Did you think all of Japan’s excellent TV could be covered in one article? We’re barely getting started! This time around, we’re looking at some of the more thrilling, exciting side of the drama spectrum. If you’re looking for excellent storytelling, vivid characters and cliffhangers that will have you immediately reaching for the ‘play’ button for the next episode, you should immediately hunt these shows down and watch them as soon as humanly possible.
Jin is a Sci-Fi Medical Period Drama. No, really. Perhaps you are familiar with the British TV Show “Life On Mars?”, where a modern day policeman is in an accident that seemingly transports him back to 1970s England. Replace policeman with doctor and 1970s England with Edo-Era Japan and you’re getting close to what “Jin” is about, although “Jin” is arguably even grander in scope.
What truly makes Jin shine as a drama isn’t just the immersive sense of place and time, but how the complex plot and fantastical elements are the story never feel invasive or overly convoluted. Our protagonist, Minakata Jin (Takao Osawa), is both trying to understand this old world he finds himself in as well as understand why he is there and how to get back. The overarching narrative is well paced across the whole series, but each episode also has its neat self-contained story to tell. And, rarely for a high-concept story as “Jin” it has a truly satisfying and moving finale.
Jin was a huge hit in Japan back when it first aired in 2009, and it is part of the pop-culture landscape now. I’m genuinely jealous that you get to experience it afresh!
Kaseifu no Mita (家政婦のミタ)
“Kaseifu no Mita” (literally: “Housekeeper Mita”), like the leading character herself, doesn’t make a great first impression. The story concept of a family holding together after the death of a family member is somewhat overplayed in Japanese dramas, and the first episode is a tad melodramatic and bleak.
But stick with it. Without spoiling anything, you’ll soon come to realise that this is the point. The mysteriously stiff and expressionless Housekeeper Mita (Nanako Matsushima) is hired to help the family at their lowest point, and we gradually come to learn about the deep fault lines running through this home, how they can be healed, and even learn about the enigmatic Mita herself and what her deal is.
“Kaseifu no Mita” might just be one of the best character-driven Japanese dramas. The real joy of this show is how it all these seemingly disparate elements and characters gradually evolve, grow and fit together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a show that rewards more the further you get into it, though you’ll surely be hooked by the second episode anyway.
Hanzawa Naoki (半沢直樹)
When Hanzawa Naoki landed in Japanese TVs in 2013, it was a phenomenon. The final episode pulled in a–wait for it–42% share of the audience. Think about that: nearly half of the TV-watching population tuning in for the finale of this incredible drama.
So what is this behemoth of a show? Think “Kill Bill”, but our main character seeks his revenge not by taking up a katana and slicing his way through endless minions, but by donning a salaryman’s suit and making his way up the ranks of a corrupt banking organization. It may not sound like the most mouth-watering premise on paper, but the characters are brought to life with such flair, especially Masato Sakai as the titular Hanzawa, and Teruyuki Kagawa as the villainous Owada-san is clearly having a lot of fun in the role.
To top it all off, “Hanzawa Naoki” has a plot as taut and tense as they come. Seeing Hanzawa pursue his promised payback from his enemies is immensely satisfying. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons for the success of “Hanzawa Naoki”: seeing a smart underling take down a corrupt and odious boss is like wish-fulfilment for many a put-upon Japanese office worker. If you never thought you’d be on the edge of your seat for a financially-based thriller, prepare to be very surprised.