12 Must-Watch Japanese Dramas On Netflix In 2021
- Alice in BorderlandAlice in Borderland
- Million Yen WomenMillion Yen Women
- Midnight Diner: Tokyo StoriesMidnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
- Good Morning CallGood Morning Call
- The Many Faces of ItoThe Many Faces of Ito
- The Naked DirectorThe Naked Director
- Kotaro Lives AloneKotaro Lives Alone
From Alice in Borderland, The Naked Director to Erased, we're letting you know our top picks of the best Japanese series to watch on Netflix this 2021
Japanese series get a little bit overshadowed by its more popular cousin—Korean dramas—but that doesn't mean there aren't a number of noteworthy ones that you should give a try. In fact, Japanese cinema has always been a powerhouse from the early days of Akira Kurosawa, the prime of Japanese horror to the visually stunning animated works of Hayao Miyazaki. And this greatness extends to its drama series. Lucky for us, Netflix has a lot to offer.
While most of them tend to be adapted from manga (Japanese comics) series, that doesn't mean they aren't worth your time. In fact, because they're adapted from popular material, it's only right for them to be adapted into a series. Japanese dramas are on the rise, thanks to recent hits like Alice in Borderland topping Netflix charts and already signed up for a second season and The Naked Director which just dropped its new season.
Are you on the hunt for the best Japanese dramas to watch? From romance, thrillers to fantasy, we rounded up our top picks to watch in 2021.
See also: 30 New Must-Watch Korean Dramas In 2021
Alice in Borderland
Alice in Borderland reclaimed the popularity of Japanese dramas and as soon as it was released nabbed the number one spot in Hong Kong. The drama, based on a manga series is set in a dystopian Tokyo and follows directionless gamer, Ryohei Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) who finds the once-bustling city now abandoned after meeting with friends in Shibuya station. A voice directs him to a game they're required to play but it's not just any other game, it's a game they have to play in order to survive.
Despite its grim, survival set-up, the drama is also full of thrills and excitement and perhaps that's something we all need while in quarantine. Thanks to its popularity, a second season has been announced and may well be something to look forward to in the coming year.
Giri/Haji is actually a British-produced drama but given that part of the series is set in Tokyo with half of the cast Japanese and speaking Japanese, it's a wonderful addition to this list. This cross-culture story follows Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), a Tokyo detective who travels to London to look for his brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka) who he thought was dead. Yuto is on the run after being accused of murdering the nephew of a Yakuza (gang) member. Kenzo's search for his brother strains his family back in Tokyo and it also brought him to London's own criminal underworld.
Giri/Haji or Duty/Shame in English, garnered critical acclaim as a perfect crime-thriller that also doesn't shy away from showing some sense of humour. The cross-cultural nature of the drama is also a breath of fresh air which combined story elements in both Tokyo and London.
Erased is based on the popular fantasy thriller-manga series of the same name which also spawned an animated series as well as a live-action movie. It's about Satoru Fujinuma (Yuki Furukawa), who has the ability to travel back in time to save others. He wakes up 18 years in the past and was given a chance to save both his mother but also to help prevent the kidnapping of a young girl living nearby.
The Netflix drama series is the closest depiction of the original material which makes it the most authentic watch out of all the adaptations. Erased touches on heavy themes such as child abuse and also a coming-of-age story for the young Satoru, who now has people's lives in his hands.
Million Yen Women
Another drama adapted from a manga series is Million Yen Women starring the frontman of the popular Japanese band, Radwimps, Yoji Noda in his debut series role as the titular lead that five women are pinning over. Shin Michima (Noda) is a struggling novelist who has been living with five mysterious women in the same house. Each of the women pays Shin a million yen every month for rent and living expenses, in exchange, certain rules are established in the house and questions about the women's lives are banned. But as Shin soon finds out, the women are not who they appeared to be.
Million Yen Women is part-mystery, part-romance. You may be at the edge of your seat trying to find out who these women are but also cheering for Shin to finally be able to write a bestseller. The 12-episode series is definitely a rollercoaster ride.
See also: 10 Most Expensive Korean Dramas To Make
Body switching may remind us of Freaky Friday but Switched is far from being a comedy. Yet another adaptation from a manga series, Switched revolves around Zenko Umine (Miu Tomita) a high-school student who apparently commits suicide. Fellow student, Ayumi (Kaya Kiyohara) witnesses this and passes out from shock. But when Ayumi wakes up, she realises that she's no longer in her own body but in Umine's. And the story unravels from there including why Umine "commits suicide" and why they switched bodies in the first place.
Switched brings the body-switching concept to the big screen, we've seen this in the popular animated movie, Your Name, albeit the gender difference. The series not only explored themes of social anxiety and depression but also sets up a really interesting fantasy premise.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is a good alternative to satisfy your craving for Japanese food, now that travel is on hold. It focuses on Meshiya, a late-night diner in Shinjuku run by a mysterious chef, only known as Master. Each episode focuses on one customer, detailing their life story and Master, in return, offers some help and advice...alongside food. The food in some way relates to the story and more often, is often the favourite meal of the character.
The episodic series is a success in Japan and overseas. The heartwarming food stories are the kind of comfort story (and food) that we all need. Master's advice may be central to a particular character but it's also something that viewers can pick up on and relate to.
Good Morning Call
For those in need of a romance-comedy watch, look no further than Good Morning Call. This drama was adapted from a manga series about Nao Yoshikawa (Haruka Fukuhara) who moved into her own apartment in the city. But much to her surprise, her classmate Hisashi Uehara (Shunya Shiraish) also moved in the same apartment. The two agreed to stay in the same apartment to be able to pay the rent. This living situation starts a romance between the two.
A light-hearted watch that spun two seasons, with the third one still in discussions, Good Morning Call is a sweet and fun watch.
The Many Faces of Ito
The Many Faces of Ito is another romantic-comedy series about a screenwriter, Rio Yazaki (Fumino Kimura) who tricks four lovesick (or rather hopeless romantic) women to tell him their misadventures in the love department under the guise of giving them romantic advice but is really using it to write a new TV show. The series based on a book may be set in Japan but the themes of love and relationship remain universal.
It sounds twisted especially for a romance plot but it's also a refreshing take on the genre. While Rio is the one "giving advice" to the women, in the end, he's the one learning a whole lot from them, and perhaps we could too.
Kakegurui is adapted from the manga and anime series of the same name. The story is set in an elite school, Hyakkaou Private Academy where only the children of Japan's most wealthy and influential people go to. But there's also something unique about the school. Academic ability and achievements aren't the criteria for determining your hierarchy, rather it's your gambling ability. Students are ranked according to their monetary contributions which fuel the school's gambling system. Those who win earn prestige, gain ranking and popularity while those who lose and fall into debt become "pets" of the student body. The system is then challenged by Yumeko Jamabi (Minami Hamabe) who has exceptional gambling ability but unlike others, she does it for the fun of it and not for monetary gain or status.
As if that doesn't sound exciting enough, the series takes on the extreme side of gambling particularly because Yumeko is both a genius gambler yet also a maniac. She loves the high-stake games and it feels a bit of live-or-die situation when the games play out. The thrills will keep you at the edge of your seat.
One of the rare original dramas on Netflix is Followers. Set in the buzzing Tokyo with all its lights, colours, energy and fashion is Limi Nara (Miki Nakatani), a famous fashion photographer who has an impressive portfolio under her belt. In total contrast is Natsume Hyakuta (Elaiza Ikeda), a young actress finding her way through life, forging confidence and her own identity along the way. When Lima posts Natsume's photo on Instagram, both their lives change with Natsume skyrocketing to fame. But the two women soon find out the challenge of living life amidst the frenzy of social media.
Followers is a great story especially in the age of social media. It's a bit of a slow burn but its stunning visuals and good life lessons on the dark side of social media will capture your hearts.
The Naked Director
The Naked Director is a comedy-drama based on the non-fiction novel Zenra Kantoku Muranishi Toru Den by Nobuhiro Motohashi. This semi-biographical series follows the story of Japanese adult video director, Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) who's filled with big ambitions to make it big in Japan's adult industry, turning every setback into an opportunity and soon revolutionises the industry.
While the story might cause some people to immediately easily dismiss this, The Naked Director balances comedy with social narrative, ultimately showcasing or providing a glimpse into the adult industry that's so often stigmatised as nothing more than a place of pleasure.
Kotaro Lives Alone
Based on the manga series, Kotaro wa Hitorigurash by Mami Tsumura, Kotaro Lives Alone tells the story of an unpopular manga writer, Shin Karino (Yu Yokoyama). He's single and lives in an apartment complex that forbids children. But one day, he sees five-year-old Kotaro Sato (Eito Kawahara) outside his apartment door.
Much to Shin's surprise, Kotaro moved into his neighbourhood despite the rule that no children are allowed. Even more shocking is that Kotaro lives alone. In the beginning, Shin is annoyed by Kotaro's presence and continuous pestering but soon enough, the residents of the apartment complex, including Shin becomes attached to Kotaro. This slice of life drama will surely tug at your heartstrings.
This article was originally published on December 17, 2020 and was updated on August 7, 2021.