In this final batch of dramas, you’ll find a certain number of trends. The Hallyu wave is still going strong – as many Korean pop stars and K-drama influences have made their way to multiple dramas on this list. Scandals also seem to fuel a star’s popularity in Japan – not hurt them. Veteran actors/actresses are also continuing to return to the small screen after a long hiatus. Finally, while it’s not a trend, you’ll also find my drama pick of the season (and perhaps the entire year) on this list.
Here it goes – the last part of my compiled list:
Gou ~Himetachi no Sengoku~ (NHK)
Starring: Juri Ueno, Rie Miyazawa, Asami Mizukawa, Honami Suzuki, Etsushi Toyokawa
It may be an early call, but I firmly believe that Gou will be the Japanese drama to top this year. Fronted by a stellar cast, with Juri Ueno in the leading titular role, the 50th NHK Taiga drama had the strongest first episode of any drama this season so far. It’s not surprising, since screenwriter Kumiko Tabuchi (who also penned the immensely popular 47th NHK Taiga drama, Atsuhime) is behind the screenplay. In the first episode, we are treated to one of the most emotionally moving showdowns between a mother and daughter to ever grace a Japanese drama. In the backdrop of this scene, there’s a on-going battle between the Azai and Oda clans, led by Nagamasa Azai (Saburo Tokito) and Nobunaga Oda (Etsushi Toyokawa) respectively outside the Odani castle. However, within the castle, Ichi (Honami Suzuki), Azai’s wife and Oda’s sister, moves forward with attempting to kill her third unborn child (who will later be Gou). Overhearing her mother’s plans, oldest daughter Chacha (Ashida Mana) interrupts her mother and wields a knife in front of second daughter Hatsue and herself – claiming to kill them both if Ichi didn’t stop her abortion attempt. It’s amazingly well executed – to see the young Ashida Mana draw the sword in front of veteran actress Suzuki, in addition to commanding her lines so convincingly not just as a young princess, but as a sister sworn to protect an unborn sibling in her mother’s womb. Later, in another effective scene, Gou is born and her cries echo through the castle, and also are heard outside by the soldiers surrounding the castle, who in turn are charmed by her birth into the world. And that’s ONLY the first episode.
I’m glued to this show every week – and I’m not the only one, as the show is earning high ratings. Even if you are or aren’t familiar with Japanese history, I think NHK still produces quality Taiga dramas that anyone can enjoy because they are compelling pieces of work. This year’s Gou will be no exception to that. I love how the three sisters are shown as strong women (just like their mother) and have a strong sister bond. I find it a little unbelievable to see Rie Miyazaki as the oldest sister (she’s actually only ten years apart from Suzuki in real life), as she’s a bit older than both Ueno and Mizukawa. However, the three work well as a great ensemble. Juri Ueno is perfect in her role as Gou. In addition, I hope they are able to show Mana in more scenes (as flashbacks) in the future. The young actress from Mother absolutely nailed her part in the first episode. However, while I praise the women, the male actors are also doing a superb job as well. I’m really looking forward to this drama over the next year.
What I was most excited about was to see Suzuki return to the small screen after a long 11-year hiatus from the entertainment industry. She married comedian Takaaki Ishibashi and raised three children. She is one of my favorite actresses from the 90s (known for dramas Tokyo Love Story and News no Onna) so it was a treat to see her back on television again.
Fuyu no Sakura (TBS)
Starring: Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Miki Imai, Takeru Sato, Rosa Kato
It’s really fitting to cast SMAP’s Tsuyoshi Kusanagi in the lead role of Fuyu no Sakura. Since the show bears many similarities to the Korean drama Winter Sonata (titled Fuyu no Sonata in Japan) and Kusanagi is a bit of a Korean entertainment ambassador (as he speaks Korean fluently and has been a part of a number of Korean-Japanese productions), the pairing was a match made in heaven.
Kusanagi stars as Yu Inaba, a glass craftsman with a kind soul and no experience with love, as he’s been taking care of his sick mother. The beautiful Miki Imai takes on the role of Monami Ishikawa, an older housewife who loses her memory while on a trip alone to Yamagata. Of course, Inaba who happens to be closest to Ishikawa during her incident and takes her to the hospital. And of course, just like in a Korean drama fashion – Inaba finds out Ishikawa has a terminal illness and also falls in love with her. Of course, the road won’t be easy for their relationship, but we’ll have to see how it all pans out.
I like the Kusanagi and Imai pairing – they make a really good-looking couple to watch on screen. Kusanagi is well known for being one of the better actors to come from Johnny’s Entertainment and even following his incident (“What’s wrong with being naked?”) in 2009, he’s still just as big as a star as he was before that. Imai is also known as a singer (and married to famous Japanese musician Hotei Tomayasu) and this is her first drama role since Brand in 2000. I’m also pretty pleased with the casting of Takeru Sato as Inaba’s younger brother and Rosa Kato as his romantic interest, but I’m still waiting to see how they develop their supporting roles.
Starring: Saki Fukuda, Yuya Matsushita Takaya Kamikawa, Toshiya Nagasawa
I find Quartet to be a trainwreck of a drama. While at first it sounds like an interesting plot, the execution is painful to watch. The actors are emotionless in their roles, while the story’s development is slow and haphazard. I really found Saki Fukuda’s transformation in the first few episodes to be cool, but the drama fell apart after that. Fukuda unemotionally mumbling through her lines was incredibly annoying. Hip-hop/R&B singer Yuya Matsushita doesn’t make any sort of strong connection with his role. I couldn’t move on beyond the first episode. It’s a waste of time and space – I can easily say you can skip this drama.
The credits are just an excuse to watch Matsushita sing and dance for his latest single, “Paradise”. How very unoriginal.
Utskushi Rinjin (KTV, Fuji TV)
Starring: Yukie Nakama, Rei Dan, Atsuro Watabe, Rieko Miura
Yukie Nakama, no matter what, is always incredibly striking in any role she plays. From the moment she appears in a red dress in the first episode of Utskushi Rinjin, she immediately takes control of setting the atmosphere for the rest of the drama. She doesn’t even have to speak – she’s known for having the mesmerizing look that stops a person dead in their tracks. Nakama is at her best when she transforms between from playing the cool and calm to the quirky or crazy. And of course, she makes it look effortless because she’s able to do it with just one look.
In this drama, Nakama is Saki Meyer, a housewife who moved next door to Eriko Yano (Rei Dan). Of course, Saki comes off as a nice woman in need of companionship – she makes a connection with Eriko as both their husbands are away for work. Of course, Saki isn’t whom she seems to be – she’s actually ready to destroy Eriko’s life and go after her husband (Atsuro Watabe). This drama is set up for multiple Fatal Attraction-like moments – and I’m ready for it. Bring on the crazy!
When I also first heard DBSK’s “Why (Keep Your Head Down)” play during the closing credits of the first episode, I half expected for Yunho and Changmin to come out dancing with whips while I was watching Nakama’s character transform into a crazy bitch at the end. Then I realized, it was the drama’s theme song – and admittedly enough, I think it works well with the drama’s theme, despite the song being about a scorned man singing about his ex-girlfriend. I’m guessing Meyer’s scorned past is going to come up fast in the upcoming episodes.
Bartender (TV Asashi)
Starring: Masaki Aiba, Shihori Kanjiya, Nobuaki Kaneko, Ken Mitsuishi, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa
Of course, no Japanese drama season is complete without an Arashi member-leading drama – winter brings us the comedy manga adaptation, Bartender, starring Masaki Aiba in the leading role of Ryu Sasakura. While I don’t think Aiba is the strongest actor from Arashi (hello – that goes to Kazunari Ninomiya), I still find him to be incredibly charming as a former skilled bartender in Paris who tries to hone his skills again upon returning to Japan, by solving other people’s problems, one cocktail at a time. And really, how can’t you find him adorable? He’s as cute as a button. Shihori Kanjiya (who’s just as cute as Aiba as his romantic interest) takes on the female leading role as Miwa Kurushima, a journalist and granddaughter to Taizo Kurushima, the owner of a large hotel chain. Both become detrimental in Sasakura’s growth as a bartender. RIZE drummer Nobuaki Kaneko takes on another rival role (following his role opposite Tomahisa Yamashita in Buzzer Beat) as “Mr. Perfect” bartender Ryuichi Kuzuhara.
Bartender works as one of the better manga adaptations this season (Arashi members seem to have a long running successful streak with manga adaptations) and while it doesn’t exactly keep you at the edge of your seat, it’s still enjoyable to watch Sasakura in his journey to become a “real” bartender – not just someone who’s skilled at making cocktails. The romance, hopefully, will unfold in future episodes so it’s not entirely focused on a bartender who out to bring people out of their misery (and his as well) – with alcohol.
Of course, if an Arashi member is leading a drama – it’s a sure bet Arashi will sing the show’s theme song. “Lotus” is already a huge hit on the charts (no surprise) and I’m sure half of Arashi’s fangirls have learned the choreography to the song already.
URAKARA (TV Tokyo)
Starring: Gyu Ri Park, Seung Yeon Han, Nicole Jung, Hara Goo, Ji Young Kang, Shunsuke Nakamura
What Spice World is to the Spice Girls, URAKARA is to Korean girl group KARA. Riding high on their popularity in Japan, TV Tokyo signed KARA on to make their acting debut in a television show, that’s well, about them.
But, as spies.
While it’s not meant to be taken seriously as a compelling drama and the girls aren’t exactly the greatest thespians in the world, the show works as an idol-themed drama. It’s cute and fun if you’re a huge fan of KARA, but it might be a bit of a bore for those who are not.
As for the KARA situation between Seung Yeon, Nicole and Ji Young and DSP Media, KARA still continues on their activities as a group, as they are still filming for URAKARA and releasing singles in Japan. While their popularity may be taking a dip in Korea, they seem to have maintained a strong presence in Japan.