On a trip to Japan in 2011, I had the fortune of catching some J-drama live on TV. Not that wild of a thing to happen, but there’s usually not much to write home about when you’re catching shows in the middle of the run – between the soap-esque dramas and period pieces. However, one of the shows that I caught a glimpse of is Rookies, and that turned out to be one of my all-time favourite dramas once I got home and found subtitles for it. This happened again in 2016 when I caught an episode of Kaito Yamaneko.
While I wasn’t actively looking for a new show to ‘take home’ with me on my trip earlier this year, I will admit that I’d have been a bit disappointed if I didn’t find something that looked half interesting. Fortunately this wasn’t a problem – Anata no Ban Desu became the show very, very easily when I caught about 5 minutes of the end of episode two.
I’ve been rather fortunate in that all three of these shows have been fansubbed, but I do genuinely dread finding something that looks really good that has no English option available, official or otherwise. We’re never going to have complete parity, but I do hope that the few shows that are receiving official English translations, mostly because the streaming service themselves has paid for the show’s production, are doing a little work in making people more adventurous when on a drama binge. Hopefully then we might see these platform holders hedge some more bets when it comes to forking out for localisation.
Anyway! As I’ve done many times before, I’ll be rolling through the drama I watched this year. Here we go!
Anata no Ban Desu/Your Turn to Kill
Personally, my favourite J-dramas are those with a mystery that needs solving. Nobuyuki Fukumoto (Akagi, Kaiji etc.) and Shonobu Kaitani (Liar Game) have become favourites of mine for mixing overarching mystery with smaller psychological battles and high stakes, so pretty much any show that has similar vibes is probably going to be up my alley.
Anata no Ban Desu is set in an apartment complex, where we’re introduced to a couple that are moving in. Our female lead is invited to a meeting with other residents, during which apartment-related things would be discussed, when someone suggests that everyone should write down the name of one person they’d like to kill on a piece of paper. These papers would then be shuffled and redistributed to discuss, as a bit of a fucked up icebreaker. It all starts to go a bit wrong when one of the people that was written down is murdered, and those that participated in the game are pressured by an unknown party to kill the person whose name they drew.
This show is a fascinating combination of mystery and hammy acting, wrapped up beautifully in an unnerving soundtrack. Myself and colons are working through this one slowly but surely when we find the time, but it has quickly become a favourite show of mine. Also, for a drama that literally has over 20 characters to keep track of at one time, it’s surprisingly easy to follow along. Just don’t get too put off when the first episode continues rattling off name after name.
Channel wa Sonomama/Stay Tuned!
I wrote a First Look for Stay Tuned! earlier on this year, and honestly, my opinion didn’t change all that much after completing the series. It’s a pretty low-energy romp, but that’s all to its benefit, I think. This isn’t a show that requires you to sit down with a a clear mind, or that you focus on the subtitles intently else you risk losing track of the plot. Just throw it on and enjoy. In that respect, it reminds me somewhat of Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman, but with more comedy and less… weird.
While I didn’t find myself clamouring for the next episode like some of the other shows on this list, I will say that the ending left me wanting more. Perhaps not another full season, but a little more of Hanako’s antics wouldn’t go amiss.
Oh, and those subtitles didn’t get better, either. Hopefully they’ve improved since March this year if you do end up giving this a watch.
Makoto is a university graduate with a lot of debt, and he once again finds himself out of a job. A friend of his, who doesn’t have money problems, invites him to help out on a well-paid job. What he doesn’t tell him until the last possible moment is that they’re withdrawing money from stolen credit cards. This is the start of Makoto’s journey into a life of crime, as he works his way up into larger, riskier scams.
Netflix didn’t hold up on bringing us more J-drama this year, and while I’ll admit that most of them haven’t really been for me, SCAM$ was a great show that really came out of nowhere. I wouldn’t have minded if the stakes were a little higher, honestly, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t fully on board in seeing what Makoto got up to next. Fingers crossed we get a sequel down the road.
Kamen Rider Zi-O
Gosh this show sucked. Build had many problems, and we’ve gone into them a few times on the site, but the best thing that Zi-O did in the year that it ran for is make me genuinely wish we were still watching Build. At least that show had likeable characters and a handful of interesting story beats. Zi-O was a mess from start to finish.
Admittedly, I did stick with it until the end. This is mostly because I wanted to see what past riders and side characters would show up next, but for the most part these actors were incredibly underused. It also says a lot that Decade, a character from an equally as disliked series, ended up stealing the show in the episodes he cropped up in.
Also, both Zi-O Trinity and Grand Zi-O are strong competitors in the never-ending worst rider suit competition, right alongside duel disk Decade.
— Very Scary Scenario (@vscaryscenario) August 9, 2019
Did you know that Zubat’s friend was horrifically murdered while recovering in hospital? Did you know that Zubat is actually the best in the world at everything? Did you know that Zubat is on the scene? Don’t worry, after a handful of episodes you’ll be acutely aware of these facts.
If you’re not familiar with this show by name, you may well have seen clips of it doing the rounds online – the billiards scene in particular is a fan favourite. If you’re still not familiar, well, you’re in for a real treat. Zubat travels Japan in search of his friend’s killer, while battling the evil Dakker and its members in very formulaic episodes. But it doesn’t matter that every episode follows this same pattern – Kaiketsu Zubat always manages to do something that’ll have you rolling around in laughter. It’s a heck of a show.
Zero Ikkaku Senkin Game
Remember when I said earlier that I like Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s works? Well, here’s another one! This aired at the end of 2018, but as with many dramas you’ve got to wait patiently for the fansubs, assuming the show gets picked up by a group in the first place. Fortunately, Fukumoto’s works are more than popular enough (also Shigeaki Kato from the popular band NEWS plays Zero, and you sure can’t underestimate the many dedicated subbers who will translate anything with their favourite idols in them).
If you’ve seen Kaiji, you’ll be more than familiar with what kind of show this is. Zero and many other people are invited to participate in a series of games that will determine who will become ‘King’, picking up a cool 100 billion yen from the organisers. They’re an incredibly wealthy and powerful conglomerate however, and for them to give up such a sum of money will require participants to put their lives on the line.
This show is just a heck of a lot of fun. Hopefully there’s a season 2 in the pipe, so we can get that bananas golf game from the manga, too.
Kaiju Club is a bizarre show, and while I don’t think I enjoyed it per se, I sure do appreciate it existing. It’s set in the glory days of the Ultraman franchise, where a group of kaiju enthusiasts gather at a local cafe to chat, debate and reminisce about famous and popular episodes, before formulating articles for their Ultraman fanzine. Our protagonist, Ryota, also has a girlfriend he’s smitten with, though he must protect his relationship status at all costs from his kaiju friends who he fears may abandon him if they find out.
That latter part is kind of why this show is hard to recommend – there’s nothing particularly wrong about having our protag weigh his love of kaiju against his love life, but that he goes so far to dodge having to reveal his girlfriend to a bunch of guys he doesn’t want to ‘betray’ is just… a lot.
When the kaiju club meets, they do have genuine discussions about various Ultraman episodes. As someone who remains interested in the franchise, despite not finding a series I love, it’s really very interesting. These discussions focus on episodes from Ultraman and Ultraseven, and the star kaiju from these episodes also make an appearance. They hang out beside the protagonist while (generally) being ignored/unseen by everyone. Very strange, but I kinda love it.
And the rest…
I watched a few other things and want to prevent this from turning into an essay, so here we go!
- Liar Game X – My rewatch of Liar Game continued through season two and into the first feature length episode – and it’s still very, very good.
- Initial D – A 2005 live-action film from Hong Kong, which doesn’t feature any eurobeat (unless you’re listening to the Japanese dub and you’re in the credits). Really not very good.
- Gintama 2 – But you know what is good? Gintama 2! It’s a mystery how these live-action films have been so darn enjoyable, but there are many moments in this film that had me rolling. Definitely give them both a go, even if you’re not super familiar with the franchise.
- Documental S3 – Documental finally had its third season translated after what seemed like an eternity, and it’s still making up for the rest of Prime Video being shite. The zombie round they added is a great way to get eliminated players back in the room, easily making this one of the funniest seasons yet.
- Suteneko ni Hirowareta Otoko – After enjoying some cat-related films last year, I had a look around for more. Suteneko is, I think, meant to be a TV one-off, though the structure makes it feel like three episodes of a larger series. Honestly, the pacing was just too glacial for me to really enjoy it, though the cat was very good nonetheless.
- Kamen Rider Zero-One – I’ll admit that I’m a little behind on this one, but I’m ten episodes in and it’s just nice to have a Kamen Rider show that isn’t completely dreadful. Zero-One has a lot of things going for it in fact – the fight choreography has been spruced up with a changing of the guard, and the characters are more interesting than Zi-O had to offer. There’s also the bonus of having a female rider in a starring position. The only thing I don’t like is the over-saturation of forms and power-ups, but that’s a larger Kamen Rider problem than something specific to Zero-One.
- Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger – I’m starting to wonder if Kyoryuger was a one-off for me, as I continue finding it hard to get into super sentai. I don’t think the show is at fault either – I quite liked what I saw of the characters, but I just didn’t feel much of an urge to keep up with it. Hopefully it’s gone well for those of you still watching.
- Gaki no Tsukai – This year’s batsu was once again a treat (and without worldwide controversy this time, which is nice). The treasure hunter theme was excellent, and they continue to prove that sticking to the same old formula doesn’t mean the show is getting stale because of it.
- Various Kaiju Movies – Kaiju films are good, and I’ve been having a good time watching them and talking about it with fellow site member colons. If you’ve not tuned in yet, why not give it a try? There’s no set order, but if you’re looking for a place to start then I’d highly recommend Daigoro vs. Goliath, our latest episode!
And that’s a rap! Here’s to 2020!