Hanasakeru Seishōnen, based on the manga of the same name by Natsumi Itsuki, is a bit deceptive. It begins, like many another shoujo romance of the 1980s and 90s (the manga ran from 1987-1994 in LaLa), with a silly and sanity-defying premise, but in its first thirteen episodes it manages to morph into something more closely resembling a political thriller. The base plot established in the beginning remains, but it becomes less about who Kajika will end up marrying and more about the political situation in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Raginei.
The silly base plot that the series opens with is, without knowing what comes later, perhaps enough to turn some viewers away from the show entirely. Fourteen-year-old Kajika Burnsworth, the only daughter of American business magnate Harry Burnsworth, is called back to New York City to be presented with an ultimatum from her father, albeit one disguised as a game. Harry wants to ensure that Kajika finds a suitable husband, and so he's created a “marriage game” for her: she'll meet three young men (whom he's not going to name; apparently her spidey senses will tell her when she's met them) and she has to pick between them as to which she'll end up marrying. Kajika, who has the basic sense of self-preservation of any fourteen-year-old – which is to say not much – agrees to her manipulative father's game, and the show is off and running.
While we viewers can easily tell that Kajika's friend/older brother figure/de facto guardian Lee Leng Huang is likely the man who she'll end up with, he's not presented as one of her father's initial choices. Instead those are Frenchman Eugene Volkan, American Carl Rosenthal, and the second prince of Raginei, Rumaty. It should be noted that Harry never really confirms or denies any of these men as the ones in his game; Kajika simply decides that they must be the ones and sets off forging relationships with them. This is perhaps most troubling in the case of Eugene, whom she is utterly convinced is the spirit of her deceased pet reborn as a human.
Things quickly take a turn for the political once Rumaty enters the scene, although there are already some definite signs before then that the story is not going to be a fluffy one. Mostly we see this in the character of Eugene, who has a believable family history of mental illness. In a fairly impressive plot point, Kajika is not able to “save” him by magically curing him of his depression; instead she works with him and gives him a sense of safety, which allows him to get outside of his own head and to find healthier coping mechanisms than those he previously used. While their relationship begins as one of the most concerning, it eventually blossoms into something that feels like a true friendship, and if Hanasakeru Seishōnen has a signature strength, it's that Harry's “game” changes from Kajika looking for a husband to Kajika building a strong network of friends she can rely on, with Eugene feeling like the clearest example of that in his story arc.
That this network is inextricably tied up in the history of Raginei and the coup spearheaded by supporters of Rumaty (most notably his advisor Quinza) in an attempt to wrest power away from his ineffectual older brother Somand ends up becoming another of the series' strengths. Rumaty and Kajika, we learn quite early on, are actually cousins, and parts of their relationship seem to mirror that of their grandfather, Mahaty, who fell in love with an American woman during a trip abroad in the 1950s. This, interestingly enough, is where we can see how the story was moved forward in time from 1987 to its 2009-10 anime timeframe; it's clear that Mahaty and Kathleen went to a speakeasy, which would have been appropriate if the main story took place in 1987 – the two would have originally met in the 1920s or 30s. In any event, their love story is something of a beautiful tragedy, leaving Kathleen pregnant with Mahaty's first child (Harry), who was raised by the man Kathleen eventually married, a Jimmy Olsen lookalike named Fred Burnsworth. This leaves Kajika and Rumaty unaware of their family connection, although we can see that both of them very strongly take after their shared grandfather, which is perhaps part of what unconsciously draws them to each other in the first place.
Once this Raginei link is established, it does become the driving force of the narrative, with Kajika rallying her troops (so to speak) around Rumaty's role as the prince. The kingdom itself is a visually interesting mix of Jewish and Muslim imagery (and Rumaty's sacred earring is called “Yahweh,” which is a Hebrew word for God), and while there are clearly some biases being presented in the way Raginei is depicted, it works better than you might expect. (Carl Rosenthal, unfortunately, is a bit of a Jewish stereotype.) But thankfully the show mostly stays away from ideas that somehow the Middle East is a lawless backwater, and most of the action focuses on the members of the ruling family and their advisors, keeping things more character than setting based, which largely helps to avoid too many problems.
One problem, however, is the fact that Kajika is really the only decent female character in the whole show. Other women are shallow (Carl's sisters), melodramatically insane (Eugene's mother), or manipulative (Kajika and Rumaty's cousin Najayra). Kajika does have one school friend, Yui, but she's mostly a nonentity. The idea is clearly that Kajika is the Special Girl in all ways, but it ends up undermining her as a character, depriving her of any sort of normal in which to ground herself. This may be intentional, but it doesn't necessarily work in terms of making the characters sympathetic or relatable. Another issue some viewers may have is that the art is very much of the manga's original time, and animation can be very stiff. Efforts are made to update clothing and technology, but there's still something about this series that feels very much of the late 80s-early 90s, despite having been animated in 2009.
Fortunately, the blu-ray is bright and clear, and the colors all look particularly good. There's also good attention to how people of different cultures behave – Kajika is believably American in her actions and ideas, and the scene where Eugene tries to fit in (more or less) at Yui's house is hysterical. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Carl is likely bisexual or at least biromantic, which is particularly striking given when the source material was written.
Hanasakeru Seishōnen is an interesting mix of intrigue and insane shoujo romance premise. It can get a bit too intense at times, and there are definitely points where you need to just back away slowly because of that, but overall it's a good story. It certainly makes the most of what it's got for plot and characters, and that's not something that every long-running show can say.