Adapted from the best-selling shoujo manga of all time the Hana Yori Dango anime has big shoes to fill. The initial premise of the show is that Tsukushi Makino comes from a very poor family but attends a school for the wealthy members of high-society. This opens up a sandbox of possibilities for a great mix of school life and drama. So throw in the romantic connection between Tsukushi and the two richest boys in the school and you have an obvious yet clever setup.
The execution is surprisingly rife with cliche. There are contrivances and misunderstandings, the script is full of angst, and many scenes frequently tide over into the arena of melodrama. Yes, these factors are very present but they do not ruin the anime. Hana Yori Dango is exciting and rewarding because of these aspects and believable despite them. And, most importantly, Hana Yori Dango is not trashy. Hana Yori Dango is classy. If you need a lesson in trashy, I would suggest (but not encourage) you to check out Ayashi no Ceres.
Hana Yori Dango progresses in a typical will-they-won't-they style which can understandably become tedious. However, Tsukushi and Tsukasa's journey is highly tumultuous as various secondary characters enter the frame to stir up vindictive amounts of trouble and conflict. Themes such as bullying, jealousy, and class distinction are served up like a hearty full English breakfast in a fairly blunt manner. Tsukushi's life is endangered on a number of occasions and she encounters prejudice and hostility practically everywhere she goes. Hana Yori Dango offers quite the rollercoaster ride with plenty of surprises, it twists and turns and practically every episode leaves you hanging before another sharp drop.
Easily the ugliest show in my list of favourite anime. Character designs are awkward, movement is sometimes mechanical, backgrounds are soft but lack detail. Colours feel particularly watered-down and do not offer much variation, but this actually makes the anime easier on the eye. There is a certain charm that the animation and art style offers, in that very few other anime look anything like this, but it can be jarring until you relax into it. Those who find poor animation an unforgivable factor in anime (an unfortunate majority) will struggle to sit through Hana Yori Dango's 51 episodes. However, once the show is over, and considering you enjoyed it, you won't be able to imagine the show looking any other way.
Hana Yori Dango benefits from a rich classical soundtrack that allows it to retain a sense of timelessness. I can only imagine how much 90s cheese the OST would've had otherwise. The OP and ED hint at what we may have had to endure - the OP sounds like a poor early Beatles imitation but is catchy and enjoyable in its own right. The music of Hana Yori Dango is fairly repetitive yet memorable, though at times it heightens the melodrama to a superfluous level - there is one composition that wouldn't be out of place if played during the climactic battle of man vs. nature in an adaptation of Moby Dick.
What encourages me to give extra points in this category are the voice actors. The entire cast is made up of unknowns, the majority of whom have no credits for any other roles. However, they treat the script with care and for the most part the acting does not feel too cheesy. The dub, however... atrocious. Tsukushi is voiced by Kelly Sheridan who is not suited for strong female types (this is a woman who plays Nana Komatsu and Barbie in the same voice as Shuurei Kou and Tsukushi... err, what?) and Tsukasa's voice-actor may not have understood the character at all since, aside from sounding whiny, he gives off a far more bratty and snobby air than Tsukasa has.
The real star of the show is Tsukasa Domyoji. He is very detestable for a good chunk of the show - an intentional move. Adjective dump: violent, stupid, desperate, aloof, arrogant, irrational, cold, and self-destructive. Tsukasa is difficult to like until you realise that these cracks result from the damage he endured from parents that neglected him and his sudden feelings for Tsukushi that he clearly doesn't know how to deal with. As the anime progresses you begin to see evidence that he has all the aforementioned traits and their opposite inside of him. The Domyoji family is one of the richest in Japan, and while Tsukasa is obviously spoiled by most people's definitions he is not a brat so much as a lonely teenager. Living alone in a mansion the size of a hospital? Complacency and apathy should surely follow. The snobbish comments he makes are spoken with a brazen honesty that sounds like he's merely stating facts and not opinions. He is so far from your typical romance male lead that I was willing to like even his horrible side at the beginning because of how refreshing his character was. For all the shitty things he does his character triumphs through some beautiful moments of redemption.
Tsukushi Makino is the heroine and lead character. Her feisty and determined nature is combined with sensitivity and a frequent lack of reason that gives her character a sense of frustrating realism but also makes her fun to watch. Tsukushi has no problem drop-kicking and punching her way through the story, followed by flurries of panicked thoughts after she is clear of the conflict. Sometimes it is hard to know which part of her is a front and which is genuine, and her simultaneous tendency to make terrible decisions and be blind to the obvious can be frustrating, though luckily she does not sink to the level of downright retardation like characters such as Mitsuki Koyama. She essentially remains the same person throughout the anime, her main development comes in the slow disintegration of the walls she has erected around herself that surprisingly result in her being one of the most closed-minded characters in the show. I do not feel it would be too presumptuous of me to say she probably set the standard for what makes hot-headed and strong-willed shoujo lead females so widely used today. However, given that Hana Yori Dango has slipped somewhat under the radar Tsukushi may not bring anything unique to the table since the concept has been repackaged into much more popular characters such as Skip Beat! lead Kyoko Mogami.
Secondary characters are surprisingly hard to ignore. In-between Sakurako, Junpei and Mrs. Domyoji there are some true villainous characters who display levels of manipulation and hatred which will boil your blood. Rui Hanazawa is Tsukushi's other love interest and I will leave him for your own discovery - and also because a character so difficult to read defies my ability to define him.
Hana Yori Dango has downfalls but enjoying it feels equal to indulging in a rich gateaux which you simply can't regret because it tastes too damn good. I would recommend this one easily to the shoujo, romance, or drama fans. To all others I say: don't let your inner critic take the wheel when watching this anime, just let them sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a classic and has set standards. The story would be refreshing to watch even now after the emergence of so many genre-defining school romances since HYD. It wouldn't surprise me if Hana Yori Dango was pegged for a remake in the next 5 years - watch this space!
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