Japanese Dramas and Romantic Comedies

Thanks to switching to streaming video I have discovered a craving for Japanese TV shows. Below is a list of all the series I have watched along with a brief comment about each. The series must have more than 5 episodes, be available on a streaming service, and be made after 1997 (the year I left Japan). Most of these are based on manga which I think improves the writing and pacing of episodes overall – as fans of Preacher and the Walking Dead would likely agree. The Japanese also don’t portray romance very well. Kissing tends to the chaste and there’s a reliance on innuendo rather than physical affection – kind of like American movies in the early 1960s.

Like American TV most of these shows are quite predictable, but those that aren’t can be quite extraordinary. And since all of the Japanese actors are professionals it all comes down to the writing.

Check out these first: If you are in the mood for something mainstream, something that would easily appear on PBS if the British made it: Atelier. Nodame Cantabile (Nodame Cantabile). Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia’s Case Files. Crazy for Me . And if you are in the mood for weird: I’m Mita Your Housekeeper. Million Yen Women

99 Days with the Superstar (Boku to Star no 99 Nichi)- A fun romantic comedy about a Korean actress who falls in love with her bumbling Japanese bodyguard. While the ending is a bit of a let down the series has many moments. In particular the interplay between bodyguard Kohei and his childhood friend “Ganmo,” played by Kuranosuke Sasaki (Iryu: Team Medical Dragon). Sasaki shines in the supporting role, and it’s too bad the writers didn’t do more with his character.

Always the Two of Us (Itsumo futari de) – Pretty decent love story about friends who fall in love. Worth watching for the verbal parrying between the two main characters.

Angel Heart (Enjero Hato) – A crimefighter’s fiancee dies saving a child and her heart is transplanted into a cold-blooded assassin. The premise is straight from a comic book and the show has many of the classic elements like witty one-liners and heroes who disarm their well-armed adversaries without spilling blood.  The heart of the show though is the importance of family, and that friendship can make up for the failures of biology. Overall a light-hearted show that crosses over into syrupy sentimentality a bit too often that reminded me of old Hong Kong cop shows that Jackie Chan used to do before he got famous in the West.

Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia’s Case Files (Biblia Koshodou no Jiken Techou) – A standout of Japanese dramas and one I wish they would continue. Imagine if Sherlock Holmes was instead a petite young Japanese woman owning a used bookstore who investigates mysteries where famous novels play a key role. Top notch writing makes this series a must see. It also showcases one of my favorite books, A Clockwork Orange.

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Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia’s Case Files

Atelier – In my view this is one of the more accessible dramas made by the Japanese. The story takes place at a small women’s lingerie designer founded by Mayumi Nanjo, a tough perfectionist who cares little about anyone’s opinion but her own. Enter Mayuko Tokita, fresh out of school, willing to work and with a burning desire to make her mark and shake things up. Tokita, played by Mirei Kiritani, immediately falls afoul the boss, played impeccably by Mao Daichi in a rare role where a woman above 40 is not a side-character. The two butt heads and the result is some of the best TV I’ve seen on Netflix.

Biyou Shounen Celebrity – Yes I watched it. It was weird but charming in a way. Evidently the Japanese don’t stereotype male hairdressers as “gay” at least in their media. I’d probably like it if I was 20 and stoned but middle aged and sober it’s not a favorite.

Crazy for Me (Kokoro ga Pokkito ne) – In a year of watching Japanese dramas and romantic comedies this is my clear favorite. It’s quirky and about 40 somethings instead of the usual high school, college age or newbies in the workforce that are commonly portrayed in their dramas. All the characters have baggage and everyone is broken in their own way, yet in the end they heal and overcome their neuroses.

Dad of Light (Final Fantasy XIV) – Heartwarming story about a son who gets his dad hooked on an online video game so that he can get closer to him. Short <30 min episodes keep the story moving in this sentimental-in-places drama. Worth a look, especially if you are familiar with online games.

Death Note (Desu Noto) – Perhaps the most famous Japanese drama of recent times which, along with the translated anime, spawned an American version. While the plot of death note seems taken from the fevered mind of a bullied junior high schooler, the characterizations of this version are what make it worth watching. In particular Kento Yamazaki is perfectly cast as “L” and it’s easy to flip between wanting to see Kira succeed and “L” catch him. I sure wish American audiences were sophisticated enough to enjoy an original show from abroad instead of having Hollywood puree it and then spoon-feed it to them in a remake.

Doctor X – Finished seasons 1-2 starting 3

Dinner – The owner and head chef of an Italian restaurant in Japan goes into coma, and his daughter hires a brash, no-nonsense chef to step in. Although food plays a central role in this comedy/drama, it’s more about passion and challenging oneself on the job to achieve greatness. Smartly the show drops the romantic attachments early on and evolves into a classic Japanese workplace success story where teamwork and pride in one’s efforts leads to success. Very well written and acted considering the food looked as if it was cooked by the actors themselves (some shows like Midnight Diner usually suffice with close ups of the food and hands instead of full-figure shots showing the actors interracting with the food.) A standout show.

Doctor’s Affairs (Ishitachi no Renai Jijou) – Another adult love story although the romance is glacially paced. A strong supporting cast elevates the drama from the average. Mr Perfect Young Doctor meets Ms Jaded Burned Out Doctor and sparks fly – just in slow motion.

Dr. Coto’s Clinic (Dr. Koto Shinryojo) – Based on a manga this older series (from 2003 and 2006) ages well. The story revolves around a young doctor from Tokyo who moves to an isolated island clinic, and the challenges he faces from the villagers and his own past. Although the main character is somewhat two-dimensional I enjoyed this series for the medicine as well as the characters on the island.

Erased (Bokudake ga Inai Machi) – A young man, Satoru Fujinuma, is framed for his mother’s death but becomes unstuck in Time and travels back into the past. This dark drama starring Yuki Furukawa of Mischievous Kiss starts out standard Fugitive but then evolves into a combination of Stand by Me and Slaughterhouse Five. Going back in time Satoru realizes he has the chance to save several children from a serial killer using his knowledge of the future. Doing so he comes to rely upon a widening circle of friends who help him on his quest. Thankfully the framing part of his mother’s death is brief as he jumps back into the past to save her and the victims of the serial killer. Overall a dark but well-made series that’s worth your time if you are in the mood for something serious. Watch this and Netflix will recommend the Many Faces of Ito. Of the two this one is much better with better acting and a tight story.

Galileo – An exceptional crime drama about a physicist who assists in murder investigations, and the plot always revolves around a scientific fact or curiosity. One part Bill Nye the Science Guy and one part Cagney & Lacey make this a highly recommended show. First episode “Burns” is especially creepy.

Gokuaku Ganbo – Is it possible for a show to make loan sharks look human? This show does. It provides a glimpse of the consumer loan industry in Japan which is extremely different from the industry elsewhere since banks do not lend much to consumers. This allows a private industry of loan sharks to thrive, and this show is about a group of them including a main character who suffers from them and decides to join them to beat them at their own game. Although not as highly rated at various drama sites, I think it was one of the best dramas I’ve watched so far. Reminds me ever so slightly of the original Oceans 11 with Frank Sinatra and crew.

Good Morning Call – Ok this romantic comedy is about high schoolers. Yes admitting that I like this romcom makes me feel creepy (sukebe), but the main character Nao Yoshikawa (Haruka Fukuhara) is so adorable that it’s impossible to resist wanting to see her happy. And the abuse she suffers from her crush Hisashi Uehara (Shunya Shiraish) makes you want to stage an intervention, preferably with loud black women saying things like “Damn girl he’s not good enough for you.” I’m not sure what one can learn from a culture through TV given how foreigners think Americans are humping when we aren’t shooting at each other, but there is an entire sub-genre of Japanese romantic comedies based on kataomoi (unrequited love) so it’s easy to believe the Japanese will love anyone except those who love them.

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Good Morning Call’s Yoshikawa Realizing She Needs A “Black Woman Intervention”

Good Morning Call was my first romcom that started me down the path of Japanese drama and it remains my favorite. The character of Nao is one of the purest, most innocent I’ve ever seen on TV, and it would be impossible for it to translate into a western, particularly an American setting. Her love for Uehara is so intense and so ideal, yet she herself is so naive and innocent that you want to see her win Uehara’s heart. In a way the show is a throwback to a simpler time. In an era when anything and everything goes and is accepted, the show stands out and is a welcome respite from the usual sexual and violent fare on TV.

Hard to Say I Love You (Sunao ni Narenakute) – Although on the surface this is a typical Rom-Com filled with unrequited love, below the surface it deals with some serious themes including sexual harassment, homosexual attraction in a heterosexual society, and societal pressure for women to conform to norms and expectations. More complex than expected which can be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.

Hero 2014 – One has to be careful when learning about a culture through its art, but this show highlights an important cultural difference between Japan and the USA. Japan has a 98% conviction rate and relies heavily on confessions to achieve that. This show provides a glimpse of that world where prosecutors coerce confessions out of suspects, and occasionally convicting an innocent man in the process. This show has a great ensemble cast including Yutaka Matsushige from Dinner, Midnight Diner and Death Note (among others). The stories are tightly written and entertaining. Sorry to see the end of this one.

I’m Mita Your Housekeeper (Kaseifu no Mita) – On the surface the plot is simple: a father of four hires a maid to clean house after his wife dies. But it doesn’t take long before the plot dives into the darkest depths below and exposes some brutal truths about the normal seeming family living in the Japanese equivalent of suburbia and their robot-acting housekeeper. One of the more complex Japanese dramas I’ve seen. There were episodes where I couldn’t decide whether Mita, played perfectly by Nanko Matsushima, was angelic family guardian or the Terminator. She segues between both roles within seconds. Once I started this show it was hard to stop watching it, and even now months after I finished the series I still miss it. A standout of Japanese drama and one that easily deserves a 2nd series.

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Nothing Bonds a Family Together Like Burning S**t – Mita and Family Set Fire to Their Stuff

Iryu: Team Medical Dragon – All four seasons of this show are great, with strong cast performances, especially by the fish which plays the large arawana in the huge aquarium that Noguchi (played devilishly by Ittoku Kishibe) is always glaring through. All four seasons are built around the same theme: a hospital administrator – usually Noguchi – is ruining a hospital, and the handsome, brilliant and self-less surgeon Dr. Asada (Kenji Sakaguchi) must build a team to perform miraculous surgeries to save it. By the third season it gets repetitive but what I do like is the character development of those around him, from the insane anesthesiologist Arase (Sadao Abe) to the innocent and green Ijyuin (Teppei Koike), it’s nice to see the team around him mature and fill out even while Asada himself remains two dimensional. That fish needs its own fan page.

Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman – The story centers on a salaryman who becomes a book salesman in order to feed his sweet tooth while working by visiting actual sweet shops and extolling the joy of their desserts. My experience of Japanese sweets was that they weren’t very compared to American and European cakes, confections and candies, but perhaps I wasn’t eating at the right places. Very trippy in places these 24 minute episodes are easy to consume and won’t require brushing afterwards. A nice treat, especially after watching a heavier show.

Lady Boys – TBD

Last Cinderella – TBD

Love Relationships (Koinaka) – Two high school boys having the same first (given) name fall in love with the same girl. Fast forward 7 years and one of them is going to marry her. That’s the plot, and it takes 9 episodes to make it to the completely predictable end. Asianwiki rates this higher than I do. Not sure why, just as I’m not sure why the girl Akari (Tsubasa Honda) loves either one of these narcissistic bores. Two of my favorite actors, Yo Yoshida (Hero) and Kaoru Kobayashi (Midnight Diner, Gokuaku Ganbo) are completely thrown away in this show.

The Many Faces of Ito – Having spent a fair amount of time in writing courses I’ve decided that the only thing more boring than that are stories about writing classes. The story had promising elements but strived to be unnecessarily profound, like many writers in a writing class. And maybe it’s just because I’m a former smoker, but nothing screams “bad acting” to me like an actor who doesn’t know how to smoke, as the actress playing the main character does not. I’m sure she would have preferred to leave the smokes out of the script, so that makes two of us.

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (Shinya Shokudou) – Each of the 10 episodes in this drama centers on a small diner in the heart of Tokyo that as its name implies opens at midnight. The stories range from the nostalgic to the comedic, and are full of unrequited love, yearning and passion but with a connection to a particular food. Overlaid throughout is friendship and camaraderie that comes from hanging out and enjoying good food and conversation. Hard to watch this and not get hungry and nostalgic.

Million Yen Women (Hyaku Man En no Onna Tachi) – This is a very sophisticated and dark drama based on a weird premise: 5 women move into a struggling writer’s apartment and pay him a million yen a month ($8,800) to live there. In return he has to cook and clean house for them, but can never ask them questions. I found this show very unpredictable – unusual for Japanese drama which can be very formulaic – with sparks of genius. At 30 minutes an episode the writing was tighter than some hour long dramas and I found the show easy to binge watch.

Mischievous Kiss – Love in Tokyo 1 and 2 (Itazura na Kiss) – Another show in the kataomoi genre like Good Morning Call. This show follows bumbling Kotoko who is madly in love with the handsome, talented and intelligent Naoki starting in high school through college and eventually into working life. It’s a safe choice if you are looking for an uplifting love story but don’t mind a male lead who seems as lovable as poison ivy.

Mr. Nietzsche in the Convenience Store (Nich Sensei)TBD

My Little Lover (Minami-kun no Koibito) – A romantic comedy about a high school girl who falls under a spell and shrinks to doll size. She’s rescued by the boy she loves who protects and cares for her, falling in love in the process. Eventually they discover a secret to reverse the spell. Although a bit of a predictable love story, I especially enjoyed the grandmother’s character who eventually finds out and helps her mini granddaughter.

Nobunaga Concertos – TBD

Nodame Cantabile (Nodame Cantabile) – This classic Japanese drama from 2006 sparkles with a tightly written script, interesting characters and the love of music. Expertly shot, you’d never know the actors weren’t playing the piano or violin, this drama is a stand-out based on a simple premise: a college student yearning to become a primary school teacher is actually a musical genius, and the story follows her awakening to her abilities and the impact it has on those around her. It’s a bit like Japanese “Fame” but without the pretentiousness of the American show, brightened by the physical comedy of actress Juri Ueno in the lead. Found on all the major streaming services this is a must-see.

Ordinary Miracles (Arifureta Kiseki) – A story about the lives of 3 people who are entwined during a suicide attempt at a train station. The serious story line has an odd subplot involving cross-dressing which, likely added for comedic effect, isn’t really necessary. Still worth checking out if you are in the mood for something more serious.

Power Office Girls 2013 (Shomuni 2013) – Can a team of misfit office OLs save their company from the idiots who run it? (The sadly rarely seen) Makiki Esumi gives a strong comedic performance as the no-nonsense leader of the crew demoted to the company basement who rise to the top and save the company from takeover.

Rebound (Rebound) – an overweight woman played perfectly by Saki Aibu, loses weight and experiences the world completely differently thanks to the weight loss pills from her therapist Kamiya, played by Death Note’s Kazuaki Hankai. Kudos to the make up team who are able to double Aibu’s weight in the fat scenes, and for Aibu herself who carries the extra weight naturally.

Switch Girl (1&2) – TBD

Spring Has Come – a 5 episode miniseries starring K-pop star Kai with Kurashina Kana (Dinner). Although I’m not a fan of the last episode, overall this series is well written and well done. In particular the series is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen. It’s shot like a well done movie and is frankly easy on the eyes. The story is a cross-Japan Sea love story between a Korean photographer (Kai) and a retail store clerk (Kurashina). Although I found Kai’s acting a bit wooden at times he performed admirably enough, but Kurashina sparkles in this role, proving that she has no problem handling complex characters in lead roles. If K-Pop is your thing, this should be at the top of your list.

The Perfect Insider (Subete ga F ni Naru) – A solid detective story built around the “will they/wont they?” romantic tension between a college professor and his student, with a back story about a young IT genius masterminding a series of murders, makes this worthwhile.

Time Taxi (Sutekina Sen Taxi) – A solid favorite of mine about the question What would you do again if you could? For a few thousand yen this taxi gives you the ability to find out. Cameos by several J Drama faves and a well played main character by Yutaka Takenouchi. Another series deserving of a second series.

Wakako Zake – I’ve read about people being paid to livestream themselves while they eat. This show is definitely in that vein and like most of the others is based on a manga. The story is about a 26 year old office lady who likes to eat and drink alone. In the show she attends real restaurants and bars (although usually staffed by actors) and eats and drinks, commenting on what she consumes. It’s hard to watch this and not get a serious craving for Japanese, although I think Wakako-chan should cut back a bit on the booze. Can’t wait for Season 3: Wakako-chan samples the cookies and coffee in AA meeting rooms throughout Tokyo.

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Wakako Zake Knocking One Back

Wild Mom (Abarenbo Mama) – A cute love story involving a young woman who falls for an older divorced hairdresser. Yes hairdressers in Japan are not gay – at least not as played in the dramas. It’s cute, especially the interactions between the mom, played by Aya Ueto, and the other primary school moms. Did I say this show was cute? Worth watching.

You Taught Me All The Precious Things (Taisetsu na koto wa subete kimi ga oshiete kureta) – A high school teacher wakes up after a night of partying to find a very young girl in his bed. A few hours later she walks into his class. Luckily this show gets the obvious issues out of the way within the first three episodes leaving the writers to pursue more interesting topics of what it means to be in love, the responsibility of being a teacher, and the pain of grief. The story is tight and well-written, avoiding the expected pit-falls of a student falling in love with her teacher to explore the larger issues. Worth watching.

Not Recommended

The following shows are ones that for the specified reasons I just couldn’t make it through.

Hibana Spark – A show about struggling comedians specializing in a form of Japanese comedy (manzai) was intriguing, but in the end it was plain boring. Made it through 1 episode. Maybe it gets better, and maybe I’d watch it if I were stranded on a desert island with it being the only TV series loaded on my phone, or maybe I’d watch hermit crabs crawl over a dead fish instead.

No Dropping Out: Back to School at 35 – For unclear reasons a hot 35 year old woman who drives a Chevy Corvette decides to return to high school where she exposes the world of bullying while being bullied herself. I started the 4th episode when I threw up my hands and gave up, tired of the vicious high school kids that should be sent to ISIS controlled Syria instead of allowed to live in Japan. Returning to high school as an adult may be a fantasy to some but to me it is literally a nightmare, and one that I’ve had often. I found the prospect of spending 8+ hours watching this show just as appealing as sitting as an adult for one of Mr. Wang’s pop quizzes in Chinese class.

The Reason I Can’t Find My Love (Watashi ga Renai Dekinai Riyuu) – If you’re idea of a romantic comedy includes some awkward hugs and two cold cold kisses, then you’ve come to the right show. A great cast including Izumi Inamori (Iryu: Team Medical Dragon), Ayama Gouriki (Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia) and Kei Tanaka (Million Yen Woman) can’t save this show from passionless mediocrity. The writing had good dialogue but the plot never went anywhere. Unless you are stuck on a desert island and this washes up loaded on an iPad, not worth the time.