So you've entered the J-drama fandom? Are you new to Asian dramas? Or did you stumble upon K-dramas and then started hearing about J-dramas?
Well, however you got here, let me be the first one to say welcome! Also, let me be the first one to say it's going to be hard but so worth it!
The first thing that you need to know is that Japan has strict copyright laws on EVERYTHING, including J-dramas. So if you're thinking, "How do I find things if that's the case?" Have no fear, there is a way!
There are legal streaming sites that exist and will provide you with a few J-dramas. The two that I know of are Dramafever and Crunchyroll. Dramafever's selection of Japanese shows are extremely limited (especially compared to their selection of K-dramas), so I do not recommend it as your first pick. Crunchyroll, however, has at least a decent selection to choose from. Like DramaFever, and other legal streaming sites, 1080p quality is available on most shows if you have a paid subscription, otherwise you are limited to only ok quality. Crunchyroll does not have everything that Dramafever has and vice versa, so it would not hurt to check out both sites.
Another option is to visit unlicensed streaming sites. These days there are a lot of these types of sites and they can be found all over google. The pros are that they are available worldwide. The cons are that don't always have the highest quality, usually have a lot of ads, and don't give any money to the companies that produce these dramas (unlike legal streaming sites.)
Then, of course, there is always the option of buying the DVD/ Blu-ray box sets of your favorite dramas, which would help give money to the companies which created these dramas. However, the downside is that these Japanese box sets cost a whopping 150-220 American dollars. In addition to that, sometimes these box sets don't even have English subtitles. I've bought only about three official box sets brand new offline because of how much I loved the shows. If you're interested in this option, you can go to CDJapan and buy the box sets that way.
After all, that are you still with me? I hope so! Now we're going to get into which dramas do I watch first? Do I watch one of these old classics that I hear a lot about like Hana Yori Dango, Gokusen, Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, Hotaru no Hikari or Nobuta wo Produce? Or do I watch something newer that I've seen a bunch of J-drama fans talking about currently on the interwebs like 99.9 Keiji Senmon Bengoshi, Kazoku no Katachi, or Watashi wo Hanasanaide?
Have no fear! There is something for everybody!
How about we start off with older dramas and why some of them are so famous. I'll break it down into the categories of Fashion, Set, Attractive Actors, Acting and Plot.
Let's start off with a complete breakdown of the first Japanese drama I ever saw, Gokusen.
To be honest, there was not much to look at, fashion wise, in this drama because the main character Yankumi always wore tracksuits while teaching. And her students were always boys who did not wear their uniforms properly. However, her tracksuits were her trademark and she did wear them in different colors. Sometimes when I'm rewatching Gokusen, I keep thinking that I want a cozy tracksuit like that. It is not uncommon in older dramas for a character to make trademark fashion choices like this.
Oh, but let's not forget this little gem...
This is a school drama, so 60% of the drama really takes place in the classroom. Since the drama deals with delinquents, her students have marked up and moved their desks around as they please. The classroom for the first season was very plain compared to season 2. However, many J-drama fans recognize these sets from Gokusen in a fraction of a second when shown pictures.
What else do I have to say besides the fact that it was full of eye-candy? Just eye-candy with bleached hair and a busted lip every other episode.
For the most part, Gokusen is a school drama and a comedy. The acting in this drama is perfect for the genre that it is: a comedy. There are some serious moments where Yankumi teaches her individual students some important lessons about life, but overall it is still quirky and funny. Some of Yankumi's reactions to things were over the top, though it was always done tastefully.
When I first started watching this drama, I 'marathoned' through it. Being new to J-dramaland at the time, I was so fascinated with this idea of the Japanese "Yankee" or bad boy, if you will. I can't think of one person in this drama that was not befitting of their character.
There isn't much of a progressive story line in Gokusen. It's sort of just Yankumi becoming a teacher finally, but still having to hide the fact that she was part of a yakuza family. The irony is that most of the life lessons she teachers her students, are ones that her grandfather (who is the head of a notorious yakuza family), taught her as she was growing up.This continues for three glorious seasons. I'm sure a vast majority of J-drama veterans probably went through this in their early days.
The original Gokusen came out in 2002 and the acting style, set, fashion, and the works of other earlier dramas were pretty similar to Gokusen. There are of course exceptions to everything but, I'll give some more general examples of other shows below.
(the photos are linked to their dramas)
The sets that you get in Japanese dramas, for the most part, are very realistic in what Japan actually looks and feels like. When I finally got my chance to visit Japan, it basically felt like I was in a real life drama because I had 'felt' the country so much already through their television shows. Also, the fashion can vary from show to show, some shows keep it very "casual" and dress their actors and actresses in everyday clothing and some dramas they dress them up in the latest fashion that would have been found in the magazines at the time. As you can see. fur was very much in between 2005 and 2008.
Now let's break down a newer drama that I loved to pieces (although it tore me apart for days once I finished it) :
In Siren, Kara (played by Nanao) wore a lot of short dresses, high heels, and her nails were always beautifully done. Never once did they show her without mascara and a little bit of gloss... and for that, I am grateful. The other characters in this series were cops and so were usually always dressed like cops. As a result, Kara was the main source of fashion eye-candy.
The sets to this show were just so awesome! From the apartment that the two cops shared, to the plastic surgery/cosmetics office, I wanted to visit all of these places because they were absolutely gorgeous. The apartment really reflected the character that was living there. Shinobu, the male lead, loves reading detective/mystery novels and he just has them stacked EVERYWHERE, now who doesn't want to live in this apartment with him. He practically had a library in there!
The male lead, Shinobu (played by Matsuzaka Tori) has a lot of screen time and that means a lot of eye candy time. If you're just looking to watching something with eye-candy, here you go!
Like I said earlier, this drama destroyed me for DAYS. If it weren't for the great cast, I don't think this story would have been sold to me so well. Each character was very complex and well written in their own right. The way this drama was executed by this cast could not have been better.
When I first started this drama, I did not read the full synopsis. Instead of realizing that there is a psychopathic character, I only read the part about a police couple who were living together. So imagine my surprise (and distress!) when I started this and couldn't stop until I finished it - when all I was looking for that day was a drama about happy-go-lucky cops that were in love. Despite the surprise, I have to say that it has quite an original plot line. I haven't seen any other dramas like it. I'm sure the concept, like every other story line in this world, has been done before of course, but it had a pretty original spin. I think that most people would not be disappointed by it.
The style of Jdramas as a whole has pretty much changed compared to the collection of picture examples I gave up top. The cinematography is different, the effects have gotten better and for the most part, the quirky loud and excited characters that a lot of us loved from the Gokusen era, don't appear as much, I'll give some more general examples of other shows below.
(drama photos are linked)
Are you still with me? Good! because there is another hurdle that I'm sure you have come across besides figuring out whether or not you should start something newer or older. Who do you watch?? You don't know any names at this point, sure you've seen some faces here and there but for the most part, you're not sure.
Don't worry, I've got you covered!
Good starter actors are usually the type of actors that star in dramas that will lead you to other good actors, so I will name off a few good starter actors and one bonus actor for both the male and female category.
Kamenashi, or more affectionately known as Kame, has been in multiple series and movies in his career. He's played quirky characters, weird characters, mysterious characters, and emotionally broken characters. He is a terrific actor who has made ever role feel 100% real. He's in a few J-drama classics so you will hear about him a lot. And if you're like me striving to see all the classics, he's hard to avoid.
Most commonly known as Matsujun on the internet, he, like Kame, has been in quite a few J-drama classics. He is best known for his cool characters. He generally plays lighter roles, never anything too dark or creepy. You will hear so much about him from J-drama fans everywhere because you can't avoid him. He's in Hana Yori Dango which is a top drama known all across Asia. Look out for him!
Most commonly known on the internet as Kimutaku, he's a living legend. Starring in tons of dramas since his teen years, he has won multiple awards for his repeated spectacular performances. He's known for playing cooler characters that match his television/variety personality, but he has played a wide range of roles and character types throughout his career. He too has been in a lot of J-drama classics. I make sure to check out any new drama he stars in and have yet to be disappointed.
4. Sato Takeru
One of the most popular young actors in Japan right now, who is not under Johnny's entertainment. He has gained a lot of international attention for his role as Kenshin in Rurouni Kenshin. Takeru plays a lot of multi-layered characters - and what I mean by that is, characters that are not all what that they seem on the surface, not necessarily dangerous but there is more than just a one-dimensional feel to the character when he plays them.
5. Miura Haruma
Known for his beautiful angular face and many of his dramas. You will run into him eventually because he covers romance, drama, comedy, and dark themes. With that being said I believe many people's first encounter with Miura has either been Koizora, Bloody Monday, or Gokusen 3. Mine was Gokusen 3 when he was rocking the blonde tipped fly-away hair. I've heard many debates on Miura's acting in particular, but I've always liked him and his presence in dramas and movies. He's definitely stronger now than in his younger days of acting but everything he's in is worth a try.
Also another popular young actor in Japan right now and I'm sorry that he was not on my radar until 2014. He has been in more dramas and movies than most people would think because they know him as an adult actor, however, he's been acting since his mom auditioned him when he was two. Hands down he's become known for having an angelic face and portraying mentally unstable characters. He does not only do mentally unstable character, he's also done some comedic roles and drama roles. I have not seen him dabble in romance as of yet but whatever he's doing I'm into it 110%
Named as one of the up and coming actors of this year Kubota has actually been in the game for 9 years, however, he's just gaining the recognition that he deserves today. For new drama watchers, I think of him as an essential actor to get into Japan's newer stuff because I cannot count the number of times that he's just simply guest starred in a movie or drama this year alone. I discovered him in 2014 when N no Tameni aired and immediately fell for his good looks and he made me cry so I was completely sold by him then.
8.(bonus) Narimiya Hiroki
Hiroki is surprisingly not as well known as some of these other actors when you first enter the drama world. I don't think I discovered him until I was about four or five years into watching dramas. He's one of those actors that pops up from time to time and every time you see him you think hey this person is really something interesting. And then you go back and look him up to find dramas that he's played bigger roles in. Sadly Hiroki is almost always placed as a strong second lead, but you better believe that he does not make that his handicap. Some of the dramas where he was a second lead or even a side character, I remembered him more than I remembered the rest of the cast.
I'm going to be very honest about this when I say that I don't really follow actresses like I follow actors, but those that I do follow I can say really caught my eye when I started watching dramas. Keiko being one of them. She started out in the sailor moon live action which was very cheesy, but charming. She later came back and did various other roles of comedic nature, but my first encounter with her was Akumu-chan where she played a teacher who was hiding the fact that her emotions were close to none when it came to other people. Since then she's become more well known for her more badass/ strong female characters like in Tantei no Tantei.
Maki at such a young age has already been in over 60 different dramas and movies roughly and when looking at the older drama era, she's everywhere. Most likely the first thing you will watch her in will either be Nobuta wo Produce, Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, or Kurosagi. When I was a young drama watcher I looked for her stuff all the time, that was back when she was only rocking the short haircut and now she's rocking a much longer hair style. She often plays a more quiet or mysterious character and is known for that. She has played in some comedic roles as well but I prefer her when she does roles like in Innocent Love.
Hirosue Ryoko, like Narimiya, has been in the background of a lot of the first things that I watched her in. And now as an experienced drama watcher, I've realized that she's been in a lot of dramas that I have seen and I just did not notice her. I believe my first encounter with her was Summer Snow where she played a sick character who was somewhat closed off to new people. I've seen Ryoko play crazy, comedic, dramatic and every other type of role. She flawlessly alternates between genres and she's a key gem that I wish I had paid attention to when I was new to J-dramaland.
Unlike the three ladies that I mentioned earlier Kyoko is known for her cute roles. She's always played a slightly on the ditsy side cute character that is in need of some help. However, she's done more mature roles where she is not like that, I, unfortunately, have yet to watch them but one of those more recent roles where she is not a cute character is Second Love. You will see Kyoko paired up with a lot of your favorite actors in years past so you will run into her eventually.
Being an older actress I don't know how many drama watchers out there follow her but she's one of my favorites. She always plays a character of maturity and grace. To newer J-drama fans you may know her as Mita from Kaisefu no Mita, a very stiff and stern yet creepy character. I honestly can't see her playing anything outside of drama, romance, and mystery. She's been in light-hearted series as well but she does not suit a comedic character, so if you're looking for funny and silly she is not your go-to gal.
6. (bonus) Shinohara Ryoko
Another older actress I found later on into being a drama fan. She plays it all, from a comedic spitfire character in Last Cinderella to Unfair where she plays a no- nonsense cop. She took a break from the industry for a while and came back with Last Cinderella where I discovered her. She hasn't played in too many dramas that are famous to international fans but she should definitely be recognized for her talents!
What about ratings??
And here is my very last tip to you new J-drama watchers, don't always dismiss a drama if it has low ratings on MDL. I strongly advise that you don't compare Jdrama ratings to other dramas and how they are rated. I almost missed out on some really good dramas because the rating on some J-dramas (that I eventually loved) had low ratings like a 6.5. For example, Artificial Beauty is rated low on here, but I thoroughly enjoyed that one. So perhaps be more open-minded to trying new dramas based off of synopsis' or maybe even an actor that you like. That way, you'll come to love the J-drama fandom even more.
You finished! Did you enjoy this? Did I help anybody out? Let me know in the comments below, I love reading those comments!