There’s a joke I often tell about Chinese food with the punch line invariably being ‘in China they just call it food’. Well the same is true for J-dramas, known more quaintly as doramas, since at their core they really are just TV shows made in Japan. Despite the universal nature of TV and dramas, J-dramas are at their core distinctly Japanese, which can both distance and attract Western fans. In this article, I hope to give an in-depth introduction to the medium of Japanese dramas, and try to demonstrate the appeal that draws Japanese fans and western fans alike.
Let me first be clear and say that while Japanese TV, much like our own TV, has game shows, talk shows, music channels such as MTV, and even shopping channels, that those shows are not what I’ll be discussing. J-dramas instead are predominantly serial shows much like CSI, Friday Night Lights, and Dollhouse. Now some see the term drama and presume that all the shows therefore must be serious and ‘dramatic’; however, that is not what the word drama means in this situation. Shows that are termed dramas, in any country, generally meet these three requirements. First they must be written prior to air time, which means no improvisation. Second of all dramas tend to be divided into two types of sub-genres: comedy or tragedy, the former maintaining the status quo presented at the beginning of the episode or series, and the latter ending differently than the show begun, often symbolized by a character transformation or even death. Lastly, and this probably is the least essential requirement, dramas tend to have musical accompaniment, either overtly placed in the show like musicals, or in the background like most TV shows we’re familiar with. Take American crime dramas as a great example of the ‘drama’ formula. The shows are pre-written, the crime is solved by the end of the show (status quo maintained), and every now and then a popular song will be played over the action or the more serious parts. So yeah essentially that’s why dramas, here and in Japan, are known as dramas. Now let me give an introduction to what forms the basis for the modern J-drama.
Japan has a rich culture of storytelling in many mediums: manga, anime, woodblocks, plays, novels, and now television shows. Many of these genres cross-over, best shown perhaps through the transformation of manga to anime, providing quick familiarity for fans venturing into new mediums of entertainment. Early J-dramas didn’t really take advantage of the TV to truly be innovative, at least initially. Instead of trying out TV’s potential advantages for storytelling to the greatest extent, character archetypes and cliché plots generally pass on from manga to dramas, due to the popularity of these familiar styles. The modern American sitcom for instance maintains many of the character types and plot devices that started in early sitcoms, so I Love Lucy with a little spice becomes How I Met Your Mother. Additionally when TV first began many of the earliest shows were in fact radio dramas that were fleshed out for TV viewers. While technology changes often, cultures change as well and often art and literature will reflect this culture change (or perhaps even catalyze the change). For instance after the tumultuous 60’s, and especially during the rocky 80’s, many countries cultural creators began to look at life and its harsh realities and began to portray in TV dramas and in movies life’s daily struggles in story plots. During this transition many of the shows and stories creators began to focus less on the seemingly perfect worlds of the past. While many shows to this day still keep the classic character types and plots, these characters have frequently been placed in more realistic situations. For J-dramas the hero is no longer just a fighting ninja, but instead a teacher standing up for their students. Heroes aren’t found in the social and economic elite, but in the community of salary men, social outcasts, and the world of average Japanese citizens. This wave of realism in J-dramas helped define many of Japan’s modern genres. However, before I delve into each of those, let me highlight the greatest differences between American and J-drams, which are often not in fact the plot itself but the origins of the stories as well as the presentation, i.e. number of seasons, times aired, etc .
Thinking about American television I’ve never questioned before why seasons are generally 26 episodes long, why every show tries to have as many seasons as possible (it seems), and even where most of the stories originate from? I have thought to myself things like “Firefly was great but why did it get cancelled?”, but that’s about it. Looking from the outside in on J-dramas though has given me insight on American TV as well, and has given me a better understanding of the differences and commonalities between J-Dramas and American Dramas.
First let me introduce the greatest similarity, which is that most J-dramas, like our own, last about 1 hour. The greatest difference on the other hand is that contrary to American TV pretty much all J-dramas have 11 episodes a season. Moreover, most J-dramas never get a second season, nor do they really expect too. In fact, very few J-dramas get multiple seasons with most of the truly popular TV shows getting at best a TV special. Hero, one of the most popular J-dramas in Japan bar, got a special a couple years after airing and a movie a couple years after that, but only one season. The J-drama Gokusen, based on the manga of the same name, seems to almost break the mold as it has finished up so far with three seasons, a couple specials, and a movie. Invariably, with so many shows having only one season and wrapping up with only 11 episodes, J-dramas are produced with a much greater frequency than American dramas. The schedule for J-drama releases, much like anime releases, follows the seasons. Therefore, a popular actor could star in four major shows a year, if they’re fortunate enough or energetic enough. Now one might imagine that this would require a ton of work not just to produce all these shows but especially to create new show concepts. Well while it certainly can make American TV creators look lazy by comparison, and perhaps rightfully so, Japanese J-drama creators do get the benefit of not only borrowing character archetypes and popular stories; however, they also have a wealth of stories already in the form of manga.
For those of you who are manga fans in the states you know that we get a lot of imported titles thankfully, and that many of the manga get anime versions as well. However, you may not realize that in Japan there are hundreds, if not thousands, more manga titles that do not get brought over to us. Some of these are too niche for the American market, while others are just plain poor quality. Of course, there’s also only so much money for bringing over titles, so at the end of the day whatever the reason we don’t get all of what they have out there. For J-drama creators though, all of these manga are at their fingertips, and much like anime creators use manga to create their shows, J-drama creators use manga to create live-action versions, usually to great success. Certain shows were popular enough to have a manga, anime, and J-drama version, such as Great Teacher Onizuka and Gokusen; however, shows such as Yukan Club and Hana Kimi, for whatever reason, skipped having an anime and went straight to J-drama. For the Japanese knowing popular manga stories is as much a part of their culture as Americans knowing popular movies. Therefore, one can imagine that seeing a manga come to TV would be the equivalent to seeing the Sarah Connor Chronicles (based on the Terminator series) come to American TV. More often though, instead of the above happening, our books and literature goes straight to movie form, the medium we’re known best for globally. So really it’s not like Japan’s cheating by using their own manga culture, but with the short seasons, and the massive amount of manga available, it’s no surprise that so many of manga are used to be rehashed or reworked. For an otaku standpoint this helps the transition into J-drama, assuming the fan already has knowledge of manga. But even better, using familiar stories over and over allows for already familiar manga character types and plots to become TV standards as well.
Perhaps the most universal appeal of J-dramas exists with the genres themselves. Nowadays the world is closer than ever with the advent of TV and the internet. In fact, in the modern world culture permeates on a grand scale and thus shifts or trends in culture, especially in media output, often occurs simultaneously even in distant countries. Due to the intertwined nature of TV and internet culture especially, many of the key genres in J-dramas are going to sound very familiar to American dramas. The first genre I would like to discuss is “family” centered J-dramas. More and more often these shows look at what is presumably the typical Japanese family going through life’s journey, often with everyday problems pushing the plot but sometimes with extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary families, adding spice to the show. Perhaps since I’m still young myself and have no wife and kids of my own I’ve rarely reached out to watch these sorts of shows since they frankly don’t seem to connect to me. That said, I’m sure for many Japanese families these shows can be looked at as a reflection, however altered, of their own home lives. Ultimately, coming from a mix of escapism and harsh realities, shows focused on the family seem to epitomize the added realism in modern day J-dramas.
Another genre that additionally emphasizes the importance of J-dramas and their role as mirrors of society is the “occupation” genre (by no means is that a technical term). Simply put these are shows that focus on the work world of Japan. Thanks to the brevity of J-dramas show creators have to always have fresh new ideas and stories and thus they can cover a lot of occupations. My favorite example of this in J-dramas is the show Call Center no Koibito (aka Call Center of Love). The whole series focuses on the world of a QVC-like shopping channel, specifically the support team that has to help the customers when products don’t work, are broken, etc. While shows in the US such as Six Feet Under have certainly been able to venture into occupations where few American dramas have ventured before, shows like Call Center no Koibito are not uncommon in Japan. Hero for instance focuses on the world of a small group of prosecutors. The show Hataraki Man focuses on the life of a magazine editor, and Kougen e Irasshai is about a hotel manager. These are all great examples of the genre but merely tip the iceberg. Every year, as with every genre, new occupation/business centered J-dramas are created, serving many different facets of the Japanese work world.
The next genre, sports shows, is fairly self-explanatory. As you’d imagine the dramas are usually about sports, teams, or specific players. As traditional as that sounds, America has very few sports shows, and instead seems to prefer sports on the big screen. We do have shows like The Game and Friday Night Lights, the latter fitting into the ‘school’ genre as well, but again we don’t cover the range that J-dramas usually covers with sports shows. To give you an idea of this further I’ll again set you up with some examples, the first being Pride, a J-drama based on a hockey captain and star player. Likewise, Hana Kimi, while certainly more of a school genre show, is centered largely around a school high jumper. Water Boys, a highly popular show in Japan, is about a group of males who form a synchronized swimming team. Rounding out the examples here there is also the J-drama Buzzer Beat, about a man trying to be a professional basketball player. As you might imagine with more and more sports there can be a near endless supply of J-dramas based on sports, and this certainly seems to be the case. While this isn’t a realm I’ve truly delved into quite yet, I think for sports fans wanting to get into J-dramas these sorts of shows may be the best gateway.
I alluded to this next drama quite a lot when discussing sports, and that’s ‘school’ shows. Since schools, high school and college in particular, can be the heart of action, love, and so much more, this genre probably often crosses over with other genres. So if you were to discuss Hana Kimi, you’d best describe it as a school comedy with a sports focus. Even Great Teacher Onizuka and Gokusen, classic school and highly popular school dramas, can be said to cover occupational drama’s territory as well, since teaching is of course an occupation. The difference though between the two is that in an occupation centered drama the job takes focus, while in school dramas it’s the day to day interactions of the kids, and in the case of G.T.O. and Gokusen, the kids and the teachers’ interactions. Great Teacher Onizuka, based on the popular manga of the same name, is in my opinion one of the best J-dramas to date. I feel that while the drama is especially fit for young people, and perhaps more so for those in school, that this easily can be anyone’s first J-drama. While it’s coming on in years, the humor and lessons of G.T.O. don’t really age, thus in my opinion GTO is an amazing, timeless J-drama.
The last genre I’ll discuss really in-depth in this piece is the ever popular crime genre. Since crime regretfully is so universal, crime dramas often can, and do, mix with every other genre one can imagine. Galileo for instance is a crime drama where a new detective relies on the knowledge of a handsome, yet snarky physics professor, to get her toughest cases solved. While crime is clearly the focus, both occupation and school themes are occasionally touched on. The J-drama Koshonin about a female negotiator with Tokyo’s elite crime force, and the J-drama Rinjo about a gritty forensic expert, both heavily impress upon the audience the unique nature and roles of the character’s occupations, while still focusing on crime prevention/resolution required for crime dramas. On the other hand, shows like Mr. Brain and Tokyo Dogs emphasizes comedy, especially light-hearted dialogue, while still solving focusing on solving crimes. Tokyo Dogs in particular takes the classic buddy cop formula, mixes in the light-hearted quirkiness of Pysch’s two protagonists, and spins it out into what becomes a funny, albeit powerful experience. In reverence to American crime dramas, the J-drama Voice has a character who is interested in studying forensics due to his obsession with CSI. Again taking from Pysch, and also Monk’s quirky crime-fighting methods, we have shows like Kiina where a klutzy woman, who has a supernatural ability to learn and recall information, uses these two features to both entertain the viewers and ultimately solve the crimes. By the level of detail in this explanation you may realize by now that this is the genre I find myself watching most of the time. Indeed, the formula’s for crime shows are quite old, not only based on crimes but even early radio dramas, yet somehow Japan and America alike are able to create delightfully fresh crime shows like Castle (US), Shibatora (JP), White Collar (US), and Q.E.D. (JP). In this way, I almost feel that more than any other genre, crime dramas would best connect with American dramas, and ultimately demonstrate again, much like J-music and American music, that even with their own twists the ultimate connection of old themes brings foreign audiences together.
I would like to emphasize at this point that I could not, nor did I want to, cover everything in this article. For instance, there are certainly more genres I didn’t cover, most notably period pieces, aka dramas based on Japanese history. Likewise there are more characteristics too of Japanese TV, networks and programming that I left out. However, even if you were to read my continued explanations, I feel that at this point you can only learn so much by reading, and must at this time do, which of course means watch some J-dramas. I will say in summary that like so many things in Japan J-dramas seem like a bundle of contradictions. J-dramas feature characters and plots familiar to western audiences but set in an overtly Japanese setting. J-dramas feature themes of independence that contrast the very collective nature of Japanese society. J-dramas feature genres that often originated in western culture. However, with everything Japan does, even as familiar as the shows may seem, they can’t help but give their own unique spin to them. Without this one might wonder why watch J-dramas at all; however, if you watch them you’ll see how even through the façade of the familiar you’ll enter the world of the new and the uniquely foreign. You’ll enter Japanese primetime.