pitiful actors for being forced into such IQ-damaging work.
It should therefore be no surprise I was less than excited when I read hana yori dango was (again) making the live scene. Especially when scrawny Matsumoto Jun was supposed to play the herculean and berseking Doumyouji Tsukasa. The question that ran through my mind: how was he going to beat up people with might?? As it turns out, that becomes a moot question.
For the record, I never intended to review my original viewership of the anime series. It was in summary a marginally enjoyable story that, at 51 episodes, dragged with tedium at times. Sure there were many events and characters to encounter, but it should had been over and done with much earlier. Well, the good news is somebody must have complaint to the live crew about this, for the live drama is only 9 episodes in length. (The reality though, is a 45-min drama episode approximates to 2 24-min anime episodes, so the live drama is relatively around 18 episodes.)
Such a drastically reduced timeframe calls for some major revision of the plot. The resultant storyline shed most of the anime's fat and that is a good thing; what I like about most Japanese dramas is the intense amount of progression each episode contains, and it is no different here. Anime and manga fans will no doubt recognise familiar events crucial to building the story and characters, but might be fazed by the omission and even fusion of some. Some completely new events get fabricated in as well. But no fear. Thankfully hana yori dango is quite a malleable story, and it is the essence of the characters and their relationships that make or break it. And I am most happy to state my earlier skepticism was unfounded.
Baby face Inoue Mao is the perfect actress to play the unpretty, unelegant, yet charming Makino Tsukushi. She acts out her own behaviour that is distinctly different from the anime character; showcasing a greater silliness yet potraying more a more lively person. Matsumoto Jun's version of Doumyouji Tsukasa also brings out a more affectionate character, and their chemistry strikes off the right notes. Despite to the limited span of storytelling time they get to spend together, they make good use of it, and deliver an impact of love unfelt in the anime. Obviously, it is just not the sheer work of the pair alone; many a great contributions came from the rest of the cast. Although still not as involved as Hanazawa Rui, the other 2 members of F4, Nishikado Soujiro and Mimsaka Akira, have been given bigger roles (something sorely lacking in the anime) to create a more balanced spread of character interactions. Strangely, the same cannot be said about the significant females Doumyouji Tsubaki and Toudou Shizuka, who had seriously weakened presence; I feel that is a great pity.
Additionally there is that oddball of comic relief attempts at Tsukushi's part-time workplace; mildly funny but does not blend well with the rest of the show. And the boys with their lanky builts make for some really artificial fights (what did I say about Jun-kun...). Tsukushi's fighting style is also spastic at best. Still, the resultant play-out emits a much stronger bond between Tsukushi and the F4 boys. Bonds undeniably boosted tremendously by a solid set of music composed by Yamashita Kousuke; there are some really nice pieces worth your money - buy the OST. Again, another great departure from the anime's screeching music. Make no mistake here, folks; music is to on-screen stories what spice is to food. The story revisors have succeeded into re-organising the flow and fit in all the elements to form a sum greater than its parts.
My congratulations to the production/acting crew for their good work, and proving live acting can hit higher notes than anime when executed properly. Like Tsukasa would say, "this is the series I approve of."
Condensed & lean; excellent casting; touching music; more involved characters; trumps anime
Condensed & clipped; retarded fighting; missing some key events; less involved characters; comedy misses