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Best Japanese Dramas of 2019

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Japanese dramas of 2019!



And, Live
The disarmingly simple title of Soshite, Ikiru encompasses a years-long story about two young people who encounter love, loss and setbacks. After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Toko (Arimura Kasumi) and Kiyotaka (Sakaguchi Kentaro) meet while doing volunteer relief work. Both are trying to deal with their inner troubles through helping others, and they find a kindred soul in each other. Their romance is as brief as it is indelible as their paths diverge after experiencing life-changing traumas. Over six episodes, the drama follows Toko and Kiyotaka through the ups and downs of their separate lives that occasionally cross over. Though the characters face some extraordinary circumstances, the story by veteran screenwriter Okada Yoshikazu steers admirably free of melodrama, and instead lets life go on as it must. Tsukikawa Sho, who has been busy helming decidedly unsubtle youth romance films in recent years, directs this remarkably restrained WOWOW mini-series for a change.



The House on the Slope
Mother and housewife Risako (Shibasaki Ko) gets selected as an alternate juror for a trial involving a woman who drowned her own baby. To the jurors, the crime at first seems unfathomable and unforgivable. But as the trial proceeds, Risako begins to recall her own struggles back when she was an insecure new mother, and unlocks repressed memories of her darkest moments. She becomes increasingly unable to differentiate between the defendant and herself. Based on Kakuta Mitsuyo's novel, The House on the Slope calls attention to how society misunderstands and exacerbates the lonely desperation, distress and postpartum depression of mothers. When family members don't provide adequate support and even heap on emotional abuse, the effects can be devastating and long-lasting. Adapted by screenwriter Shinozaki Eriko, this WOWOW series is both intimate in its insight into a hurting woman's inner world and expansive in its depiction of the family issues faced by not only the protagonist but also the defendant and the other jurors.



I Will Not Work Overtime, Period
Rise, fellow 9-to-past-5ers, rise! As in, please rise from your office chairs and leave work on time. Based on a novel by Akeno Kaeruko, TBS's workplace drama with a fist-pumping title delves into Japan's unhealthy overtime culture that has notoriously even birthed the term karoshi for death by overwork. Rising above the grind, heroine Yui (Yoshitaka Yuriko) sticks out at her company for simply getting off work on time. Refusing to overtime for no reason, she completes her work efficiently and leaves office on the dot while ignoring the disapproving whispers of everyone else who stays late. The experiences and interactions of Yui and her colleagues demonstrate the office dynamics, working habits, management pressures, discriminatory practices, and career anxieties and ambitions that drive some people to overtime excessively. Notably, besides calling out bad players and practices, the script also points out the need to assess and change one's own mindset and work habits. Anyone who works at a company will likely see a bit of themselves and their co-workers in this super relatable drama.



If Talking Paid
If Talking Paid, then Kishibe Mitsuru (Ikuta Toma) would be rolling in cash as he's pretty much all talk and no action! Happily passing his time doing nothing, the NEET has been jobless and living with his mother ever since a failed attempt at starting his own business years ago. When his sister's family temporarily moves in, he's forced to finally throw out old stuff and make some changes – maybe. Totally shameless yet strangely convincing, Mitsuru has a motormouth way with words that prompts you to reevaluate your understanding of everything from sukiyaki to parenthood. His gift of annoying rhetoric may be exactly what's needed to clear the air for his sister's family, though he's far less clear-headed when it comes to his own life. All of us could use a break now and then, and this NTV slice-of-life family series provides a pleasantly rambling rest stop that's trivial yet insightful. The family's squabbling conversations around the kotatsu provide both laugh-out-loud moments and food for thought.



Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories 2
Perhaps the one drama for which you never "skip intro," Midnight Diner opens for business again after three years with its second season on Netflix and fifth season overall. Kobayashi Kaoru returns as the iconic Master of a late-night izakaya that serves comfort food, warm company and enlightening conversations to troubled souls. Highlights of this season's ten dishes include curry ramen for a pachinko parlor employee (Kimura Ryo) who re-encounters an old classmate whom he used to idolize, and sweet rolled omelet for a Chinese director (Joseph Chang) who feels overwhelmed by his father's legacy. The latter episode integrates a fun wuxia homage involving Ayata Toshiki's diner regular. Most of the regulars drop in, including both of Odagiri Joe's recurring characters, and we even get an update on Ikematsu Sosuke and Kojima Hijiri's characters from the second feature film. Ten years into the Midnight Diner franchise, the series continues to be the most comforting show to turn on at night.



Mr. Hiiragi's Homeroom
Suda Masaki acts up a storm as a high school teacher who takes his class hostage in order to give them the most important lesson of their young lives. Ten days before graduation, Mr. Hiiragi detonates strategically placed bombs that selectively collapse parts of the school, effectively trapping his homeroom class of seniors. He gives his final assignment to Class 3-A: find out the truth surrounding their classmate who died in an apparent suicide a few months earlier – or face death themselves. As the clock ticks down, various students gradually reveal their secrets and how they contributed to turning the former star athlete into an outcast and victim. Telling teen dynamics of broken friendships, bullying, jealousy, insecurity, gossip and sabotage come to light, but Mr. Hiiragi keeps pushing and digging for a deeper, darker answer and a wider-reaching message. While the setup is a bit overblown, NTV's hit school suspense drama effectively shocks, engages and educates with new reveals every episode that constantly reorient the mystery.



Our Dearest Sakura
Takahata Mitsuki reteams with the makers of Kahogo no Kahoko for another series about a quirky and passionate young woman entering the workforce. Heroine Sakura joins a construction corporation in Tokyo in hopes of fulfilling her dream of building a bridge to her remote island. As an awkwardly straightforward and impassioned do-gooder who doesn't know how to read the room, she steps on many toes and gets booted around the company, but her intense conviction inspires those around her and guides her fellow new joiners through personal obstacles. This type of inspiring character and story may seem fairly typical, but Our Dearest Sakura is actually quite different than the usual workplace drama. Each episode moves the timeline forward one year, providing a sped-up look at how the characters gradually progress in the company and in life. Moreover, when it's time for Sakura to break, the fall is hard and swift, providing a surprisingly straightforward and realistic depiction of how depression and self-isolation can swallow someone when their world suddenly comes apart.



Radiation House
Based on the manga by Yokomaku Tomohiro and Mori Taishi, Radiation House stands out in the crowded field of medical dramas by focusing on the important but not exactly exciting world of radiology. This Fuji TV series makes it exciting, or at least interesting, through the interactions and experiences of a hospital's radiology department. The drama's radiographer team led by an excellent Endo Kenichi provides the bickering chemistry and varying personalities that any workplace ensemble needs. Kubota Masataka provides the spark and awkward eccentricity as the new joiner, an earnest genius radiologist who accepts a non-doctor position as a radiographer – and then proceeds to do a lot of doctory things to save lives and impart life lessons. As a medical drama, Radiation House brings the right mix of hospital human stories and tense moments... of waiting for imaging results.



Villain: Perpetrator Chase Investigation
Zeze Takahisa makes a rare foray into television to direct his second WOWOW series. Based on a novel by Yakumaru Gaku, the moody crime drama focuses on a private detective agency that investigates the lives of perpetrators after they've been released from prison. The time may be served, but has justice been served for those who continue to live in pain and grief? Higashide Masahiro broods away as an aggrieved ex-cop whose sister was killed years ago. Through taking on cases for the similarly bereaved, he learns about what comes afterwards for former perpetrators of terrible crimes. Zeze actually explored a similar topic in his 2018 film My Friend A, also based on a Yakumaru novel, but this series looks more at the anger and anguish of the victims' families. Providing catharsis but not necessarily closure, the series affords no easy answers in its depiction of deeply flawed individuals who are nonetheless very human. Zeze, who tends to pack too much into his films, actually benefits from the longer running time and episodic format of a mini-series, making this one of his stronger works.



What Did You Eat Yesterday?
Following the success of Ossan's Love, Japanese television takes another quiet step forward with TV Tokyo's comedy-drama about a gay middle-aged couple. Free of slapstick and overt conflicts, the manga adaptation quite simply revolves around the normal daily routine and dinner table of a co-habiting couple, portrayed by Uchino Seiyo and Nishijima Hidetoshi. One is an easy-going hair stylist who wears his heart on his sleeve, and the other a practical, frugal and strait-laced lawyer who makes awesome home-cooked meals. The two have the comfortable domestic vibe of an old married couple, while also dealing with certain concerns and insecurities. Nishijima's prim and self-conscious Shiro is out of the closet to his parents, but generally takes care to not reveal his relationship status at work or in public. If there is any overarching storyline, it would be Shiro's gradual journey towards becoming more comfortable with himself. Besides the gentle humor and happenings of a slice-of-life relationship series, What Did You Eat Yesterday? gets to your heart through the stomach. Each episode sees Shiro cooking up scrumptious-looking daily dishes that are miso soup for the soul.


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Published December 17, 2019


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