Some of my all-time fave dramas are Japanese doramas. I’ve been watching J-doramas since the early 90s, when I was a wee lass (okay, not so wee, but definitely still a lass), and following this bandwagon has been a bumpy ride. When its good, the ride was exhilarating. When its been blergh, it feels like an interminable period of uninteresting dreck. Folks have asked me to add Taiwan and Japan dramas to my ratings list, and I certainly have watched enough to render opinions on quite a few works. Rather than rating the ones I’ve watched and care to even talk about, I thought it more productive to write about them in a comprehensive post. This list contains a handful of J-doramas I’ve watched over the years, it’s not comprehensive or all-inclusive, but should be a good starting point for newbies to dive in. I think J-doramas are so intrinsically different than K-dramas and TW-dramas that the first key to watching them is to throw away preconceived notions and open the mind up to new experiences. If you hit on one that you love, it might just became an all-time favorite.
Koala’s Collection of Japanese Dramas:
Gokusen – Nakama Yukie plays the daughter of a Yakuza boss turned high school teacher, whipping delinquents into shape and inspiring them to embrace education and achievement. Contains a who’s who of the current crop of leading actors and actresses from when they were just starting out. Season 1 had Matsumoto Jun, Oguri Shun, and Narimiya Hiroki. Season 2 had Kamenashi Kazuya, Akanishi Jin, Hayami Mokomichi, and Mizushima Hiro, while Season 3 had Miura Haruma and Takaki Yuya. Episodic and formulaic, but a solid and entertaining motivational story.
Ichi Ritoru no Namida (One Litre of Tears) – When that title, I suggest you hydrate yourself before starting this dorama. Starring Sawajiri Erika and Nishikido Ryo, its billed as an uplifting real life story about a girl suffering from spinocerebellar degeneration. This drama rocketed Erika to stardom and was really a very moving albeit maudlin little cryfest.
Hana Yori Dango – Super rich pretty boys at an exclusive private school gets their bullying petards handed to them by spunky poor girl with attitude. The story has been remade all around Asia, but this is all-around favorite version. Matsumoto Jun and Inoue Mao were magical together, turning two very polarizing character tropes into made-for-each-other shippiness.
Nobuta wo Produce – The high school friendship drama that all high school friendship dramas should take a page from. Yamashita Tomohisa (Yamapi) will always be my Akira until the day I die, this spacy little alien who flits around being weird and awesome. The trip of Pi, Kame, and Horikita Maki is hard to top in terms of a friendship/love triangle that isn’t really about ownership of the other but inclusion of everyone.
Long Vacation – A classic and spoken about in reverent tones. This is the dorama that made KimuTaku the onscreen leading man he has been for the past fifteen years. For some reason I just never loved it the way others have. Maybe I was too young since I watched it when it aired and never quite got that melancholy magic that went with it. I love it for introducing me to the hotness that was Takenouchi Yutaka.
Bloody Monday – Teenage cyber genius Miura Haruma (playing Falcon, prodigy hacker) saves Tokyo with the help of his real life BFF Sato Takeru. Sorta like a 24 but without the clock and Jack Bauer. Full of the requisite twists, turns, double-crosses, and moles necessary for tense nailbiting thrillers. Decent and worth watching for Haruma and Takeru.
Hitotsu Yane no Shita (Under One Roof): Season 1 and 2 – The quintessential J-family drama, about a family of 7 kids who are split up when their parents die and subsequently find their way back together years later. It even has fauxcest in it since the eldest sister was adopted and gets in a love triangle with the eldest and the second brother. Started me on my Fukyama Masaharu love, and cemented Sakai Noriko‘s imagine as a pure as snow leading lady with a heart of gold. Her character in the drama was even named Koyuki (little snow), which now seems so ironic. I loved this drama to pieces when I first watched it, and I think it holds up reasonably well with age.
Oishii Kankei (Delicious Relationship) – A prickly chef and a down-in-her-luck food connoisseur, Karasawa Toshiaki and Nakayama Miho were PERFECT together. A wonderful romance drama with lots of foodie goodness, this is an oldie that probably can’t be tracked down anymore. What a shame.
Yamato Nadeshiko (Perfect Woman) – Matsushima Nanako at the height of her leading lady days as the poor girl determined to marry a rich man. Of course she falls in love with the poor guy, and gets a chance to be with the rich guy. Which one does she choose? Fast-paced and addicting old-school J-dorama, and the work that made Matsushima Nanako a household name in Japan.
With Love – One of my most favorite J-doramas of all time. Probably a tad too slow for the modern audiences, but I loved the moody slowness of it all. Takenouchi Yukata went from just a hottie to a sex god here, Tanaka Misako really nailed the ugly duckling bit, plus bonus points for having Fujiwara Norika at her most bombshell phase.
Beautiful Life – Kimura Takuya (KimuTaku) and Tokiwa Takako in the handicapped in person but not in spirit love story. This sucker was a ratings monster and with good reason. Good but not my personal faves.
Meguri Ai – I love this drama! Tokiwa Takako had way better chemistry here with Fukuyama Masaharu than she did in Beautiful Life with KimuTaku. This is Japan’s version of Comrades, A Love Story and they pulled it off masterfully. A pair of lovers split up and cross paths multiple times in multiple places over the years. Will they end up together or take it as a sign they are not meant to be?
Pride – Perfect sports romance story. Period. Even a slightly wobbly fourth quarter with the return of the douchebag ex-boyfriend doesn’t mar this dorama. KimuTaku at his liony leading man best, with Takeuchi Yuko as his beloved girl who is straddling an MIA boyfriend and the new guy in her life.
Nodame Cantabile – I’m not a musician so music dramas don’t necessarily hook me, but this one is the crème de la crème of the music genre of dramas. Based on a manga, it’s alternatively silly and serious, taking a stab at the intensity and single-minded dedication budding musicians devote to the craft. All set in a wacky music academy. Leads Ueno Juri and Tamaki Hiroshi are wonderful, individually and together.
Anego (Anego is the Japanese language equivalent of Noona) – Office dorama plus older woman-young man love story. Decent but forgettable. Watch it for the sublime Shinohara Ryoko and Akanishi Jin in a non-sleazy and decent performance as her subordinate and love interest.
Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (Hana Kimi 2008) – Cross-dressing girl in an all boys boarding school. Extremely silly but endearing. Oguri Shun basically sleep walked through his role, while Horikita Maki was girlier here than she was in NwP, but it was Ikuta Toma that stole the show and everyone’s hearts. Also good for more who’s who of the up-and-coming young male actors in J-ent – Mizhushima Hiro, Yamamoto Yusuke, Okada Masaki, Mizobata Junpei, et. al.
H2: Kimi to Itahibi – A sweet and sincere baseball-themed coming of age story. Those of you who are familiar with Mitsuru Adachi’s mangas know this story trope is his speciality (baseball, first love, girl next door, rivalry). For me H2 feels like a pale imitation of his seminal earlier work Touch, but the drama stands well enough on its own. Leads Yamada Takayuki and Ishihara Satomi are darling together.
Zoku Hoshi no Kinka (Heaven’s Coins) – Korea remade this as Spring Days. The J-version has Sakai Noriko as a deaf and mute girl who falls in love with a doctor (Osawa Takao) when he comes to Hokkaido. He promises to marry her but then loses his memory in an accident when he returns to Tokyo. She goes to find the doctor and his rascally playboy younger brother falls for her as well. Love triangle and enough emo melodrama to fill an Olympic sized pool ensues. A sequel was made that doubled down on the pain and agony for everyone involved. I watched only for Takenouchi Yutaka as the aforementioned playboy younger brother, and he was the only character I didn’t want to bean with an over-sized frying pan. Later on I’m pretty sure K-dramas use this one as a template for all their makjang.
Kou Kou Kyoushi (High School Teacher) – When Japan does a high school teacher-student love story, they go all out and way dark. None of the cuteness K-dramas insert to remove the ick factor. I watched the plodding 1993 original, and thought to myself “why do I need to repeat the torture ten years later?”. The answer is Fujuki Naohito. The man is like a perfect acting god to me, and he proved it here by making a really annoying character sympathetic. Narimiya Hiroki also turns in an outstanding performance as a male host that wants to climb to the top using any means possible. The illicit love story is all emotional and the machinations all psychological, but its worth watching if you want to see something twisty and slightly uncomfortable.
Tsuki no Koibito (The Moon Lovers) – Quite possibly the worst KimuTaku drama I’ve ever watched. Mind numblingly bad in terms of story and acting. Lin Chi Ling is gorgeous but can’t even act when she’s speaking Chinese, much less Japanese. The ratings tanked so bad that the drama was rewritten on the fly to make for an ending bringing KimuTaku and Shinohara Ryoko together, but those two can’t stand each other in real life so that result was just weird. Matsuda Shota glowered his way through this one and Kitagawa Keiko was wasted as a flower vase.
Love Shuffle – An engaging and frank look at modern relationships, as a group of condo neighbors decide to shuffle/exchange their significant others to discern what binds couples together. Tamaki Hiroshi, Matsuda Shota, and Karina lead a cast of fantastic young actors in finding love despite differences, psychological wounds, and uncertain expectations.
Zettai Kareshi – Not my cup of tea, the story of a woman who orders a love robot online and proceeds to fall in love with it as said robot loves her back. One of the three times leads Aibu Saki and Hayami Mokomichi have worked together, but even their great chemistry couldn’t make this story palatable for me. There has only ever been one Watase Yuu manga I’ve liked, and Zettai Kareshi is definitely not the one in question. The only character I liked was Mizushima Hiro‘s Soshi.
Ouran High School Host Club – So cute it can give you cavities, at times so funny it’ll split your sides. Best girl cross-dressing as a boy drama I’ve ever watched, with lead Kawaguchi Haruna so pitch perfect as Haruhi that I wanted to adopt her. Even better is watching real life good friends Yamamoto Yusuke and Daito Shunsuke bring their bromance to the screen. A simple little story about teenagers looking to belong and find contentment with who they are.
Last Friends – Very good, but very dark story about a group of dysfunctional friends and the broken side of relationships. An all-star cast of Ueno Juri, Nagasawa Masami, Eita, and Nishikido Ryo, this is not a drama for the faint of heart or those looking for fun times.
Zenkai Girl – Marks the returns of Nishikido Ryo to romantic leading man status, and transforms Aragaki Yui into an eye catching leading lady with verve. Story is heartwarming and motivational with a side of cute kids to liven up the joint. She’s a top-flight young lawyer aiming to bath in money, he’s a homey chef with lots of affection to go around. They go together as well as water and oil, which of course means they are made for each other.
Proposal Daisakusen (Operation Proposal) – On paper Yamapi and Nagasawa Masami are a match made in Heaven. But onscreen their chemistry was like a wet paper towel. The story itself was like a bad case of déjà vu, and each time a new episode came on I asked myself why I can’t just stop watching now. Oh yes, because of my Yamapi love.
Tatta Hitotsu no Koi (Only One Love) – So swoony and dreamy and romantic. Easily my favorite romance drama by famed screenwriter Kitagawa Eriko (she did Beautiful Life, Long Vacation, Orange Days, but her best work was probably the despairing Sora Kara Furu Ichioku no Hoshi). Filmed mostly in Yokohama, the cinematography is breathtaking and the chemistry between leads Ayase Haruka and Kamenishi Kazuya is gasp worthy. She’s the sheltered rich girl, he’s the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Theirs is just a pure untainted love story.
Kurosagi – Painfully dull and stupid. Remains memorable for a kick ass theme song, reuniting Maki and Yamapi and letting them not do anything with each other, and cosplaying Yamapi in various costumes in each episode. This drama swindled me out of brain cells and hours of my life.
Kamisama Mou Sukoshi Dake (God, please give me more time) – Oldie but goodie, starring half-Japanese half-Taiwanese actor Kaneshiro Takeshi and a young and fresh-faced Fukada Kyoko in a moral tale about not prostituting oneself to get concert tickets. Because you can get HIV. But you might also get the man of your dreams as well.
Hotaru ni Hikari – A pleasure to watch anytime, the story of a himono onna (a dried up squid woman) who is perfectly put together at work but turns into a mess at home, and her funny love story with her boss and roommate. Just be warned that the sequel is to be to avoided at all costs. This is the dorama that got me back to loving beer after turning towards cosmos post-Sex in the City phase and wine after the Sideways period.
Buzzer Beat – Yamapi and Kitagawa Keiko make magic together on the plyaground and the hardcourt in this basketball and violin themed Summer time dorama. Read my review here for a more in-depth discussion of why this drama is the perfect Summer treat.
Sora Kara Furu Ichioku no Hoshi (One Thousand Stars Falling From the Sky/The Smile has Left Your Eyes) – KimuTaku in what might be his best performance in his career (followup would be his turn in Karei naru Ichizoku – The Grand Family). Dark and twisty, saying anymore might be giving away too much already. It’s the cat and mouse game between a detective and the man he suspects may have committed a crime, but the truth is more than anyone can handle.
Byakuyakou (Journey Under the Midnight Sun) – Even darker and twistier than Sora Kara Furu Ichioku no Hoshi in terms of how deep the story goes into the point of no return, and then keeps walking further. Leads Ayase Haruka and Yamada Takayuki are exceptional in their roles as the cold and calculating victim-turned-schemer and her silent protector. My heart bled itself dry at the end.
101 Kaime no Puropozu (101 Proposals) – A seminal classic beauty and the dork story where Takeda Tatsuya is an ordinary unattractive salaryman who has gone on 99 matchmaking dates without a single success, and then his 100th date is with the gorgeous cellist played by elegant Asano Atsuko. I consider this drama, which aired in 1991, to have kick started a decade-long Japanese romance drama wave. I thought the story was sweet but rather derpy, and to this day I remember this drama more for the theme song “Say Yes” by Chage & Aska. Those are who familiar with J-ent will know that the duo proceeded to drop hit after theme song hit for dramas after they made it big with this song.
Dragon Zakura – Studying is good. The end. Okay, if you must know, Abe Hiroshi does a pitch perfect turn as a teacher tasked with turning a few bottom dwelling students into the top of the heap and shove them into Todai. Young Yamapi, Masami, and Gakki all add to the teenage contingent and make this a worthwhile and entertaining drama to watch. Korea remade this as God of Study.
SPEC – Toka Erika turns in a career changing performance as a socially dense genius police detective. One of the better detective genre doramas, which is really a genre I only occasionally dabble in. This marks the first time I liked Toda Erika in a leading performance.
Atashinchi no Danshi (My Boys) – Horikita Maki is a poor girl avoiding debt collectors who somehow becomes a step-mother to a group of guys played by Kaname Jun, Mukai Osamu, and Yamamoto Yusuke, among others. What follows is a weird road for the oddballs to create a real family to lean on.
Bijo ka Yajuu (Beauty and the Beast) – Fukuyama Masaharu is the prickly and temperamental television producer and Matsushima Nanako is the top-notch television anchor forced to work together. She’s the level headed by-the-books beauty, he’s the cut-the-corners whatever beast. Together sparks fly in the best of ways.
Imouto wo (My Sister/Tokyo Cinderella Story) – One of the oldest dramas in this group, it aired in 1994 and is the reason I’ve been a fan of Karasawa Toshiaki for nearly 2 decades now. The granddaddy of the modern drama Cinderella story. An average office girl falls for a rich businessman, and they might actually have a chance of working out. This drama is also easy to remember for the ridiculously catchy Chage & Aska theme song “Meguri Ai” (to meet again).
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de (Let’s sleuth after dinner) – Kitagawa Keiko is a rich heiress turned sleuthing cop and Sakurai Sho plays her whip-smart butler. They discuss her cases after dinner and he inevitably solves it for her. Much more interesting in execution than in concept. While the cases are easy to predict, the chemistry between the leads is adorable. No romance but lots of cuteness and entertaining banter.
Taiyo no Uta (Song of the Sun) – Sawajiri Erika continues her streak of playing illness-stricken leading ladies by playing a talented budding musician who cannot be under the sun due to a genetic condition. Yamada Takayuki is her devoted boyfriend and their love story is of course 99.9% doomed.
Code Blue: Season 1 and 2 – Do not watch. Bad. Very very bad helicopter medical drama that turned Yamapi, Toda Erika, and Gakki into walking zombies. Watching it gave me a Code Red.
Yankee Kun to Megane Chan – Cuteness galore. Narimiya Hiroki as the delinquent yankee and Naka Riisa as the glasses wearing former delinquent-turned-earnest student make this a wacky and sweet high school story. It’s like a plate of marshmallows.
Tokyo Dogs – Oguri Shun and Mizushima Hiro, reuniting after doing Hana Kimi, in an opposites compliment each other buddy cop story. That’s all you need to know. Must watch because this dorama will turn out to be Mizushima Hiro’s television swan song, as he quit acting definitely after this to become a novelist. He’s hella smart since he attend Keio University and only became an actor because he’s so good looking he was scouted to be a model. After marrying singer Ayaka, who was revealed to have Grave’s disease, Hiro decided become a novelist full time, since he loved writing more than acting and it allowed him to spend more time with her.
Otomen – Okada Masaki as the tough kendo champion who is secretly hiding his love of all things girly and shoujo. He’s as cute as a six-week old puppy here, thought unfortunately his acting is about at the same level. Kaho plays a pretty and powerful martial artists who knows nothing about the female arts. They are clearly mean to be. The story is fluffier than a blanket of clouds but entertaining enough.
Jin – It’s a shame that this amazing story will now forever have the association of the K-drama version alongside the magnificent J-dorama version starring Osawa Takao and Ayase Haruka. A story of a modern brain surgeon who time travels back to the Edo period, the drama was equal parts pathos and history lesson, blending exciting narrative with gripping emotional stakes. A fantastic drama to cut your teeth on to learn a bit more about Japanese history of the Edo period prior to the modernization brought on by the Meiji period.