I wasn’t sure if I was going to manage a j-drama year-end review before February, especially since there were a few dramas I was still scrambling to finish, but I managed to do it (though just barely). While there weren’t any juggernauts like last year’s Amachan or Hanzawa Naoki and there were definitely a number of disappointments, I left 2014 feeling pretty optimistic about the j-drama scene. My list is rather long (how did I even watch this many dramas?), so let’s get down to it.
Oh Shitsuren Chocolatier, I had such high hopes for you and you just failed to ever do anything interesting over your eleven episode run. I don’t have a problem with watching dislikable characters if they’re at least entertaining (hello The Greatest Marriage), but nothing ever happened in Shitsuren Chocolatier. Everyone would just mope around, talk about each other behind their back, and then mope some more. Everyone was just so petty and passive aggressive that it became aggravating to watch. Some stuff did happen with secondary couple Kasumi Arimura and Mizobata Junpei, but the two lacked any type of romantic tension and their story was so bland that watching them was like watching paint dry.
At least the show didn’t pull out a happy ending or reset everything to zero, but considering I never became invested enough in any of these characters or their non-existent relationships with one another to care what happened to them anyway, this was still a waste of my time.
Nazo no Tenkousei
Nazo no Tenkousei can best be described as ambitious. It was atmospheric and whimsical and the directing made it feel like I was in the world instead of just watching characters on the screen. The story takes a while to get going yet it never felt slow or draggy. However, just as things start to come together and it looks like something’s huge going to happen, the plot just sort of fizzles out. The thing is I understand why Nazo no Tenkousei ends the way it does. While it has all the trappings of a sci-fi drama, it’s more of a human drama with sci-fi elements as Yamazawa and eventually the other dimension travelers come to appreciate the world their new world and the value of life. I could see that Nazo no Tenkousei tried to connect these two ideas to make a cohesive story, but instead they diverge and it results in a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.
All that aside though, Nazo no Tenkousei is a good drama and the most creative one I’ve seen in a while, so I don’t regret watching it, but knowing that it could have been more is somewhat frustrating.
What propels BORDER above your usual cop procedural drama wasn’t its ghost gimmick, its dark humor, or even the camaraderie between the Ishikawa and his colleages. Those were all well and good, but BORDER was a one man show and Oguri Shun gives one hell of a performance as the morally gray detective Ishikawa Ango. With a bullet in his brain suddenly giving him the ability to see ghosts, Ishikawa uses his new skill to help him solve cases.
There isn’t really an overarching story to BORDER, as each episode deals with Ishikawa working with a ghost to bring a killer to justice. Yes, Ishikawa wants to find out who shot him, but there really isn’t a lot of focus on that until near the end, and even then it’s only for one episode. Instead, BORDER deals with the thin line between good and evil as we watch Ishikawa inch closer and closer to tipping over to the other side as his ghost-seeing power drives him to punish criminals, no matter the cost. He believes the ends justify the means because he knows who’s in the wrong, but even Ishikawa is aware that he’s beginning to overstep his limits and his psychological fracturing was both frightening and fascinating to watch.
In spite of BORDER’s unusual, yet well-executed take on the ghost-seeing genre, I didn’t think it was that great. Though the cases were changed up from week to week so it never got repetitive, the early episodes were a bit weak and while Ishikawa’s colleages eventually became more well-rounded characters, they were cringe-inducing caricatures in the beginning and even at the end, I wasn’t that invested in them. Still, I think BORDER’s worth a look since it takes psychological suspense to a different level.
Alice no Toge
Ueno Juri’s first drama since Gou back in 2011, I had high hopes for Alice no Toge, a drama about a young woman seeking revenge for the death of her father. Asumi was smart, calculating, and downright sadistic sometimes in her cutthroat thirst for answers, but c’mon, who doesn’t like a badass? Unfortunately, the writer decided halfway through that maybe Asumi was a little too unlikable and tried to redeem her character. That…did not work out so well.
I don’t have a problem with trying to make your character more relatable because admittedly Asumi came off as a little too cold and angry at the world, but you don’t have to dumb down your heroine to do it. Asumi’s character makes a complete 180 going from bloodthirsty and skeptical to naïve and incompetent and it became so frustrating to watch. She should have at least listened to Nishikado (Odagiri Joe), her one and only ally during her journey, but nope, let’s just have Asumi keep doing stupid things and try to wring emotion from it.
It didn’t help that the story was pretty weak already as it became a villain of the week format and the real reason behind the death of Asumi’s dad became so convoluted that eventually you didn’t even care anymore. Add in some cookie-cutter side characters that showed up occasionally to move the plot along and Alice no Toge was a hot mess by the end.
MOZU Season 1
By and far, Mozu was one of my most anticipated dramas this year. A joint production between TBS and WOWOW,which have both churned out gritty thrillers in the past, and with heavy-weights like Nishijima Hidetoshi, Maki Yoko, and Kagawa Teruyuki heading the cast, Mozu seemed destined to be the best drama this year. A sleek procedural drama with action scenes that kept you on the edge of your seat, Mozu’s main failing was that its mystery spurred more questions than answers and centered around characters that were hard to relate to. I couldn’t sympathize with the cold Kuraki and his desperation to understand his deceased wife and I didn’t care about Miki and her relationship with her father because they literally told us nothing about it. Osugi was slightly easier to empathize with, though he grated on my nerves most of the time. Surpirsingly, the only character that made an impact was Ikematsu Sosuke’s character Shingai/Hiromi, a cross-dressing psychopath with an unexpectedly moving past.
Overall, Mozu’s first season wasn’t terrible and to be honest its production set a really high bar for future dramas, but its story just wasn’t put together well enough for me to move onto season two and judging by word on the blogosphere, I didn’t miss much.
Saigo Kara Nibanme no Koi Season 2
There’s just something about Saigo Kara Nibanme no Koi that makes me feel so warm and fuzzy. It’s such an easy-going, slice-of-life drama that knows how to take the little moments and parts of day to day life and make them feel real and relatable. Going back to Kamakura two years after the first season was like returning home after being away for a while; there are little changes here and there, but the people are still the same and it’s the comforting place it’s always been.
I still don’t think Saigo Kara Nibanme no Koi needed a sequel and honestly the show never did anything different from its first season, but maybe that’s a good thing because you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I wouldn’t put it past Fuji to trot Saigo Kara Nibanme no Koi out for a third season, but unless Wahei and Chiaki finally decide to get married, I think it’s best to just let a good thing go.
River’s Edge Ookawabata Tanteisha
Smart, sleek, and stylish, River’s Edge was a pleasant, if not quite a compelling watch. It wasn’t your typical detective drama as it had quite a few offbeat, quirky episodes that I really enjoyed like the hilarious idol episode and the scary face competition. Yet River’s Edge was never silly; it knew how to make you empathize with the characters that came in seeking help and managed to impart some interesting life lessons without being cheesy or preachy.
However, the key to a good episodic show is not becoming repetitive and while River’s Edge does a good job at that in the beginning, it takes a nosedive in the latter half as the stories become predictable. River’s Edge has some stand out episodes, but I don’t think this is a show I’ll revisit any time in the near future.
Gokuako Ganbo wasn’t a bad show, but it never lived up to its potential. The cases were smart and the show never felt like it was talking down to me like a lot of “teaching” dramas do, but it lacked any type of emotional tug. It wasn’t highly moralistic or preachy, but paired with the slapstick humor, the characters felt more like caricatures than real people and I could never became attached to any of them. It’s only been a couple of months since I finished it, but I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names. I found myself becoming less and less excited with each episode and by the end it just left me cold.
I really wanted to like Wakamonotachi 2014 as it was pretty much my dream cast (seriously, when are you ever going to see Tsumabaki Satoshi, Eita, Mitsushima Hikari, Aoi Yu, and Emoto Tasuku in the same drama again?), but it just didn’t click for me. I do think the show got better as it went on and fleshed out its characters a bit more, but it veered a little too close on the preachy side whenever it was trying to make a point and while I could somewhat understand the feelings of oldest brother Asahi, his hot-headedness really got on my nerves. Still, I think the cast had a really good synergy, especially between Tsumabaki and Eita as the two oldest siblings and the show managed to pack an emotional punch sometimes, like with Hikari’s and Tadashi’s stories. Props also to Nagasawa Masami,who I’ve always found to be lacking when it comes to dramatic roles. She actually does a good job here as the troubled and guarded Yashiro. Overall though, Wakamonotachi 2014 was less than what I had hoped for.
Kazokugari turned out to be one of my favorite dramas of the year, not just because it was an intense and gritty thriller, those are a dime a dozen, but because at its core it was a story about family. It didn’t shy away from depicting the dysfunctional and sometimes uncomfortable dynamics between family members such as the tension filled relationship between female lead Yuko and her parents or the isolation and pressure a teenager feels from their parents and society. It could be a bit heavy-handed at times at getting its message across, but it was easy to sympathize and root for these characters to accept and work through their family issues. It seamlessly weaved these stories into the main mystery about the string of family suicides and though there were some storylines I didn’t care for like the former yakuza member and his family, Kazokugari managed to balance them all and make them all connect.
The cast is decent, with Matsuyuki Yasuko leading as the vulnerable and suspicious child psychologist Hizaki Yuko and Endo Shinichi playing the hardened and perhaps slightly paranoid officer Mamihara Koki. Ito Atsushi is really the weak link because while he’s good at being the character used for comic fodder, which Shun admittedly is, it was hard to take him seriously in more emotional scenes. Thankfully, a lot of Shun’s character depends on Yuko and the connection and development of the relationship between them was well written and managed to somewhat make up for Ito’s shortcomings.
Kazokugari is definitely dark and hard to watch at times, but it actually has quite a bit of comedy and heartwarming moments. It was a realistic family drama with a different edge that made it gripping and fun from beginning to end.
Gomen ne Seishun!
Normally, cheesy school dramas aren’t my thing, and Gomen ne Seishun is as cheesy as they come, but I really loved this show. It was far from perfect and while Kudo Kankuro’s dialogue made me laugh until I cried, I think he had too many ideas and side plots that didn’t all quite connect and I wish he had developed the main story a bit more instead of just letting it sit on the backburner until the last minute. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the students’ stories, but I would have liked to learn a bit more about Yuko and Satoshi and see more interactions between those two and Heisuke, but instead they were just dragged in and out of the story whenever it was convenient. It just made it hard to be invested in Heisuke coming to terms with his past when it didn’t seem like the show itself cared that much.
I haven’t seen Ryo act in a while, at least not since Zenkai Girl, and while I don’t think he was bad here as the guilt-wracked Heisuke, he was really overshadowed by his co-stars. I’ve already heaped all the praises I can on Hikari’s feisty character Hachiya Risa, as well as on Kuroshina Yuina as the serious school president Nakai Takako, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Koseki Yuta’s performance as the transgender student Cosume. KudoKan could have easily just played Cosume’s character for laughs, but he approaches his gender identity disorder seriously and Koseki’s portrayal really elevated Cosume’s conflict.
Though it lacked in execution, Gomen ne Seishun had a lot of heart and sincerity and never failed to put a smile on my face from week to week.
N no Tame ni
I was kind of burned out on murder mysteries by the time the fall season rolled around, but I saw a lot of praise for melodrama N no Tame ni, so I waited until it finished to marathon it and boy was I glad I did. The dark horse of the fall season, N no Tame ni unravels the mystery behind an incident ten years earlier that resulted in the deaths of a married couple. There were several witnesses and the supposed criminal attests he did it for “N,” but of course all the characters share the same initial so we have to figure out which “N” it is.
Literally translated as “For N,” N no Tame ni teases out a complicated mystery while exploring the lengths a person will go to for a loved one. It questions what qualifies as love as it slowly draws these characters together and builds their relationships with one another.
The characters weren’t overly complex, but were far from being drawn in broad strokes as they all had their own demons to overcome. Whether it was Nozomi and Shinji’s past on the island or Nishizaki’s abusive childhood, the show dealt with these issues sincerely, using them to construct the characters and explain their motivations instead of merely relying on them as plot devices.
Though it deals with heavy subjects, I wouldn’t say N no Tame ni is particularly dark or depressing. It was emotionally gutting at times, especially watching Nozomi suffer so much in the beginning, but it’s mostly heartwarming and uplifting and while I wouldn’t say there was a particularly happy ending, it brought closure to the story and did justice to its characters and I can’t ask for more from a drama than that.
With all the cop and mystery dramas, the j-drama scene was in need of something light and frothy and the cute rom-com/family drama Dear Sister fit the bill. It wasn’t a particularly addicting show, but it was an easy watch as conflicts were quickly resolved and misunderstandings were never drawn out. There were some plot contrivances, especially in the early episodes, but it wasn’t enough to deter me from the main story.
The romance was more on the fluffy side, but it didn’t make it any less substantial. It was nice to have male leads that respected and supported their loved ones without being mopey or a doormat. Why aren’t there more guys like this in dramas?
The bread and butter of the show however, was the relationship between Misaki and Hazuki. I have a younger sister and an older sister, so I found it easy to relate to both characters whether it was Hazuki’s frustration with always having to put up with her younger sister’s antics or Misaki’s desire to help Hazuki. I will admit that Misaki did get on my nerves a little bit in the beginning as the perfect younger sister that everyone seemed to love, but she grew on me eventually. But I’m pretty biased towards Ishihara Satomi, so that might be a factor as well.
Their fights were petty and at times trying to watch, but siblings can hold grudges over the smallest of things. Yet when push came to shove, Misaki and Hazuki overcame their differences and were able to help and depend on each other.
I didn’t love it, but if you want something easy to watch, Dear Sister might be for you.
For me at least, 2014 was a better year for j-dramas than 2013, though there were definitely a fair amount of duds, I think the standouts more than made up for the bad ones. I didn’t get to blog as much as I wanted to last year, but I did connect with a lot of fellow bloggers and j-drama lovers, and I’m always grateful to meet more people in the community.
I hope everyone’s having a wonderful 2015 so far and cheers to another year of watching dramas!