This year's dramas had a very interesting cast of characters: we've seen politicians, flower-shop owners, stalker ex-boyfriends. This particular season has also been characterized by the amount of the novel and manga-adapted dramas that were produced this year –- for example, Kankuro Kudo's adapted screenplay for Ryuusei no Kizuna, the popular series Yasuko to Kenji and Zettai Kareshi.
While 2008 has been weaker in comparison to past years, this year emerged as a strong drama season for the women. Forget about the sparkling faces of the pretty-faced idols or charismatic older men; rather, this year featured strong, defined female leads and supporting actors. I found myself becoming more fascinated with shows like Seigi no Mikata (Ally of Justice) or Around 40, because they brought more voice to the women of Japan -- whether they were fictional or not. It reminds me of the days when actress Honami Suzuki took on great roles, such as in Tokyo Love Story or News no Onna, when trendy dramas had finally made a big splash in Japanese households. I also found some surprising turns from Yu Yamada and Karina, who both have careers as models as well, as they took on some serious, yet also entertaining acting gigs in various dramas.
In no particular order, my Top 10 Japanese Dramas of 2008:
CHANGE (Fuji TV)
Probably disguised as an Obama endorsement for this past year's American election, CHANGE came as a highly anticipated Fuji TV drama starring the King of Dramas himself, Takuya Kimura, and an A-List supporting cast featuring Hiroshi Abe and Eri Fukuatsu. The drama went head to head with the third installment of the popular Gokusen live-action series. Kimura had delayed the filming of CHANGE due to his busy schedule and forced the drama to premiere a month after all the other Spring dramas had already started airing. Even though it ran in the popular Getsu 9 drama slot, the drama didn't do as well as Fuji TV had hoped, still falling behind the highly rated Gokusen 3. Although it may have lost its momentum, Kimura still garnered some acting awards for his role, and CHANGE ended with the highest rated series finale of the year. Perhaps the highlight of the entire drama is Kimura's 22-minute farewell speech at the closing of the drama. While the plot is quite predictable and Kimura pretty much plays the same kind of character in every drama he's starring in, CHANGE earned a spot on my list because it feeds to the momentum of the Obama movement, and it reminds us why the government exists in the first place: to serve the people, rather than be self-serving. Note: bonus points were also received for Kimura's transformation from nerdy schoolteacher (with a bad perm) to painfully handsome prime minister, and the inclusion of Madonna's “Miles Away” made for a fitting choice as the show's theme song.
Bara no Nai Hanaya (Fuji TV)
Pairing SMAP member Shingo Katori and Yuko Takeuchi for the first time, this is one romance that isn't excruciatingly cheesy. The characters in this drama easily grow on you. In addition to the budding relationship between Katori and Takeuchi's characters, I really took note of the chemistry between the daughter-father duo, Katori and child actress Yuki Yagi. Perhaps what really makes the dramas strong are the interactions between characters; each actor easily delivers his or her line with precise timing and wit, which makes it all seem so natural. Also, of course, no Getsu 9 drama on Fuji TV is incomplete without an epic theme song coupling -- this time being "Zutto Issha Sa" by Japan's beloved crooner, Tatsuro Yamashita. Watch the ending credits: it's simply breathtaking to watch Katori and Takeuchi make graceful movements around each other in the snow for all 2 minutes and 27 seconds.
Last Friends (Fuji TV)
Last Friends pairs dysfunctional characters together in one house, who all become, well you guessed it: FRIENDS. The show featured some of Japan's rising young actors –- Masami Nagasawa, Juri Ueno, Eita -– and like any requisite of a drama these days, Johnny's Ryo Nishikido (of Jimusho boybands NewS and Kanjani8 fame). While Nishikido's manic turn as an abusive and obsessive boyfriend drew much attention, praise and a widespread paranoia, it seemed that the bigger star of the show was Juri Ueno. His supporting role as the motorcross racer with the gender identity disorder overshadowed lead actress Nagasawa's Michiru. The drama brought a something refreshing because it dealt with many issues (domestic violence, gender issues, sex phobias) within the show. This drama also wins the award for overuse of theme song placement within a drama -- Utada Hikaru's "Prisoner of Love" has probably left many with some traumatizing memories for life.
ROOKIES became the superior deliquent student drama of the year because it involved a more emotional storyline and more likeable characters than Gokusen's stale third installment. Ryuta Sato delivers his best performance to date in his first leading role. He has a strong supporting cast of students, made up of actors Keisuke Koide (who ironically starred in the Gokusen 2), Hayato Ichihara, Yuu Shirota and Sousuke Takaoka. ROOKIES has now spawned a TV special and a feature length film as well. The drama's theme song "Kiseki" also became a top single on the Oricon charts for the band GReeeeN.
Seigi no Mikata (NTV)
This award-winning comedy was all about the winning combination of rising teen actress Mirai Shida and model/actress/singer Yu Yamada. Shida plays the younger sibling puppet to Yamada's puppetmaster older sister, and over the span of ten episodes, you're treated to some hilarious antics between the two. Between Shida's exasperated cries of agony and Yamada's devious and malicious behavior (which somehow ends up working out for the good of everyone), it's the successful comedy that drew a lot of interest to this drama. Shida has already made quite a name for herself, and if she keeps making smart choices about her roles, she's on her way to becoming a well-respected actress.
SP (Fuji TV)
Although it ended in early January of this year, SP deserves spot on this list. Junichi Okada and Shinichi Tsutumi both star as police officers who are a part of the 4th District Security division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, assigned to dignitary protection. Tsutumi is the chief who sees potential in Okada's character, who possesses special abilities, having much more acute senses than his colleagues. Rather than using the formulaic case by case episode organization, the series is split into separate parts over a course of many episodes, which eventually culminate in an explosive ending. But it doesn't quite end, since the television series is set for a feature film release. Both Okada and Tsutumi provide compelling performances, giving a lot of depth of their characters. The show features a great soundtrack, including a powerful theme song from V6 titled "Way of Life," as well as great composition from Kanno Yugo (last year's Galileo).
Model/actress Karina makes you think twice about her looks as she takes a surprising turn with her role as Yuzu Fukuhara, a 23-year old mentally challenged young woman who becomes a widowed mother after losing her boyfriend (in the same condition as she is) in an accident. It was quite a challenge to believe Karina could take on a role where her beauty wasn't so prominently displayed, but however, she executed in her role quite well. Just for her performance alone, deserves a spot on this list.
Around 40 (TV Asahi)
For 2008, publishing company Jiyu Kokuminsha published the top ten words/phrases used. One them was "Arafo," meaning "Around 40." The drama follows the life of Satoko (Yuki Amani), who is happily living the single life as a successful psychiatrist who indulges in her favorite things, such as taking trips to Japanese Inns and watching Japanese comedy variety shows. However, after attending a reunion, she starts to think twice about the way she's living her life, and she begins looking for partners. In this drama, Amani adds life to the Japanese 40 year old woman. Supporting characters also try to bring in different issues relating to various women nearing age 40, but it's Amani's acting that carries the entire drama. In the clip above, instead of a watching a clip from the show, watch the always beautiful Amani in famous singer-songwriter Mariya Takeuchi's PV of the drama's theme song.
Taiyo to Umi no Kyoshitsu (Classroom by the Sea) (Fuji TV)
This drama has similarities to 2005's Queen's Classroom (but doesn't quite achieve the same in-depth storytelling). Lead actor Oda Yuji takes on the role of the homeroom teacher who attempts to teach important life lessons to a group of students who are hell bent on passing their college entrance exams. While Oda Yuji tries to change his students on an episodic basis, one by one (in the standard classroom drama formula), the students' stories are quite interesting, especially the relationship between the supporting characters, Akari Yashima (Yuriko Yoshitaka) and Hachiro Tabata (Gaku Hamada). One of the most touching scenes [SPOILER alert] in the clip above brought the drama to a surprising and great climax. Oda Yuji adds another song to his list of covers – this time being, "Kimi no Hitomi ni Koishiteiru," a cover of Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
Osen took a totally different approach to drama. Instead of being a simple story about a young woman running a restaurant, it gave us a much closer look at traditional Japanese food and how it's prepared, within the context of the drama's plot. Adapted from a manga, the Osen drama featured a colorful cast of characters. Starring in her first television lead role, the always radiant Aoi Yuu plays a young "okami" named Sen Honda. Aoi Yuu has the ability to channel a kind of sweet innocence that's hard to ignore. Is it her smile, her infectious giggle or the twinkle in her eyes? In the opening clip of the drama, watch and be easily memorized by Aoi's beauty -– especially when she's proudly waving a flag. It's quite a spectacle to see.
Back to APA's Best of 2008 issue