At the heart of this post lies a singular question;
what is love?
Hana Yori Dango (or Boys Over Flowers) is an anime packed with complex, interesting, well fleshed out, DEEPLY FLAWED teenage characters, both of prestigious means and lacking them. This problematic title, while admittedly cringy at times, holds special appeal for its realistic portrayal of teenage thought processes—the good, bad, and ugly—as well as its fascinatingly successful romanticizing of frankly abusive relationships.
(If you thought that Fushi Yugi using rape as a token plot device was problematic or that Wolf Girl and the Black Prince romanticized abuse, just wait until you’ve seen all of Hana Yori Dango.)
The show, however, is one that I truly enjoy from its vaguely terrible 1996 art (which I now view as “distinct” rather than terrible) to its problematic notions, and I think it did something unique in illustrating how imperfect humans can be in abusive relationships with people that they may honestly believe that they love.
Please note that I do NOT encourage people to stay with SOs who are emotionally, sexually, or physically abusive. NOT AT ALL. If you ever find yourself in that situation, you do NOT need to convince yourself that the person loves you and that you should stay for them; this is dangerous, and YOU DESERVE BETTER, regardless of what you may feel. Any love that the other person may believe they hold for you is NOT HEALTHY LOVE if they are habitually treating you with less than the utmost respect.
Do not stay with an abuser.
But examinations like those prompted by this show do beg the question…
What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me; don’t hurt me no more.)
We can go to many sources for this answer. The Bible says that God is Love. It also says that love is patient, kind, humble, and enduring. Some describe love as a human virtue rooted in kindness and compassion, while still others say it is a chemical reaction in the brain revolving around sexual attraction/attachment. And, of course, there are many different kinds of love. For the purposes of this post, we’ll be focused on romantic love.
I attest that love can be, depending on how one defines it, either mature or immature, and I also propose that—as a side effect of our imperfect human condition (what my own religion refers to as “sinful nature”)—even mature love can have its failings.
That said, immature love, if called love, can be very many things. I think immature love can be selfish and lacking without being totally void of care.* And as much as I find it interesting to watch the characters’ progressions throughout Hana Yori Dango, I also see hurdles that the character overcome as evidence of the show’s romanticizing of abuse.
Yeah, you heard me. Boys Over Flowers romanticizes abuse. Now, what do I mean by that?
To romanticize something isn’t to make it romantic in nature, at least not in the manner of, say, a moonlit walk on the beach. Rather, to romanticize is to make something seem better or more appealing than it actually is in real life. A romantic is an idealist—a sentimentalist—and so to romanticize abuse in Hana Yori Dango is to take the abusive or problematic behaviors and ascribe positive, more sentimental characteristics to said actions. It can also mean emphasizing them in such ways that gloss over the troublesome notions entirely in favor of more fantasist notions.
To begin, let’s look at our leads in love, keeping in mind that this post is anime-specific. (Thus, none of the many drama adaptations, etc., are here discussed.) Tsukushi Makino (westernized) is a hard-headed, independent girl of limited means who, through hard work and determination, makes it into Eitoku Academy, a school for rich kids with a reputation sure to take her places. Tsukasa Domyouji (also westernized) is the wealthy heir poor in relationships who—as leader of the school’s “Flower 4” of handsome, rich boys—rules the student body with an iron fist and very little patience for things that don’t go his way. When Tsukushi becomes the only girl (aside from his sister, but that’s a different conversation) to ever stand up to him, Tsukasa finds himself falling for her, if only he could admit it to himself! Instead, he’s just going to make her life as miserable as possible. That sounds smart, yeah?
Many things happen from that starting point, and while the show admittedly has moments that serve to make my heart flutter a bit, it also has moments that make me yell at the characters on screen, “WHY? WHY would you do that??” Some of these instances are highly realistic depictions of teenagers making poor decisions (such as when Tsukushi kisses Rui while on an extended date with Tsukasa), but teenage shortsightedness cannot excuse other instances where abuse is romanticized (sentimentalized) in order to create romantic (here used in the moonlit walk sense) tension and drama.
Our aforementioned leads in love are harsh with each other, and so to pinpoint instances of emotional abuse and examine them to determine if they’re truly abuse or just bickering would take a post all its own, so I’ll skip those for now. These sorts of ambiguites aren’t romanticized, and so they fall outside the scope of our discussion. Please know, however, that the outright bullying Tsusushi experiences at the hands of the F4 cannot be overlooked as simply “picking on the girl you like” (which, again, we could spend a week talking about that notion all on its own, but we won’t).
Tsukasa and Tsukushi aren’t actually dating at the beginning of the anime, much less dating exclusively, yet we observe a large amount of control exercised over her whereabouts and actions taken by Tsukasa. He insists that they are, in fact, dating. When her protests prove unsuccessful, she simply goes along with the student body’s perceptions and is treated better by the classes at large. And even though they both protest the idea of affection for each other (they’re only together in Tsukasa’s mind because SHE likes HIM, you see) and infuriate each other, Tsukushi strongly cares that Tsukasa believe her innocent of any questionable behavior when Sakurako frames her as unfaithful or loose.
There is a lot to unpack in this scene, but we’ll focus on the abuse. Tsukushi is being assaulted by a group of guys for messing around with a man other than Tsukasa. Tsukasa, not knowing what’s going on, sees her in trouble and steps in. Sakurako “explains” and Tsukasa is not only swayed, but he WALKS AWAY AND DOESN’T HELP TSUSKUSHI. Because the guys are “doing it for [him],” to use Sakurako’s words, apparently it’s fine that the tar gets beat out of her.
Even if he doesn’t believe she’s telling the truth, the girl he’s supposed to love is barely standing upright. But hey, if she’s “unfaithful” to a fictional relationship, then she deserves to be drug behind a car, right? Yeah. She begs him for help. She says, “I don’t care if no one else believes me. Tsukasa, I just need you to believe me, please.” (Both because she’ll be beat up if he doesn’t and because the moment also serves to showcase how much she cares about his good opinion even though she won’t admit any affection for him.) She calls out to him desperately, and he turns his back on her and walks away while a group of boys beats up on her.
One word from him could have stopped them in their tracks and cleared her reputation because his influence is just that strong, but he left her behind. And yes, he comes back in the end to save her, but that’s the point. If he’d stepped in right away, there wouldn’t be as much drama or as great of a “hero moment.” His later action doesn’t excuse the fact that he LET THEM WHALE ON HER and didn’t step in, only to come back LATER and say that he believes her (which should not be a prerequisite for stopping them from almost killing her in the first place!).
The show acts as though he’s in a trance until he snaps out of it in Sakurako’s back yard and realizes what those guys are going to do to Tsukushi. As though he didn’t know! He stepped into the situation in the first place before he knew what she was accused of because he saw she was in trouble! In shock or not, he KNEW!! In this way, he can rush back in and play the hero while also avoiding the blame that he let her get into that situation in the first place. It takes an abusive situation and sentimentalizes it, creating a hero moment. (Is it considered abuse if he left her to be pummeled when he could have stopped it? It’s as good as, in my opinion. It certainly isn’t love.)
On another far more straightforward occasion, Tsukasa—frustrated and hurt about the sort-of romantic (again, that’s another post) relationship between Tsukushi and Rui—actually sexually assaults Tsukushi. Now, while I believe that there are differences between the subbed and dubbed version of this scene, they have some consistency between them. He corners her in the empty hall, pins her, and threatens her. Then, suddenly, he stops. He punches the wall. He goes. I watched the dub, but I’ve only found the scene repeated in sub, so, again, differences from what I remember exactly.
Again, so, SO much to unpack here, but I’m sticking with the abuse itself and not the mental reasoning behind it. (Tsukasa, upset that he isn’t being “respected” and unused to not getting what he wants, goes to take it—in this case, her—, then realizes it is wrong and he can’t do it, but I digress.)
In this case, he ASSAULTS HER HIMSELF and then stops and walk away. The implication that he’s going to “teach her a lesson” is clear, and it doesn’t seem he means with his fists. Rape is not a token plot device, just ask Banana Fish. Sexual assault is not the same as a romantic moment (take note, The World’s Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera). Tsukasa is not a “good guy” because he stopped before he went any farther, but in the case of this romanticizing, we’re expected to focus on a supposition on his mental state—one often misunderstood—rather than the horror of what’s happening on screen. In addition to being completely unacceptable, rape is about power and control (which Tsukasa is quite used to) as opposed to sexual attraction. The moment is so quick and ends so unexplored that the truth behind it might be missed by younger viewers. What’s happening on screen, even if he let her go, is not unrequited love.
I get that there’s a lot going on in Tsukasa’s life and head. This is not a “bash Tsukasa” post, because he is a fabulously crafted, highly-realistic and deeply flawed character just as much as Tsukushi. Rather, it’s a statement on the way that shoujo titles like this often romanticize abuse (think even when they say, “If I do something sexually untoward to you, it’s because you’re just too cute.”) and get away with it. (Irina and I wrote about this.) I’m not saying these scenes referenced weren’t necessary to the story the creators wanted to tell, but at the same time, it’s so important for people to truly understand what they are watching, and I think that a lot of the time girls get caught up in the hero moments created by abusive behavior. And a lot of girls don’t understand why that’s a problem, as seen in the “the cruel one” section of this post questioning why girls like “bad boys.”
As the show progresses, so too do our characters; Tsukasa goes from actually sexually assaulting a girl he can’t have to letting that girl have the freedom to do what she wants, even if what she wants isn’t him. (Surprise, it is.) He risks his life to save her from a blizzard and refuses to compromise his principles sexually with another (very willing) woman even because he doesn’t love her. Seeing the characters mature and learn to truly love another person is a beautiful thing, but it brings us back to our original question; what is love?
It isn’t what we see in a lot of these shoujo titles, that’s for sure.
If we are to qualify it thus, then it is immature. It is selfish. It is uncompromising and controlling. By the end things have improved, but there is that sense in the beginning that our extended cast of characters feel that Tsukasa’s abusive and controlling behavior is okay because he loves Tsukushi so much. That simply isn’t true and sends a very negative message to audiences that is only rectified upon more deeply examining the work as a whole, which is to say that until the end, what they have is not love.
I think Hana Yori Dango is a fantastic anime. I adore it! I’ve watched the series, the movie, the J-Drama, and much of the K-Drama. I think it’s portrayal of its teenage characters as thoroughly flawed individuals is engaging. But I also believe that shows like this might cast shadows of unrealistic expectations which prove to be insidious in the personal lives of girls and women, so they need to be watched with these problematic proclivities in mind.
What do you think about Hana Yori Dango? What do you think about shoujo’s taste for the problematic? Let me know in the comments below!
Until I blog again,
*Please see my note on staying in an abusive relationship above.