Boys Over Flowers

It’s refreshing for a romantic teen drama to have a materialist understanding of the world…

In 1992, as the Washington Consensus grew to dominate and the West trumpeted the End of History, a comic book took Japan by storm. Written by the female illustrator and author Kamio Yoko, Hana Yori Dango was a shojo manga that aimed its disenchantment with capitalism in the East at an audience of teenage girls. Its title translated to “Boys Over Flowers.” (What follows includes spoilers, so if you plan to read or watch this series and would prefer to be surprised, I recommend reading the rest of this essay later.) 

Hana Yori Dango is set at Eitoku Academy, a super-elite prep school in Tokyo under the thumb of the Flower Four aka F4, a quartet of handsome, rich, and arrogant boys who are also scions of Japan’s most powerful conglomerates. Led by petty tyrant Domyouji, the F4 enjoy complete impunity, especially when it comes to persecuting anyone who dares cross them—a fate that befalls protagonist Makino Tsukushi after she criticizes Domyouji’s reign of terror. Enraged, Domyouji issues one of the F4’s signature “red slip” orders against Tsukushi. This order rallies the feudally eager Eitoku student body to subject Tsukushi to rabid cruelty, from rumor campaigns and property damage to merciless beatings and even an attempted sexual assault.

An extreme situation for an adolescent comic book, to be sure. But what, if not the brutal extent of capitalism, is an appropriate subject for the exaggerated tenor of manga? Less than a year before Hana Yori Dango began serialization, the burst of the late ‘80s asset price bubble brought the once-invincible Japanese economy to its knees. Formerly rock-solid salaryman jobs at Japanese companies disappeared overnight; unemployment soared, while average annual salaries started on a long and slow decline. Seemingly the only enterprises that thrived were the Yakuza organized crime syndicates that made a fortune in loan sharking, taking advantage of desperate families. In her preface to the manga, Kamio explicitly characterizes the work as a response to the collapse of her country’s economy; each volume begins with a reference to contemporary events like “the ice storm of employment.”  

Kamio’s observations about the devastation of Japanese society wrought by economic collapse find expression in Hana Yori Dango’s central love triangle between Tsukushi, Domyouji, and his best friend, F4 member Rui. Tsukushi is a daughter of the proletariat: Her father is a low-level office worker and her mother a vulgar opportunist who hopes that Tsukushi will climb the social ladder through her education or, preferably, by marrying a rich classmate. Forced by her parents to attend stuck-up Eitoku Academy, which she hates, Tsukushi boils with resentment at the F4. In the series’ memorable opening act, Tsukushi stands up to Domyouji by telling him, in an implied rejection of trickle-down economics (before punching him in the face): “You contribute nothing to society.” This sets off their long and turbulent relationship.  

Challenged by someone for the first time, Domyouji is smitten, although a cold patrician upbringing has made it hard for him to express his feelings in a socially acceptable manner. As romantic heroes go, Domyouji is not an easy sell. “If apologies were any use, what would we need the police for?” he likes to say, as if it were particularly clever or meaningful. Not only is Domyouji a malicious bully with serious anger management issues, his constant malapropisms and literal-mindedness suggest that he’s not very bright either. This characterization choice is a noticeable contrast from the genius CEO types that have gone on to dominate Asian dramas over the next two decades and thereby further the mythos of the deserving rich.

Domyouji’s clumsy courtship of Tsukushi is complicated by Rui. In the depths of her persecution by the student body, Rui appears just in time to rescue Tsukushi from another vicious assault.  Pathetically grateful for this scrap of kindness, Tsukushi falls for the quiet and soft-spoken Rui, who she decides is not like the other F4. But he comes with his own baggage. Oftentimes, Rui can be cold and distant. The reader realizes eventually that Rui has just been stringing Tsukushi along in hopes of forgetting another girl, his true love. Tsukushi’s two-suitor dilemma suggests a rather dark conclusion: There’s no perfect choice under capitalism. You can have your capitalism abrasive but honest, or gentle but disingenuous. Either way, it will hurt you.

Kamio’s subversive message would soon find an even wider audience in the aftermath of another economic collapse. In 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis hit, leaving in its wake a trail of devastation marked by mass layoffs and increasing labor precarity. This dark phase primed the rest of Asia for the sharp satire of Hana Yori Dango. In 2001, Taiwan broadcast a live action adaptation of Hana Yori Dango renamed Meteor Garden, which quickly became a transnational pop cultural juggernaut of unprecedented proportions. Powered by career-defining performances from actress and singer Barbie Hsu, and hunk-of-a-generation Jerry Yan, Meteor Garden resonated deeply with a continent still reeling from “restructuring” after the crisis. Over the next 17 years, the series has been broadcast in 10 Asian countries, and dubbed or subtitled into more than a dozen languages, even igniting a brief craze for learning Mandarin in Thailand. Meteor Garden has since become one of the most remade dramas of all time with reboots in Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia—all smash hits in their respective countries; the Korean version became even more insanely internationally popular than the original—and two remakes in mainland China, the most recent of which aired last summer.

As a Gardenhead and journalist covering culture in China, where I live, I recently decided to watch the latest Chinese rendition. I was particularly curious to see how it would hold up against its predecessors in light of how much the People’s Republic is in denial about its capitalist metamorphosis, which it calls “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” all while the Chinese Communist Party, under the direction of President Xi Jinping, attempts to suppress reports of increasingly brutal social inequality and disappears Marxist student protestors. I was not surprised to find that the critique at the heart of Hana Yori Dango has been surgically removed from the Chinese reboot, leaving behind only surface elements of the original series—albeit repackaged in a shinier shell with a production budget reportedly 30 times larger.  

Perhaps most crucially, the remake strips the Domyouji-Tsukushi-Rui triangle of its allegorical significance by turning the F4 into conscientious young capitalists and model students who are liked and admired for their virtuous qualities rather than feared. While earlier versions of the F4 never saw the inside of a classroom, preferring to drink, chase girls and get into bar fights, the new docile F4 sip tea in their minimalist study lounge while discussing the importance of innovation in entrepreneurship. At their worst, we see them challenge those they find offensive to a game of bridge, a decidedly more muted form of sadism compared with the violent and humiliating punishments meted out in the original.

Most disappointing of all is the transformation of Domyouji from a bumbling autocrat to a finance prodigy with only a mildly unpleasant personality. Instead of suckling on his family’s wealth, he’s paid for college himself through savvy investments (this Domyouji deals with his romantic frustrations through day-trading rather than day-drinking). Far from embodying the dark excesses of infinite capital accumulation, the new Domyouji is the very picture of the deserving rich. He also comes with a reinvented backstory. In the new Chinese Meteor Garden, we learn he is a former wayward youth who was pulled back from the edge of being cool by his fellow F4s, and aced the college entrance exam to gain admission to Yingde, a university equivalent of Eitoku … as if a son of the Chinese elite would ever attend a domestic university and or have to ace a college entrance exam to do so. (It’s routine for China’s wealthiest to send their progeny abroad, but if for some reason their child were to study domestically, it would be as simple as making a phone call to get out of the make-or-break college entrance exam which ordinary young Chinese spend their entire adolescent lives studying for). By portraying a fundamentally fair society where hard work is rewarded, China’s Meteor Garden is more neoliberal optimism-porn than scathing satire.

This muted version of Domyouji dampens the tension between our two protagonists, which in earlier versions was powered by genuine class resentment. One of the key arcs in the original series is the immiseration of the Makino family, triggered after Tsukushi’s father is laid off from his job. The reason given: “a bad economy.” With no social safety net to support them and expensive rents in Tokyo, the Makinos pack themselves off to their ancestral fishing village, but not before reminding their daughter to charm and marry Domyouji as soon as possible. This class inequality adds pressure on the already shaky relationship between the main characters. In a kind of an anti-Great Gatsby moment, the Taiwanese adaptation shows Domyouji trying on shirts at a designer store and asking Tsukushi for her opinion. The options all look great, but Tsukushi is angered by how lightly he can consider buying clothing worth several times her family’s rent. Bitterly, she rejects the shirts one after the other. 

The new Chinese Meteor Garden also rewrites the source of Tsukushi’s poverty. This time it’s no longer the product of the vagaries of a capitalist economy, but rather an unfortunate stroke of bad luck and a single bad apple; her father’s boss has embezzled the company finances and left the employees jobless. Erased are any explicit connections between the Makinos’ miserable situation and the luxury enjoyed by people like the Domyoujis, along with any criticism of how unfair it is for a few families to possess the power to make or break the lives of millions of people. In the new version, the tension between Tsukushi and Domyouji is mostly a matter of overcoming lifestyle and personality differences. The political is utterly reduced to the personal.

But the gap between Hana Yori Dango and the new Chinese Meteor Garden is exposed most obviously in the pivotal scene in which Domyouji’s mother, desperate to put a stop to her son’s class transgression, shows up to darken the humble door of our working-class heroine’s dwelling. Determined and icily coiffed, the wealthy widow produces a suitcase full of cash, hoping to bribe Tsukushi into staying away from her son. At this sight, Tsukushi’s mother responds to the insulting offer by grabbing a jar of flour and pouring it huffily upon the other mother’s bouffant. After Domyouji’s mother storms out, Tsukushi tells her mother how surprised and grateful she is, and the two of them embrace.  

In the new Meteor Garden, the scene ends there, on the kind of saccharine note we might expect from any other ordinary Asian drama. But in the original Hana Yori Dango, the scene goes on to deliver some of the most cutting commentary in the series. Tsukushi’s mother responds to her daughter’s impassioned thanks with a snort. It’s not that she has pride, Mrs. Makino explains. No, she’s playing the long game. One day, Domyouji’s mother will die. And when Tsukushi finally marries Domyouji, the Makinos will then be entitled to the whole fortune—not just a measly suitcase of cash. “How can pride be more important than money?” Tsukushi’s mother says. “In the world of capitalism, money is the most important in whatever you have.”

Going forward, this materialist understanding of the world—rare for a piece of mass media and even rarer for a teen romantic drama—will probably be lost to Asian popular culture forever. China, with its economic and military might, aspires to project soft power as well, and is already making inroads as a major pop cultural force in Southeast Asia, where the new Meteor Garden has been well received. While it will take some time for China to supplant South Korea as the region’s most influential cultural player, China is in it for the long haul, and will certainly keep trying. Hamstrung by the ideological demands of the state, Chinese film and TV producers will likely end up relying on ever-higher production budgets to distract from the lack of humor or originality necessitated by the regime. The result will be a shallow pop cultural landscape, completely removed from any critique of the world the way it is.

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