Japanese TV networks and other makers of films for the masses have developed a formula for megasuccess: Produce a movie that is essentially a superspecial of a popular TV drama series. “Hero,” which revived a smash-hit 2001 series about a punkish public prosecutor, was of this mold — and become the highest-grossing Japanese film of 2007, with a box office take of ¥8.15 billion.
“Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers),” a film based on Yoko Kamio’s best-selling shojo manga (girls’ comic) series, with 58 million copies sold in paperback, and a popular TBS drama series broadcast from 2005 to 2007, may not attain heights of “Hero,” but it is certain to be one of the big hits of the summer. Think “Sex and the City,” Japanese style.
Similar to its American counterpart, “Hana Yori Dango” is a fantasy of the contemporary good life whose heroine is resolutely non-PC — particularly in her taste in men. Its differences, however, are stark. Instead of being sophisticated, sexually experienced and on the far side of 30, like Carrie Bradshaw and her pals in “Sex,” Tsukushi Makino (Mao Inoue) is a naive and virginal, if spunky, girl, which means she fits the basic profile of hundreds of other Japanese teen-drama heroines.
The TV series began with Tsukushi as a new kid at an elite prep school, where the campus was ruled by a clique of four rich, handsome, supremely self-assured guys collectively called the Flower Four — or F4 for short. Tsukushi, who was lumpishly working class and thus a weed in the school’s upper-class garden, became the butt of these fab snobs — and ended up punching one of them, the insufferable Tsukasa Domyoji (Jun Matsumoto), in the first episode.
By the time the film begins, four years have passed since the TV series ended and Tsukushi and Tsukasa are, wouldn’t you know it, a loving, if feuding, couple. (The director of the TV series, Yasuharu Ishii, as well as the main cast members, are all back for the film.) Tsukasa, whose family has become obscenely wealthy from their business empire, Domyoji Enterprises, wants to marry Tsukushi, despite her doubts she can get along with the Domyoji clan, especially Tsukasa’s fearsome mother (Mariko Kaga).
Tsukasa, as brash and arrogant as ever, proclaims his upcoming wedding to the world at a splashy press conference, while Tsukushi, seeing her name and face on millions of TV screens, cringes. But Tsukasa is loudly sincere about his intentions, so Tsukushi goes along with the next step — a formal engagement meeting between the two families at the Domyoji estate. There, Tsukushi is presented with a jewel-encrusted tiara that has been a Domyoji heirloom for generations and is said to be worth ¥10 billion.
Then, when Tsukushi and Tsukasa are alone in Tsukushi’s cavernous hotel suite, which she shares with her pudgy Mom and Dad and piggish younger brother, a thief brazenly breaks in and steals the tiara right from under their noses. Tsukasa gives chase, but the thief is too quick and wily — and has powerful, unseen allies. After failing to grab him at the hotel, Tsukasa gets word that the thief and tiara are in Las Vegas. Together he and a determined Tsukushi fly to America — and the start of a strange and dangerous, if giddily romantic, adventure that leads to Hong Kong and other exotic locales. Other members of F4 lend their support, though Tsukushi begins to suspect one, the tall, silky smooth Rui Hanazawa (Shun Oguri), of being in cahoots with the bad guys.
For nonfans of the manga and TV series, the relationships and back stories will feel sketchy or outright obscure — the film suggests more than it explains. What soon becomes apparent, though, is that Tsukushi, far from being a feminist role model, is a ditzy, if gutsy, cutie pie of a familiar type. The F4, Tsukasa included, call her by her last name, Makino, as though she were a sexless pal — or rather group mascot.
So Tsukasa’s violent proclamations of eternal love may seem puzzling, until we realize that Tsukushi is an audience stand-in and that her romance with Tsukasa is a wish projection for would-be storybook (or rather manga) princesses in the seats. Also, despite her dim-bulb exterior, Tsukushi is blithely unimpressed with status and wealth and stubbornly skeptical of Tsukasa’s intentions — she demands proof instead of words. In other words, she has values and priorities that her prince — and fans — can respect.
Ishii tells this story, with its reels through the high life of Las Vegas and Hong Kong, as well as its sojourn on a desert island, with a sheen of glamour and self-mocking humor that are reminiscent of the glossier Hollywood romcoms, though the absurdly overamped acting styles and oversize sets are reminders that he is making a live version of a manga — and trying to please its millions of fans.
The message of “Hana Yori Dango” is the eternal one of chick flicks everywhere: True love trumps money and other externals, though a tiara doesn’t hurt, does it?