The number of original television drama series has fallen off in recent years as the number of those adapted from novels or manga has increased. Some say this has to do with eroding creativity and imagination in the industry, but the key is actually knowing how to successfully adapt an original work to the screen and make it enjoyable for viewers as a television drama. No drama is inherently good or bad simply because it is an original or based on something else.
What kinds of novels or manga end up becoming dramas? We can see that each era has its own trends in this regard. At one time, there were several series based on Keigo Higashino’s novels, while dramas based on novels by Jun Ikeido are everywhere today. Terrestrial broadcasts of dramas based on Ikeido’s works in recent years include Bones of Steel [Tetsu no Hone] (2010), Naoki Hanzawa (2013), Seven Meetings [Nanatsu no Kaigi] (2013),Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out [Hanasaki Mai ga damattenai] (2014, 2015), A Roosevelt Game [Ruzuberuto Gemu] (2014), Welcome to Our Home [Yokoso, Wagaya e] (2015), Citizen King [Tami o] (2015), and Downtown Rocket [Shitamachi Roketto] (2015). Not all of these series have been hits, but many showed strong viewer ratings—with Naoki Hanzawa topping the list. (Naoki Hanzawa had an average rating of 28.7%, with 45.5% of viewers tuning in for the final episode—making it the most watched television drama of the century (figures are for the Kanto area as calculated by Video Research)). The current series Shitamachi Roketto is also showing significantly strong ratings.
Jun Ikeido novels can’t be lumped into a single category in terms of content. While he specializes in bank and other company-themed stories that draw from his time spent working as a former bank employee, these are not the only kinds of novels he writes. Ikeido’s work straddles a variety of genres, and includes books that could even be classified as mysteries or comedies. The types of novels that have been turned into television dramas are naturally varied as well. If we look at some of the more popular series, such as Naoki Hanzawa (which is originally based on novels like We Bubble-Economy Hires [Oretachi Hana no Baburu Nyukogumi] and We Bubble-Economy Wonders [Oretachi Hanano Baburugumi]), Ruzuberuto Gemu, and Shitamachi Roketto, we find that they share a common theme of people overcoming difficult situations through the power of conviction and hard work. Even those that feature a female protagonist and lean towards comedy, such as Hanasaki Mai ga damattenai (based on novels like Misconduct and Teito Bank Special Assignment Team), might be considered a variation on the same theme, in the sense that the main character Mai Hanasaki works to avenge the humiliation that the predominantly female bank employees suffer as a result of unfairness and injustice within the company.
This setup simultaneously immerses the viewer in two different emotional states: sympathy on one hand, and admiration on the other.
As Japanese women increasingly move out into society, the life of a worker is becoming something that is familiar to all. That alone means that countless viewers can now empathize with the difficulties and hardships of being part of Japan’s workforce. It’s unlikely that many people have been in a situation where a higher-up has forced responsibility for his own criminal wrongdoing on them—which is what the protagonist goes through in Naoki Hanzawa—but a good percentage of them surely know what it’s like to be dissatisfied with how their boss does things or to suffer shared responsibility for a failure that had nothing to do with them. It’s likely that plenty have also been at the mercy of a domineering supervisor or poor organizational practices. In that sense, the difficult situations that the protagonists go through in Ikeido’s novels hardly feel removed from viewers’ lives at all. This is a major reason that their struggles are able to elicit so much sympathy.
That said, it is certainly not the majority of viewers who would courageously stand up to poor practices or supervisor bullying in the way that Naoki Hanzawa or Mai Hanasaki do when they become entangled in these difficult situations. And there is no way viewers could expose their managers’ corruption or immediately reform their organizations. The protagonists in Ikeido’s novels do not simply draw viewer sympathy, but also elicit a deep satisfaction by doing what everyday employees cannot—and this in turn makes these characters the target of powerful admiration as well.
Of course, the world of television drama is not quite that simple. There is no guarantee that a show will become a hit just because it draws elements of sympathy and admiration. I teach a course at Chuo University called The History of Japanese Television Dramas. In this class, we look at Japan’s postwar history through the lens of its dramatic TV series—and find that a quality drama will not necessarily gain viewer support no matter when it is broadcast. If anything, building a fan base seems to have a great deal to do with the historical context at the time the program airs.
For example, when I show today’s university students some of the supokon (a contraction of the phrase supotsu konjo, or “athletic spirit”) dramas that aired in the 1960s and 70s, they respond by asking why people watched such dark shows, or commenting that some of the things that happen seem abusive or cruel. When they see the torendi dorama (trendy dramas) from the late 1980s, they ask why everyone seems so hungry for romantic love. The reason a series that enchanted one generation can completely fall flat with a later one comes down to the historical context in which it was aired.
Returning to our discussion earlier, when we look at the history of television dramas, we find that the elements of sympathy and admiration that drive the popularity of Jun Ikeido’s works are by no means shared across the generations. For the protagonists in Japan’s earliest television dramas, be they detectives or schoolteachers, viewers wanted standout personalities and people that were out of the ordinary. With the release of shows like The Motley Apples [Fuzoroi no Ringo-tachi] and To the Friday Wives [Kinyobi no Tsuma-tachi e] in 1983, however, television dramas began to have several main characters, with protagonists that were everyday people rather than extraordinary individuals. If we follow this thread, we can say that today’s viewers want their protagonists to combine this quality of ordinariness with something distinctive or special as well.
We’ve seen how the qualities people want from their protagonists and main characters shift over the years, but television dramas are even more profoundly affected by changes in economic trends and the surrounding social climate. I mentioned that university students today find both the supokonand torendi dramas somewhat strange to watch. Of course this applies not only to university students; their feeling is likely shared among most modern viewers. This leads us to the question of what kind of drama today’s viewers want to see.
During the height of the bubble economy in the late 1980s, for example, people loved vibrant, colorful shows like the torendi dorama series. But once boom turned to bust, it was dark, intense dramas like Homeless Child [Ie naki-ko] (1994)—famous for the line, “if you have a heart, give me money”—that really took off. Of course every era has its more lighthearted and more serious shows, but there is always a clear favorite that defines each time period as well. If we extend this idea further, we can see that the popularity of dramatic adaptations of Jun Ikeido’s novels, where people overcome difficult situations through conviction and hard work, is deeply tied to the circumstances of our modern age.
What we find when we look back at the history of Japanese television dramas is that the ones with this theme become favorites during periods of economic recovery, or during the time of transition that people hope for recovery from stagnation. The idea of overcoming difficult situations through conviction and hard work is a powerful one, yet it also tends to be a bit simplistic. In that sense, the message “work hard and make a difference” requires an overall social climate where people want to believe in something powerful—even if it happens to be oversimplified.
It has now been seven years since the start of the global financial crisis and four years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. People today seem overcome by the idea that things are about to get better—or at least by the desire for things to hurry up and turn around. That’s why the themes found in Ikeido’s novel are able to capture so many.
Let’s speak hypothetically for a moment. What do you think would happen if dramas like Naoki Hanzawa or Shitamachi Roketto were aired during the height of the bubble economy? Surely they would gain a certain amount of popularity, but it’s likely that shows centered on conviction and hard work might seem a little corny or drab during that era. What if they had come out the year of the earthquake and tsunami disaster? People might have found a show claiming that any problem could be overcome with these two elements a bit frivolous and naïve—perhaps a bit too contrived (see note below). Certain individuals do seem to be experiencing a real economic turnaround these days; on the other hand, many are still feeling the weight of Japan’s prolonged economic stagnation. And it is precisely because of this widespread sense that the world is (or at least we hope it is) heading for brighter days any moment that so many hearts are captured by this simple, yet powerful message—by the willingness to trust that difficulties can be overcome if we just work hard and believe.
The reason I’ve been focusing my research on television dramas lately is that so many people living in today’s world are receptive to them—far more than they are to literature, performing arts, movies, manga, or other forms of media. People tune in to dramas so casually that they’re written off as no more than a form of popular entertainment, and have thus rarely been a target of serious academic study. But if we really want to understand modern society and culture, this form of media becomes a critical target of our research precisely because it catches so many people’s eyes.
Television dramas are windows into an era. In other words, I think we need to rethink the idea that these shows are no more than a form of popular entertainment so that we can begin to better understand the times we live in.