THE SHORT VERDICT:
You might like this if you’ve read the manga &/or seen the other versions and already know the story, plus you don’t mind a drama that’s trying to be both a manga and a regular kdrama at the same time and therefore seems to have a split personality. Acting is mostly average and random plot points are plenty, but the writers do give quite a fair amount of couple moments as fanservice.
I loved the Japanese version, which helped me to make sense of this version, and I ended up enjoying this more than I thought I would.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Objectively speaking, To The Beautiful You is not a good drama. It’s not well-written nor well-acted, and I think it’s safe to say that those are 2 pretty important things to just about any drama.
It’s weird, though. I started this drama expecting to be disappointed, but I ended up enjoying it, in spite of myself.
A TANGENT ON JAPAN’S HANA KIMI:
First, a bit of background.
I know a lot of reviews examine To The Beautiful You on its own merit and don’t do much referencing to the other versions, if at all. I recognize that as an effort to be fair, and I respect that.
In my experience, though, it was the context of the Japanese version that helped me appreciate To The Beautiful You, so I kinda have to go there.
I haven’t read the original manga, but I loved – really, really loved! – Japan’s Hana Kimi (the 2007 version, not the remake) and re-watched it several times. It was the first J-dorama I’d watched, and I was thoroughly fascinated by just how well they managed to translate the manga feel into a live drama.
There is a strong fantasy, fun, tongue-in-cheek feel to it that is distinctly manga-esque. Everything is larger-than-life, random and amusing. Practically right away, I found myself completely hooked.
One of my favorite touches is the self-deprecating tagline that floats across the screen before the opening credits:
And then comes the opening sequence, which quickly shows us just how awesomely, outlandishly bizarre this world is going to be.
Masses of fangirls surging forward with squeals and gifts to greet the pretty boys of Osaka High on their walk from the dorms to the school because it’s the only glimpse they get of the boys? Check. Pumping, up-beat, happy music? Check. A reporter taking photos of the boys so that she can sell them to the squealing fangirls? Check. That same reporter informing us & our female lead that this school is special coz they pick the boys based on their looks and not their grades? Check.
And then there’s the completely manga-esque, random appearance of gold pom-poms out of nowhere, to introduce us to the Hibari Four, from St. Blossoms, sister school to Osaka High. This is the self-proclaimed fan-club to the boys, and in their introduction, they tell us, with high kicks and a flourish, that their mission is to bring happiness to every single one of the boys.
I proceeded to lap up the entire series, which was rife with random cute arcs that often had little or absolutely nothing to do with the main story. In a regular drama, that would have been unthinkable writing, but in this world, where you feel like you’re walking around in manga-land, it works. All of it. And gloriously well, too.
WHAT ABOUT TO THE BEAUTIFUL YOU?
The thing about To The Beautiful You is, the writers were clearly trying to recreate the feel of the manga while at the same time trying to retain the emotional core of the quintessential kdrama romance.
I can see why they would want both currents running through the drama, because there’s a lot of appeal in each one. The execution was, unfortunately, rather choppy (to put it mildly).
Instead of doing each one well and moving seamlessly between the feels, the drama tried to get the 2 disparate concepts to meet at a half-way point and ended up being mediocre in both. The show also moved clumsily between the 2 tones, and watching the switches between tones was akin to experiencing drama whiplash.
Efforts towards the manga vibe included fangirls sneaking into Genie High on the back of Tae Joon’s van:
Unfortunately, these didn’t pop in the same way that the J-version managed to do with their manga-world, and to make things worse, the PD seemed to think that getting everyone to overact was a way to achieve the manga effect.
Inserting frequent, random changes to the drama’s setting was also consistent with the manga, like this sudden trip to a beach-side pension:
Tae Joon’s daddy issues, his jumping issues, and his cold, stiff treatment of everyone else was treated with a distinctly more dramatic touch (vs a lighter, OTT manga touch like the rest of the show) and the difference when moving between the two tones felt unnatural and strange.
This was a big problem in the earlier episodes, but it faded significantly in the later episodes. Not because the writers got better at toggling the two, mind you. It’s more like the writers decided to let go of most of the manga feel and concentrate a lot more on the kdrama romance feel. But that worked. At least the show started to have a more consistent tone.
It’s kinda like riding in a car. The driving may not be exceptionally good, but at least when the driver doesn’t keep making sudden turns, you don’t feel like you’re being jerked around.
There were also gaping logic holes that the writers didn’t think to fill up.
Case in point, the first 2 minutes of the drama introduces us to Tae Joon (Min Ho) and shows him setting a high jump record. Random Caucasian girl walks up to our heroine Jae Hee (Sulli) and prompts her to watch him on TV, saying, “I hear that guy is Korean.” Really?? They seriously couldn’t come up with a better line than that?
This would have been a good place to exposit to us what’s going on, but no explanation is given to us, except, “I gotta do this.” Huh?
Still, despite rolling my eyes as high as they would go, I could understand what was going on.
I surmised that our heroine was going to seek out our hero, not because of some crush on him, but to help him jump again. I figured that the writers would have kept that much consistent with the original manga, and I was right.
However, that failure on the part of the writers to explain things to the audience resulted in a lot of people being very frustrated with the show, and understandably so. Our heroine makes a major decision within the first 2 minutes of the drama which goes on to become the entire premise of the show, and the writers don’t bother to tell us exactly what she’s doing or why? I would be upset too.
Clearly, To The Beautiful You is flawed and obviously so, right off the bat.
Add to that the fact that most of the acting is pretty average at best, and I can see why so many people quickly dropped this like a hot potato.
I had to repeatedly fill in plot gaps based on what I knew from the J-version, and that helped me make sense of the story and their world.
But here’s the weird thing. When I decided to let my brain check out, and just shrug off all the inconsistencies and jerky writing, the show became quite enjoyable.
You know what’s even weirder? I said similar things about enjoying shows like Panda and Hedgehog and A Gentleman’s Dignity after letting my brain check out. To The Beautiful You is, objectively speaking, a more flawed drama than both of those dramas, but I enjoyed this show more than I did the other two shows. I even felt a little hooked.
SO WHAT DID WORK?
I think one of the big things that I did enjoy in To The Beautiful You, is the abundant number of couple moments that the writers kept serving up.
Here, have a photo spasm of just some of them:
The writers give us regular romantic-tension-charged encounters between the leads, and that keeps the momentum of the show whirring along. Sure, it isn’t quite explained how each starts to like the other, but once you just accept that that’s where we are with them, the moments can be really rather sweet.
Also, I think the draw is that the moments are mostly of the gasp-what-might-this-lead-to-will-he-let-on-that-he-knows-she’s-a-girl-and-that-he-likes-her? variety. That’s probably the thing about the show that hooked me the most.
One big factor that makes this approach work, is Min Ho’s turn as Tae Joon.
BUT. He is very likable, and that basically saves the day. At least, it saved the day for me. Plus, I always cut the idol actors some slack, especially if it’s their first attempt at acting.
Min Ho is good-looking in a fairly conventional sort of way, and sure, that is appealing in and of itself, but it is his dorky, sometimes almost cross-eyed charm that really makes me want to pinch him.
As the show progresses, he smiles more and more often, and he looks his dorkiest, cutest best when he’s smiling.
It also doesn’t hurt (at all) that he’s very athletic. He looks the part of a high-jumper, and they show him training, working out and jumping very frequently in the show.
Plus! They throw in the obligatory shirtless scenes:
If he hadn’t been this cute, the couple moments strategy probably wouldn’t have worked on me. So really, it was his high likability quotient that made it work for me.
What didn’t help her was the poor writing. Her character says and does dumb things which make her seem unbelievably naive and clueless.
One of the most unbelievable plot patterns is that Tae Joon repeatedly – really, repeatedly! – does and says things which indicate that he knows she’s a girl, but Jae Hee is so clueless that she never even suspects that her secret is not such a secret to Tae Joon.
This did not endear her to me, I’m afraid. I like my heroines a little smarter than that.
Despite the writing working against her, though, Sulli managed to make her character pretty likable, and I think that’s a very decent accomplishment.
I’d loved his performance in The Equator Man, which was deep-reaching, subtle and convincing. I was impressed and I wanted to see more from him.
Right away, though, in episode 1, I was a little taken aback by his completely different acting style in To The Beautiful You. His acting was exaggerated and over-the-top and I have to say, I didn’t like it.
Thankfully, this exaggeratedness got dialed down by quite a lot as the show progressed, and he became a big emotional center of the show.
Yes, he did still bring the cute, like here with his imitation of a caterpillar:
And here with one of his many wild fantasies involving Jae Hee:
I particularly felt for him when he realizes that Jae Hee is a girl. His feelings of confusion and betrayal are in direct conflict with his desire to protect her, and that tension made for some great emotional moments.
I was so glad that I stuck with the show, because it meant that I got to see Lee Hyun Woo shine. I do wish that he’d had more opportunities to show his talent as an actor, but given the circumstances, I can’t really complain.
It is heartening to watch as the characters keep on at it in the face of discouragement, setbacks and exhaustion, and prevail to see their dreams getting more and more within reach with each step that they take.
A nice universal reminder for us all, I thought.
In some ways, I felt that this theme stood out more than the romantic development of our OTP, and that actually was rather nice.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
MY THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING
I kind of knew that in the end Jae Hee would leave Genie High and go back to America. That’s what happened in the J-version, and if I’m not mistaken, that’s what happened in the manga too.
I think knowing that in advance helped.
In the J-version, everything was treated with a light-hearted manga touch, so even the separation was resolved in a light-hearted manner.
Because this version was more emotionally driven than the J-version, I actually wasn’t too sure if the show could pull off a separation of the OTP in a satisfying manner. But they did.
In the J-version, all we get is a scene of Mizuki back in America, receiving an arrow-letter informing her that her friends are coming to America for a school trip. It’s cute, but rather too open-ended if applied to this version, I thought.
So I was actually really quite pleased that the show gave us something a little more substantial in terms of reuniting the OTP.
That felt emotionally satisfying enough for our OTP, and I forgave all the cheesy fake-America that the show served up at the end.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A show that is weirdly quite bad and yet quite good at the same time. You just have to know when to just shrug and move on, so that you can make space to enjoy the goodies.
Will probably also appeal to tweens and tweens at heart.
FINAL GRADE: B