‘One Piece,” a new, modern entertainment-focused “Super Kabuki” play based on an eponymous manga series by Eiichiro Oda, closed last month after a hit Tokyo run that showed beyond doubt that manga-based productions are not the preserve of movies and television — where they have long been popular fare — but they can successfully translate to the live stage, too.
That magic formula has also spawned so-called “2.5-D” musicals (something between 2-D manga and 3-D theater) — a genre that’s struck box-office gold with shows such as “The Prince of Tennis” and “Sailor Moon.”
So it is hardly surprising that Japan’s best-selling comic for girls from 1992 to 2004 — Yoko Kamio’s “Hana Yori Dango” (“Boys over Flowers”) series popularly known as “Hanadan” — is now the basis of a musical after long ago conquering anime, games, movies and TV. Despite the title’s track record, though, the musical’s director, Yumi Suzuki — known for her work with foreign plays and mainstream Japanese theater as well as musicals — confessed to being worried about taking on the project.
“To be honest, I thought it was quite risky to create a musical, as ‘Hanadan’ had already been so popular as a manga, in movies and on TV,” she said. “If we were going to put it on a stage, I thought it was essential that we had a clear intention of not just replicating the original like a kind of cosplay.”
“Hanadan” is basically a Cinderella-type drama, but with a distinctly Japanese flavor. It revolves around the Flower Four (aka F4), a quartet of handsome boys from rich families who rule the roost at a posh private high school in Tokyo. Despite knowing this, the heroine, the less affluent girl Tsukushi Makino (played by Ririka Kato), slaps the face of the F4’s leader Tsukasa Domyouji (Yuya Matsushita) when he’s rude to her best friend. And as if that didn’t cause enough ripples, Tsukasa then takes a fancy to Tsukushi — although it’s F4-member Rui Hanazawa (Jin Shirasu) who has caught her eye.
This may be a well-worn tale, but Suzuki delightedly declares that her young cast members had made her realize afresh the power and warmth of the “Hanadan” story — and they also inspired in her that clear directorial intention she’d been seeking.
“We auditioned around 3,000 candidates and 17-year-old Kato came through as the heroine,” the director says at a recent interview in the rehearsal studio. “I was amazed by her determination when she took on the role of Tsukushi — fearlessly confronting the big, tall F4 boys so dauntlessly. Matsushita, too, was equally impressive. He is such a clever actor.”
As for the risk she’d felt approaching this all-too-familiar storyline, Suzuki says, “I didn’t just want to create a visual likeness of the comic on stage. Hence I tried to extract its essence to create a new ‘Hanadan’ — one that is perhaps more energetic thanks to original songs and dances.”
In that respect, the director has a great ally in Akimitsu Homma, a top musician, composer and producer of J-pop stars such as Porno Graffiti and Ayumi Hamazaki. For Homma, this is his debut writing songs for a musical.
Together, Suzuki and Homma look set conjure the kind of chemistry that will have “Hanadan” fans old and new queuing to enjoy this new staging of an old favorite.
“Hana yori Dango” runs until Jan. 24 at Theatre Crea, near Tokyo’s Hibiya Station. It then tours to Fukuoka, Nagoya and Osaka until Feb. 14. For more details, call 03-3201-7777 or visit www.hanadan-m.com.