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Best Japanese Dramas of 2021

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the best Japanese dramas of 2021!


Can't Write
Can't Write!?
We can't help but relate to this amusing comedy about the struggle to write creatively while meeting tight deadlines and changing requirements. Ikuta Toma is freelance screenwriter and stay-at-home dad Yoshimaru Keisuke who takes care of household chores, while his wife (Kichise Michiko) is the main breadwinner as a successful novelist. Though he rarely gets work, Keisuke is suddenly called upon to be the head writer of a primetime series. He throws all his energy and creative juices into the endeavor, but all kinds of hurdles are thrown right back at him, from the chaotic production schedule to the crazy ideas he's asked to turn into a workable screenplay – a teacher who's secretly rich and a vampire!? As Keisuke panics and flounders to somehow complete each week's script, his self-doubts and writer's block are visualized as a pesky bald guy who follows him around and hisses discouraging words. Writing J-Dramas is a tough job, but someone's gotta do it! In this case, that someone is Fukuda Yasushi.


Hold On, Look Ahead.
Hold On, Look Ahead.
Life came to an uncomfortable standstill for many people in 2020 due to COVID. Written and directed by indie darling Nakagawa Ryutaro, this Hulu drama depicts the lives of different people during the pandemic – and their feelings of isolation, frustration, restlessness and longing. A stressed woman takes over her grandfather's diner but business dips sharply, leaving her with only one regular customer. A couple's relationship becomes strained from being around each other 24 hours a day. A college student, who stayed at dorm because she has no home to return to, befriends a junior high student who doesn’t want to go home. Set in a town along Tama River, the moody omnibus-style series focuses on simple vignettes of daily life and chance interactions, and the connections made that shine a light of hope and warmth.


The Hovering Blade
The Hovering Blade
Higashino Keigo's novel Samayou Yaiba was previously adapted for the silver screen in Japan and South Korea, but this 2021 drama is the first TV telling of the grueling story about a grieving father hunting down the underaged killers of his daughter. Takenouchi Yutaka plays the widowed father whose world is taken from him when his teenage daughter is sexually assaulted and murdered. After receiving an anonymous tip of the killers' identities, he heads out to get revenge with his own hands, racing against the police to track down the culprits first. With six episodes to develop the story, WOWOW's The Hovering Blade expands more on various people the protagonist comes across who are possibly sympathetic to his cause, including Kunimura Jun and Miura Takahiro as detectives tasked to stop him. Besides questioning lenient sentences for juvenile offenders and the meaning of justice for the bereaved, the drama highlights the impact of the media and social media.


Life's Punchline
Life's Punchline
Suda Masaki, Kamiki Ryunosuke and Nakano Taiga form the sketch comedy trio Makubes in this warm drama about Life's Punchline. Together since high school, the three buddies have gone through thick and thin as struggling comedians who share the same dream. But now in their late 20s, with no breakthrough in sight, they must face the big question: Is it time to call it quits? They have at least one loyal fan in Arimura Kasumi as a waitress who found strength during her lowest period through watching Makubes. The trio's exaggerated sketches aren't that funny, but hidden in the punchlines are revelations about their personal ups and downs over the years. This laid-back yet heartfelt coming-of-age story stokes gentle laughs and empathetic sighs about the bumpy, bittersweet journey of becoming an adult and finding one's footing in the world.


My Dear Exes
My Dear Exes
The playful elements that were sprinkled among the serious in Anone and Quartet rise to the forefront in Sakamoto Yuji's latest work starring Matsu Takako as a thrice-divorced woman with a bright and hardy personality. Her three ex-husbands – Matsuda Ryuhei, Kakuta Akihiro and Okada Masaki – are quite different but similarly troublesome in that they continue to be around all the time. Not only does heroine Omameda Towako remain friends with her three exes, the three exes also become friends with each other while competing for her attention. As if three exes aren't enough, Odagiri Joe enters the conversation as another suitor! This big-hearted comedy-drama sprints and strolls with its oddball characters through a chaotically loose yet deliberately constructed narrative that values the smiles and the regrets in one's pursuit of love and happiness. The drama also gains an extra bounce in the step from its quirky details, like the unique ending theme and breaking of the fourth wall in every episode.


Ore no Ie no Hanashi
Ore no Ie no Hanashi
Writer Kudo Kankuro and Nagase Tomoya team up again for a dysfunctional family comedy-drama that is as manic as it is moving. Nagase plays the estranged son who returns home after his father (Nishida Toshiyuki), an esteemed master of Nogaku theater, becomes critically ill. Retiring from professional wrestling, the prodigal son decides to rededicate himself to Nogaku and to his father, who requires constant care due to mobility and memory issues. The elderly patriarch, however, keeps surprising his children with his erratic behavior – including declaring his caretaker (Toda Erika) to be his fiancée – and his many secrets. Ore no Ie no Hanashi cheekily incorporates absurd and theatrical elements into an eccentric story that's ultimately about family love and reconciliation. Just when it seems like the series will deliver a traditional ending, the final episode drops a twist that can only be described as very Kudo Kankuro.


Pension Metsa
Pension Metsa
Matsumoto Kana directed two TV dramas in 2021. While Kotaro Lives By Himself departs slightly from her style as a bright and fun comedy about found family, Pension Metsa tells the slow-living stories she's known for. Similar to the writer-director's previous Cote d'Azur No.10, Bread and Soup and Cat Weather and Tokyo Oasis, this tranquil six-episode series comforts and heals with naturalistic human drama. Matsumoto's regular star Kobayashi Satomi runs a remote pension in the forest and hosts one guest each episode, from an odd magical visitor to a former lover to a regular returning for the first time since her mother's passing. The low-key interactions and conversations quietly bring each person to a realization about what comes next in their lives.


Police In a Pod
Police in a Pod
Toda Erika and Nagano Mei are Police in a Pod in this spunky buddy cop comedy about neighborhood policing. One a tough veteran who got demoted from detective to police box duty, and the other a naive greenhorn who just wanted a stable government job, the two partner up and grow together as they handle various incidents and reports – and deal with daily police station hijinks and banality. Based on the manga by Yasu Miko, this police series is hearty and humorous, with some tears and thrills thrown in for good measure. Tune in for the light laughs, stay for the supportive sisterhood of female officers.


Saiai
Saiai
An unsolved murder opens a Pandora's box of mysteries and secrets in this stirring suspense drama that casts doubt and humanity on every character. Yoshitaka Yuriko and Matsushita Kouhei play former small-town sweethearts who reunite years later when she has become a successful businesswoman, and he is a detective investigating a case that involves her. The present-day murder case links back to a terrible incident in the past that tore apart the heroine's family. Bonds are forged and strained as more crimes and secrets are unraveled, and each person must come to terms with the consequences of their choices and actions. As indicated by the title meaning "Most Loved," the drama is underlined by very strong emotions that drive people to both the right and wrong decisions, but it avoids veering into melodrama territory through wisely restrained performances.


The Solitary Gourmet Season 9
The Solitary Gourmet Season 9
Is there anything as satisfying as watching Matsushige Yutaka eat two full meals in one sitting – and then order something extra to finish? This slice-of-life foodie series simply follows a salesman meeting clients in different parts of Japan, and then reveling in the solitary joy of eating. In the ninth season, intrepid gourmet Inogashira Goro struggles over pork cutlet variations, parfait combinations and Chinese menu options. He tries Greek cuisine, Mongolian lamb dishes and Guizhou hotpot for the first time, and rediscovers Japanese favorites at a laid-back izakaya, a throwback drive-in restaurant and a family restaurant that brings up childhood memories. In the time of COVID, many productions struggle on how to portray the real world. Solitary Gourmet seamlessly transitions to the new normal without affecting its tone or quality at all. Restaurants are furnished with hand sanitizers at the door and plastic barriers on tables. Everyone wears masks, removing them only to eat, drink or take an occasional breath of air outside, and Matsushige delivers lines and expressions just fine with a mask on. Of course, it helps that Solitary Gourmet's formula of eating alone with a lot of voiceover narration doesn't require much adjustment, but the comforting continuity feels especially warm and welcome this year. Also, that food!


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Published December 22, 2021


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