As you may have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately (thanks to the generosity of friends!) catching up on older shojo series I missed during all those years I spent tragically unaware of manga. Included in a recent shipment of manga loaned to me by Michelle Smith were the first five volumes of a long-running shojo classic. Behold.
Boys Over Flowers, Vols. 1-5
By Yoko Kamio
Published by Viz Media
Tsukushi Makino is a smart girl from a working class background, attending an elite “escalator” school populated mainly by kids of wealthy families. Disgusted by a group of rich bullies known as the “F4” (“Flower Four”) who rule the school with an iron fist (and their parents’ money), she finally snaps and kicks the leader (Tsukasa Domyouji, son of a powerful corporate mogul) in the face as he begins to bully her best friend, Makiko. Defying the F4 earns Tsukushi a dreaded “red slip”–the F4’s declaration of war–something that signifies such torment and misery to come that it typically drives students into transferring out of the school.
With its unabashed melodrama, questionable messages, and frequent violence, Boys Over Flowers is utterly ridiculous, wildly over-the-top, and also possibly one of the most addictive stories I’ve ever read. What makes this especially fantastic, however, is that rather than feeling like a guilty pleasure, this series is just outright fun. Unlike Hot Gimmick, for example, a story with similarly cruel boys bullying a girl, Boys Over Flowers has a kick-ass heroine who reacts to her own weaknesses by actually facing them and never lets anyone force her into being anyone but herself. Tsukushi is smart, hot-headed, tough as nails (something that I think surprises her quite a bit in the beginning), and deeply good-hearted. Even in the face of her parents’ self-loathing classism–they have absolutely no self-esteem and think only of Tsukushi’s potential connections to high society, regardless of her safety or happiness–she stands strong, and her own flaws (particularly her habit of solving problems with violence) keep her from ever becoming too much of a goody-goody to love.
The thing that shocked me the most as I read this story, was that I was able to accept and even start to like its primary bully, Tsukasa. I’m usually extremely sensitive to stories of school bullying, thanks to my own hideous experiences, and the fact that I could be rooting for such a character on any level, especially as a love interest for the heroine (something I would have expected to be a deal-breaker for me) is due entirely to Tsukushi’s strength–both her physical strength and her strength of character. Though on the surface this manga is outrageous, the fact that the mangaka is able to make this actually palatable is a sign of both her talent and her story’s hidden depths.
At first little more than a cardboard villain, Tsukasa is actually one of the most intriguing characters in the series so far, with some humorous idiosyncrasies that help make him oddly likable. Though he’s the much-sought-after prince of his school, he angsts over his curly hair which will not straighten. Though he speaks several languages quite fluently, in his native Japanese he habitually misuses or mispronounces words. He is hopelessly awkward with girls–more likely to punch one in the face than confess his love (a trait that Tsukushi interestingly shares) and despite his well-honed cruelty, he is possibly the most emotionally vulnerable character in the whole series. By the end of volume five, I found myself feeling almost charmed by his pathetic attempts at romance, and I was even experiencing outrageous thoughts about Tsukasa and Tsukushi being “actually quite suited to each other.”
Though Tsukushi and Tsukasa make the strongest impression in the series’ first five volumes, there are plenty of other fun characters as well. A couple of my favorites are Tsukushi’s childhood friend Kazuya, a relentlessly cheerful boy with a long-time crush on Tsukushi who arrives at the school after his family joins the nouveau riche; and Shizuka Todo, Rui’s crush, who is possibly the only genuinely nice character amongst all the society kids. All of the story’s characters are painted with broad strokes, some even bordering on caricature, but the series is so honest with its melodrama, this never becomes irritating.
With the series standing at 37 volumes, it would be ridiculous for me to make any great claims about it (or its characters) after only five, but I can say that it is exceedingly fun and I can’t wait for more!