Romance is sometimes thought of as a pretty sappy or cheesy genre. How often does a secret fiance show up to throw a wrench in the works or a sudden obstacle prompt some poor sap to run screaming across Tokyo to declare his everlasting love?
Alright, I admit I’m totally into them too. But rather than the much-awaited kiss or dual confession of affection that usually comes at the end, I’m more interested in the nuts and bolts of how the relationships are built. Not just between lovers, though. Whether they be friends, family, teammates, co-workers or whatever, seeing the different scenarios in which people come together unfold through the trials and tribulations life brings are what I enjoy watching most. In no particular order below are seven of my personal J-dramas showing the power of love.
7. 薔薇のない花屋 (Bara no nai Hanaya)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
Flower Shop Shizuku sits nestled close to a train station in Tokyo. Its owner, Shiomi Eiji (Katori Shingo) always stays open until the last train passes, just in case someone may need a last-minute gift. Eiji is a man who will seemingly do anything to help someone regardless of any cost or discomfort to himself. “I’m alright with that” is his response whenever someone shows concern he may be on the losing end of a situation. Living for the sake of others is the purpose with which Eiji strives to raise his daughter, Shizuku (Yagi Yuki), after losing her mother, Yuri during childbirth.
Although Eiji sacrifices his time and effort for people, he seems somewhat distant emotionally. He and Shizuku still watch the tapes Yuri recorded of herself while pregnant and Eiji seems unwilling or unable to move on. This distance begins to close when he meets a young woman named Shirato Mio (Takeuchi Yuko) sheltering under the awning of his shop one rainy morning.
Newly moved to the neighborhood, Mio lost her eyesight as a child, yet maintains an independent and unrestrained demeanor, responding with biting comments or carefree smiles with equal ease. At first Eiji and Mio treat each other simply as acquaintences, but some how or other they end up crossing paths more and more often as their relationship grows.
In the director’s office of a hospital, a man sits behind his desk and listens to one of his nurses deliver a report, then repeats his instructions to her. Seduce that man until he offers you everything he has, then destroy him completely. You don’t have any other choice, do you?
Bara no nai Hanaya’s genre falls under “romance”, but if I had to describe the theme, I would say “loneliness”. What can cause people to feel lonely? How does it affect every aspect of your life whether you realize it or not? How do you find ways to cope with it? Nearly every person on the show has different answers to these questions as they find themselves entwined in each other’s lives.
There’s plenty of levity and witty back and forth interaction, but this isn’t a drama to take lightly. This is a rose with thorns. Its writer, Nojima Shinji has a real talent for combining the more dramatic aspects fiction requires with strongly realized characters to make it believable.
6. マンハッタンラブストーリー (Manhattan Love Story)
Japanese Level: ☆☆
The manager of the cafe Manhattan (Matsuoka Masahiro) is a man of many secrets. After all, the worth of a man is measured in the number of secrets he holds. From the origin of Manhattan’s name, to his love of Columbo, to the fact he would really prefer to be called “master”, the manager is a worthy man indeed. Dedicated to serving only the finest coffee beans hand-ground and served at the perfect temperature, the manager pours all of his experience, life, and soul into every cup he serves. He is a man of few words and his only lover is coffee.
Ever since a TV station was built across the street and a number of its employees began patronizing Manhattan, its tranquil serenity was lost. The flighty screenwriter, the sweaty voice actor, the foppish dance choreographer, the rude broadcasters, the man who seems to date every woman in sight, none of them give a second thought to properly enjoying the manager’s delicious coffee.
On top of all that, a lady cab driver by the name of Akabane Nobuko (Koizumi Kyoko) appears and thwarts the manager’s every attempt to maintain the purity of his establishment as he silently makes several one-sided bets to determine the future amenities of Manhattan and sully its pristine atmosphere over whether or not she’ll drink the proffered java within the self-allotted time limit.
It’s all he can do to maintain proper descretion and he realizes he’s in love with her and his waiter may be a psychic and the shop is running low on wafers and now he has to install a television, but at least he’ll get to watch Columbo and why can’t any of these people appreciate good coffee?!
Kudo Kankuro is the writer who brought us Manhattan Love Story. This is an important name to know, as he’s also gifted the world with the likes of Tiger & Dragon, Unubore Deka, Ikebukuro West Gate Park, Kisarazu Cat’s Eye, and other great dramas and movies. I think Kudo excels at writing high-energy comedy and this drama is a testament to that. The show bustles along at a pretty brisk pace with ever-increasing layers and details, but never gets confusing or bogged down by all of it. The talented cast and bombastic soundtrack make it an enjoyable drama from beginning to end.
5. グッドラック！！ (Good Luck!!)
Japanese Level: ☆☆
SMAP member and most popular man in Japan, Kimura Takuya is Shinkai Hajime, a new co-pilot for All Nippon Airlines. Shinkai has been in love with the idea of becoming a pilot ever since he was allowed to visit the cockpit during a flight, even going so far as to leave home against his father’s wishes rather than inherit the family business as captain of a small fishing boat.
Though a bit flaky and the last of his class to pass, the enthusiastic Shinkai managed to earn his pilot’s license under his instructor, captain Mizushima. It’s during a return flight to Narita when Mizushima injures his back that Shinkai brings the plane in for a bumpy albeit successful landing and earns the ire of Ogawa Ayumi (Shibasaki Kou), a scowly mechanic with demon eyes.
Immediately afterward, Shinkai is called into the Operations Audit Room to provide an explanation for the bumpy arrival. Inside, captain Kouda Kazuki (Tsutsumi Shinichi) dresses him down verbally and impresses upon Shinkai the necessity of pilots being absolutely perfect in their performance. Even catching a cold is an unforgivable sin for a pilot. Shinkai leaves the meeting with his ego bruised for the second time that day and irritably ponders whether Kouda may be some kind of cyborg.
His next flight together with Mizushima is intended to be his instructor’s last before retiring as a pilot and Shinkai is eager to ensure it goes off without a hitch. However, based on the results from their last time together, Kouda decides to ride along for a performance evaluation.
Shinkai is clearly the main protagonist of Good Luck!! with his gradual courtship of Ogawa and maturing both as a person and a pilot, but equal time is given to Kouda and I think he’s the more important character overall. Kouda has backstory with more of the cast while Shinkai’s a newcomer and a larger arc that I thought was more satisfying.
It was the first drama I saw Tsutsumi Shinichi in and he’s been great in everything I’ve seen with him since. The tone of the show is largely comedic that’s punctuated with moments of seriousness to keep the realism up. Just watch out for Shibasaki’s scary glares.
4. 最高の離婚 (Saikou no Rikon)
Japanese Level: ☆☆
Marriage is pain. That’s the conclusion Hamasaki Mitsuo (Eita) reached after spending nearly two years with his wife, Yuka (Ono Machiko). The Felix to her Oscar, the Bert to her Ernie, the Yin to her Yang, Mitsuo and Yuka are simply incompatible in every conceivable way. They met in the aftermath of the disasterous earthquake and tsunami, spending all night walking home together with the trains down and rode that momentum into marriage.
Compulsively tidy and impeccably proper, Mitsuo doesn’t express himself well in social situations despite having a job as a salesman for vending machine beverages. Yuka on the other hand seems to get along with everyone, especially Mitsuo’s grandmother. Her capricious nature often frustrates the fussy Mitsuo as does her uncanny ability to make a mess, even leaving books on how to keep a clean household laying around.
On the way home from playing a game of baseball to maintain customer relations, Mitsuo throws his back out and shuffles into a newly-opened masseuse’s shop in the neighborhood. Surprisingly, it’s run by his ex-girlfriend from college, Konno Akari (Maki Yoko), now married with the name Uehara. The two of them spend an evening having dinner and reminiscing past days Mitsuo remembers with more fondness than his present relationship.
One evening soon after, Mitsuo bumps into the Ueharas and recognizes the man, Ryo (Ayano Go) from recently in the company of another woman. That same night, Yuka informs him she has submitted their divorce papers.
I put off watching Saikou no Rikon for months after it aired. At the time I only knew who Eita and Maki Yoko were, plus how interesting could a drama about divorce be? I watched the first episode and ended up staying awake all night to see the rest. Then I watched them all again the next week. It’s one of the best written and well acted dramas I’ve ever seen.
Within the first two minutes of meeting each of the main four characters, you immediately know exactly who they are and what kind of people they’ll be. After that, they bounce off each other and get pulled back in as more layers are revealed and the people develop. Sakamoto Yuji spins words into gold given the chance and this drama also features a perfect soundtrack. A success on every level.
3. ラブシャッフル (Love Shuffle)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
Can a relationship trust love to last? Initial attraction can fade and what was once sparkly can dull. It could be that true compatibility with your partner is more important than fickle emotions. Four people who by chance all live on the same floor discuss the matter while trapped in an elevator during a storm. Usami Kei (Tamaki Hiroshi) holds a high position in an IT company. Aizawa Airu (Karina) is a trilingual interpreter. Sera Ojiro (Matusda Shota) photographs fashion models. Kikuta Masato (Tanihara Shosuke) is a psychiatrist. Each of them is having trouble with their current partner.
Kei’s fiance Kagawa Mei (Kanjiya Shihori) has just called off their engagement. That she only offers apologies instead of an explanation causes him a great deal of stress, as well as the fact he’ll definitely lose his position in the company owned by Mei’s father due to his inability to use a computer. Airu can’t seem to lose her clingy boyfriend, Oishi Yukichi (Daigo), a wealthy stock trader who’s poor at socializing.
Ojiro has been seeing a married woman named Kamijo Reiko (Kojima Hijiri), who appears to prefer copulating to having pointless conversations. Masato’s “girlfriend” is actually one of his patients, an art student named Hayakawa Kairi (Yoshitaka Yuriko). She’s fixated on killing herself on her 20th birthday unless he can somehow dissuade her. For one last chance at love, the eight of them agree to participate in a Love Shuffle.
Every week for the next three months, four couples are paired off via randomly drawn cards. The goal of each round is to make the other person fall in love with you. At the end of the experiment, you can either remain with your original partner with no worries or break up with no regrets. To hold true in the face of temptation. To learn the real meaning of love. To find true happiness. To love and peace! Yay, panda!
Entry two in my personal trifecta of awesome Nojima Shinji dramas, Love Shuffle is a load of laughs that again straddles the balance beam of entertaining fiction and plausible reality. In scenes with just the main four, they flow together like parts of the same song. It has all the appearances of a hip and trendy drama that’s supported by a foundation of smartly written, well acted characters in a story that reaches depths one might not expect from the premise. Along with Earth Wind & Fire for the main theme, where else could you see a drama like this? Only Japan da!
2. オレンジデイズ (Orange Days)
Japanese Level: ☆☆
Hagio Sae (Shibasaki Kou) grew up the center of attention. Her mother is a famous pianist, while Sae herself is considered a prodigy in both piano and her main focus, violin. She’s studied at prestigious music schools including The Juilliard School overseas, with plenty of confidence and a cute face on top of it.
Four years ago, Sae’s world collapsed around her when an illness caused near-total deafness in both ears. Though she’s regained enough stability to finish her last year of college and has her friend Ozawa Akane (Shiraishi Miho) supporting her, Sae still has difficulty coming to terms with her disability.
Attending the same school are Yuuki Kai (Tsumabuki Satoshi) and his two friends, Aida Shohei (Narimiya Hiroki) and Yashima Keita (Eita). They meet Sae when Shohei asks her out on a date on behalf of Keita, who chickens out upon learning of her deafness and sends Kai, who’s fluent in sign language as his replacement. Initially Kai is a bit bothered by Sae’s attitude before realizing there’s more to her during a moment of vulnerability.
Gradually becoming friends, the five of them form the Orange Club as part of Keita’s elaborate plot to court Akane. With the stress of finding love, a steady job, and themselves in the sunset of youth, these are their Orange Days.
The distinguishing feature of this drama is of course, Shibasaki’s character, Sae. Most of the emotional hits in the show involve her and Shibasaki portrays them very well. She has a lot of cruelty and sarcasm to impart through facial expressions, body language, and sign language that stays natural and probably required a lot of attention to detail. Except for Sae, I think overall it would be a pretty standard drama if the actors hadn’t gelled together so well.
When things happen, it isn’t the severity of the incident that causes a reaction, but because of the people it’s happening to. The sign language also comes in handy for Japanese learners, because they tend to either speak slower or provide Japanese subtitles when it’s being used.
1. プライド (Pride)
Japanese Level: ☆☆☆
In Japan, ice hockey isn’t the most popular sport. It’s difficult to join a pro team as there aren’t many around, it demands a lot of physicality, and the pay is modest compared to other pro athletes. Only those who are dedicated to hockey can become icemen. Refusing to bow to anyone. Refusing to lose to anything. Always rushing straight ahead to the goal. That is what the Blue Scorpions’ coach Anzai taught them. That is their pride.
Satonaka Halu (Kimura Takuya) is the Scorpions’ team captain and star player. The rest of the team only passes the puck to him because they trust him implicitly to score goals. To Halu, hockey is the most important thing in the world, even at the expense of love. His relationships are treated like games, with no strings attached, both sides having their fun and parting happily. Halu is focused on living as a true iceman.
Two years ago, Murase Aki (Takeuchi Yuko) parted with her boyfriend on a bridge, with a promise to wait until he returned from his job overseas. He hasn’t contacted her at all in several months, but Aki still waits at that bridge every Sunday to fulfill her promise. Remaining steadfast in her vow, not losing to her own loneliness is Aki’s pride. Her friends Chika (Megumi) and Yuri (Nakagoshi Noriko) take her to a hockey game to cheer their company’s team, the Blue Scorpions. There, Aki sees one player who seems to shine like the sun.
That night, the three of them head to a bar the team hangs out in after games. Yuri and Chika immediately hook up with two Scorpions’ members, Yamato (Sakaguchi Kenji) and Tomo (Ichikawa Somegoro). Aki catches Halu’s eye and he manages to get her phonemail address after a mock confrontation with some other players. Following a few meetings during which they learn more about each other, Halu offers Aki a contract.
A man who can’t love and a woman can’t meet her lover would make a perfect match. They can feel free to enjoy each other’s company without getting serious. If Aki’s boyfriend ever returns, they can smile and wave goodbye. Game over.
名もなき戦士 (なもなきせんし) are those who fight and struggle with all their might while the rest of the world doesn’t even notice. Against loneliness, against overwhelming guilt, against your own limits. Sometimes, pride is the only thing that keeps you going. This is the third Nojima Shinji drama on this list and one of my two favorite dramas ever.
Whenever someone asks for a recommendation on a good jdrama or a good story or how my day is going, I immediately shout “Pride!! Tiger & Dragon!!!” This has phenomenal acting, intelligent, introspective writing, and songs by Queen. Queen!
Kimura and Takeuchi are two of the most natural actors I’ve ever seen. Like they aren’t so much delivering lines as living their lives on film. I’ve yet to see a drama where either of them melded so well with their co-star as they do in Pride. This is one of those few dramas I re-watch every few months.
Seen any of these?
What did you think? Do you recommend any of them? Know of any other romantic J-dramas showing the power of love?
Jeez I dunno, seeker of fine Japanese media and buyer of impulses?