Amongst all the best Japanese entertainment, there’s one genre that has quickly become a favourite in the Japanese households: drama. This sentiment is reflected in the best Japanese movies, including seminal Japanese films such as the Seven Samurai, Battle Royale and Prince Kaguya. With directors like Kurosawa, actors like Mifune and comedians like Kitano - it’s no wonder Japanese film dominates at home and abroad in categories of best foreign language film, drama and more!
While big names like Ghibli, Miyazaki and Sakurai have put Japanese live action, drama and horror film on the map - Japanese television is actually one of the nation’s favourite forms of media. Touching on themes of love, comedy, horror and fantasy, these series are sometimes also adapted into manga form.
Superprof invites you to discover the 10 best Japanese dramas of all time. From romantic comedies to manga remakes, you’ll quickly learn why Japanese tv series are quickly becoming a phenomenon across the world.
Yes, movies on international film rosters from directors such as Mizoguchi, novels such as Monogatari and classical Japanese dances such as Kabuki all form an integral part of Japanese media and entertainment. In fact, apart from notorious movies, like the feature film Grudge - a horror film centred around a videotape - Japan is garnering recognition through Netflix.
Somewhere between drama and comedy, Hibana: Spark was released on Netflix in 2016 and was adapted from Naoki Matayoshi’s novel Hibana.
Comprised of 10 episodes, each 50 minutes long, the show recounts the story of Tokunaga, a down-on-his-luck comic. During a firework show, he meets Kamiya, a more seasoned comedian, with whom he subsequently forms a comedic duo.
Now gaining more traction and great reviews than shows like Zatoichi, Hibana: Spark delves into the fundamental aspects of comedy and its role in society.
With popular films like Confessions (or Memoirs) of a Geisha, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and Ichi the Killer - Japan’s famous TV series can often be overshadowed by their more exportable counterparts. However, gone are the days where a Cannes Film award is the only measurement of international success - something that the show Orange Days proves.
This 2004 drama, released on the TBS network in Japan, is made up of 11 episodes and tells the story of a group of friends - dubbed the Orange Society - who are about to enter the workforce.
The main character, Kai, is a 4th year student who, while searching for a job at big corporations, finds Sae, a deaf and mute violinist. The beginning of their love story also spells the beginning of complications within the dynamics of the Orange Society. Shown in both Japanese and sign language, Orange Days is bound to play at your heartstrings more than even some of the best Studio Ghibli creations.
My Boss, My Hero
Seeing filmmaking and cinematography based around stories of Ronin, postwar themes and more - it's no wonder that Japanese culture has been conveyed so successfully in many an international film festival. From Japanese horror and comedy to drama, the Japanese movie and film industry has steadily produced some of the best films of all time.
TV dramas, though, have witnessed an incredible surge in recognition due to shows like My Boss, My Hero. Released in 2006 on Nippon TV, the first-film-then-tv show has 10 episodes that are each 50 minutes long. The themes in the show recall the manga Great Teacher Onizuka.
My Boss, My Hero centres around Makio Sakaki, a 27-year-old who is part of the Yakuza and is, in fact, also the son of the gang. When his father decides to send him to high school to finish his diploma, he has to pass as a 17-year-old in order to go undetected. It is there that he learns the lessons that will change his life forever.
Check out more TV shows with this Japanese game show guide!
Further comparing movies to television series, Japanese cinema has some of the greatest documentaries, foreign language and horror films. However, even the highest grossing film to reach the nation cannot compare to some of the most popular television shows holding Japanese audiences captive.
One such show is easily recognizable to fans of mangas: Ninomiya Tomoko. After having been adapted to anime, Fuji TV created it into a full drama series named Nodame Cantabile. Telling the story of Chiaki, the best pianist at Momogaoka University, the show centres around Chiaki’s dream of becoming an orchestra conductor and student of Sebastiano Viera.
At his Uni, he meets Noda Megumi, or Nodame, a peculiar woman who happens to be extremely talented in playing piano. The dynamics of their love-hate relationship is further enhanced by their musical collaborations - making it a show for tv-philes and music-lovers alike!
Hana Yori Dango
With actors like Rashomon, gangster movies like Outrage, and tragedies like, well, A Japanese Tragedy - it’s no wonder so many best foreign language films, screenwriter or acting awards have gone to Japan. From the biopic or Godfather-esque mafia tale to the scariest ghost story - you’re bound to find a Japanese film on any theme that’s made it into the annals of film history.
Hana Yori Dango, on the other hand, is one of those tv shows that has made Japanese series more popular in recent years. The storyline is borrowed from a manga that became so popular it was adapted to television and silver screen.
While remade throughout the years, Han, Hana Yori Dango was released in 2005 with 9 episodes following the story of Makino Tsukushi. Makino, a young girl at a private high school, who starts to get bullied by a group of rich kids. Deciding to rebel against the group and, specifically, the group’s leader, Tsukasa Domyoji, Makino’s efforts soon get her entangled in a romantic comedy!
One Litre of Tears
While movies like Spirited Away have garnered worldwide attention with the sight, sound and animated special effects - sometimes all you need is a classic storyline. Ichi Rittoru no Namida, or One Litre of Tears, is a 2005 drama with 11 episodes. The show follows Aya Ikeuchi, who, when passing a high school entrance exam, meets Haruto.
While starting high school with a new friend seems like the best possible scenario, Aya’s life is quickly turned upside down with the start of a condition that makes her lose control of some parts of her body. After countless exams, she learns she has an incurable disease that will make her, one day, lose complete function in her body. Based on a real story, this show is true to its title.
Inspired by a novel, this show is one of many Japanese publications to have been remade into series!
Good Morning Call
Good Morning Call is a 2016 Netflix drama that has captivated audiences worldwide as one of the best foreign language TV shows. Comprised of 17 episodes with a run-time of 45 minutes each, the show allows us to discover the life of Yoshikawa Nao.
Left to her own devices when her parents decide to move back to the countryside, Yoshiwaka finds her first apartment and thus begins her adult life! Her new flatmate? Uehara Hisashi, the most popular guy at school, of course.
Coming to the agreement that their arrangement must remain a secret, the lengths they go to keep that secret will keep you on the edge of your seat with a story full of adventure, comedy and more!
Ouran High School Host Club
In keeping with the bildungsroman theme, Ouran High School Host Club is based off a manga by Hatori Bisco and shows what can happen when one girl has to choose between several, beautiful men.
Yes, it’s no cursed videotape or Japanese government spy show - however, how does an 8-million-yen vase sound? Stumbling upon the Host Club, and then literally tumbling into an extremely expensive vase, the main character Haruhi is forced to join the club in order to work off her debt. Filled with drama and humour, this show is considered to be one of the best adaptations of manga.
Hanazakari no Kimitachi e
Hanazakari no Kimitachi e is a 2007, Fuji TV drama that is 12 episodes long. Ashiya Mizuki, the central character, is a Japanese girl who wants to join her idol Sano Izumi’s high school. The only problem? It’s an all-boys school!
Disguising herself as a male in order to go to Sano’s high school and help him boost his high jump career, the show is full of romance, comedy and more.
Learn more about Japanese media here!
Originally a manga, this 2011 drama, again appearing on Fuji TV, follows Nika Tamiya and Arata Kamiyama - two high schoolers with secrets only both of them know. Making a pact to keep their secrets hidden, this story develops into a world of comedic gold!