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Asian Drama Redux: Remaking Japanese Dramas & Manga

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Ever feel like you're watching the same TV drama over and over again? It's not just you. Beside similar genre formulas, the same stories often get retold across Asia, either through straight-out remakes or adapting the same source material. If a drama is a big hit in one country, there's a good chance another country will pick it up. Particularly popular stories may get adapted multiple times, even in the same country!

In the first installment of our two-part Asian Drama Redux feature, we take a look at Japanese manga and dramas that have been adapted multiple times in Japan and beyond. How many of these "same story, different feel" dramas have you watched?

Boys Over Flowers

Manga are the ultimate treasure trove for adaptation. Besides feeding the anime industry and being the source of seemingly every other Japanese drama and film, many popular manga titles have been turned into live-action series outside Japan as well. Of these, the most famous representative is Boys Over Flowers, which has caused a sensation with every iteration.

As one of the all-time favorites for live-action adaptation, Boys Over Flowers took Asia by storm in the 2000s with its legendary Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Chinese dramas. Kamio Yoko's shojo manga Hana Yori Dango tells the romantic, youthful story between campus hotshots F4 – four handsome and rich boys – and a poor but spunky high school girl.

Taiwan's Meteor Garden in 2001, the first-ever drama adaptation of the manga, is the pioneer of the "idol drama" genre. The main leads – Barbie Hsu and newcomers Jerry Yan, Vic Chou, Vanness Wu and Ken Chu – were all propelled to immense fame in Asia, setting a precedent that would be repeated time and time again. Meteor Garden's F4 was so phenomenally popular, they even continued in real life as the boy band F4.

Japan and Korea followed with their own versions that also became huge hits. While Meteor Garden changed the campus to a college, the Japanese and Korean adaptations retained the manga's high school setting. Spanning two seasons and a blockbuster film from 2005 to 2008, Japan's Hana Yori Dango series featured the strong cast of Inoue Mao as Makino Tsukushi and Arashi's Matsumoto Jun as Domyouji Tsukasa, with Oguri Shun, Matsuda Shota and Abe Tsuyoshi forming the rest of F4. Though the Japanese franchise had a comparatively more well-known cast to begin with, the series undoubtedly elevated the leads – and Arashi – to a new level of fame.

Korea's Boys Over Flowers set off yet another craze across Asia in 2009, with Ku Hye Sun as heroine Geum Jan Di, Lee Min Ho as F4 leader Gu Jun Pyo, and Kim Hyun Joong, Kim Bum and Kim Joon as the rest of the F4 boys. A relative unknown before, Lee Min Ho jumped straight to the top of the A-list thanks to Boys Over Flowers.

China made two seasons of the unofficial adaptation Meteor Shower (with an "H4" instead of F4) in 2009 and 2010. The series launched the acting careers of Zheng Shuang, Zhang Han, Zhu Zixiao and singers Vision Wei and Yu Haoming, again affirming Boys Over Flowers' reputation as a star-making vehicle.

Almost two decades after the first Meteor Garden wave, Boys Over Flowers is still going strong. Meteor Garden producer Angie Chai struck again in 2018 with the Chinese reboot of Meteor Garden that introduced newcomers Shen Yue, Dylan Wang, Darren Chen, Caesar Wu and Connor Leong. A Thai remake of Boys Over Flowers, or F4 Thailand, is also scheduled to air in 2021.


Itazura na Kiss

Playful Kiss is another classic high school romantic comedy that everyone loves to adapt. Based on Tada Kaoru's shojo manga Itazura na Kiss, the teen love story depicts a cold genius and a cute, clumsy girl whose relationship begins to bloom because of a kiss.

Itazura na Kiss was first adapted into a Japanese drama starring Kashiwabara Takashi and Sato Aiko in 1996. Taiwan again brought the first live-action version outside Japan with It Started with a Kiss in 2005, which achieved high popularity and viewer ratings. The idol drama classic launched Ariel Lin, Joe Cheng and Jiro Wang to stardom, and the leads returned for the sequel They Kiss Again, which covered the protagonists' married life. To this day, Ariel Lin and Joe Cheng remain one of the most popular onscreen couples in Taiwan television history.

Boys Over Flowers' Kim Hyun Joong took the lead role of Korea's Playful Kiss with then newcomer Jung So Min in 2010. Though the Korean remake didn't get high viewership ratings, that didn't stop the drama and stars from attaining popularity with local and overseas K-Drama fans.

Seventeen years after the first Itazura na Kiss, Japan released the new live-action Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo in 2013, with Yahagi Honoka and Furukawa Yuki giving breakthrough performances as the protagonists. The stars returned for a TV special and second season the following year. Thailand adapted the manga into Kiss Me starring Aom Sucharat Manaying and Mike Angelo in 2015, and Taiwan also rebooted with Miss in Kiss starring Dino Lee and Esther Wu in 2016.


Hana-Kimi

The last of the big three shojo manga favored for live-action is Nakajo Hisaya's Hana-Kimi, which has been adapted in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. If Hana Yori Dango offered four handsome guys, Hana-Kimi offered an "ikemen paradise," as boasted in the tagline of the 2007 Japanese drama.

As often the case, Taiwan was the first to adapt the youth romcom about a cross-dressing girl who enters a boys' boarding school. S.H.E's Ella starred as the heroine of the plucky 2006 hit, while Fahrenheit's Wu Chun and Jiro Wang leapt to fame playing the boys whose hearts she fluttered and confused.

Japan's legendary 2007 adaptation Hanazakari no Kimitachi e went all in with Horikita Maki opposite Boys Over Flowers' Oguri Shun and Johnny's idol Ikuta Toma, and scored a big hit. The drama's promised ikemen paradise of boarding school boys included Mizushima Hiro, Okada Masaki, Mizobata Junpei and Suzuki Ryohei. A mere four years later, Fuji TV attempted to recreate the magic with a reboot featuring a new cast led by Maeda Atsuko, Nakamura Aoi and Miura Shohei, but this version failed to click with audiences.

Korea joined the Hana-Kimi party in 2012 with To the Beautiful You produced by K-pop giant SM Entertainment. Directed by Boys Over Flowers director Jun Ki Sang, the series aimed squarely for the K-pop market with popular idols Sulli and Min Ho in the leading roles, plus an abundance of cameos. Despite high anticipation, this version's appeal largely did not extend beyond fans of the cast.


Midnight Diner

While the shojo genre seems to be the most popular pick for adaptation outside Japan, one manga that has bucked the trend is Abe Yaro's Shinya Shokudo. The warm story of a small Shinjuku diner that opens at midnight was first adapted as a late-night series in 2009, with Kobayashi Kaoru as the Master who cooks comfort dishes for troubled customers in episodic stories filled with good food and life lessons. Beloved by local and international audiences, Japan's acclaimed Midnight Diner has spawned five seasons and two spin-off films so far.

Both Korea and China opened midnight diners of their own with high expectations. Korea's 2015 series starring Kim Seung Woo was directed by Princess Hours director Hwang In Roe, and China's 2017 series starring Huang Lei was directed by Meteor Garden director Tsai Yueh Hsun. Both the Korean and Chinese versions added new elements and adapted dishes to local palate, but attempted to retain the appeal of the original with an izakaya-like environment, the Master's signature denim blue shirt, and similar storytelling style and structure.

Though not a lasting hit, the Korean version found a receptive-enough audience amongst watchers of K-Dramas. The Chinese version, however, was panned for awkwardly transplanting uniquely Japanese elements into a Chinese setting and garnered a famously low rating on the user ratings site Douban. A recent 2019 Chinese film adaptation of Midnight Diner also flopped, so it seems Midnight Diner may be best left in Japan.


More Manga Adaptations

After the success of Meteor Garden, Taiwan produced a slew of idol dramas based on manga. Among these early classics are Vic Chou's Poor Prince and Mars. Aired right after Meteor Garden in 2001, the former is based on Morinaga Ai's Yamada Tarō Monogatari about a poor, princely-looking youth with a big family. TBS later adapted the manga in 2007 into a series that's memorable for its casting of two Arashi members, Ninomiya Kazunari and Sakurai Sho. As for Mars based on Soryo Fuyumi's manga, the angsty 2004 series reunited Vic Chou and Barbie Hsu as two emotionally repressed souls who forge a connection. Mars got adapted again in 2016 into a Japanese series with Kis-My-Ft2's Fujigaya Taisuke, Iitoyo Marie and Kubota Masataka.

The romantic manga Asunaro Hakusho, Nodame Cantabile and Absolute Boyfriend have all been adapted thrice with mixed results. Saimon Fumi's Asunaro Hakusho, about the relationships of a group of college friends over time, was first adapted by Fuji TV in 1993. One of Japan's biggest TV hits of the 90s, this series starred Ishida Hikari and Tsutsui Michitaka, and paved the breakout of Kimura Takuya as an actor.

Though less well-known than other titles of the same period, the wistful 2002 Taiwan adaptation Tomorrow is one of the early classics of idol dramas, notably serving as a launching pad for the careers of Rainie Yang, Shawn Yue, Eddie Peng and Christine Fan. Taiwan remade the story again in 2019 with Brave to Love. Featuring rising stars Gingle Wang and Chang Ting Hu, this series has generally been the most well-reviewed amongst the recent Taiwan reboots of early idol dramas.


The Japanese live-action Nodame Cantabile starring Ueno Juri as the quirky pianist and Tamaki Hiroshi as the perfectionist conductor is a fan favorite that has been praised not only for its cute romance and pitch-perfect portrayals, but also for its classical music recordings. In comparison, the Korean and Chinese adaptations – 2014's Nae Il's Cantabile starring Shim Eun Kyung and Joo Won and 2020's Symphony's Romance starring Jelly Lin and Zhang Xincheng – disappointed audiences due to their muddled narrative development and depiction of the characters.

Similarly, Fuji TV's 2008 Zettai Kareshi series about a young woman (Aibu Saki) who gets a perfect robot boyfriend (Hayami Mokomichi) ranks as a minor classic amongst 2000s romantic J-Dramas. However, Taiwan's Absolute Darling with Jiro Wang and Ku Hye Sun and Korea's My Absolute Boyfriend with Yeo Jin Goo and Bang Min Ah both underperformed in ratings, though they at least fared better than the Nodame Cantabile adaptations.


Two notable non-romantic manga that inspired successful live-action dramas in both Japan and Korea are Liar Game and Dragon Zakura. Kaitani Shinobu's Liar Game about a college girl and a swindler pulled into a high-stakes gambling tournament spawned a live-action franchise in Japan with two TV seasons and two feature films starring Toda Erika and Matsuda Shota. Going in a different direction than its Japanese predecessors, the 2014 Korean adaptation offers one of the most successful examples of remaking with dramatically different original elements. tvN's mystery turns the underground game into a reality show and fleshes out Shin Sung Rok's antagonist into an intriguing character that rivals the presence of the protagonists played by Kim So Eun and Lee Sang Yoon.


Norifusa Mita's Dragon Zakura about a teacher who uses unconventional methods to prep a special remedial class for the university entrance exam was turned into a hit TBS series starring Abe Hiroshi in 2005. Even amongst Japan's many school dramas, this is a fairly legendary title thanks to its class of future A-listers (Yamashita Tomohisa, Nagasawa Masami, Aragaki Yui). Dragon Zakura's story and themes traveled easily to Korea, where exam and academic pressure is similarly intense, in the 2010 KBS adaptation Master of Study. This version also gathered a famous teen cast for its troubled students (Yoo Seung Ho, Ko Ah Sung, Lee Hyun Woo, Ji Yeon), with funnyman Kim Su Ro as the teacher.


Remakes of Japanese Dramas

Aside from manga adaptations, some original Japanese dramas have been remade multiple times as well. The 2007 time-slip romantic comedy Proposal Daisakusen starring Yamashita Tomohisa and Nagasawa Masami is about a man who goes back in time to key moments of his ambiguous relationship with the girl who got away, and tries to change the course of their unrealized love. This hit series got remade five years later into the Korean drama Operation Proposal starring Yoo Seung Ho and Park Eun Bin, and then another five years later into the Chinese drama Operation Love starring Lay Zhang and Chen Duling. Despite decent initial buzz, neither remakes left much of an impact.

NTV's acclaimed 2010 series Mother starred Matsuyuki Yasuko as a teacher who impulsively runs off with an abused student to protect her. Along the way, she recalls her own mother who abandoned her as a child. The moving story was remade into the Turkish drama Anne in 2016, the Korean drama Mother in 2018, and the Chinese drama Imperfect Love starring Zhou Xun in 2020. Of these, the Korean version starring Lee Bo Young has become an acclaimed work in its own right, winning prizes at the 54th Baeksang Arts Awards and the 13th Seoul International Drama Awards.

Two other classic, female-led ratings juggernauts that have been remade in Korea are The Queen's Classroom, which starred Amami Yuki as a mysterious, poker-faced teacher, and Kaseifu no Mita, which starred Matsushima Nanako as a mysterious, poker-faced housekeeper. Both were turned into high-profile Korean dramas in 2013, with Ko Hyun Jung headlining MBC's The Queen's Classroom and Choi Ji Woo headlining SBS's The Suspicious Housekeeper.

Besides the aforementioned, quite a few Japanese dramas have gotten the K-Drama remake treatment in recent years, including The Man Who Can't Get Married, Rich Man, Poor Woman, Hundred Million Stars from the Sky, Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon and Saiko no Rikon. Meanwhile, China has also remade Date, Mondai no Aru Restaurant and My Pretty Proofreader.


Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we cover remakes of Korean, Chinese and Western dramas!


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Published August 28, 2020


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