[caption id="attachment_50920" align="alignright" width="448" caption="Nobuta Wo Produce"]
I've been meaning to get around to doing an introduction to Japanese dramas for ages, and now finally, here it is. Dramafever as yet features only a handful
of Japanese dramas. However, this blog covers all things Asian entertainment related, and as such we discuss Japanese, Taiwanese, and other entertainment as well as Korean. If you’re a Kdrama fan but have never seen a Jdrama, let this serve as a primer to get you interested in the genre (a follow-up post with the five dramas to start with will come soon).
Overview: What Are Japanese Dramas?
Japanese dramas (i.e. television series) are similar to Korean dramas in that they run in miniseries format. The shortest of the Asian dramas, they clock in at 10-11 episodes most of the time (as opposed to 16-25 for Korean “trendy” dramas and 16-30 for Taiwanese dramas). This means that many more Japanese dramas air during the course of a single year than Kdramas, which in turn means that that Japanese drama world is bigger; more productions means more actors, directors, producers etc. (Though as far as top celebrities go, it’s similar to Taiwanese dramas in that there’s really only a handful of top stars and everyone else comes in several levels beneath).
What's special about them? What makes them different from other Asian dramas, especially Korean dramas?
Japanese dramas tend to be more ensemble productions than either Kdramas or Twdramas. There’s a larger cast of characters and while the focus is still on the two, three or four central characters, supporting characters are very important and often take central stage multiple times in the drama. Supporting characters often also play a pivotal part in the drama by affecting a main character at a crucial point. Jdramas also occasionally feature as many as six central characters – in dramas such as Love Shuffle
and Sunao ni Narenakute
, for example, screen time and plot focus was split evenly between six individuals.
Korean dramas fall overwhelmingly into three genres: romance, historical (sageuk), and family/daily dramas. There are occasional forays into other genres, of course, especially in recent years – the gangster thriller with Friend, Our Legend
, the forensic with Sign
, the fantasy/detective with Joseon X-Files
. But by and large, Korean dramas tend to be either period dramas about war and court intrigue or romance and family centered. Japanese dramas, on the other hand, fall overwhelmingly into three genres: procedurals, office dramas, and school dramas. Trailing far behind is the romance drama, which often appears as a slice-of-life/growing-up-story/ensemble drama anyway.
Which brings me to another characteristic of Japanese dramas – namely, that friendship often supplants romance in these stories. Many Jdramas portray friendship as at least as important, if not more so, than romantic love, and the most important relationship the leads end up sharing is that of friendship. Nobuta wo Produce
, one of the most famous Japanese dramas, features three high school students, two male and one female, who meet and forge a friendship that changes all their lives. When romantic desires threaten to shatter their friendship, they choose the friendship over any romantic pairings that may destroy it. What fans call unresolved sexual tension (UST) is as a result a much more common characteristic of Jdramas than Kdramas – even when two characters share chemistry and attraction, there’s no guarantee that the story will develop that undertone or that, if it does, it will reach a romantic conclusion.
[caption id="attachment_50897" align="aligncenter" width="509" caption="Japan's Boys Over Flowers"]
Japanese dramas can also often be darker than Korean or Taiwanese – bullying, human cruelty, and self-destructive tendencies appear often. Korean dramas can be very, very bleak indeed, but that bleakness tends to be confined to certain genres, i.e. the thriller/revenge dramas and sageuks (partially because of the stringent restrictions). Darkness is much more widespread in Japanese dramas; the school dramas in particular tend to be much darker than their Korean counterparts such as Boys Over Flowers
or Dream High
(neither of which is a pure school drama but both of which are set in high school).
Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge
, a 2010 drama adapted from a manga that focuses on the loves and lives of 5 young people, would probably have been a light romantic comedy had it been adapted in Korea. The Japanese adaptation, however, unflinchingly portrayed kidnapping, repeated bullying, and a sex club (all of which would have been, regardless of its presence in the source material, expunged from a Korean drama.).
As if to make up for the darkness of the school dramas and the realism of the office dramas, however, some Jdramas encapsulate the opposite extreme, which Kdramas also rarely feature: completely over-the-top comedy. Springing from the shoujo and shounen mangas which most of the romance/comedy dramas are based on (all of which are written for teens) these feature exceptionally quirky characters, fantasy sequences, and credulity-stretching plots (think Korean dramas stray dangerously toward melodrama or soap? Think again). Examples include Hanazakari no Kimi Tachi e
, Mei-chan no Shitsuji
, and Tokyo Dogs
. They can be either completely hilarious or completely ridiculous – I found Tokyo Dogs,
once I stopped thinking it was going to be a “serious” cop drama, riotous good fun, while Mei-chan no Shitsuji
came across as unendurably bad teenage fantasy. Hanazakari no Kimi Tachi e
is wildly popular and a classic Jdrama, but polarizes international fans, some of whom prefer the lower-key Taiwanese adaptation and many of whom find it far too shrill and over the top. A Korean drama that is somewhat similar to these types of Jdramas would be Mary Stayed Out All Night
, which is (unsurprisingly) based on an internet comic.
Just as a general trend, I would say that Japanese dramas are more concerned with capturing a sense of life as it is - hence all the office dramas - and with portraying "outsider" characters, people rejected by society either because of their looks, personality/mannerisms, or heightened intelligence. They can be absolutely brilliant at capturing the everyday magic of life and the epic feel of adolescence/youth (see: Nobuta wo Produce
). Both Korean dramas and Japanese dramas contain the same addicting focus on human relationships and the same strong storytelling that has made us love the Asian drama genre, however, so if you haven't checked out Jdramas yet, now is the time.
, featuring five Jdramas to start with, will follow soon.