Hana Yori Dango, A Girl and Three Sweethearts, and More J-Dramas to Binge-Watch This Weekend
Unfamiliar with J-dramas? Here's a primer to get you started
Art Alysse Asilo
Whether you love visiting Japan or dream of visiting soon, watching J-dramas (or rather, J-doramas, as they say) is the perfect way to immerse yourself in its quirky cool, dynamic but innately zen vibe. If you don't know where to start, here are some classic favorites that capture their whimsical yet warmhearted culture (just don't expect typical storybook endings for everything!). Save for asadoras (serialized morning dramas that can run for hundreds of episodes, like the beloved Oshin), J-dramas are typically only about 10-12 episodes long -- ideal for the weekend binge! Now if they were only available on Netflix...
Hana Yori Dango (2005)
The live-action adaptation of the Japanese shojo manga by Yokio Kamio, you may be familiar with its Taiwanese (Meteor Garden, 1991) and Korean counterparts (Boys Over Flowers, 2009), but the Japanese version has a potent magic all its own, and is often the gateway to J-drama obsession. You know the drill: underpriviledged but plucky Tsukushi Makino (Mao Inoue) enters an exclusive high school, comes up against/eventually befriends the legendary F4, and encounters OTT challenges. The barkada camaraderie and the dramatic love triangle between Makino, F4 leader Tsukasa Domjouji (Jun Matsumoto of iconic boyband Arashi), and SLS-inducing (second lead syndrome) Rui Hanazawa (Shun Oguri) is one of the most beloved in Japanese TV history.
Hana Yori Dango/Tokyo Broadcasting System Television
GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka (1998)
The OG sensei (teacher) drama based on the iconic manga by Tooru Fujisawa. Ex-gang member turned teacher Eikichi Onizuka (Takashi Sorimachi) is assigned to a class of notoriously antagonistic students, and there are some pick-up-your-jaw-from-the-floor moments as he earns their trust with his unorthodox and reckless methods. Providing comic relief to the anti-hero's violent streak is the running gag on his virginity and his tendency to crack a derpy smile in the most inappropriate of situations.
GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka/Fuji Television Network
1 Litre of Tears (2005)
Yes, you will shed one litre of tears in the process, but it's a catharthic classic that must not be missed. Adapted from a diary-style book written by Aya Kito based on her own life, the drama tenderly renders how 15-year-old Aya Ikeuchi (Erika Sawajiri) copes with a degenerative disease with the support of her family. Despite the tragic topic, each episode brims with courage, hope, and joy in the little things. Bonus: budding romance with the hottie classmate (Ryo Nishikido). Pass the tissue.
1 Litre of Tears/Fuji Television Network
Nodame Cantabile (2006)
Yet another live action adaptation of a popular manga (this time by Tomoko Ninomiya), Nodame Cantabile is J-drama at its quirkiest. Set in a music college, Noda Megumi AKA “Nodame” (Ueno Juri) is a hapless but talented piano student who unabashedly pursues Chiaki-senpai (Hiroshi Tamaki) -- a meticulous musical genius, aspiring conductor, and conveniently, her neighbor. The two end up working together when an eccentric conductor assembles an “alternative” orchestra comprised of a wacky yet endearing cast of characters, each with their own story. The drama follows everyone's triumphs, challenges, and romances, and the craziness is juxtaposed with a gorgeous classical soundtrack. Can't recommend this enough.
Nodame Cantabile/Fuji Television Network
Long Vacation (1996)
J-drama king Takuya Kimura “Kimutaku” stars as soft-spoken aspiring pianist Hidetoshi Sena, whose placid life is about to be shaken up when a manic stranger in full bridal regalia (Minami Hayama played by Tomoko Yamaguchi) barges into his apartment in search of her runaway groom (and his flatmate), Asakura. Upon realizing Asakura has fled with all her money and she herself has nowhere to go, Sena allows her to stay, cuing the beginning of this delightfully odd, ennui-ridden, slice-of-life drama that captures the zeitgeist of a Japanese generation in recession. (Also fun: spying 1990s pieces that have come back in fashion). Fun fact: Kimutaku's breakout lead role in this phenomenal hit led to a succession of blockbuster dramas, including Love Generation, Pride, Beautiful Life, Good Luck!!, and Hero.
Long Vacation/Fuji Television Network
Yukie Nakama (recognize Sadako, anyone?) stars as Yamaguchi Kumiko, a Yakuza clan heiress trying to lead a “normal” life as a high school teacher in this iconic sensei drama. Dorky and unassuming, “Yankumi” is promptly bullied by her homeroom class of delinquents, but her thug alterego kicks in whenever one of her students is in trouble (cue drama theme song and hair blowing cheekily in the wind). You'll be fully invested in her earnest attempts to win her students over -- especially the feared class leader, Sawada Shin (Jun Matsumoto). This campy yet inspiring drama is so beloved, it ran for three seasons (with a new homeroom class each time, starring many of the generation's rising stars).
Gokusen/Nippon Television Network
Nobuta Wo Produce (2005)
In this kooky and somewhat dark pygmalion story, campus hotshot Shuji Kiritani (Kazuya Kamenashi) and eccentric loner Akira Kusano (Tomohisa Yamashita) form an unlikely alliance to “produce” bullied girl Nobuko Kotani (Maki Horikita) into a social success. Mean girls, teenage angst, the joys of youth, and a scene-stealing bromance make this a memorable drama gem.
Nobuta Wo Produce/ Nippon Television Network
Orange Days (2004)
Despite being released 15 years ago, the adulting challenges of this group of graduating college students still seem pretty current. Good-natured Kai Yuuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) keeps encountering Sae Hagio (Kou Shibasaki), a talented violinist who lost her hearing four years ago, and despite her passive-aggressive nature (and the fact that he has a girlfriend), finds himself inexplicably drawn to her. Friendships, bittersweet romances, job hunting challenges, and existential concerns are tackled in this wonderfully down-to-earth drama.
Orange Days/Tokyo Broadcasting System Television
Hana Kimi (2007)
In this delightfully wacky drama, Mizuki Ashiya (Maki Horikita) pretends to be a boy to get into Ohsaka Gakuen (nicknamed “Ikemen Paradise”), the all-male high school her brooding athlete crush Izumi Sano (Shun Oguri) attends. Her stars align when she is assigned to be his dormmate, and hilarity ensues as she tries to keep her secret intact, complicated even more when classmate Shuichi Nakatsu (Toma Ikuta) falls for her and questions his own sexuality. Absurd antics, warm friendships, youthful challenges, and unexpected romance make it hysterical and tender all at once.
Hana Kimi/Fuji Television Network
A Girl and Three Sweethearts (2016)
In case you wanted to begin your J-drama binge with something actually from this decade, this drama packs all the good stuff -- adulting, kilig-inducing romance, and family values. Down-on-her-luck pâtissier Misaki Sakurai (Mirei Kiritani) moves from Tokyo to a scenic surf town to work at the restaurant owned by her high school crush Chiaki Shinbasaki (Shohei Miura). She also moves into his home and things begin to heat up when she realizes he lives with his two brothers Toma (Shuhei Nomura) and Kanata (Kento Yamazaki -- you're welcome). Ah, the chemistry and brotherly drama! (Fun fact: Mirei Kiritani ended up marrying one of the brothers in real life -- but don't be tempted to Google until you're done!)
A Girl and Three Sweethearts/Fuji Television Network
Will you go see everything on the list?