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Best Japanese Dramas of 2016

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Japanese dramas of 2016!

99.9 - Keiji Senmon Bengoshi
99.9 refers to the notoriously high criminal conviction rate in Japan where the prosecuted are nearly always guilty. TBS's legal suspense drama builds its clever cases around the exception: the 0.1% that gets acquitted. Matsumoto Jun stars as unconventional defense attorney Miyama who specializes in uncovering truths and annoying prosecutors. He also annoys his law firm colleagues, in particular Kagawa Teruyuki as the head of the unprofitable newly formed criminal defense team. Disturbingly cheery MatsuJun and amusingly grumpy Kagawa make a surprisingly compatible tag team, with the former being convincingly quirky and humorous in the role of the eccentric genius. Miyama's oddball mannerisms and strangely effective investigative methods, like reenacting crime scenes, livens the mysteries considerably, and all the deliberately bad puns the protagonists gleefully spout are delightfully lame.

Arechi no Koi
The Waste Land (Arechi in Japanese), the title of T.S. Eliot's 1922 monumental long poem, also served as the title of a Japanese literary magazine founded by a group of idealistic poets who survived WWII. Based on Nejime Shoichi's novel, Arechi no Koi visits Arechi-generation poet Kitagawa Taro over two decades later as a middle-aged salaryman and part-time poet at a crossroads. In his fifties, he falls in love with his friend's wife and throws himself back into the world of modern poetry. Toyokawa Etsushi returns to television to play the poet navigating a complicated tangle of relationships, midlife decisions and literary endeavors, while Suzuki Kyoka, reuniting with director Watanabe Takayoshi after last year's Dakara Koya, co-stars as the erstwhile lover. Set in the 70s and 80s with B&W flashbacks to the 50s, the handsome WOWOW drama adapts difficult material into a solemnly fervent tale of life, death, passion and poetry in the wasteland of postwar Japan.

Juhan Shuttai!
Based on Matsuda Naoko's manga about manga editors, TBS workplace drama Juhan Shuttai! offers a comprehensive look into the inner workings of the manga world from the vantage point of the creators and sellers. Kuroki Haru takes on a rare comedic role as the lovable and forthright heroine, an enthusiastic newbie editor learning the ropes of the trade. Co-directed by Doi Nobuhiro, the brisk yet thoughtful series keenly explores not only the role of editors and their relationships with (idiosnycratic) manga artists, it also gives time and acknowledgment to the sales team, the cover designer, the bookstore shopkeepers and other crucial cogs that keep the manga industry chugging. Supported by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Odagiri Joe, Matsushige Yutaka and Namase Katsuhisa, Juhan Shuttai! simply brims with charm, cheer and passion, keeping our editors occupied with plentiful professional challenges minus the unnecessary office politics.

Love That Makes You Cry
Sakamoto Yuji has written many heartrending modern dramas over the years, from the romantic classics Tokyo Love Story and Last Christmas to the more recent critical hits Mother and Woman. Love that Makes You Cry isn't his best, but it lives up to the best qualities of his past works. The moody urban drama about young people trying to make it in the big city develops the protagonists' daily lives, conflicts and emotions with patience, precision and empathy, chronicling the gradual process of growing into the city and growing into oneself. Arimura Kasumi shows new depth as the tired heroine who runs away from home to begin a new life in Tokyo, while Kora Kengo is reliably earnest as a hardworking country boy whose dreams are slowly grinded away by the real world. Their bittersweet love story of "what ifs" burns slowly through years of coming together and apart while steered along their coming-of-age journey by evolving relationships, self-examination and the simple struggle of making a living. If this drama makes you want to cry, it's not from romance or tragedy but from the feeling of having been in the same position of being young, overwhelmed and unsure of one's place in the world.

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
For its fourth season, Midnight Diner found a snazzy new home on Netflix and an expanded title that better sells its origins to global audiences. Besides that, it's the same old Midnight Diner ushered in by the calming tinkle of Suzuki Tsunekichi's folk theme song and the warm voice of Kobayashi Kaoru's Master introducing his late-night comfort food haunt that opens from midnight to 7 a.m. Like previous seasons, the ten episodes of standalone stories are each based around a simple mouth-watering dish and the troubles of customers seeking conversation and company. The content is still very local, referencing topics like ranger shows and traditional stand-up comedy. And there still isn't a big-name star in sight besides series regular Odagiri Joe. This season does get a foreign guest star in Ko Ah Sung's cross-cultural pairing with Okada Yoshinori, but otherwise it's the regular collection of neighborhood folks appealing to a universal sense of goodness. There are some things that don't need fixing, and Midnight Diner is one of them.

TV Tokyo's adaptation of Miyabe Miyuki's crime novel Mohouhan unravels the details behind a grisly serial murder case and examines the psyche of different involved parties, from the perpetrators to the victims' families to the media. The story begins from the side of the victims with an elderly man being terrorized by phone calls from his granddaughter's kidnapper, and then the successive discovery of bodies. When the killers are abruptly revealed, it only raises more questions about the truth. Considering the complexity of Miyabe's three-volume novel, this two-episode series effectively brings various threads and themes together for a murder mystery that also gets into the mind of the killer, addresses the role of opportunist media, and depicts the trauma of surviving family members. Nakatani Miki is dependable as always as an investigative freelance writer who becomes both a pawn and a wrench in the killer's cruel plans, while up-and-coming heartthrob Sakaguchi Kentaro ventures out of the comfort zone for an overt turn as the unhinged antagonist.

Naomi & Kanako
Domestic violence has been a long-lasting social problem in Japan. Feeling ashamed, many victims just bear the pain stoically. Adapted from Okuda Hideo's crime novel, Fuji TV drama Naomi & Kanako sheds the weak image of women and empowers Naomi (Hirosue Ryoko) and Kanako (Uchida Yuki) to stand against domestic violence. Though Kanako is depicted as a fragile woman who dares not say a word about her abusive life, she bravely strives for freedom by killing her brutal husband (Sato Ryuta) with the help of Naomi. However, the drama also questions the appropriateness of this radical solution. Beyond criticizing domestic violence, Naomi & Kanako actually denounces society's problematic attitude towards the issue, which leads to even more violence.

Suna no Tou
A housewife confronts her worst nightmare after moving into an upscale apartment complex in the TBS drama Suna no Tou. For the sake of her family, she strives to fit in with the rich, vain circle of gossipy mommies, but the more she tries, the more things backfire. Neighbors turn against her and relations with her husband and teenage son gradually deteriorate through the machinations of a mysteriously menacing neighbor who observes her every move. While her personal life crumbles like a tower of sand, news of serial kidnappings looms ominously in the backdrop. The drama's dark script and eerie atmosphere keep things sinister and suspenseful as we try to figure out what's up with Matsushima Nanako, whose gracefully creepy turn as the scheming neighbor is more unsettling than even her role in Kaseifu no Mita. Kanno Miho provides an eminently relatable emotional anchor as an insecure woman struggling to protect her family and to understand what it means to be a good mother.

We Married as a Job!
Contract marriages may be one of the most cliched and overused tropes of television romantic comedies, but We Married as a Job!, based on Umino Tsunami's manga Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu, freshly posits the arrangement from the practical standpoint of gainful employment. She's (Aragaki Yui) in need of work and board, and very efficient at housekeeping. He's (Hoshino Gen) an exceedingly precise, insecure single professional who'd like having someone around to take care of household tasks. While ridiculous by social convention standards, a straightforward, functional marriage that acknowledges keeping house is a full-time job and fairly serves both parties' needs does seem reasonable and rational. Of course, there would be no drama if that rational platonic relationship doesn't gradually become romantic in the most endearingly awkward of ways. Like the heroine, the frequently funny series displays a mischievous cleverness in its zippy tone and sudden parodies such as Jonetsu Tairiku-style narration and talk show analysis.

Yutori Desu ga Nani ka
Having previously collaborated for the movies Maiko Haaaan!!!, No More Cry!!! and Apology King, director Mizuta Nobuo and screenwriter Kudo Kankuro bring their frantic comedy stylings to television in Yutori Desu ga Nani ka. Okada Masaki, Matsuzaka Tori and Yagira Yuya form an amusing combo as three young men of the "Yutori" generation who grew up in a more relaxed educational system and are thus stereotyped as being less motivated and unqualified for real world pressures. Though of very different personalities and professions, these three Yutori millennials become good friends over their common tendencies to flail about and overanalyze challenges in work, romance and livelihood. As can be expected of Kudo's works, the urban comedy is both hilariously dry and inventively manic in its depiction of the protagonists' ill-advised, much-ado-about-nothing misadventures, and indie queen Ando Sakuro does her thing as Okada's assertive, straight-talking girlfriend.

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Published December 19, 2016

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