Multiple-episode dramas are a fixture of Japan television Asian television. Japanese ones usually feature actors — and singers and comedians — in historical pieces of "flavor-of-the-day" stories. They usually come in two varieties: daily morning 15-minutes, six month series and weekly, prime-time, 13 week series. Some dramas are so popular their plots are a carefully guarded secret. Many are not only popular in Japan but also in China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Typical Japanese dramas revolve around things like catching a knife killer, nursing a loved one back to health, dealing with the anxiety of parent visitation day at school, or helping an office lady get along with her peers. Other are little more bizarre. One show was about a woman whose father was a man and whose mother was an iguana. The whole show revolved a fight between the mother and daughter over the daughter going out with non-iguanas.

Names of some popular dramas have included “Tokyo Elevator Girl, Call Me a Juvenile Delinquent, Who Gets to Wear the Wedding Dress?, Mama Is a Idol” , and “Welcome to Mama’s Bed. My Pager Isn't Peeping” was popular when beeper were all the rage and was about beeper-generated love affairs. The Japanese dramas “Love Generation” and “Long Vacation” were popular in other Asian countries.

Describing the drama, “Tokyo University Story” , T.R. Reid wrote in the Washington Post: "The mini-skirted Haruka got so aroused that she permitted her handsome classmate Murakami to kiss her in a public park. The remainder of the drama concerned Haruka's terror that Murakami might tell the guys in school what had happened, thus destroying her reputation. As it turned out, Marakami's lips were sealed, which made Haruka love him all the more."

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On a Japanese television drama called “Shikaotoko Aoniyoshi” (“The Fantastic Deer-Man, “) Harvey Dickson wrote in the New York Times, “The plot is hard to summarize. Takanobu goes to Nara, the old Imperial capital, to teach at a girls’ high school. The whole country (in the drama) has been plagued by worsening earthquakes. Soon after Takanobu arrives, a deer (Nara is famous for its herds of deer) speaks to him, saying that the giant catfish that lives beneath Japan must be subdued or Japan will be destroyed and that he, Takanobu, must help. When Takanobu hesitates, the deer turns his human head into a deer head. Well, it goes on from there. I haven’t even mentioned the two love interests, one of whom is nicknamed “Madonna and the Rat Messenger.”

One of the longest-run in dramas, “Kasefu wa Mita” (“The Maid saw It”), ran for 25 years until 2008. It was about a lady detective names Akiko who investigates the dirty secrets of the rich and famous with wit and irony. Modern teen romance dramas often have a cell phone incorporated into the plot.

Most years about 20 to 30 percent of television dramas are derived from manga. The manga, anime, video game, television and media industries are all interrelated. Many popular manga characters find their way into video games and anime DVDs. Many films and television shows are based on or inspired by manga series. Sometimes several films and television shows are inspired by a single series. Many television shows are based on manga stories.

'Odoru Daisosasen' Cop Series

“Odoru Daisosasen” (“Bayside Shakedown”), featuring Shunsaku Aoshima, the earnest cop played by Yuji Oda, was a popular TV series that ran or 15 years ntil its final episode in September 2012. The series began on TV in January 1997, eventually gaining widespread popularity. It was followed by four films, including the new one, several more TV versions, spin-off films and even versions for cell phones and smartphones. [Source: Takuya Sasajima, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 7, 2012]

Takuya Sasajima wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The very first installment, aired on the Fuji Television network, features the protagonist, Aoshima, as an officer in the criminal affairs division at the Metropolitan Police Department's Wangan Police Station. A murder occurs in the station's precinct, but the investigation is handed to the First Criminal Investigation Section at the department headquarters. Although Aoshima wants intensely to investigate the case, he is assigned to act as driver for Shinji Muroi (Toshiro Yanagiba), a fast-track officer in the headquarters' investigation section.

The Odoru series consistently featured situations involving the differences between police bureaucrats and rank-and-file officers, something that previous cop dramas had not touched on, as well as other matters associated with the police as an organization, such as power struggles between headquarters and branch police stations. The average rating for the 11 installments of the TV series was 18.2 percent, not an incredibly big hit. But the ranks of Odoru fans gradually swelled online and through word-of-mouth. The film Odoru Daisosasen the Movie 2: Rainbow Bridge o Fusaseyo!, released in July 2003, earned 17.35 billion yen, breaking the box office record for Japanese live-action films.

"It's fiction, but we decided not to make use of those small things everyone knows aren't true," said Chihiro Kameyama, an executive director of the Fuji Television Network Inc. who was the producer for the TV series and has been involved through the entire 15-year run. "Instead, we tried to create something that will seem authentic to the audience."For example, unlike past cop dramas, police officers in the series do not refer to each other by nicknames--a nod to the actual practice at real police stations. This is to clarify the ranks and positions of the officers, Kameyama said.

Kameyama said one reason for terminating the series was to be loyal to this principle of realism. "Aoshima and other key characters have worked at the Wangan Police Station for a long time without being transferred. That would never happen to real police officers," Kameyama said. "We thought about continuing the series by transferring Aoshima to another police station, but there'd never be Odoru at another station. The series had gotten too far from reality.”

Another unique feature of the series is the lack of flashbacks related to the cases and the emotions of the suspects. This is done to highlight the structural problems related to the police organization, and has imbued Aoshima and the other officers in the series with intriguing characteristics.

The series depicts conflicts caused by the hierarchical relationships in an organization, but also follows the friendship of Aoshima and Muroi, one formed despite a difference in rank. Further, it comically illustrates the suffering of police officers following unreasonable orders from supervisors. All in all, it is an elaborate depiction of various aspects of the police as an organization.Spin-offs for TV and film were created based on protagonists Masayoshi Mashita (Yusuke Santamaria), a side character in the series and Aoshima's younger colleague on the fast track, Muroi and others. These productions did not feature Aoshima.

NHK Dramas

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Sunday night NHK historical dramas are very popular. “Atssuhome” , a drama about the wife of the 13th shogun Tokugawa Iesada, aired in 2008 and had an average rating of 24.5 percent. A whole tourism sector sprung up to meet demand for travel to places associated with the most popular dramas. One prefecture saw its tourism revenues rise 13.2 percent after it was featured in a popular drama about the military advisor to warlord Yakada Shingen (1521-1573). Dramas are about samurai warlords from the Warring States Period (146701568) are especially popular.

The NHK morning drama series are also very popular These are shown as people prepare to head off to work and usually features an attractive teenage girl or young woman what works hard and overcomes adversity to achieve some goal. This plot formula is also a fixture of prime time dramas.

Highly-regarded drama in 2008 according to the Daily Yomiuri’s Wm. Penn included “Daisuke” , a heart-warming story about a disabled mother who raised a charming daughter with the help of her family and community; “Scandal” ; and “Change” , a political fairy tale about an honest young teacher who becomes prime minister and in the process restores the nations’ faith in the political process; and “Zettain Kareshi” , about a girl with a devoted boyfriend robot.

Japanese love historical dramas. The ones feature on NHK have been very popular in recent years. An NHK Sunday drama on the pre-Meji period hero Sakamoto Ryoma was watched religiously by a large number of people and set off a whole tourism industry of people visiting places highlighted in the show.

Taiga Dramas

Sawa Kurotani wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: NHK's Taiga drama (or "big river" drama) series began in 1963, at a time when television was fast becoming a common feature in the living rooms of Japanese families. Every year (with the exception of 1993 and 1994), a yearlong drama centering on a historical figure starts in January and traces that person's life at a critical juncture in Japanese history. Despite dramatic social changes and an array of new entertainment choices over the last five decades, it continues to attract the attention (for better or worse) of the TV-viewing public. [Source: Sawa Kurotani, Daily Yomiuri, December 27, 2011]

Year after year, my family has watched taiga dramas for as long as I can remember. Every Sunday, we sat around the table to watch the show, and my highly opinionated father would critique every aspect of the drama, from the screenplay and casting choices to its historical accuracy. Particularly in December and January, between the climax of the current series and the start of the next, many dinner-time conversations revolved around our opinions of the outgoing show and predicting whether next year's series would be a success.

A glance at the list of taiga dramas quickly reveals that the series keeps revisiting the same historical moments. The three most frequently depicted time periods are: the Sengoku (warring) to Azuchi-Momoyama period, which extended from the late 15th to late 16th century; the transition from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji era (1868-1912); and the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867).

However, what makes a jidaigeki (period drama) series popular for nearly five decades has little to do with history itself. Instead, it has everything to do with how we interpret particular historical figures and project our own social reality onto that of other eras. The middle of the Edo period was a time of peace and affluence arriving after a century of continuous warfare that resonated with Japanese viewers during the economic growth of the 1960s and '70s.

Incidentally, next year's taiga drama, Taira no Kiyomori, will purportedly follow the life of an energetic warrior from the late Heian period (794-1192) who broke away from a stifling social order to look outward at the rest of the world--much like Sakamoto Ryoma from 2010's Ryoma-den and Oda Nobunaga, the uncle of 2011's heroine Princess Go from Go-Himetachi no Sengoku. Until we find our own Ryomas, Nobunagas and Kiyo

End of Japan’s Long-Running Samurai Drama

Wm. Penn wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The time has come for the last of the great jidai-geki (period drama) icons to permanently park his walking stick. After 1,227 episodes, Mito Komon, which debuted way back in August 1969, will bow out on in December 2011. (7 p.m.-8:54 p.m., TBS). Monday nights will never be quite the same again. In 42 years, only five actors have played the venerable retired deputy shogun Mito Mitsukuni-ko, who made 43 cross-country treks disguised as a rich Niigata textile merchant. His traveling party always includes retainers Suke-san and Kaku-san, faithful servant Hachibei and skillful ninja agents. [Source: Wm. Penn, Daily Yomiuri, December 16, 2011]

While never forgetting to take in the local sights, gourmet treats and traditional arts along the way, they have ceaselessly uncovered court conspiracies and righted samurai injustices while defending the common folk from the powerful and corrupt. The drama always provided the unrealistic but soothing reassurance that despite everything, justice would prevail. It would seem therefore that the series is needed now more than ever — but perhaps that premise has just grown too unrealistic and unbelievable?

For 15 years, the first Komon, Eijiro Tono, brought a gritty realism to the role. His successor Ko Nishimura lightened up the style but still did a very capable job until 1993. Then, the series gradually began to change. It has been clear for several years now that it was waning and losing power. When I tuned in last week, the fighting skills of the current Suke-san and Kaku-san were so mediocre, I could not distinguish them from the bad guys in one scene. That would never have happened in the early decades of the show when the pair were muscular, powerful and convincingly tough.

The two-hour finale will be must-see viewing for longtime fans of the show although they might find the story a little confusing. Many of the series' old stars will reappear in cameo roles with new identities. Six men have played Kaku-san over the years, and three of them will make guest appearances, as will one former Suke-san, the original Hachibei, ninja Tobizaru and, of course, the nation's best-loved lady ninja, Kaoru Yumi. During her 25 years on the series, she appeared in over 200 onscreen bath scenes before retiring, at age 60, at the end of Season 41. Recently, I saw a program interviewing some of the drama's staff including the guy whose job was to make sure the temperature of her bath water was always just right. Perhaps, the producers should copy the South Korean drama style of showing shots of the hardworking staff at the end of the finale to give them a little well-deserved recognition.

The finale, set in Mito several years after the entourage have returned from Trek 43, opens with Kaku-san happily married, but Suke-san still traveling the archipelago compiling a Japanese history book. He is finally persuaded to come home, marry Shino and settle down. The only thing is, older fans will remember he already married Shino back on Feb. 5, 1979, in Season 17, an event that garnered the drama's highest ratings ever--a colossal 43.7 percent. The scriptwriters for the finale seem a little fuzzy on Suke-san's marital history, but in this Edo never-never-land, characters and storylines have come and gone before.

Everything's fine in Mito until Komon-sama is kidnapped while out for a walk. Meanwhile, rich merchants in Edo are being robbed by a mysterious gang that is also out to assassinate the shogun. It's time for the old troupe to take action to save the day one last time...As for the now endangered jidai-geki species, plentiful reruns are available on satellite TV, but only TV Tokyo will keep the genre from going extinct on terrestrial TV.

Wm. Penn wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Ratings have hovered around 10 percent. That's nothing compared to the 43.7 percent they got for the Feb. 5, 1979, episode when Suke-san married. But still, it's not bad considering no non-NHK drama reaches 15 percent. The show's stable 10 percent share of viewership are diehard fans who won't desert their hero. They've tagged along each week since 1969 as Mito Komon, his retainers Suke-san and Kaku-san, servants and ninja assistants trekked more than 100,000 kilometers through the countryside incognito to ferret out crime and misuse of power and expose it in a predictable swordplay ballet finale.

TBS has introduced many programming changes in the last few years, most of them unsuccessful. This decision looks like another mistake. The network's reasons for removing Mito Komon--and letting the Edo period jidai geki genre fade into the TV history books--are not exactly clear, although they've said they want to end it while it's still popular. That makes sense, but their timing is all off. This is not the year.

Mito Komon is more than just a TV program, it's a symbolic national institution. The retired deputy shogun is an icon, a hero who ceaselessly defends the common folk from the powerful and corrupt. The episodes are always full of human nature, traditional values and the unrealistic reassurance that despite it all, justice will prevail. Mito Komon is a trusted ally who will no longer be there at a time when the populace needs him more than ever. TBS would do well to rethink this decision. Mito Komon's legacy should not be buried with the analog age. He needs to carry on into the digital TV world.

Housemaid Drama Series Logs Highest Rating in Nearly 12 Years

In December 2011, Kyodo reported: “A TV drama series featuring an unrealistic housemaid — amazingly competent and emotionless like a robot — has turned out to be a huge success in Japan with its last episode recording a whopping 40 percent rating in Tokyo and its vicinity, the highest for a drama in 11 years and nine months. The drama, ''Kaseifu no Mita'' (Mita the Housemaid), revolves around a woman who is extraordinarily good at just about everything and is dispatched to a family to work as a housemaid. She had become a stony person after losing her husband and son in an arson attack, and the family of a man and his four children had also suffered a major tragedy — the suicide of his wife, the children's mother. [Source: Kyodo, December 22, 2011]

Critics said the story struck a chord with many Japanese as survivors of the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster are struggling to find a way to live after losing their loved ones. According to ratings company Video Research Ltd., the final episode attracted an average viewer rating of 40.0 percent in the Kanto region centering on Tokyo. It was the highest rating recorded in the region for a drama since the 41.3 percent logged in March 2000 for the final episode of ''Beautiful Life,'' a love story starring Takuya Kimura and Takako Tokiwa.

The critics said that 40 percent is an exceptionally high rating as Japanese people have been spending less time watching TV and a drama series has been considered a hit if it got a rating of 15 percent over the past decade. ''At the bottom of the drama was the survivors' guilt syndrome, in which survivors of a natural disaster and a crime case feel guilty over those who died,'' said Takeshi Usami, a professor of modern Japanese literature at Chuo University. He said ''how to overcome the death of someone close'' is a major issue in modern Japan, which already had a chronically high number of suicides -- 30,000 people annually -- before the Great East Japan Earthquake claimed the lives of more than 15,000 this year.

The final episode culminated in a scene in which Akari Mita, the housemaid played by popular actress Nanako Matsushima, smiled, after having been unable to do so for a long time. As the popularity of the drama grew, some of Mita's lines, such as ''shochi shimashita'' (very well) when she accepts a request, became buzzwords, while demand surged for aprons and other items she used in the drama. The title of the drama, Kaseifu no Mita, is a play on Kaseifu wa Mita (It Was Witnessed by the Housemaid), a previous popular drama series starring veteran actress Etsuko Ichihara.

Japanese Village Ostracism Lives on in a Television Drama

Describing the plot of a popular television drama, Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “In Fuji TV's engrossing drama “Freeter, Ie o Kau (Part-time worker buys a house)” , a housewife dutifully sorts up her family's garbage and takes it out, only to have it repeatedly returned to her by a malicious neighbor who has added things to the garbage bag that belong to another category, making it unacceptable for collection. As a result of this and other spiteful pranks, the woman falls into serious depression.” [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, December 28, 2010]

“The depressed housewife's family finds out what's going on, but they have no idea why the neighbor — and possibly other neighbors as well — is behaving in such a venomous manner. Then they realize it is because at a neighborhood party her husband bragged that his company was renting them their house for just 50,000 yen a month. As all the neighbors were struggling with onerous home loans, jealous ill will developed.”

“The part of the episode related to this state of affairs seemed almost like an educational video that might be titled something like "How to get along with fellow PTA members and neighbors: Keeping in line with the Joneses." The English phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" has been used for almost a century to express the striving not to fall behind neighbors in terms of material possessions and social status. In Japan, conversely, the onus is often firmly placed on those ahead of the rest not to vaunt their success. No one likes arrogance, of course, but in Japan, as the drama points out, more effort may be expected to be made in lessening any evidence of someone having greater social status than another.”

“First, there is a scene in which the freeter's sister, who is married to a doctor, is having lunch at an inexpensive restaurant with other mothers in the PTA. The other mothers comment on how she must enjoy 10,000 yen lunches when she is with other doctors' wives, which she deftly deflects. She eyes the various lunches on the menu, silently wavering between the 850 yen set and 1,050 yen one, but as one after another of the women chooses the cheaper option, she follows suit.”

“In the next scene, she, the freeter and their father are together. The sister rebukes her father for the damage he has caused their mother by his heedless boasting, in an impassioned outburst in which she says "The people of this country love lining up side by side (yokonarabi). Those who are different from everyone else are expelled (hajikidasareru). Then she uses the "M" word: "It's murahachibu for life."

Japanese Game Shows

Prime time is filled with quiz shows, national exams ad intelligence tests, cram study marathons, kanji proficiency and nohonjin tests that measure one’s Japaneseness.

Games shows in Japan feature celebrities answering questions like those asked on high school test and laughing at each other’s bad jokes. Japan of course had a version “Do You Wanna be a Millionaire?” . Go and shogi matches are shown are shown live.

Popular game shows have included “Happy Family Plan” , a contest in which fathers are asked to perform difficult tasks, like waking up suddenly in the middle of the night and running 200 meters, to win prizes for their families; Which Dish, an eating show in which several contestant chose a dish they like and of a majority of other contestants also say they like it they get to eat it; and “Muscle Ranking” , a Japanese-version of the Superstars, in which famous athletes do things like leap frog over small wooden towers and heave barrels over high bars.

“Denpa Shonen” , the most popular show in the 1990s, featured ordinary people embarrassing themselves as they attempted ridiculous mental and physical challenges. “Tokyo Friends Park” introduced the all-stick game in which contestants wearing velcro suits use a min-trampoline to leapt on to a velcro target mounted on a wall and stick to it.

Violent Japanese Game Shows

“Batsu” (“Punishment”) games shows with contestants who are “dunked, slammed and swirled,” slapped around by the host or who are forced to do potentially dangerous tasks are fairly common in Japan. Fuji television comedy show “Tunnels ni Minsasan no Okagedeshita” features “Human Tries” segment in which kids have to make shapes or they are dumped into a pool of water.

I've seen shows in which guests were given an electric shock for failing to negotiate a maze, forced to go as long as possible without going to the bathroom and choked on a ball rolled down a ramp into their throat. These shows often also feature women placed into various compromising and humiliating situations, such as stripping if they lose a game of ping pong. In “Hexagon II” celebrity contestants are given painful electric shocks if they give the wrong answer to trivia questions,

Partly explaining why shows of this kind are so popular, Ian Buruma, wrote in “Behind the Mask” , "violent entertainment and grotesque erotica are still important outlets in what continues to be an oppressive social system." Some sociologists have suggested the shows may be a manifestation of a morbid Japanese fascination with destroying beauty.

The most notorious and popular of these shows, “Super Jockey” , featured guests receiving painful blows by karate experts, forced to sample disgusting flavors of ice cream, and attacked and stripped to their undergarments by members of the opposite sex. Hosted by Takeshi Kitano, the show ended with several women, each representing a sponsor, being immersing in scalding hot water, with the sponsor of the woman who stays in the longest (usually only three or four seconds) being allowed to do a commercial.

Image Sources: You Tube, Japan Zone, Japan Sugoi, xorsyst blog, bionic bong, Bright Lights

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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