Japanese drama can be quite difficult to get into. A lot of drama, in particular anime-related TV or film, boasts flamboyant acting and almost comical expressions from the actors. It’s a stark contrast from what you’d expect from drama here in the west, so it’s very easy to dismiss it as bad, especially if you haven’t seen other Japanese dramas for reference. It’s an unfortunate barrier, but in time you can come to appreciate these differences, as well as the glimpse into Japanese culture you wouldn’t otherwise get.
What I’m saying is that there was a lot of bad anime this year, and Japanese drama does a pretty good job of filling the spare time you get when you drop all of those awful magical school harem shows.
The biggest barrier between westerners and foreign drama is the sheer reliance on fansubs. Crunchyroll and a handful of other streaming services are certainly doing a little to alleviate this, but unless there’s a related anime or it’s a well-known franchise like Ultraman, you’ll have to cross your fingers and hope that a fansub group picks it up.
So in the hopes that you think of watching Japanese drama when you drop five anime shows next season for being the exact same trash you’ve already seen, here’s what I watched this year.
Kamen Rider Fourze
Oh yeah, we’re dipping straight into the ‘dudes in rubber suits’ category. I didn’t really enjoy my time with Kamen Rider Drive, which was currently airing at the time, so I decided instead to check out one of the older shows. Now that I think about it, I’d put off watching Fourze in the past just based on how silly the promo imagery looked, and it wasn’t until I’d seen fifty-odd episodes of fruit samurai that I realised it was a silly reason to ignore it. Fourze is great fun and easily one of my favourite toku shows, due mostly to how much fun the characters are. The stakes aren’t as high as they are in Gaim, but who cares when the protag is a student with a pompadour who can fly into space on a motorbike?
Freeter, Ie wo Kau
This was definitely the show I enjoyed the most this year, and I only decided to watch it on a whim. I ran a feature in a magazine that, among other things, reviewed a Japanese drama each month. Freeter was the show that I picked for my final issue, and it was a terrific show to go out on. It focuses on Take Seiji, a young guy who has no aspirations, a bad relationship with his family and a complete disinterest in working and moving forward in life. The characters are wonderful (and if you’re watching Kamen Rider Ghost, you’ll recognise the father of the family) and the story, while complicated at times, stays gripping throughout. It’s definitely worth tracking down some subtitles for this if you’re curious about it.
Watching Rookies was long overdue. I first became aware of it back in 2011 because it was being re-aired while I was holidaying in Japan. Even without subtitles, a show that has delinquents punching each other through windows (with occasional baseball) was always going to appeal to me. I finally got around to watching it around the middle of this year, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Each of the characters is great fun and surprisingly true-to-life, and while I wouldn’t mind if the show stopped pushing the ‘you can do anything you put your mind to’ message so often, it was still thoroughly enjoyable. It also has a great insert song by GReeeeN.
This one truly came out of nowhere, and it’s likely that I’d have missed it entirely had it not been for seeing a tweet about it. Akagi was a fantastic anime, with similar risk-your-life psychological themes as Kaiji, arguably Fukumoto’s more popular series. Given how well Kaiji translated to live-action I was pretty excited to see this, and fortunately it doesn’t disappoint. It retells the grand mahjong battle between Akagi and Washizu in spectacular fashion, and each character has been cast incredibly well. Props in particular to Tsugawa who plays Washizu, as he manages to get the psychotic, paranoid and mad character absolutely perfect. If you’re not sure how a mahjong show can be tense, heart-stopping and with stakes above that of monetary gain, give this a go.
Finally. Finally! There was a good six month period after Kaiji 2 released on DVD in Japan that I was scouring the Internet for subtitles. I loved the last live-action film, but pretty much dismissed the chances of another official European release after seeing stacks of the DVDs in a local Poundland. The subs never came (or at the very least, I never found them) and the film was largely forgotten. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I checked again and finally found some subtitles for it. As for the film itself, it differs quite a bit from how the events are told in the anime, though I couldn’t tell you which one of the two is more faithful to the manga. However, the changes are quite good fun, and not knowing what’s going to happen in a story you’ve seen before is definitely welcome. The pachinko arc is crazy anyway, and this might be the best way to experience it if you don’t fancy watching the anime, which admittedly dragged its feet through this particular story.
Gaki no Tsukai
I mentioned these guys very briefly in the Gacha post from the beginning of the month, and since then I’ve been working through some of the back catalogue. This comedy show has been airing weekly since 1989 so there are over 1300 episodes out there, though the western fanbase is very small and only a small portion of the shows have been translated. The fansubs focus on popular recurring segments and special episodes, in particular the batsu games which happen every year. The most recent batsu games are 24-hour ordeals that focus on upholding a ‘no laughing’ rule, ending in punishment if a player breaks it. With punishments including being stabbed in the butt with a blow dart, kicked by a thai kick-boxer and whacked with a bamboo sword, you can rest assured that the game master is trying their very best to make the game as funny as possible. No-Laughing High School is a personal favourite out of the games I’ve seen, but if you’re familiar with this show already I’d love to hear your recommendations!
Kamen Rider Ghost
I was pretty excited for Kamen Rider Spooky in the build up to release, and perhaps that’s because I wasn’t watching any tokusatsu shows at the time. Whatever the case, it looked to be as silly as Fourze, and I’m definitely okay with more Fourze. Unfortunately it’s not really comparable, and as much as I am enjoying this show in general, it has a lot of problems that need fixing. But hey, whatever, we’ll see how it goes. It’s fun seeing this show jam historical figures into its plot, but if that gets old I still have Double to watch. Whatever the case, I’ll be buying a Yurusen when I visit Japan in February.
Begiragons is probably my favourite YouTube channel right now. Not only are their challenges completely silly and great fun to watch, but they put in so much effort into the editing and subtitling everything. If you’ve never heard of them before, I’d recommend you check out the Vending Machine Game, then work your way through the other videos (food challenges in particular!). I really wish them the best as their channel deserves more subscribers.
And the rest…
I watched a few other things and want to prevent this from turning into an essay, so here we go!
- Rokemitsu – This show is weird. It’s about a cosplayer who dresses as Asuka Langley, travelling around Japan on a budget determined by a dice roll multiplied by the number of comments on her latest blog entry. Yes, it’s about as Japan as you can get. In fact, you get to see Begiragons parody it during the Tokyo Train Game. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be anyone subtitling Rokemitsu, but even without them you can get a pretty good idea about what’s going on in each episode.
- Ultraman X – Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about this show. We’ll have a Final Thoughts up sometime after the final episode, but we figured we’d save you from reading the same complaints every week.
- Ace Attorney – This was a rewatch, but the Ace Attorney movie is so delightfully silly that I couldn’t say no to seeing it again. Phoenix, Von Karma and Lotta Hart in particular are cast perfectly.
- GameCenter CX – I’ve not seen a lot of this, but I like to watch an episode or two when I find myself with nothing else to watch. Fortunately there’s a pretty large fan base outside of Japan, so subs are pretty easy to come by. It’s great fun if you love a bit of retro gaming, and you might even learn something, too. Plus Arino is a big part of why this show is so good. Kacho on!