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:
- High school drama (or the manga adaptation) – Kinpachi, GTO, Gokusen, Samurai High School, Life, Yuukan Club, etc
- Police/Detective drama – Bayside Shakedown, Aibou, Control, Spec, JOKER, etc
- The star crossed lovers drama – Buzzer Beat, Brother Beat, Hotelier, etc
- The revenge/mystery drama – Ryuusei no Kizuna, Guilty, Maou, Orthros no Inu, etc
- 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.