The Art Of The Idol Drama

It’s nearly impossible nowadays to watch a drama or a movie in Asia without some mention of an idol being in it. Some people are big fans of idols and support their acting, and some people roll their eyes at the idea. Additionally, idols seem to either do really well as actors/actresses in their projects, or to bomb them completely.

So what about the films and dramas where it’s all idols? Those are what I call 'Idol Dramas' aka where singers/performers try and debut into the acting world.

I want to elaborate the difference between an 'Idol Drama' and a drama with an idol in it.

Here are some examples of a drama/film with an idol in it, but are not idol dramas: Hwarang ( Choi Minho and  Kim Taehyung), Gokusen ( Matsumoto Jun), So I Married An Anti-Fan ( Park Chanyeol), Ani ni Aisaresugite komattemasu ( Katayose Ryota).

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Above are dramas listed where idols have been cast in lead roles, but are NOT the dominant part of the cast. The cast is filled with seasoned actors/actresses instead.

Examples of Idol dramas/films: GOGO Ikemen 5 (Boyfriend) High&Low series (LDH/Exile Tribe), EXO Next Door (EXO), Sailor Zombie (AKB48).

These series are dominated with idols in all the lead roles, with very few actors and actresses making up the supporting cast, if at all.

So now that I’ve clarified what is and is not an idol drama. Who cares? What’s the big deal? The point of making the distinction?

My point is that idol dramas are not meant to be great pieces of cinema. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main point is that idol dramas are stepping stone dramas to assist idols into the acting realm.

Let’s be realistic, aside from very rare cases, most productions companies will never hire someone without experience. Even the biggest names in idol life will be challenged to break into film with no experience.

To overcome this issue most talent companies will set up a mini-drama or film to create that experience. Idols are hard pressed for time, so they cannot ‘naturally’ grow as actors/actresses by taking smaller roles and growing into bigger ones. Companies have to keep making money off their talents, so to fully exploit their idol, they’ll fund the initial series their idols will star in.  Ideally, this is so all members get exposure into acting, while only a promising one or two will actually develop into full-fledged actors/actresses.

Okay, so that’s cool but why are a lot of these idol dramas so sub par then? The company is investing money, you would think they would be a little better?

There are quite a few factors into why idol dramas tend to look/feel subpar. Of course, there are tons of factor, but here I will list the top four reasons I have noticed over the viewings on why they’re often sub-par.

1)   Most of the idols starring in them have no acting experience whatsoever. Aside from a few acting lessons, and maybe an on-site coach, there is most likely not too much effort given into training idols into actors. It depends on the company and the natural talent, if an idol happens to make it as an actor too,  then great. If not, they fall back into singing/dancing/etc.

2)  Audience expectation. Most idol dramas are not filmed with the intent of being a great theatrical experience. The audience watching these dramas and films are already fans of the idols, so there isn't a huge loss of revenue. The roles most idols are cast as are more or less fit to the existing idol, rather than an original character. Most fans aren’t expecting great results, but rather a change of pace from the usual promotion schedule.

3)   Exposure. Idol dramas are all about exposure. If it does exceeding well, there will be press. If it bombs, there will still be press. Idol life still functions on and any press increases exposure. With increased exposure, means more revenue.

4)   Poor script writing due to expected poor acting. Most screenwriters don’t bother writing a quality script knowing that inexperienced actors will execute it. Or the script will be cut down so it’s easier for an inexperienced actor to perform.

You can argue this is the fault of non-idol dramas as well, so I’m going to talk about two examples of bad Idol Dramas/films, and then two good ones so you can see the marked difference.

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The Bad: Innocent Lilies and the sequel Innocent Lilies Two

Oh boy, I’ve reviewed them before but they are the prime example of idol drama done wrong. And don’t get me wrong; I adore the girls of Dempagumi.inc (Moga’s my favorite), but these mini-dramas were disasters - start to finish. Firstly, I can look at the majority of the dramas and say the budget was not there for this to be a solid production. Which is really unfortunate given Dempagumi.inc’s popularity and fan base.

The most obvious point was the majority of the girls had never seriously acted in a drama before. (They all had guest roles on Saikou no Rikon but that doesn’t count.) It was painfully obvious to the viewer and everyone involved. The drama looked forced, with really awkward execution. Of course, there were redeeming moments. However, it was more or less the girls of Dempangumi.inc being asked to cosplay and pretend to be alternate universe versions of themselves (more on that later).

The second point, while the plot was unique, it was shallow and underdeveloped by any standard. This drama series had the potential to be a really big fantasy genre that Japan’s been missing over the years.  Unfortunately, the drama series is only about 15-20 minutes per episode with not a lot of time to fully develop all the concepts and topics covered. What happened was the topics were all skimmed at the surface, with no real development in any aspect.

Additionally, the really obnoxious fanservice of swimming training and a kiss scene just showed how obvious this was for being about exposure versus a quality drama.

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The Bad: Attack on the Pin-Up Boys

Again, I adore Super Junior. However, once you get past the initial funny/cute elements of the story you see how much it is lacking. It was Super Junior’s debut film together, and for most of them, it’s one of two films they ever star in (The other being  I AM).

The plot is weak and rather immature given the guy’s ages: throwing poop on pretty boys? Really SM Entertainment? Again, the shallow themes are mostly due to the lack of experience most of the actors (SJ) had between them. However, what makes the difference between Attack on the Pin-Up Boys and Innocent Lilies was the investment in acting coaches/lessons. There are a lot less awkward interactions and overall better quality of acting due to this.

This film did kick start Choi SiwonKim Kibeom, and Hangeng’s careers. So we’ve got SM to thank for that.

A note on how to spot a bad idol drama; the characters are literally the idols themselves. Most of the time, rather than being an original character with the same name, it’s an alternative universe version of the idol as we see with both examples above. The coaching technique is usually along the lines of 'exaggerate yourself and your typical actions', versus real coaching or acting techniques involved. It marks out some of the issues idols have with ‘playing themselves’ as roles.

Rather than dwelling on the bad, let’s move onto some examples of really well-done idol dramas.

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The Good: Crow’s Blood

For whatever reason, on this site and others, AKB48 gets a lot of flack for supposed poor acting and idol actresses. Yet, both Sailor Zombie and Crow’s Blood were incredibly well done as idol dramas.

Focusing on Crow’s Blood, we see that AKB48’s company actually invests a fair amount into the series and their actresses. None of the actresses are bad; they deliver their lines well, express a wide range of emotions and develop as characters overall. The plot is a big step up in the creepy factor and delivery. The girls aren’t in challenging roles, however, but the characters versus being themselves.

The one drawback is that Crow’s Blood is not the first role for most of the actresses, which makes the comparison to Innocent Lilies unfair. However, it shows how the effort a company puts into idols makes such a difference. Acting lessons and a proper budget makes the appearance a lot better despite the ‘idol’ label.

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The Good: ZEDD

The exceptions being Shin Wonho, and Terada Takuya, this was the first film for the majority of Cross Gene. And yes, I am a fan of Cross Gene, too. Overall, it was really well executed and produced. All the members, rather than being cast as ‘Cross Gene’, were cast as characters, the first indicator of the seriously good idol drama.

ZEDD actually has a pretty mature, if not overdone (it was zombie season in 2014, okay?) theme of the zombie apocalypse and how they deal with the fallout and survival. The characters were well fleshed out, despite the incredibly quick pacing of the film and its duration (only 54 minutes!). However, the packing and timing show that perhaps pieces were cut in order to highlight better scenes and better acting versus all of it. It was really well edited if that was the case, but I haven’t found information regarding the editing part.

Additionally, there is a clear investment of time, money, and training. They even got actors from outside Japan and South Korea to participate in the film instead of casting only within. The biggest flaw in this was that, unbelievably, all the characters magically understand one another: Casper speaks in Chinese, Takuya in Japanese, SeyoungSangmin, Shin and Yongseok speaking in Korean, and with some English thrown in there by the supporting characters. This was most likely done to ease the delivery of lines but is also a flaw with filming and overall quality of the film. I have my doubts if it would be still as good should Takuya and Casper have delivered their lines in Korean.

With all that now explained, I hope everyone walks away with a better understanding of the idol drama, versus a drama with an idol in it, and maybe a few ideas of what to watch next.

Comments (26)

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  • Reply
    rosyprincess 24 days ago

  • Reply
    Bri 26 days ago

    Let's not forget about basically everything that Got7 has made....

  • Reply
    princessofsummer 26 days ago - edited

    "Aside from a few acting lessons, and maybe an on-site coach, there is most likely not too much effort given into training idols into actors."
    - I am no Japanese entertainment expert but I thought it was well known that J-idols are extensively trained on many areas, including acting? Jpop idols, in contrast to their Korean counterpart, are not frowned upon by the industry. They're expected to excel in variety of talents and films and doramas is one venue to showcase it. I think it's because of this that Japan has produced so many successful idol-actors (e.g., Ninomiya, KimuTaku, Kazuya).

    • Reply
      RisefromBlackAshes 26 days ago

      I'm not an expert on idols of course either, but being trained in acting depends on the company. Many Korean companies are pushing acting more recently well as singing/performance. I'm not so well versed at which companies and idols however.

      A lot of bigger Japanese companies such as Johnny's, LDH, and AKB groups invest more in acting as well as music and performance since their label of 'idol' does usually encompass singing/acting/as well as other talents. So while idols should be 'trained' in acting, this does not mean that they were trained as strongly, or for as long as they were in singing/performance. In my opinion, you can really see it in AKB where all of them are trained as actresses, but only a few of them really excel at doing so in comparison to the whole group.
      I guess what I'm getting at is that most idols are trained in acting, but not all the companies emphasize acting as much as musical talents despite Japan being more 'idol-actor' friendly.

    • Reply
      princessofsummer 26 days ago

      That's true and I agree. It's just that, in comparison, Japan has more experience in the 'art' of producing idol-actors. From what I observed, Korean agencies do not train their idols from the get-go. Landing in dramas are not their priority; more like a fruit of the constant media exposure. On the other hand, Japanese train all idols in acting with the expectation that two or more will be offered to be the new face of a drama.

      That being said, training is not a guarantee of success. One has to have that innate ability to immerse oneself in a character.

      But then again, this is not the point of the article lol. I enjoyed reading it, btw.

  • Reply
    Emily 28 days ago - edited

    As someone who is BARELY a fan of Super Junior, I actually really really enjoyed Attack on the Pin-Up Boys. I was having fun the entire time.
    I tend to stay a bit away from idol dramas, but sometimes they sneak up on me. Like Jang Geun Suk... he was an actor, but then somewhere down the line his dramas deteriorated into idol dramas.
    I actually thought Innocent Lilies sounded like an interesting drama plot, but when I saw it was all idols I decided not to watch it. Maybe I'll add it to my to-watch list, give it another go?
    I do plan on checking out that Cross Gene drama. Didn't realize Takuya was an idol, and after seeing him in The Lover I'd check out another thing with him in it in a second.

    • Reply
      RisefromBlackAshes 27 days ago

      I enjoyed 'Attack on the Pin-Up Boys' for what it was. Just looking at it a touch harder, it really wasn't up to snuff with my usual tastes.
      "Innocent Lilies" is worth a watch if you don't mind cringing a bit. It's worth a shot, but it's no offense taken if it's not your cup of tea.
      And Takuya has a few other roles in 'Ai Ore!' and another Japanese movie that recently came out. Japan loves him as an actor, so I recommend his movies/dramas a lot!

  • Reply
    MeegsS 28 days ago

    I think Hyungshik & Siwon are amazing from ZEA (haven't seen enough of DonJun, but agree he is pretty decent) Lee Joon is also another idol who is better as an actor. Taehyung's last scene in Hwarang was very impressive for a first timer (I cried).

  • Reply
    MeegsS 28 days ago - edited

    Crow's Blood is good, but I have trouble finding the whole drama with subtitles. Help anyone?

  • Reply
    Diefenbaker 28 days ago - edited

    I adore Super Junior but Attack of the Pin Up Boys was so cringe-worthy I'm embarrassed to admit, to this day, I sat through the whole thing. I did it for Yesung!

    On the other hand, I am so thrilled Yesung, who's my ultimate KPop bias, seems to be doing more acting projects. He needs more acting experience but he is doing quite well considering he only has a handful of acting jobs to his belt.

    • Reply
      RisefromBlackAshes 27 days ago

      I did the same thing for the same person! Yesung has always been my fave but I was so disappointed his role wasn't bigger.

      I've been really excited for his roles as well! I've been looking forward to "My Korean Teacher" for months!

  • Reply
    shaz22 28 days ago

    Let me correct the title if I may:
    The art in idol drama or the lack of it

  • Reply
    Knavery 28 days ago - edited

    It's a tough one. I feel like Hwarang and Moorim School in particular straddle that fine line and are close to being "idol dramas" (in a bad sense - the drama isn't good and looks like it was made because they could get a bunch of idols). I'm not saying either one is a bad show but they both felt pretty weak to me in terms of writing/direction.

    A problem I have whenever these singers get cast in shows (not so much movies) is an overwhelming majority of the comments and ratings get really polarized. Fanbases mobilize and they hate on particular characters just to support the character their idol is playing.
    It's unfortunate and I'd like to think it doesn't influence how I view stuff like Hwarang and Moorim School - but I'm guessing it does have some influence.

  • Reply
    sunah 28 days ago - edited

    Awesome article.

    I have absolutely nothing against an idol acting in a drama (and I never expect much from an 'idol drama' anyway, it's more like a fun play where you can see your idols for more consecutive minutes lol) and I get that some of these idols are inexperienced....but why the hate? (from a lot of people.)

    Some idol-actors are some of my favourite! Lee Joon, Eun Ji, Sungjae, Hyungshik who else gosh I think I have at least 5 more to add but I can't think of them atm. I honestly think these 4 I mentioned are better than so many other actors I've watched (they might even stand side by side with my favourite actors hehe)

    And completely my own opinion but I think the 3 idols in Hwarang did a hell of a lot better than Go Ara. Her acting was super stiff in Hwarang and the fact that I'm bitter about that drama is 80% her doing. (the princess' actress, So Yeji as well. I couldnt buy her acting here at all.)

    • Reply
      MeegsS 28 days ago

      Lee Joon is amazing. He made the best decision to leave MBLAQ and focus on acting. MBLAQ has it's two best singers and a rapper so they're fine too. Sad he has to leave for the military soon. Both he and Seo In Guk will be dearly missed.

  • Reply
    blacklatina 28 days ago - edited

    Even though " High & Low"(drama &movies) is basically the Exile Tribe idol group in almost all characthers, is an excellent crime drama very well produced and stunning fight scenes... I didnt knew about jpop idols before I watched it ,I was surprise to find out later that almost all those men were boyband members even the old ones...

  • Reply
    kittyflumpin 28 days ago - edited

    HiGH&LOW is fantastic, and it's kind of funny to think of it as an "idol drama" (b/c I usually think of those as being very fluffy) but it really is. But imo it's an example of an idol drama done *right*. I wasn't even a fan of any of the EXILE Tribe groups (I was vaguely aware of their existences but couldn't tell you how they were related to one another, etc.) before I watched the show, but I sure am now!

    • Reply
      RisefromBlackAshes 27 days ago

      I love HiGH&LOW. It was so hard to NOT talk about it in this article. I loved the idols beforehand, and now it's even more so because of it. :)

  • Reply
    cityhunter83 28 days ago - edited

    Park Hyung Shik is an idol too.

    • Reply
      Hyuna 28 days ago

      I wanted to say that too! Maybe he doesn't count anymore because he hasn't been very active with his group in the last few years (or maybe the writer just didn't know or forgot)

    • Reply
      Nor 28 days ago

      ZE:A is definitely an actor-ful group :P Siwan, Hyungshik, Dongjun.. all are better known for their acting now *-*

    • Reply
      RisefromBlackAshes 27 days ago

      100% accurate that I didn't know that Park Hyun Shik is an idol as well. (I haven't followed ZE:A closely, or see his dramas. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Reply
    KangHae 28 days ago - edited

    I 'LOVED' ZEDD and Cross Gene. It was simply one of the BEST idol dramas/movies.

    • Reply
      Nor 28 days ago

      Thanks for mentioning this! I loved Shin in Legend of the Blue Sea, so I might watch that just to see him again :3

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