Japanese TV dramas – Part One

I am a huge fan of so many of the TV dramas Japan has produced over the years. I’m a huge sucker for romantic gestures in light-hearted romantic comedies, in general.

I’m going to introduce a few of my favorites and hope maybe one day you might try to watch them.

General note about Japanese TV dramas

To the great irritation of a lot of my Japanese friends – who say they love American TV shows so much more because big budgets mean movie-like quality – most Japanese TV shows simply don’t have money for good special effects. This is not the place to go for that.

Instead, Japanese TV dramas must rely on great acting and great storytelling to make for a great series.

Unlike American TV shows that can go into 14 seasons or more, Japan usually only ever has one season of a drama, with about 10 episodes. If the show does amazingly well with viewership ratings, they’ll make another a couple more episodes, then maybe a second season. If that goes well, they’ll put out a movie and be done with it.

The only massive exception I’ve seen to this is a cop show called Aibou, 相棒 (“Partner”), which has done 19 seasons.

As such, the stories are usually fairly well thought out, and the acting can be really good. I like that special effects also can’t distract from bad acting or bad stories. If it’s bad, you can immediately tell. Stories that aren’t well received usually stop by around episode 10, sometimes 8.

Hana Yori Dango (花より男子)

(Boys over Flowers – this is a play-on-words for the phrase hana yori dango, which sounds the same, but the kanji for dango is supposed to be 団子, a type of wagashi Japanese sweet, and it means “preferring food over looking at flowers”).

My favorite TV romantic drama of all time, it was truly a force to be reckoned with when it came out. It did so well that they added more episodes, then a second season, then a movie. Everything this production team did was adored in Japan.

Brief synopsis: A ridiculously poor family pours their money into sending their daughter to a high school for the rich in the hopes she marries rich (it’s cringe-worthy just writing here). The daughter has no interest in anyone there, loathing their self-entitlement sentiments, until she finally makes a friend at the school. When that friend ends up on the wrong side of one of the school’s elite students, the daughter shows the whole school what she’s made of.

Review: While I hate the parents and their idea of marrying off their daughter to bring themselves out of poverty, I love basically everything else about this incredibly ridiculous but fun drama. I love watching the male lead (Matsumoto Jun) figure out how to be a human being, I love the daughter (Inoue Mao) for being so unapologetically strong. The two had such strong chemistry in this series that there are still rumors they’re actually dating.

Saikou no Rikon (最高の離婚)

(The greatest divorce).

This is my favorite TV drama for acting. It was received fairly well, though as far as I know, it only got a special (basically a one-hour episode recapping the series and adding about five minutes of original content). I would’ve loved to have seen more.

Brief synopsis: An extremely high-maintenance man wonders more and more how he ended up marrying his polar opposite. Meanwhile, an old flame of his ends up moving into his neighborhood.

Review: My God the acting in this is just superb. I can’t even begin to properly describe how much I love it. To me, this entire series was like watching a stage play on TV. This, I think, is what happens when you boil down a good script to the very best it can be and mix in some high-quality acting. It’s just a treasure to watch.

Although a lot of places seem to describe this as a romantic comedy, a dramedy would be a better description. There are quite a few gut-punching moments in here mixed so beautifully with antics. I can’t recommend this show enough.

Ryusei no Kizuna 流星の絆

(Meteoric bonds?)

This is truly a gut-wrenching story with more fantastic acting from some of the top actors in Japan all in the same drama (much like Saikou no Rikon).

Brief synopsis: Three children are left orphaned after the brutal murder of their parents. When the police can’t find a suspect, the three vow to one day catch the murderer.

Review: This is not a happy drama, though there are moments of light-heartedness. It’s part whodunit, part grieving. There’s nothing like seeing that the older brother’s desktop picture is the police profile sketch of the potential suspect. And the reveal of who the suspect actually is…it’s just incredible.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Letters from Iwo Jima, you might recognize the lead in this: Ninomiya Kazunari, who’s a pop idol currently on hiatus.

This is a tragedy, though the ending is a little bit healing. There’s closure, at least.

Last Friends ラスト フレンズ

This is not for the faint-of-heart or for anyone who doesn’t want to relive being in an abusive relationship. That being said, I love that this drama tackled incredibly important topics Japan usually doesn’t love talking about: gender identity, controlling behavior, abusive relationships that are well hidden.

Brief synopsis: A woman moves in with her boyfriend, only to find out he’s not at all what he seems. Meanwhile, her best friend is struggling with being trapped in a woman’s body while trying to hide her feelings for her friend.

Review: This is not only another unhappy drama, it’s really intense. The abusive boyfriend is played, quite masterfully, by a Japanese pop idol named Nishikido Ryo. (He’s also in the previously mentioned Ryusei no Kizuna) Seeing him acting like this is just something I’ll never get out of my head, no matter how many times I see him in other things. Another actor named Eita, who is famous for his superb acting, also makes an appearance here. (You can also see him in the previously mentioned Saikou no Rikon.) I will never be able to express how much I love Ueno Juri in this show, either. She’s fantastic on so many levels.

Again, this is not a happy show. There are a few sparse moments of levity, but mostly it’s wondering how long before Nishikido Ryo’s character just finally kills his girlfriend. Mercifully, he doesn’t, I’d like to add. I love it for the acting; I love it for tackling tough subjects.