Ever in the mood to watch a good jdrama, but are either short on time or don’t want to get heavily invested in a sizable cast with all the plots and subplots a lot of shows offer? As always, Japan has got you covered! Once midnight rolls around, a different type of drama airs. These run about half an hour per episode, with smaller casts and simpler stories that can nonetheless be just as entertaining as a full-sized drama. Here are some of the best.
Note: Drama titles marked with an asterisk (*) contain scenes of partial nudity (that would be deemed inappropriate in earlier time slots)
7. 孤独のグルメ (Kodoku no Gurume)
Japanese Level: ☆
Based on the manga of the same name, Kodoku no Gurume is the story of a solitary man and his love of tasty food. Episodes open with the protagonist, Inogashira Goro in different areas of Japan to visit a client of his private importing business. Though this part of the show is often just a reason to get Inogashira in the vicinity of the featured shop, there’s still enough fun character interaction that could hold its own in an ordinary drama. Having said that, it’s when business is concluded that Kodoku no Gurume really begins. As he bids his customer farewell and departs, a faraway look appears on Goro’s face. The hunger is here.
Satisfying this hunger is a task Inogashira Goro takes great pleasure in. Compared to his stoic, sometimes awkward demeanor earlier in the episode, he becomes almost giddy as he sits down in a local eatery and orders a meal. Once the food arrives, it’s almost pornographic as the show features plenty of close-ups of not just the dishes, but Inogashira steadily devouring them while his mental descriptions of the flavors, sensations, and sometimes triumphant roaring are dubbed in.
But it doesn’t end there. Remember when I said “featured shop” earlier? Every place visited in Kodoku no Gurume exists in the real world where the manga’s author (and whose band provides the music), Kusumi Masayuki is filmed enjoying the same dishes as Goro, usually with alcoholic beverage on hand.
This is a jdrama I both love to watch and yet sometimes can’t. As of this writing there are four seasons of Kodoku no Gurume, but I’ve only seen the first two. It makes me hungry every single time. I’ve been mid-meal or just finishing one while watching this and I still get hungry all over again. It’s hard to enjoy a tuna sandwich when real food is just a plane, train, and cab ride away. The second season added appetizers and snacks on top of that!
Matsushige Yutaka plays Inogashira Goro and he’s one of my favorite actors. If you’re familar with jdramas, you’ve probably seen him before as he shows up on average of six or seven a year. He’s usually in supporting roles or part of an ensemble cast, so I was happy to see him in what I believe was his first starring role.
And what a role to land! The light-hearted tone and food-centric nature of Kodoku no Gurume make it easy to get into and enjoy even if you understand little to no Japanese. There’s no overarching plot either, so you can watch episodes based on what sounds tastiest to you. Though it may not be as fun for vegans and vegetarians, I think this drama is really great.
6. 深夜食堂 (Shinya Shokudo)*
Japanese Level: ☆☆
Set in a small snack bar only open from midnight til morning, Shinya Shokudo’s menu lists only four things: Beer, sake, shochu, and tonjiru, a miso soup with pork and vegetables. The sole proprietor is an older man with a long scar on his face known only as “Master”, played by Kobayashi Kaoru. He doesn’t say much, but despite his limited menu he always seems to be able to make any dish his customers order. Some customers are regulars, but it’s usually guests visiting for the duration of the episode. The dish they request always holds some deeper meaning for each patron and it’s the story surrounding it that each episode follows.
Shinya Shokudo is an adaptation of a manga by Yaro Abe. One of the things I enjoy about Japanese television is how much attention and care they give to food. It’s never just a prop to be fiddled with between lines. This drama is about how we associate particular foods with the bonds we share with people. Some people have regrets over their past or feel troubled by the present, but everyone has a familiar flavor they can go back to and remember a fonder time in their lives. Sometimes those memories can be enough to nudge you toward making amends or working toward a better future. Every episode ends with a brief instruction on how to make the featured dish yourself.
I really like Shinya Shokudo. I haven’t seen the third season yet, but the first two are great. The opening theme and intro immediately establish a good relaxing tone for you to settle into. I think it’s a good drama to watch about regular people with regular problems. There’s no complicated or fast-paced dialogue, so a decent understanding of conversational Japanese should suffice. Because you’ll definitely want to get a copy or several, Suzuki Tsunekichi does the intro song “思いで” from his album “ぜいご”.
5. まほろ駅前番外地 (Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi)*
Japanese Level: ☆☆
This adaptation of a novel by the same name is actually a continuation from the movie まほろ駅前多田便利軒 (Mahoro Ekimae Tada Benriken), an adaptation of the novel by that name. Following up both of these is a second movie, まほろ駅前狂騒曲 (Mahoro Ekimae Kyousoukyoku) that I haven’t seen yet which is based on a third novel of the same name. All of these novels were written by Miura Shion and that’s as complicated as this will get. Whew.
Tada Keisuke (played by Eita) is an earnest handyman in the fictional town of Mahoro, along with his freeloading comrade, Gyoten Haruhiko (Matsuda Ryuhei). Unlike a traditional handyman, Tada will take any job to help someone, while Gyoten usually tags along to loaf around and laugh at Tada’s resulting misfortune.
As established in the first movie, Tada and Gyoten are former classmates who end up living together and doing odd-jobs for various people around town. Whether it be helping an aging pro wrestler with his retirement match or disposing of a life-size and startlingly life-like erotic wax statue, they take on any task in their struggle to keep the bills paid.
On display throughout the show is the Bert and Ernie-like comaraderie between the two protagonists. It may seem kind of cliché to have a serious guy and a goofy guy paired up, but the characters show bits of depth and growth along the way that keep them interesting. In a lot of ways, each needs the other in his life to find some semblance of balance and keep going.
For some reason or other I often end up really liking the dramas I kept putting off or initially thought I would have little interest in. This one sat around for months before I started watching it one day and sat transfixed through the whole thing. The story structure of a couple guys going around town righting wrongs reminded me a lot of Ikebukuro West Gate Park without the street gangs.
Eita is like the cool Japanese older brother I wish I had. I think he could switch tones five times in a scene and keep it believable the whole way. Matsuda Ryuhei is more of a film actor so I wasn’t familiar with him, but his levity kept the show’s sometimes really somber stories from dipping too far into depressing. The dialogue is mostly casual everyday things, making it easier to enjoy with a smaller vocabulary.
4. ノーコン・キッド (No Con Kid)
Japanese Level: ☆☆
Thirty years ago, there were no smartphones. The Famicom (“Nintendo”) was only just beginning to invade people’s homes, and the internet as we know it was still in its larval stages. If you were a fan of video games, the only reliable source for cutting edge arcade cabinets was the local game center.
Within these hallowed sanctuaries of beep boopin’ electric mayhem, whispered rumors spread of super humanly-skilled players capable of completing any game with only a single 100 yen coin. They didn’t need to use a continue even once. These paragons of gamerdom were dubbed “no con” and in Gamecenter Watanabe, there dwelled one such sultan of the stick who achieved top score in several games and always signed with the intials, K I D. This is the legend of the No Con Kid.
Told mainly in flashbacks starting from 1983 and moving forward, the opening hook of No Con Kid is a warm look at retro game nostalgia. Tanaka Kei holds the role of Watanabe Reiji, heir apparent to the Gamecenter Watanabe. A destiny he initially feels is being foisted on him unasked by his somewhat pervy and fan of gambling father, played by Sato Jiro. His attitude begins to change when he first sees the girl of his dreams, Takano Fumi (Haru) sit down at a Xevious machine with a stack of coins and start plinking away. Eager to impress, Reiji enlists the aid of local top score holder Kido Akinobu (Hamano Kenta) to teach him the ways of gaming in return for all the free play he desires. It’s from there the real appeal of this drama sets in.
There are so many layers to this drama, I’m really impressed by it. It’s a look back at a special time in video game history. The rise and eventual decline of gamecenters as they were eventually rendered obsolete by newer, more powerful home consoles. In both Japan and America, this time period was a big deal economically and culturally in the video game industry. It highlights a lot of popular games of the past and helpfully provides notes for some of the game-exclusive terms.
The other, more important I think, aspect it details are the bonds that developed between people. Nowadays, video games are mostly either solitary affairs or they’re played via the internet, communicating by text boxes or microphones. You’ll likely never meet these people face to face and for however much technology has advanced, it can’t recreate that small but vital sense of community shared by a group of people in a room enjoying a hobby together.
No Con Kid wonderfully depicts that feeling people experienced back in a time now gone. This drama manages to follow the lives of the three characters from their teenage years to middle age without feeling rushed or crowded in half the time big shows get. The bits and pieces that take place outside of the gamecenter establish them as complete people. They could have made a fun drama without ever leaving the games, but combining these facets enchanced the show so much by providing an unexpected depth.
3. リバースエッジ 大川端探偵社 (River’s Edge Ookawabata Tanteisha)*
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
There are many (many) detective dramas out there solving crimes and catching murderers. But in the Asakusa district down by the river’s edge, Ookawabata Tanteisha offers a different sort of detective.
Based on a manga by Hijikata Yuho, the clients’ only request is to help them find what they’re looking for. Odagiri Joe is Muraki, a sleepy, unreliable looking man who nonetheless possesses a keen talent for finding things. He’s also the agency’s only licensed detective. The director known only as Director, played by Ishibashi Renji, is a wizened man who spends most of the workday persuing quiet hobbies. He’s also built up a surprisingly wide network of contacts and informants, some with ties to less than savory businesses when Muraki needs a lead. Koizumi Maya plays Megumi, their chipper receptionist who doesn’t do much beyond serve the client tea and prepare for one of her nightly entertainment jobs.
From the first few minutes, this drama lets you know it has its own style. All of the music is provided by Japanese jazz band Ego-Wrappin’ that sets the mood perfectly. The episodes open with Muraki’s oddly prophetic dreams involving their next client that he and the Director try to interpret once they learn more about the situation.
Details into the main characters are rarely directly explored, but some insight is imparted through their dealings with their various clients and situations. Ranging from locating the taste of a soup from decades ago to the elusive exclusive scary face contest, each person comes seeking closure. The absurdity of the requests contrasted by the sincerity in which they’re asked makes for a dryly humorous tone throughout the show.
One Hitoshi did screenwriting and directing for both this drama and Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi, so chances are if you like one you’ll enjoy the other. With the intro of Muraki’s dreams, the slightly off-kilter clients, and cinematography, Ookawabata Tanteisha feels sort of like watching reality reflected in a crooked mirror. Ego-Wrappin’s style fits just right with the atmosphere they’ve created. I’ve probably listened to the opening song a hundred times. Like Bangaichi, this drama can take some darker themes and view them through the lens of humor.
2. 勇者ヨシヒコと魔王の城 (Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
A modern take on a classic tale, a true high action adventure of unerring heroism and single-minded pursuit of justice. A deadly plague has gripped the land and ravaged humanity. Those who fall victim to it are driven to madness and death. The only known cure is a mysterious herb of mystical properties located somewhere in the vast wilderness. Only one man of true mettle has the bravery and fortitude necessary to seek out this herb and save his people. The hero, the chosen one, Yuusha Teruhiko! But it’s been six months and he hasn’t come back, so we need a new chosen one. Enter, Yuusha Yoshihiko!
Based on the Dragon Quest series of games created by Horii Yuji, this drama chronicles the low-budget adventures of the spacy hero Yoshihiko (Yamada Takayuki) on his quest to defeat the evil demon king Maou. Along the way he meets some unlikely allies such as the long-winded warrior, Danjo (Takuma Shin), the girl with a knife, Murasaki (Kinami Haruka), and the questionable sage and mage, Merebu (Muro Tsuyoshi).
Guiding them on their journey from high up in the clouds is the mighty self-conscious Buddha (Sato Jiro), the only guy who sorta knows what’s going on. Standing in their path are numerous foes, ferocious monsters and opportunistic humans aplenty. They face the likes of Slimes, guy who adjusts his pants a lot, the fearsome half-horse half-man man, and bloodthirsty koala all to reach the demon king’s castle. At times, they’re even forced to do battle with their own inner demons.
Yuusha Yoshihiko to Maou no Shiro is not a drama for the faint at heart or weak of language. Sometimes Buddha speaks really quickly or utilizes puns and wordplay. It is however, a drama for anyone who enjoys laughter, joy, or low budget parodies. They made a second season I didn’t like as much, since a lot of it was reusing gags from the first season, but it’s there for people wanting more. I did like the second opening song, though. Yamada Takayuki’s performance deserves a special mention as he was absolutely dedicated to delivering all of his lines in utter earnestness.
1. 非公認戦隊アキバレンジャー (Hikounin Sentai Akibarenjaa)*
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
Hikounin Sentai Akibarenjaa (hereafter referred to as Akibaranger) is the result of either a divine miracle or pact with a denizen of the underworld. This show is a love letter/parody of nearly 40 years of super sentai shows. Super sentai is a subset of the tokusatsu (special effects stuff like Godzilla or Ultraman) genre that puts out a new iteration every year.
It generally features a group of five purehearted youths who can transform into color-coded superheroes and fight monsters. The theme changes every year so they can be based on ninjas or dinosaurs or trains, but the core concept remains static. The Power Rangers series of shows take most of their in-suit footage from super sentai, then film scenes with their own casts for the out of suit bits. To enjoy this show, all you really need to know is they’re making a loving mockery of series tropes and have an abundance of material to draw from. The three star level rating isn’t so much for complexity of dialogue as it is for all the series-specific names and terminology thrown around.
Akibaranger takes place in the Akihabara district, reknowned for being the cultural nexus for fans of anime, manga, video games, tokusatsu and so on. Wada Masato is Akagi Nobuo (Akiba Red), a local courier who has dedicated his life to super sentai and tends to wander into daydreams. It’s through him that many of the tropes are explained as they occur. Hinami Kyoko is Aoyagi Mitsuki (Akiba Blue), a martial artist whose main goal is to become stronger, but is generally ignorant of sentai shows. Ogino Karin is the third Akibaranger, playing Moegi Yumeria (Akiba Yellow), a cosplay enthusiast and sentai fan.
The three of them are scouted by Hakase Hiroyo, played by Uchida Maaya, to become the newest super sentai team, the Akibarangers. She has invented a type of transformation device modeled after fictional anime character Ichikawa Aoi that allows the three of them to imagine they’re costumed superheroes fighting battles in an alternate fantasy reality together.
Unable to be recognized as an official super sentai team without their own Sunday morning television show, the Akibarangers look to increase their public awareness by seeking out nefarious deeds to thwart. How this would be done in the real world while their costumed personas are pure delusion is tossed aside in their enthusiasm. It isn’t long before they meet Marushina, shiny leather-clad leader of an evil organization. She seems to have quite a few diabolical schemes running in Akihabara and there’s no one else to stop her. The Akibarangers are quick to engage her monstrous section chiefs and office minions, but is any of this even really happening?
There are a lot of things going on in Akibaranger, but I think the top one to mention is this is an official Toei production. They’re the company that owns and creates the super sentai and Kamen Rider series among other properties. Not only did they do a parody of their own works, they did an incredible job of it. But that’s not all.
The main target audience of super sentai shows is pre-teen males and this was an after midnight drama. Akibaranger is a show poking fun at its own sub-genre, plus the sub-genre of fans that it itself was made for. It continually boggles my mind that this was ever conceived, much less made, much less made with so much attention to detail and I’m continually glad that it was. There’s a second season of Akibaranger, which I didn’t like quite as much but is still a lot of fun.
Seen any of these?
What did you think? Do you recommend any of them? Know of any other great late night drama gems out there?
Jeez I dunno, seeker of fine Japanese media and buyer of impulses?