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Best Japanese Dramas of 2018

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Japanese dramas of 2018!

Writer Sakamoto Yuji and director Mizuta Nobuo, whose past collaborations include Mother and Woman, team up again for the human drama anone. Legendary actress Tanaka Yuko plays an elderly widow who discovers counterfeits in her late husband's printing factory. Because of the fake bills, she crosses paths with other desperate strangers who are in need of money and company, including Hirose Suzu as a stubborn solitary girl who has no ties, home or place in society. Though the characters meet each other through an absurd series of money grabs and attempted extortion, they end up forming a warm and supportive makeshift family – albeit one that pursues counterfeiting and struggles daily with how to live on and trust one another. Sakamoto Yuji's storytelling skills are as poignant and perceptive as ever as his script organically links the yearnings and loathings of a group of outsiders and outcasts.

Black Pean
Ninomiya Kazunari gloats and glowers to his heart's content as a genius surgeon who has no interest in career advancement or social niceties and no patience for mediocrity. Dubbed a "demon" by colleagues, Dr. Tokai is disliked by everyone because of his surly personality, but his 100% surgical success rate ensures that everyone comes to him in the end – which also ensures that Nino often gets to dramatically stroll into the operating room at the last minute to save the day! Like The Glorious Team Batista of which this is technically a prequel in Kaido Takeru's novel series, Black Pean throws suspense into the medical genre. Besides a steady flow of medical emergencies, surgical debates and hospital politics, the hit drama constantly hints of the significance of the titular black pean, and gradually reveals the unresolved mystery and grudges surrounding Tokai and his superior (Hashimoto Satoshi). Trending star Takeuchi Ryoma also appears in a supporting role as a rookie doctor assigned to Tokai's tutelage.

Everyone has a few secrets that they'd like to take to their grave, and there's an agency that can help with that. Run by programmer Sakagami Keishi (Yamada Takayuki), dele.LIFE offers a special service: deleting designated files from a client's computer after death before anyone else can see them. A wheelchair user who keeps to himself, Sakagami sticks to the contract terms without asking questions – until the arrival of an earnest, quick-thinking assistant (Suda Masaki) who intervenes and gets them involved in the stories behind the to-be-deleted files. Based on Honda Takayoshi's novel, the TV Asahi series sets up each episode as a mystery that evolves into human drama. Whether the files are criminal evidence or personal photos, there are reasons why they were originally marked for deletion, and reasons why they shouldn't be deleted after all. Depending on the nature of the mystery, the series shifts comfortably between family drama, romance and thriller elements, and Yamada Takayuki and Suda Masaki make an amusing odd couple pairing as the unlikely investigative duo.

Mori Junichi directs WOWOW’s suspense drama based on Creepy author Maekawa Yutaka’s 2016 novel Eerie: Mienai Kao. Odagiri Joe portrays a recently bereaved history professor who had an affair with his sister-in-law (Naka Riisa), a fellow professor. After his wife dies from apparent natural causes, more deaths and disappearances occur in his neighborhood. The suspicious events appear to be connected to a mysterious cult that preys on the ill and his own university, which is in the midst of a scandal-ridden election for the new president. As can be expected from the source material and the talent involved, Eerie is an even and effective mystery that engages and unsettles with its creepy atmosphere, curious cult backstory and integration of election politics.

Bokura wa Kiseki de Dekite Iru does what Japanese dramas do best: convey meaningful life lessons in charming manner. Takahashi Issei stars as oddball college lecturer Aikawa Kazuki who specializes in ethology, the science of animal behavior. Endlessly fascinated with the wonders of nature, Kazuki is absentminded about the standard rules and expectations of human society, like turning in forms, being on time or providing answers to students. Though dealing with him can be frustrating at times, his enthusiastic and unrestrictive style of thinking and teaching motivates other people to also see and live a bit differently – be it apathetic students or Eikura Nana's successful dentist who inwardly feels stressed and insecure about her career and relationships. This Fuji TV comedy-drama pretty much calls to your inner child – the innocent, curious, excitable and unrushed mind that we gradually tucked away in the process of becoming adults. Besides learning how to be freer and happier, you also get to learn a lot of animal trivia!

Miyamoto kara Kimi e
The inconsequential life of an entry-level stationery salesman might not sound like exciting television, but Mariko Tetsuya's adaptation of Arai Hideki's 90s seinen manga brims with the same manic, off-kilter intensity as his rebellious youth film Destruction Babies, minus the spontaneously beating people up part. Instead, the eponymous salaryman does things like spontaneously scream his self-introduction to a crush on the subway platform, spontaneously shave off his hair in the middle of a work day, and spontaneously perform dogeza with so much might that it horrifies the recipient. Most of the time, he’s flubbing relationships, both romantic and professional, as he strives to get a handle on his job. Under Mariko's direction, Miyamoto kara Kimi e has a dry yet explosive indie film vibe, further helped by the geekfest casting of Ikematsu Sosuke as Miyamoto and Matsuyama Kenichi and Emoto Tokio as his co-workers. Ikematsu is very much in his element as the awkward yet relatable protagonist, the restless workplace newbie who is trying his best to find his place but not quite there yet.

Ossan's Love
Who needs boys love when there's Ossan's Love! TV Asahi's zippy gay romance drama is an absolute hoot to watch and, at the same time, refreshingly positive and sensitive in its depiction of same-sex relationships. Tanaka Kei finally gets his breakout role as clumsy realtor Haruta who suddenly learns that both his middle-aged boss (Yoshida Kotaro) and new roommate/coworker (Hayashi Kento) like him. Hilariously plopped into a gay romantic triangle out of nowhere, Haruta immediately panics with a wonderful variety of facial expressions and physical comedy, and then seriously considers the feelings of everyone involved. Ossan's Love entertains readily as both a romcom and a workplace drama with likeable characters. Yoshida Kotaro is particularly funny as the ossan boss who boldly confesses his love.

Last year's Blazing Transfer Students starring Johnny's WEST shocked with the novelty of Johnny's actually entering the modern era with a globally released Netflix drama, albeit one with limited appeal due to its juvenile wackiness. This year, members Shigeoka Daiki and Kamiyama Tomohiro star in another Netflix drama based on Kawabata Shiki's manga about what happens when the friendly and beautiful popular girl and the bitter and plump outcast swap bodies. The high school fantasy setup may sound like another wacky comedy right in the lane of Johnny's WEST, but Switched delves into a far darker teenage world of bullying, jealousy, vanity, vengeance and low self-esteem. The mystery part of the story is suitably suspenseful, but more important is the classroom character study of how appearances and personalities affect and define social relations for the two girls, played by Tomita Miu and Kiyohara Kaya. Lest things get too manipulative and depressing, Shigeoka Daiki's trademark grin heals all as he plays the heroine's supportive friend with a natural, guileless cheer that reaffirms faith in humanity.

Different from most forensic-themed productions which tend to specifically relate to police work and homicide cases, Unnatural revolves around a private laboratory that performs autopsies. The lab investigates unnatural deaths at the commission of the deceased's relatives and for the police when government labs are full. Ishihara Satomi plays a pathologist who experienced tragedy at a young age and is surrounded by death every day; yet, she lives with smiling determination and positivity. Her intrepid desire to get to the bottom of all unnatural deaths leads to unexpected answers and sometimes danger. The rest of the grumpy yet lovable UDI team is formed by Iura Arata as an experienced but stand-offish pathologist and Kubota Masataka and Ichikawa Mikako as technicians with secrets of their own. Well-written, evenly paced and engaging from start to end, Unnatural interests and excites with its forensic mysteries and cast interactions. The stories also often weave in current and social issues, including one particular episode that highlights the bias against women in the field.

Weakest Beast
Apart from the Legal High and Code Blue series, in the last five years Aragaki Yui has only starred in TV dramas written by Nogi Akiko and this low-key combination has yielded consistently wonderful results. 2016's We Married as a Job was an entertaining hit; this year's Weakest Beast is even better. Gakki is ever lovable as the attentive, independent and industrious Shinkai Akira. It seems life should be great for someone of her competence and good sense but every day is a test of endurance. At work, she is saddled with a screaming boss and shirking colleagues. In love, she's in a stagnant relationship with a boyfriend who still co-habits with his unemployed ex-girlfriend. Akira isn't one of those mousy office girl stereotypes but rather the self-aware, responsible adult in a room of irresponsible, inconsiderate people. She finds an unlikely conversation outlet and barmate in Matsuda Ryuhei, who gives a very Matsuda Ryuhei-like performance as an accountant that talks straight and dry except when it comes to his own feelings. Though Akira's situation is a bit more absurd than usual, Weakest Beast succinctly captures that realistic and relatable daily suffocation of not being able to live freely because of the simultaneous desire to live properly.

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Published December 20, 2018

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