If there’s one thing the 90s left me as a legacy, it’s an undeniable weakness for boy bands. My tween existence played out against background music from *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, and a couple one-hit wonders that ended up on mixtapes I’d make on Sunday afternoon. As I’ve grown up, those Sunday afternoons sometimes involved reading shoujo manga and subsequently watching the live-action adaptations. More often than not, those adaptations have also starred members of boy bands.
Finding my way into their music hasn’t just made the viewing experience more fun—it’s also been an opportunity for nostalgia without actually having to relive high school. These boys, their music, and the characters they play bring me back to what it felt like to be fifteen years old: shy, introverted, unsure of how to deal with a crush, standing on the precipice of adulthood. And yes, their cute faces don’t hurt at all.
It’d be difficult to write this list without including Siwon’s stint as broody Ren in the Taiwanese adaptation of Yoshiki Nakamura’s ongoing manga Skip Beat. As a member of Korean boy band Super Junior and its Chinese-language subgroup Super Junior-M, Siwon isn’t new to the kind of scene Ren inhabits. Both actor and character deal with fame and its trappings, and they share many similarities in attitude and characteristics.
Ren is not an easy character to get to know: much of his past remains under the surface, even after 200+ volumes of the manga. The reader knows him best through Kyoko’s charged interactions with him and all the bias and confusion that comes with those interactions. Likewise, Siwon’s performance seems detached and distant at first, surprisingly mirroring my own impression of him in Super Junior. That aloofness quickly gives way to a goofy attitude, which was delightful to watch and which played off of Ivy Chen’s more exuberant Kyoko Mogami with ease. He also captures Ren’s intensity and devotion to developing his craft, a central characteristic that mirrors Siwon’s own approach to acting as he is primarily a singer and not an actor.
Skip Beat isn’t anywhere close to being finished, as fans have lamented for years, which does hinder the drama from providing a completely satisfying ending. That said, Siwon’s acting abilities were able to charm audiences despite a poor Mandarin dub of his voice for the show. He delivers in long looks and glances that carry the emotional weight between each conversation, a fitting performance to match a manga that explores each nuance of its characters’ thoughts and actions.
Kazuya Kamenashi – Kyohei Takano (The Wallflower/Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge, Japan)
Shoujo manga can range from quiet reflective stories to exaggerated hammy plots, and Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge definitely lands within the latter. Its titular wallflower is a goth, cape-wearing teenage girl, whose mother recruits four boarders to turn her supernatural daughter into a princess of femininity. Kazuya Kamenashi of the long blonde bangs and flirty looks leads the group in their mission, and he’s nothing if not magnetic.
As a member of KAT-TUN, Kazuya is a polarizing pop star, and his turn as Kyohei Takano in this adaptation is likely to be just as divisive for viewers. This drama has the unenviable job of convincing its audience that Kyohei is a character worth knowing and falling in love with despite being overwhelmed by evidence of his “perfection” throughout the first few episodes. Girls literally fall at Kyohei’s feet, and Kazuya works that Johnny’s charm for his life, but it very quickly shifts into pure ridiculousness.
There’s not a whole lot of gravitas in Yamato Nadeshiko, and much of the plot is reminiscent of other more popular titles. The manga plays with the concept of beauty and identity, but the live-action feels like shades of the original story and themes. Likewise, its actors’ interpretations of their characters feel like lesser versions of other manga favorites, and none more so than Kazuya’s flashy Kyohei. Everything he does is over the top, loud, and boisterous, making it difficult to settle into the story in its few significantly dramatic moments. As much as this type of performance can entertain audiences, Kazuya’s inability to match it with real seriousness lost me as a viewer.
Honey and Clover isn’t an overly dramatic manga—its characters’ conflicts are quiet implosions, controlled by their introverted personalities. Some of the weightiest moments in the series happen through long, highly-charged glances alone, and the actors need to be able to capture those conversational nuances.
Enter Arashi’s Sho Sakurai as Yuta Takemoto. The role of a shy art student might not seem like the shiniest vehicle for one of Japan’s biggest pop idols, but it did give Sho the chance to explore a character that’s galaxies away from his previous boisterous roles in Kisarazu Cat’s Eye and the Pikanchi series. Yuta is an observant young man, who tends to blend into the background when his friend Morita Shinobu is around. Sho’s performance could certainly feel muted to viewers who are familiar with his work, but I would wager that it took more energy to keep up.
Sho keeps a half-smile through most of the film, his eyes bright and curious. He’s playful, yes, but still reserved even as his heart begins to break. It takes a whole lot of skill and emotional strength to be happy in the face of loss and heartache, and he manages to tread the line without cheapening either emotion. Yuta is a calming presence both in the manga and drama, serving as the reader’s entry point to the story and its boisterous cast of characters. There’s a very real tension between his Yuta and Aoi Yu’s Hagu, where you can tell that they are nothing if not hyper-aware of the connection between them. That tension lends credence to Sho’s interpretation of his character as a young man who isn’t quite sure if he deserves to be happy, but wants to be anyway regardless of what else it might bring him.
Min-Ho Choi – Tae Joon Kang/Sano Izumi (To the Beautiful You, Korea)
Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, fondly referred to as Hana Kimi by its fans, is an immensely popular manga series, and the number of live-action adaptations it’s had in various Asian countries is a reflection of that popularity. Korean network SBS’s version is the fourth incarnation of this story, following a Taiwanese production and two Japanese dramas, and Min-Ho of ShiNEE is the second boy band member to take on the lead romantic role.
Sadly, Min-Ho is not as charismatic as Shun Oguri (Japan) or as intense as Wu Chun (Taiwan). It’s clear that this is his first full-length romantic comedy stint, and the production isn’t as capable of capturing the rollicking humour of the manga, leaving him awkward in scenes that are revised or completely new to the adaptation. He doesn’t inhabit the role as easily, either swinging too far into broody territory or coming across as insincere even when he is trying really hard to be candid. Sano Izumi is the kind of manga character that needs his actor to control a very tight balance of emotions, and Min-Ho is unable to work within the shadows of genuine character growth. Sano questions his sexuality over the course of the story, adding another layer of complexity to the character, but it’s very obvious that Min-Ho is Acting as opposed to inhabiting and understanding the character.
He’s best in scenes that let him play, lighthearted moments that don’t ask for more than one side of an emotion. His chemistry with Sulli (playing Miyuki Ashiya) is mostly unremarkable—right for their scenes and the tone of the series maybe, but not astonishing. It’s a fitting performance for a manga adaptation that doesn’t manage to be all that memorable, despite a history of success in previous formats, and makes a case for leaving Hana Kimi to rest on its already grand field of flowers.
If I’m being completely honest, it was Jun’s performance that inspired this list, and he’s also the reason why I even know any of these actors and dramas. I’d found Hana Yori Dango through a rather convoluted thought process one August night: the memory of Taiwanese drama Meteor Garden (based on this manga) led me to the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which led me to YouTube to search for the Japanese drama that I was about 80% sure existed. It did, and I watched both seasons and the movie within a week.
I always feel like I have to apologize for Domyouji, which I recognize is a little silly. He’s not a likable character, not until maybe the very last episodes of season one. All the challenges that Tsukushi Makino has to deal with because of him could fill an entire essay or top ten list of their own. Each adaptation highlights his mean streak in different ways, sometimes even topping the manga, and their ensuing efforts to balance it out with his good qualities aren’t always successful. The manga provides him a little more sophistication, pulling back where the dramas surge forward in playing up Domyouji’s comical traits. The 2005 adaptation comes closest to reenacting that character growth despite having less episodes to work with than the Korean and Taiwanese versions.
Jun’s performance doesn’t just establish Domyouji as a hateful character—he also manages to make the self-proclaimed “almighty” rich kid somebody who might have a future beyond ordering around his classmates and throwing tantrums. Jun works with his character’s genuine lack of social skills making him sympathetic and less of a comic caricature. You get the sense that he actually likes Domyouji, that he understands the latter’s frustration with the people around him, and that he sees the person Domyouji will eventually grow up to be. The manga has over thirty-six volumes to convince the reader that he’s someone worth knowing and believing in, and Jun manages it in less than ten episodes.