This post is inspired by, or rather, is a reply to this excellent question posted by an anon to @jdramaconfessions. I first posted this on my tumblr but I thought I would post it here too.
Of course, the best answer to that question of what are the representative dramas of this current decade can only be written in about 2025, when there is enough time to look back and take stock of what dramas actually stood the test of time. As it is, there are still 3.5 years left to the decade – and if 2013 and 2016 was any indication, one fairly good year could give us a couple of hits. That being said, I’m going to try.
I think the best place to start, when trying to curate a list of representative dramas is first to ask – how exactly does one define representative and what are these dramas supposed to be representative of?
The word ‘representative’ is tricky to me because it implies something different than ‘favourite’. When asked for a list of ‘favourite’ dramas, it’s definitely personal, and there’s no need to try to choose something objectively. But the word ‘representative’ implies that there has to be some sense of objectivity to one’s choice, even though I agree with the admin of jdramaconfessions that at the end of the day, personal preference still comes into play.
I define representative in three ways.
Firstly, by memorability. We are still living this decade out, so it’s hard to say which dramas will stand the test of time in the next decade or so. Still, I’m sure that there are a number of dramas from the early 2010s that cling on to our minds and are still referred to often.
Secondly, by popularity. I don’t mean to say that every popular show that has come out in the past decade is automatically memorable or representative drama. In fact, quite the contrary. Every season will inevitably have its own popular drama. But there are a number of dramas that have exploded in popularity and I feel that it is then valid to give them a spot on the list. After all, to an extent, popularity indicates a show’s ability to resonate with a wide audience. I will also try to choose dramas that are popular both domestically and internationally. Making popularity a criteria is also why I sadly exclude excellent dramas like the Oguri-led BORDER and gothic drama Karamazov no Kyodai – both were insanely memorable and unique to me, but perhaps not commercially popular enough to make them ‘representative’.
Thirdly, by innovation. This is also a way to address the question of ‘What exactly are these choices supposed to be representative of’? Jdrama is a big umbrella of many sub-genres. A representative drama of one sub-genre (say romance) may not always be representative of the entire group. Though to be sure, there are times when they overlap. So what I mean by ‘innovation’ is any given drama’s ability to give fresh life to their genres, and bring something new to the table. It’s a drama’s ability to be either be excellent within the constraints of its genre, or conversely, its ability to push the boundaries of the genre.
With that being said, I’ve got chosen a couple of dramas I think fit the bill – In no particular order!
1) Hanzawa Naoki
I’m putting this one first because @midnightrain910 brought it up. Yes. Personally I didn’t think Hanzawa Naoki was THAT great, but boy was it adored by repressed salarymen all over Japan. I literally had 2 of my (Japanese) managers come up to me to ask me if I’d watched it – on separate occasions! I mean shame on any 2013 Japan enthusiast who didn’t know the “bai-gaeshi” catchphrase. It also cemented Masato Sakai’s reputation as a credible and commercially viable actor.
2) JIN 2
I thought JIN 2 was inferior to the first season, but I included it anyway because I wanted to somehow squeeze JIN into this list. JIN is the historical, time-travel, medical drama OF DREAMS. It was so well-acted and so unexpectedly good. Just last year my Turkish colleague was raving about it to me. In that sense, I think it is an internationally accessible jidaigeki with a lot of heart.
3) Strawberry Night
Ok so, if you were to compare Strawberry Night with the MANY other Japanese crime/detective dramas, you wouldn’t find it definitive or groundbreaking. But still, it was GOOD. Sure I may be biased, but look, it lasted 2 SPs, 1 full season and 1 movie. If that’s not a testament of its popularity I don’t know what is. It managed to weave a bit of romance into it too. Also I think this is the series that threw Nishijima Hidetoshi into the limelight. He’s been around for ages, but I don’t think he had done anything since Asunaro Hakusho that was really popular until Strawberry Night.
4) Juhan Shuttai!
Juhan Shuttai! never set out to be critically acclaimed or sold itself like it was a precious gem filled with top actors. Nah, it set out to be a feel-good show but boy was it that and MORE. It just goes to show that great characterisation and a solid plot will bring a show far. That’s not to say that the actors weren’t good. A few of them were excellent, some of them were serviceable. I just wanted to point out that unlike some shows (cough Triangle, cough Rich Man Poor Woman, cough MOZU), they didn’t overpromise and underdeliver. Also, oftentimes well-written dramas happen to be so serious. I would really love to see more in the vein of Juhan Shuttai! (And Legal High, if I might add).
5) Quartet (2017) – Not to be confused with the other jdrama of the same name
Putting this in despite not having watched it because all the reviewers that I trust to give an honest opinion found that it lived up to its hype. THANK GOOD HEAVENS. After giving the couple of examples above of how a good cast doth not a good drama make, I’m glad that Quartet can now live on as the drama which BROUGHT IT. Also I wasn’t about to make this list without Mitsushima Hikari (If Quartet hadn’t made it I would have put in Woman). She’s one of most excellent actresses to have surfaced this decade. It’s so odd because I remember her from Folder5 days – and who would’ve known she’d be here today.
6) Marks no Yama
To me this must have been the drama that put WOWOW on the map. It was that drama that made everyone sit up and realise that WOWOW wasn’t just a second-rate channel airing foreign shows. It had a good strategy going – a very strong understanding of its niche, and the willingness to ignore popular models and idols and go for gritty, well-written fare instead. Because I’m ultimately quite a frivolous drama fan, I must have to say most of WOWOW posters (and shows) don’t really attract me, but the couple that I have watched have wow-ed me (pardon the pun).
7) Itazura na Kiss ~ Love in Tokyo
Ok it was a toss up between Good Morning Call and this one, neither of which I watched by the way. Well I did attempt one episode of GMC but I just….couldn’t. The truth is, now that I teach Japanese high-schoolers, it’s very hard for me to watch dramas with them in it. Though in a sense I’ve outgrown the genre, it’s more of a ‘this hits too close to home’ thing. That being said, high school dramas are a staple of drama world and it’d be weird not to include at least one. So I just went with which one I heard about the most.
Admittedly, the early to mid 2000s were a heyday for high school dramas to me. I’m hard-pressed to find a Stand Up! or Nobuta wo Produce among the current lot of dramas. They just don’t make them like they did anymore. That’s not to say it has been bad. I thoroughly enjoyed Narimiya Hiroki and Niigaki Risa trying their darndest to act like teens in Yankee Kun to Megane Chan. I was impressed that Piece managed to build itself into a dark mystery cum social commentary despite having pretty weak actors. I heard Sprout was cute. THAT SAID, none of them could be considered representative in my book.
As such, Itazura na Kiss stands out for being one rare remake that actually became as popular as its predecessor – and which was one teen drama to capture the hearts of international tumblrites.
8) Saikou no Rikon
Not only was this the show that introduced me to the genius that is Ono Machiko, it was the drama that turned the romance drama genre on its head. Its dialogue was witty, it was unapologetically real. And I think it made more writers sit up and realise that it’s the 2010s and they should really be challenging romcom stereotypes, not mindlessly rehashing them again and again.
9) We Got Married as a Job
@repinipi brought this up and yes, HOLY SMOKES this was THE romcom of 2016. It took Japan by storm. Till now theme song Koi is still on the top 10 of karaoke charts. My kids went wild when we teachers danced it at grad party. People still talk about the drama and Hoshino Gen is capitalising on it. Solidly written, it managed to be realistic, though the circumstances were obviously way to fictional to happen in real life. In 2020, I think this drama will still be looked upon fondly.
10) HiGH & LOW
I thought about this. I thought about this long and hard because, should H&L even be considered on the same plane as other dramas? At its core, it’s more of a promotional vehicle. But it just threw the delinquent/gang genre and shook it up into it’s own visually brilliant spectacle. It will probably never find its place among mainstream audiences in Japan. But it has grown its own dedicated fan base. If anything I’d compare it to Tokusatsu and Takarazuka fandoms. They are niche, but there are there, they are proud, and they are ready to throw some bills. LDH took J&A’s ambition and promotional ideas, then stepped it up a couple of notches. If anything, the business savvy of this company puts the entire series on this list.
I am just one person who simply hasn’t had much time to watch as much jdrama as I’d like. So its inevitable that I would have missed some out. Also, to make the arbitrary number of 10, I was unable to put some other picks on (trust me I would put either SPEC, Yae no Sakura, or Sanada Maru in in a heartbeat). Well, it wouldn’t be representative if too many made the list eh? Lastly, please remember, objective as I try to be, feel free to agree or disagree. Let me know your picks! 🙂