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Best Japanese Dramas of 2017

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Japanese dramas of 2017!

Blanket Cats
If the title of NHK's comforting drama doesn't already sell it, the cats in question also happen to belong to a grouchy Nishijima Hidetoshi. The actor plays a furniture maker who is seeking new owners for his late wife's seven cats, which delightfully roll around and make messes in his home/workshop. However, he won't give them away to unsuitable owners. He provides each prospective owner with a blanket for the cat and a three-day trial period. The cats often get returned after the trial period, but in their short stays, they help troubled individuals and families heal hearts and come to important realizations about themselves. Based on a novel by Shigematsu Kiyoshi, Blanket Cats doesn't just provide security blankets to all its adorable cats, it also feels like a warm blanket for the viewer.

Hello, Detective Hedgehog
Following 2014's Rivers Edge Okawabata Detective Agency, One Hitoshi returns to television and the detective genre with his adaptation of Hirokane Kenshi's 80s manga Hello Harinezumi. The series is updated to the present day, but retains the old-fashioned noirish atmosphere of a dusty private eye agency that barely gets enough business to stay open. Eita, Morita Go, Fukada Kyoko and Yamaguchi Tomoko form the eccentric four-person team that takes on cases bigger agencies won't – either because the case is too sketchy or, more likely, too minor or odd. The random cases wander through various genres, from the danger and corporate intrigue of a two-decade-old murder mystery to the tear-jerking melodrama of a repentant father's Yellow Handkerchief moment to the eerie scares of a family haunted by strange happenings. With stories that are less mysteries than meanderings, Hello, Detective Hedgehog succeeds on One Hitoshi's mastery of mood, tone and comfortably languid pacing. As can be expected from One, the music is a highlight with Soil & "Pimp" Sessions providing the jazzy soundtrack.

It's All About the Looks
First impressions can be easily formed based on appearances, and they're often hard to overturn. In an appearance-oriented society, women are expected to dress beautifully, wear makeup and act gracefully. Though these external features reflect nothing about abilities and personalities, those who fail to conform to a certain cultural notion of femininity may even lose job opportunities. Okubo Hiromi conducts an interesting investigation into this social phenomenon in her manga series Hito wa Mitame ga 100 Percent about three unstylish laboratory scientists who endeavor to become fashionable women. Paper analyst Jonouchi Jun (Kiritani Mirei) and her colleagues Maeda Mitsuko (Mizukawa Asami) and Sato Seira (Chiemi Blouson) aren't interested in fashion and beauty. When they learn that a cosmetic giant is taking over their company and that they will work in Tokyo's trendy district, they feel the urge to boost their femininity and carry out extensive research into the latest fashion and beauty trends. Though it serves like a highly informative style guide with the most up-to-date beauty and fashion tips, the drama is actually a guide to inner beauty that comes from self-confidence and self-appreciation.

Ito-kun A to E
Based on the same-titled novel by Yuzuki Asako, Ito-kun A to E was developed under the direction of Ryuichi Hiroki as an eight-episode TV series followed by a film sequel. Kimura Fumino plays TV writer Yazaki Rio, who had one hit a few years ago but no success since. From the questionnaires collected at a talk, she notices four women shared relationship concerns about the same man, Ito-kun. Under the guise of offering advice, she meets and analyzes the women in order to use their stories for her screenplay. Rio casts a condescending all-knowing gaze on her subjects and their relationship mishaps, but she herself is just as lost in love and work. Interestingly, Okada Masaki doesn't appear as the narcissistic Ito-kun until near the end of the drama. Instead, Rio imagines other men in her life as stand-ins depending on what role Ito-kun plays in the stories, be it the crush, the stalker or the cheating boyfriend. In recent years, Ryuichi's filmography has veered increasingly into touching dramas and straightforward shojo adaptations. The Ito-kun A to E series comes as a breath of fresh air, combining bright commercial savvy with clever conceits, manipulative characters and a sharp-tongued look at love that hark more to the director's indie drama sensibilities.

Izakaya Fuji
Writer Nemoto Nonji and directors Nagasaki Shunichi and Kunimoto Masahiro adapt Kuriyama Keisuke's novel about a gastropub called Izakaya Fuji into a quirky Midnight Diner for actors. The late-night drama stars Nagayama Kento as struggling aspiring actor Nishio Eiichi, who wanders into a neighborhood izakaya that turns out to be the watering hole of many actors. Pub regular Omori Nao becomes his mentor and purveyor of life wisdoms, along with other colorful figures and stars, including Osugi Ren, Shinohara Ryoko, Maeda Atsuko and Shiina Kippei, who appear in different episodes. The hero's original misadventures through bad auditions, bit roles, romantic blunders and confidence crises are offset by Izakaya Fuji's warm company, pub food and anecdotes from the novel about the shop's legendary late proprietor, a Showa-era dreamer who lived and loved to the fullest. The cheeky animated reminiscences about the good old days, winkingly directed towards clueless millennials, bring an impassioned, old-timey atmosphere to this lovable oddball of a drama.

For WOWOW's fourth Higashino Keigo adaptation, the broadcaster takes on the challenge of dramatizing the mystery writer's 2001 novel Kataomoi ("Unrequited Love"). Directed by Nagata Koto and written by Yoshida Noriko, who previously worked together on WOWOW's Henshin adaptation, Kataomoi, like many of Higashino's best works, situates suspense in human drama, using a crime mystery to examine the relationships and secrets of a group of friends. What particularly sets this story apart is its sympathetic portrayal and discussion of gender dysphoria and gender identity. Nakatani Miki plays the transgender protagonist who suddenly appears before old college friends and shocks them with two confessions: the Mizuki they knew is now living as Mitsuru, and he recently committed murder. The efforts of Mitsuru's friends to protect and understand him gradually reveal a bigger secret that affects many more people.

Kahogo no Kahoko
With Japanese dramas, even the thinnest of stories and densest of characters can yield charmingly meaningful life lessons. That is certainly the case with Kahogo no Kahoko. Takahata Mitsuki affirms her rise to stardom as the frustrating yet lovable Kahoko, a naïve, overprotected and indecisive young woman who is unable to get anything done on her own. Spoiled and stifled by her overbearing mother (Kuroki Hitomi), 21-year-old Kahoko begins to realize her own cluelessness when it comes time for her to find a job. After meeting the mature, straight-talking Hajime (Takeuchi Ryoma) and having her illusions shattered, she gradually learns to venture outside of her mother's kingdom and stand on her own two feet. And it turns out that those around Kahoko can also learn a thing or two from her gung-ho belief in goodness and family. Written by Kaseifu no Mita screenwriter Yukawa Kazuhiko, Kahogo no Kahoko consistently hits the right notes for entertainment: a cute romance to root for, relatable family drama and an earnest journey of personal growth. The script and performances are frequently funny, from Hajime's dry put-downs to Takahata's knack for physical comedy to Saburo Tokito's amusing turn as the father who daydreams about saying the right things, but never get the words out of his mouth in time.

The power teaming of screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji with producer-director Doi Nobuhiro yields a poignant and involving human drama with subtle yet surprising suspense elements. Matsu Takako, Mitsushima Hikari, Matsuda Ryuhei and Takahashi Issei play four middling classical musicians of different backgrounds who seemingly meet by chance. They decide to form a quartet and pursue their musical dreams while living together in an outskirts house. The drama both soothes and stings as the four troubled souls grow closer through ups and downs, and the many layers of each character's secrets and demons are gradually peeled away. Sakamoto's script is intricate and engaging, continuously building and evolving the four protagonists' dynamics and traits. The series does a great job of integrating mystery and cliffhangers without muddling or sensationalizing the story's core of character and relationship drama.

Based on a novel by Minato Kanae, TBS suspense series Reverse gathers an impressive cast to write closure for the mysterious death of a young man ten years ago. Fujiwara Tatsuya, Ichihara Hayato, Miura Takahiro and Tamamori Yuta play college classmates who reunite a decade after their friend (Koike Teppei) died in the mountains under unclear circumstances during a trip together. Threatened with anonymous accusations of murder, the four are forced to finally confront their secrets, suspicions and conflicting accounts of the incident. Effectively structured to gradually reveal more about the characters, their motives and their memories of the same events, Reverse uses a series of well-drawn-out character studies to support its twist-filled mystery that hides a simple, startling truth.

The writer and directors of Hanzawa Naoki, Shimatachi Rocket and Roosevelt Game bring another stirring story of enterprise and integrity with their fourth Ikeido Jun adaptation Rikuoh. The title refers to a running shoe that the drama's traditional tabi sock company begins to develop in hopes of applying longstanding expertise to a new product. Taking on his first renzoku drama leading role in over a decade, acclaimed film veteran Yakusho Koji acts up a quiet storm as the big-hearted owner of the small struggling company. Faced with ballooning debt, doubting bankers, underhanded rivals and the weight of carrying on an honored tradition with his team of dedicated workers, he persists against the odds towards his dream of creating a lightweight running shoe that can ensure the company's future. Rikuoh's determined spirit and positive values make for an old-fashioned underdog story with timeless appeal, while the presence of it boys Yamazaki Kento and Takeuchi Ryoma as the owner's son and a marathoner adds visual appeal.

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Published December 19, 2017

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