When it quickly became clear that 2021 was going to be as much of a write-off as 2020, I figured I was going to have plenty of time for J-drama. That didn’t even turn out to be false, but I did continually push them away in favour of a stronger-than-average year for anime, video games that I couldn’t put down, and a sofa that was in dire need of procrastinating on.
Still, despite my general lack of motivation, I think 2021 will end up having some valuable knock-on effects for Asian television. Who could have guessed that the TV show everyone would be talking about this year would be a show from South Korea? Squid Game‘s success should, hopefully, broaden the horizons of a lot of people when it comes to trying out foreign shows. And, with any luck, it may even help convince a few suits to put more money into localisation efforts too.
Even Amazon remembered that Documental, their massively successful show in Japan, exists. They managed to subtitle a whole new season this year, meaning a whopping five of the ten seasons can now be enjoyed around the world. Crazy!
Anyway – as I’ve done many times before, I’ll be rolling through the drama I watched this year. Here we go!
It’s the year 20XX, and a meteorite has struck Earth and thrown it off its axis. Millions are dead, and the survivors are forced to struggle through perpetual cold and blizzards. At an old school in Japan, 30 or so people have gathered in an attempt to persevere; growing food, producing heat and salvaging what they can from surrounding buildings.
An odd premise, but why not – I’m always down for something different. It starts off well enough too, with the main family unit of four competing with other people at the camp to win four cup noodles. Families at the camp are given preferential treatment, which is why our main characters are lying about being related. It could get them thrown out of the camp if they’re caught, but they’re willing to put on a facade for the little benefits it gives them.
I was genuinely on board for the first ten minutes or so, but as the first episode progressed I just found it progressively more boring. It’s a shame, but perhaps you might have a better time with it.
Omameda Towako to Sannin no Mototto
Japan does love its romcoms, and this one appeared to be generating some buzz week on week. The story centres on Omameda Towako, a woman who has been married and divorced three times. She’s generally pretty unlucky, finding herself on the receiving end of random, unfortunate events, and many in her family side-eye her love life. Her ex-husbands don’t seem to have gotten over her though, and while they’re not overwhelmingly in Towako’s life any more, they do seem to take what opportunities they can get to fight over her.
Towako isn’t particularly interested though, but she is keeping her options open for a new romance. Of course, when she’s so unlucky it’s never that easy, and she has to navigate getting scammed by a handsome sailor in just the first episode.
This show doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary, but as far as Japanese rom-coms go, this is a pretty stellar one. Definitely give this a shot if you’re looking for a new drama to watch.
Kotaro wa Hitorigurashi
A new tenant has moved into the Shimizu apartment complex, only it’s a 5 year old boy who speaks like a samurai. He also doesn’t have any parents with him, which causes his neighbour, a mangaka with a lack of motivation, to worry about him. Over time the duo bump into the other people living at the apartments, most of which have their own problems their working through.
I’ll be honest – I don’t actually recall where I learned of this show or why I started watching it, but it’s certainly an odd one. It’s not bad either, but if you’re looking for something that hits the ground running, this one is probably not for you. The characters are interesting though, and Satou the little samurai does a decent job bringing it all together.
Ore no Ie no Hanashi
Juichi Miyami is the eldest son to a beloved Japanese Noh actor, which means he grew up with the expectation of becoming the heir to the family. However, following the death of his mother, he starts to realise just how little his father actually interacts with him. While Juichi’s Noh skills were exemplary as a child, he left home to become a professional wrestler, only returning decades later when he hears his dad was found collapsed. His dad recovers enough to leave the hospital, but is given six months to live, prompting Juichi to retire from wrestling and move back into the family home.
Believe it or not, there’s even more that should probably be said in order to accurately summarise this show – there are money-hungry siblings, a young care worker who is lined up to marry Juichi’s 72-year-old father, famous wrestler cameos and more. Honestly, I picked it up for the simple reason that Juichi’s father is played by Nishida Toshiyuki, one of my all-time favourite Japanese people. If you’ve seen any clips from the fantastic Japanese TV show Knight Scoop, you may be familiar with him.
This is an odd one for sure, but boy did it manage to sucker me right in. It has a bizarre sense of humour, quickly flitting from nonsensical to deadly serious, and it absolutely plays up that aspect. There’s a scene towards the end of the first episode where Juichi’s father is about to receive a test for dementia, and I was preparing for the worst on the assumption it was going to make a joke of it. Despite the earlier goofiness the entire scene was completely serious, and this show I’d only been watching for 40 minutes managed to deliver quite the successful gut punch because of it.
Kamen Rider Revice
Kamen Rider does seem to be stuck on the pattern of following up a bad show with a good show, but at the same time Revice isn’t a homerun show either. I like it well enough mind you, and seeing Vice using wrestling moves on enemies amongst the usual Kamen Rider punches and kicks is good fun. As with every show in the past ten years, this one has far too much shit CGI for its own good, but there’s a lot to enjoy here too. It’s a marked improvement on Saber, that’s for sure.
Farewell to the yearly batsu games…
It was the news that many Gaki fans knew would come sooner or later, given the cast are quickly approaching their sixties, but it appears that the 2020 Las Vegas batsu game will indeed be the last one. It appears that the decision may have happened earlier than planned thanks to a certain global pandemic, with last year’s game taking a different form than usual because of it, but nonetheless the batsu games had a terrific 18 year run. If you’ve not watched any before, I might recommend giving 2013’s Earth Defense Force game a go.
Of course, this is not the end of Gaki no Tsukai, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of their shenanigans in the coming years. A recent favourite segment of mine has to be the ‘No Smartphone Meetup’ series, which sees the five cast members attempt to meet up with each other with only simple words or phrases to go on, and a taxi to get them from place to place. Hopefully we’ll see more of those in 2022.
Also, while not Japanese, it is worth mentioning a couple of Asian dramas I watched this year:
- Squid Game – Of all of the shows appearing on Netflix this year, who would have thought that it’d be a death game set in South Korea that would set the world on fire. Many people have compared it to shows like Kaiji, and it’s clear why, but they’re very much their own things too. Squid Game is a quality production with some fabulous characters and acting, and while it might wane towards the end, it’s still a show worthy of your time.
- Dynasty Warriors the Movie – I was really excited for this film – not only am I a pretty big Dynasty Warriors fan, but we’d seen an early trailer where Lu Bu used a horse to run up the side of a tunnel of water. There were plenty of wild action scenes and fighting on wires, but perhaps not enough considering the length of the film. A lot of the non-action scenes are spent building up Cao Cao’s character, which makes it feel like they went into development expecting to work on a sequel. I suppose we’ll see, but here’s hoping they ramp up the ridiculousness an extra notch if a second film happens.
And that’s a rap! Here’s to 2022!