10 of the Best Japanese Dramas of All-Time
Want to get into the J-drama craze but don't know where to start? Here are ten that you simply mustn't miss—scroll down for more information!
- Great Teacher Onizuka a.k.a. GTO (1998)
- Trick (2000 / 2002 / 2003)
- Engine (2005)
- Gokusen (2002 / 2005 / 2008)
- Nodame Cantabile (2006)
- Hana Yori Dango (2005 / 2007)
- Ryusei no Kizuna (2008)
- Osen (2008)
- Dragon Zakura (2005)
- Nobuta wo Produce (2005)
1. Great Teacher Onizuka a.k.a. GTO (1998)
What to Expect: Life lessons, surprising situation resolutions, teacher-student bonding, and lots of laughs
"Great Teacher Onizuka" (GTO) is based on Fujisawa Tohru's manga and anime (animated series) of the same title.
Onizuka Eikichi (played by Takashi Sorimachi) attended a low-ranking university and was a biker gang leader. Surprisingly, however, he aspired to be a school teacher. An eccentric principal then hires him to teach at Gakuin School, where he is assigned to a class full of mischief-makers.
Because of his unimpressive background, the other teachers and the students try to bully him out of the school. However, Onizuka manages to capture their hearts and trust with his unexpected and unconventional teaching methods.
If you want to watch a high school dorama, start with GTO because it's a classic. It's also the template for the school-based Japanese TV series that followed it.
There are lots of hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments. At the same time, the show conveys moral lessons without resorting to preaching. Sorimachi Takashi is perfectly cast as the somewhat dim but street-smart Onizuka.
Also, the bond he forms with his students and his romance with fellow teacher Fuyutsuki Azusa (played by his real-life wife Nanako Matsushima) has a realistic, endearing quality that will leave you wanting more.
2. Trick (2000 / 2002 / 2003)
What to Expect: Suspense, comedy, baffling mysteries, and great chemistry between actors
"Trick" revolves around Yamada Naoko (Nakama Yukie), a talented but unemployed magician and Professor Ueda (Abe Hiroshi), a physics professor who does not believe in magic at all.
After solving a cult mystery using their combined knowledge and skills, the unlikely duo find themselves teaming up, albeit unwillingly. Together, with bumbling police officer Yabe Kenzo (Gokusen's Head Teacher Sawatari, Namase Katsuhisa), they uncover and expose even more supernatural phenomena and cases.
The cases they encounter border on the paranormal and get even more interesting as the series progresses. The funny characters and the actors' great chemistry give the series a light and very watchable flavor—it has been described as "X-Files meets Scooby Doo." It's no wonder that the series lasted for three whole seasons.
3. Engine (2005)
What to Expect: Great acting, lots of laughs, touching moments (keep your Kleenex on hand!), and some light romance
"Engine" revolves around Jiro Kanzaki (Kimura Takuya), a world-famous F3000 test driver. He suffers an injury while racing in Europe, and this forces him to return to Japan. There, he finds that he is no longer welcome to race with his old team because they now have younger and faster racers.
Jiro decides to do whatever it takes to race again, including working as a mechanic in his old company. He goes home to live with his adoptive dad and sister who, he is surprised to see, are now running an orphanage.
At first he doesn't care about home life and the children living there. Over time, however, he grows fond of the kids and even becomes instrumental to their personal success and long-term happiness, as they do to his.
If you're familiar with Kimura Takuya and his romance dramas, you will definitely see a different, more tender side of him here. This heart-tugging TV series at first looks like it's about racing, but in fact it speaks more about life and the importance of family.
Each episode focuses on one child and how an encounter with Jiro changes his or her perspective. More often than not, it also demonstrates a moral lesson—without being preachy and melodramatic. Popular Japanese actress Koyuki plays Tomomi-sensei, Jiro's love interest.
Note: While you're at it, make it a point to watch all of Kimutaku's Jdoramas. Aside from "Engine," I also highly recommend "Long Vacation," "Love Generation," "Good Luck!" "Hero," and "Mr. Brain." He's not called the King of Jdramas for nothing!
Engine: First Part of Episode One
4. Gokusen (2002 / 2005 / 2008)
What to Expect: Life lessons, teacher-student bonding, lots of laughs, and a feel-good vibe
"Gokusen," short for Gokudo no Sensei, loosely translates to "Gangster Teacher." The series, based on Morimoto Kozueko's manga of the same title, is about Yamaguchi Kumiko (Nakama Yukie), a starry-eyed woman who is slated to become the fourth generation leader of the notorious Oedo Yakuza clan.
However, she has aspirations of becoming a school teacher instead. She enters Shirokin Gakuen and gets assigned to section 3-D, a class of troublemakers. The rowdy, delinquent students bully her to try to make her quit.
In time, however, she wins their trust and hearts with her Yakuza ways, passion, and devotion to her job. She is even given a cute nickname by her students: Yankumi.
This drama is shot as a formulaic, over-the-top and campy school-based TV series, which always ends with Yankumi as a superhero. She appears in moments when her students are in distress, rescuing them and giving their opponents an earful.
However, this repetitive formula works, thanks to Nakama Yukie's charm and hilarious antics. In fact, every episode has a feel-good ending that makes you think about life and relationships in general.
Gokusen spans three seasons and has inspired a lot of young actors.
Gokusen: Episode One
5. Nodame Cantabile (2006)
What to Expect: Classical music education, cute romantic moments, lots of laughs, and a feel-good vibe
"Nodame Cantabile" is a series based on Tomoko Ninomiya's successful manga of the same name. It revolves around the quirky romance of two people with contrasting personalities and backgrounds. Noda Megumi, or "Nodame" (played by Juri Ueno) is an eccentric and extremely gifted pianist whose lifelong dream is to be a kindergarten teacher.
She plays music both free-form (cantabile) and by ear (oido), and refuses to read music scores. Meanwhile, Chiaki Shinichi (Hiroshi Tamaki) who lives next door is Momogaoka Academy's top student. He is straight-laced and very talented in piano and violin. He also has secret ambitions to become a conductor.
Nodame and Chiaki meet by chance. She falls in love with him and, although it takes a while longer, Chiaki begins to love and appreciate Nodame for who she is. Their relationship causes them both to develop and grow as a couple and as musicians in their own right.
I love this jdrama. In fact, it was the first Japanese TV series I watched in its entirety and I blame it for my current drama addiction. It also made me an instant fan of Ueno, Tamaki, Eita, and Naoto Takenaka, and it got me to appreciate classical music.
The drama series was so successful that it spawned a two-part four-hour special in 2008. A two-part movie was made and screened as well in 2009 and 2010.
6. Hana Yori Dango (2005 / 2007)
What to Expect: Epic romance, good-looking boys, comedy, and so-cheesy-that-they're-good moments
Based on the Japanese shoujo manga of the same title by Kamio Yoko, "Hana Yori Dango" (Boys Before Flowers) is your classic, "rich heir falls in love with the poor girl story." Expect a lot of drama and unexpected (and frustrating) twists.
Makino Tsukushi (Mao Inoue) is the only poor student at Eitoku Gakuen, a school for the ridiculously rich. The school is also ruled by the Flower 4 or F4, a group of four boys from wealthy influential families: Domyouji Tsukasa (Jun Matsumoto), Hanazawa Rui (Shun Oguri), Nishikado Sojiro (Matsuda Shota), and Mimasaka Akira (Abe Tsuyoshi). Once a student gets on the F4's nerves, he or she becomes a persona non grata and is driven out of school.
Makino is the only one brave enough to stand up to the F4, specifically their arrogant leader Domyouji. Then, as fate would have it, the two end up falling in love. Drama and painful situations ensue when Domyouji's mom opposes the relationship, but his sister and the F4 take Makino's side and together, they all take pains to keep the star-crossed lovers together.
This drama series spans two seasons and has been remade into a highly successful drama series in Taiwan, called "Meteor Garden," and one in Korea called "Boys Over Flowers."
7. Ryusei no Kizuna (2008)
What to Expect: A great plot, excellent acting and chemistry, sibling bonding, mystery, drama, suspense, light romance, and laughs
An adaptation of Higashino Keigo's bestseller novel, "Ryusei no Kizuna" (translation: Bound by Shooting Stars) is part murder mystery and part family drama, uniquely told through acclaimed screenwriter Kudo Kankuro's imagination.
Koichi (Nino Kazunari), Taisuke (Ryo Nishikido), and Shizuna (Erika Toda) are three siblings whose parents were brutally murdered when they were just kids. The three kids go off in the middle of the night to watch the Leonid meteor shower, not knowing that they will have to come home to a gruesome and traumatic scene later that night.
The series takes off 14 years after the incident, a few weeks before the statute of limitations expires. Unbeknownst to the police, the siblings have started working as con artists for fun and money. In the middle of one of their con operations, an incident involving a cherished hayashi rice family recipe starts a chain of events that brings them back to the murder case which then leads them to their parents' killer.
The three idols give surprisingly excellent performances and the serious story is lightened through the depiction of their con operations, which play out like movies within a movie. This unique approach makes a heavy story extremely entertaining and watchable.
8. Osen (2008)
What to Expect: Glorious Japanese food preparation shots, a delightful ensemble, light drama, and lots of laughs
"Osen" is a drama series about Handa Sen (Aoi Yu), fondly called Osen. She is the okami (proprietress) of Isshouan, a long-standing traditional restaurant in the lower part of Tokyo. In this world of fast food, konbinis, and take out, Isshouan is one of the few restaurants in Tokyo that still serves Japanese food in the traditional, slow-cooked style.
While the rest of Japan seemingly goes through modernization, Osen takes great pains in preserving traditional methods of cooking which is demonstrated by the high quality of food she serves.
Together with her able kitchen staff, including an eager-beaver novice cook Ezaki "Yocchan" Yoshio (hilariously played by Japanese actor and idol Uchi Hiroki), and skilled but under-appreciated chef Takeda Tomekichi (rising star Mukai Osamu), they fight the pressures of commercialization and stand firm for what they believe in.
I watched "Osen" without knowing what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to see an entertaining TV series with touching but funny situations excellently played by a delightful cast.
If you want to learn all about traditional Japanese food and how it is prepared, watch this drama. I guarantee that each episode will make you want to run to the nearest Japanese restaurant!
Osen: Opening Credits
9. Dragon Zakura (2005)
What to Expect: Unorthodox studying techniques that can be applied in real life, life lessons, and high school fun
Dragon Zakura revolves around Sakuragi Kenji (veteran actor Abe Hiroshi), an ex-motorcycle gang member and a now out-of-work-and-broke but brilliant lawyer who comes up with an idea that he thinks will solve his money problems.
He proposes to elevate the reputation of Ryuzan High School, a school known for having the lowest grade point average, by grooming five of their students so they can enter the prestigious Tokyo University (Tokyo Daigakou or Toudai for short).
Everyone scoffs at him and his crazy proposal, including students at more prestigious schools and Ryuzan's own faculty and student body. Sakuragi, however, manages to entice a group of kids to join his class, much to the faculty's dismay.
The students—aptly played by Tomohisa Yamashita, Nagasawa Masami, Aragaki Yui, Koike Teppei, Nakao Akiyoshi, and Saeko—go through a special year-long training session under Sakuragi where they not only learn about the Toudai entrance exam, but they also learn valuable lessons about life and their approach to education.
Students struggling in school will benefit from watching this show because of the fun methods Sakuragi uses to educate the class (for example, treating mathematics as a ping-pong game, learning English by dancing and singing along to an English-language song, and so forth).
I completely enjoyed watching this drama and even learned a lot of facts and studying techniques myself—I just wish I was young enough to apply them in class!
Dragon Zakura: Opening Credits
10. Nobuta wo Produce (2005)
What to Expect: Life-altering lessons, superb performances from the cast, laughs, and touching moments
"Nobuta wo Produce" is about Kiritani Shuji (Kamenashi Kazuya), the most popular boy in school, Kusano Akira (Tomohisa Yamashita), an annoying outcast who happens to be the son of a wealthy businessman, and Kotani Nobuko (Maki Horikita), a reclusive girl who hides behind her hair and is often bullied in class.
Shuji absolutely can't stand Akira, but in an effort to make their last year in high school unforgettable, they secretly make a plan to "produce" Nobuko—whom they call Nobuta— and make her popular using Shuji's popularity and Akira's money.
Though at first these three have absolutely nothing, they grow close and form a special friendship throughout the series.
If you want a school-based drama that goes deeper beyond the usual high school shenanigans, make sure to watch this one. The storyline and superb cast performances bring you a high school drama you won't easily forget.
Where others preach moral lessons, this one lets the story flow naturally, allowing the viewer to make their own conclusion.
Nobuta wo Produce: Episode One
More Must-Watch Japanese Dramas
I can't just mention my top 10 and leave you wanting more. Here's a list of some more of my favorite J-dramas that I really enjoyed and would not hesitate to watch over again.
- Binbo Danshi (2008)
- Buzzer Beat (2009)
- Hotaru no Hikari (2007)
- Lunch Queen (2002)
- Proposal Daisakusen (2007)
- Zettai Kareshi (2008)
- Brother Beat (2005)
- Konkatsu! (2009)
- Kekkon Dekinai Otoko (2006)
Feel free to recommend something I failed to include in this list. I'm open to suggestions!