In Which Japanese Dramas Have Reached a Plateau

I’ve been noticing a trend with Japanese Dramas over the past two years or less, a trend that seems to be becoming increasingly bad than increasingly good. This trend, as I’ve noticed, seems to involve the recycling of storylines. I can list the top 5 storylines you can expect to find repeated several times in one season off of the top of my head:

  1. High school drama (or the manga adaptation) – Kinpachi, GTO, Gokusen, Samurai High School, Life, Yuukan Club, etc
  2. Police/Detective drama – Bayside Shakedown, Aibou, Control, Spec, JOKER, etc
  3. The star crossed lovers drama – Buzzer Beat, Brother Beat, Hotelier, etc
  4. The revenge/mystery drama – Ryuusei no Kizuna, Guilty, Maou, Orthros no Inu, etc
  5. The medical drama – GM Odore Doctor, Code Blue, Iryuu, Glorious Team Batista, etc

Now, of course, this can be atypical in any country’s programming, but, the issue here is not necessarily the repetition of the genre but the repetition of the storyline. When you watch GTO you’ve already watched Gokusen, when you’ve watched Maou you’ve already watched Guilty. The list goes on, but you get the point I’m trying to make here. Japan’s television industry seems to be stuck in this endless circle of recycled story arcs, character types, and situations that is making the drama experience less exciting and more stagnant. Instead of the station’s trying to draft up an entirely new story that puts a twist in the redundancy, they keep it safe and adapt a published work or make another sequel or churn out a standard fair drama.

It really doesn’t help that these shows are practically filmed in real time. If you’re not familiar with the Japanese drama production schedule, I’ll explain it for you. Usually, a drama goes into production two to three weeks prior to the first episode airing. They usually film one episode in a week, two weeks prior to the on air date. A drama wraps up two to three weeks before the final episode. The script is constantly being written as the show is being produced, so it is not uncommon for the story to sway in favor to fan’s reactions if the show happens to be a sleeper hit (Last Friends). This method of production is severely flawed, and it is so obvious when you sit down and watch it.

Now, when American dramas are produced, it usually takes six months from script writing to the actual air date. According to the commentary on the Season 1 boxset of Heroes,  after the script is written, they find a director for the episode and subsequent units for the filming of that unit, they begin to cast for the guests, and once everyone is together there’s a week of planning how the episode will be produced (ie: props, sets, continuity, etc), then finally it goes into filming. According to one of the actors, from an interview, one episode takes between 7 to 8 days to film and then the remaining time is spent on post production. By the time a season is aired, majority of the show is in post-production.

You maybe asking what difference does this make? Well, I’ve been watching more and more American dramas and less and less Japanese dramas because of the stark difference in acting and production value. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all American dramas are spectacular events – NBC’s The Cape and FOX’s Bones are prime examples of shitacular television and even Heroes ended up succumbing to fan fodder (it became The Sylar Show) – but majority of the shows are produced with such care and the actors usually give such great performances that you gravitate towards them and you get involved.

You don’t get that with Japanese dramas anymore.

They’re produced so fast that the actors never get the opportunities to flesh out their characters until the tail end of the show. The delivery of the lines are almost reminiscent of American television from the 1950s, in which the shows were filmed live on the air and scripts were produced almost nightly. You’re not watching characters on a television screen, you’re watching actors on a television screen. It also doesn’t help when “actors” are actually “idols” and the characters they play seem to repeat themselves rather than challenge. Almost as if the characters are written for the “idol” rather than the idol playing what’s written as an “actor”. How many times has Ninomiya Kazunari played the emotionally upset son in a broken family or how many times has Yokoyama Yuu played the evil menacing character bent on revenge? How many times has Aya Ueto played the girl next door and how many times has Yui Aragaki play the high school girl in love with her upperclassman?

Too many times than I can count.

There used to be a time when Japanese dramas were good. When you could expect to watch a drama and find a passionate cast, great writing, and production. These days dramas are becoming more and more like an 45 minute add for DoCoMo’s latest phone and Arashi’s newest single. I’m becoming bored with Japanese dramas and I want the industry to change… but if all it takes is to throw Aiba Masaki in the lead role of some show about being a shitty dad for it to get ridiculous high ratings, then that change that I want to happen will, undoubtedly, never happen. The great dramas with the high production values, solid casts, and great writing are becoming fewer and fewer these days. It’s now a dying breed… and it is so unfortunate.

… And it’s also sad that these Japanese stations have the nerve to charge 200 dollars or more for an 10 episode DVD boxset when in America you can purchase a complete series with 70+ episodes for slightly under 120 dollars.

12 responses to “In Which Japanese Dramas Have Reached a Plateau

  1. lol you’re just way too in to American shows now! I do think the fact that the script is not finished when the taping starts and can be changed as the series goes is a major problem, the drama really suffers from having no direction because they don’t know when they start writing it if the series is going to be 9 or 13 episodes long. But American shows aren’t much better with that because they don’t know how long the series is going to go for either. I would compare Japanese shows to British shows because they both run for short seasons but the British shows are completely taped before they air and yeah that’s what they should do in Japan too. I think the difference in production values has a lot to do with money though cos clearly networks don’t pour much money in to jdramas, all the common jdrama stories are easily cheaply made.

    The WOWOW dramas are supposed to be really good and I’m also pretty sure NHK short dramas are done before airing too, even the long ones (Taiga and morning ones) I think are taped months before they air but that’s probably because they don’t have to worry as much about ratings as normal networks do. Sometimes you just have to look harder for better dramas, Atami no Sousakan for example was a police drama but it was not a normal drama at all and was clearly thought out before airing and it was very good… but the ratings were awful!

    • American shows certainly have their pitfalls… and once a strike happens, it’s pretty much a death wish for any show. I know a lot of serial dramas tend to have a show bible that guides the writers around, but a show bible can predict a storyline for so long until it gets to a point where the story is now struggling to stay afloat.

      I think that’s why I prefer a serial drama that relies on story arcs by season rather than multiple seasons because if the show does end up canceled at least we got some resolve XD

      I was going to use Spanish Novelas for a comparison, but I’m not familiar with their production times. They also run 5 days a week for one whole season and there’s sometimes a year delay when they get on Telemundo or Univision… Spanish Novelas are about as cheap as Japanese dramas and the acting can get campy. Hmmm…

      NHK does have some good dramas, not all. I still cry whenever I think of ROMES. Taiga dramas are amazing though!

    • I find that the best dramas (critically acclaimed) don’t do so well in the ratings. HBO’s The Wire – called the best show EVAR by critics on both sides of the Atlantic – suffered from weak ratings. And on the other side of the ratings spectrum we have… uh, Jersey Shore. So yeah. Some people just like crap.

  2. It’s an issue that bothers me as well. Even though I don’t watch drama with any regularity. I tend to with whatever you and Kit really enjoy, which hopefully means there is something to enjoy about it compared to others out there.

    I’m still more inclined to watch a Japanese Drama more so than an American one mostly because I don’t have the patience to wait a couple years for the payoff. And often times, from my own personal experience, the crew tends to have lost touch with the original vibe by time an American show reaches it’s finale, never quite feeling it was worth it to me.

    Perhaps this is why I mostly stick to Kid Vid affairs to matter what nationality’s media I consume. I may not often get original plots, but a fair amount of the time each show will try to give it’s own spin to typical overall plot, some finding success much easier than others. But I know that this take won’t last forever and the finale won’t make me feel like I completely wasted my time.

    Or maybe I’m just a freak.

    • Nah, I think the one thing Tokusatsu has over Jdramas – especially Kamen Rider – is that the length of the show kind of gives it an advantage. The storylines aren’t necessarily affected by the fans and it’s obvious its a toy commercial… so whatever toy sells is gonna affect the show.

      Well, old Kamen Rider. These new Kamen Riders make me want to cry.

      • Talking about Tokukatsu, while they’re usually mediocre in terms of plots and acting, those kid shows are so much fun to watch. But anytime I tried to tell my friends that, they just stared at me weirdly lol

        Beside the recycled plot-lines, there is another thing about current Jdramas (even Tokukatsu) that bothers me. There are more and more idols casted as lead characters. It obviously attracts more audience from the fandoms, but in the end, the quality of the shows get hurt pretty bad. A lot of those “actors” best stays as idols/singers.

        (But I’m still thrilled to see Yoko in a drama, would that make me a hypocrite O_O ?)

    • I agree with American dramas taking too long, after a few years almost all American shows get tired and old. I’d rather watch a short show be good all the way through than watch a show get crappy after 3 or so seasons, often I’ll watch a show cos I like the cast and it makes me so sad to see a cast that used to be so great get crap to work with :(

      Meh overall I’m happy I live in the US that has long running shows and regularity but I’m able to cherry pick what I want to watch from the UK in Japan because I think if I lived in either of those places I’d be sick of short seasons and stuff…

  3. Wow perfect timing. I was just really starting to feel this ‘trend’ in Jdoramas.
    I haven’t watched American TV in decades, the last one I started and finished was Prison Break.
    I have a preference for short dramas, but lately, I can’t seem to finish any Japanese dramas, I always drop around ep. 4… Maybe I’m losing my Asian drama fever.
    About the ads issues, I think Korean dramas are REALLY suffering from it, a poor protagonist girl carries dozens of luxury bags (from MiuMiu to Lanvin) and wear off the runaway clothes, throughout the show. What the…

    Sorry for the nonsense comment, lol. I’m such a lonely bum.

    Please keep writing, I love your blog ^^

  4. Man, this is awesome. I mean, I could find no one that feels the same way that I do until I read this post. I guess maybe because we watched too doramas till the point that we know what the plot is because it’s all too predictable. But isn’t it just like Korean doramas (worse than Japanese dramas I suppose?) with that love triangle and you just know that the two main characters will just get together in the end?

    I will agree to what you say about American shows though I don’t really watch them. They have the substance that Japanese shows don’t. We can’t actually blame them because the pop music industry is also going stagnant till the point that KPOP is invading. =3= That annoys me.

    And yeah, don’t stop writing (meaning don’t stop watching) because I really love the way you criticise. HAHAHHAA

  5. Hey! I just wanted to say that I love your comments on arama LJ. They’re funny most of the time.
    I sound like a stalker. =|

  6. I liked it when Japanese Dramas had characters that were fun to watch (90s and early 2000s – I haven’t watched shows before then, so I can’t comment). They were flawed, but they were real, and they were interesting. These days more and more characters are turning into… bores. They’re too flat. One-dimensional. And preachy as HALE.

    American shows make up my main course now. Of course, I usually stop watching after the first two seasons (except for 30 Rock and South Park… they make me laugh in a way that Asian comedy simply can’t), but there are always plenty of new shows to snag my attention.

  7. Pingback: Zenkai Girl – A Lawyer, A Cheif, and a Whole Lotta Children – First Impression | lol, japan·

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