Renzoku Ren'ai Dorama
John Leo
Oracle Corporation
April, 1997

Presented at the Conference on Japanese Popular Culture at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on April 12, 1997.

This HTML version was done October 4, 1997. I'll work on improving the formatting when I find time.


Japanese television dramas, concentrating on renzoku (continuing) ren'ai (romantic) dorama, are examined and compared to US television shows. We discuss their structure, typical story lines, writing, direction, and so forth, pointing out aspects that make them unique as an art form.


The Japanese television drama ("dorama" in Japanese) has evolved into an art form quite different from any other video genre such as movies and television sitcoms. In particular the length of a continuing drama (typically 10-14 one-hour episodes) allows it to de-emphasize plot and concentrate on dialog, character development, and creating its own world, while maintaining the unity of a single story with a definite beginning and end.

This paper presents an overview of dorama, concentrating on renzoku (continuing) ren'ai (romantic) dorama, but also briefly talks about other kinds of dorama, and many of the comments and observations apply more generally to all types of dorama.

Names in the paper are written in Japanese order: family name first.

The Television Season

If one had to pick a single primary factor that determines the character of dorama, it would have to be a structural one--the television season itself. US television consists of, depending on how you look at it, one or two seasons a year. The real season starts in the Fall and lasts until around the next Spring; this is followed by the "off-season" which consists of reruns. The long TV season encourages episodic shows which may be canceled mid-season if the ratings are not high enough; on the other hand the popular ones return the next season and may continue indefinitely.

In contrast, Japan divides the year into four seasons, corresponding to the four natural seasons. There is no special time for reruns (which are generally shown during the daytime if at all), but there are a couple weeks between seasons in which specials are shown. The short season means a drama will have generally from ten to fourteen episodes (usually each episode is one hour), and typically instead of being episodic there is one story running throughout the episodes. Shows are never canceled mid-season (although they apparently only film the first few episodes at the beginning and rework the plot if the initial ratings are poor [Poster, 1992]), but they also don't continue into the next season even if extremely popular. Popular dramas do often give rise to "specials" (generally two hours long, like a tanpatsu dorama) and/or sequels.

These dramas that consist of multiple episodes are known as "renzoku" (continuing) dorama, and those that run from the beginning to the end of a TV season are the most common and popular. However shorter (around 5 episodes) and longer (spanning two or more seasons) renzoku dorama exist, including as an extreme case the NHK morning drama, which consists of a 15 minute episode every weekday morning, and which lasts for the entire calendar year.

In contrast to renzoku dorama, tanpatsu ("one-shot") dorama consist of a single self-contained episode, generally one to two hours in length. These are mainly shown in the gaps between TV seasons. There was one regularly shown series of tanpatsu dorama, the one-hour "Nichiyou Gekijou" (Sunday Theater) on TBS, but a couple years ago this slot was changed to show renzoku dorama.

Tanpatsu dorama could perhaps be compared to made-for-TV movies, although the production quality tends toward simplicity. Time constraints dictate an emphasis on plot rather than character and dialog, which makes them less interesting than the renzoku dorama, although some very good tanpatsu dorama have been made.

Renzoku dorama, on the other hand, have no even close analog in US television, or any other media, for that matter. There have been shows somewhat close thematically to romantic dorama such as "Thirtysomething" and the recent "Caroline in the City", but the episodic, open-ended nature of the US shows keeps them quite distinct from dorama. Structurally, the closest US relative to dorama might be the mini-series, but these are considered special events in the US and thematically tend toward grandiosity and over-exaggerated drama. Dorama, on the other hand, represent the ordinary shows on Japanese TV. The best description of a renzoku dorama would perhaps be a long movie, cut into 10 to 14 pieces. Since they are of a fixed length, renzoku dorama have a definite ending, and since they are relatively long, they can explore character, situation, and interesting dialog in a way not possible in movies.


Dorama cover a wide range of themes, including mystery, suspense, family and social issues. The most popular theme, however, is "ren'ai" (romance), and it is these dramas that I want to concentrate on.

Within the ren'ai category one finds two major subdivisions: single life and married life. Romantic single life dramas usually revolve around a set of people with various love triangles or more complicated patterns set up, although typically there is a primary couple the drama concentrates on. Much of the suspense of the drama lies in who will end up with whom at the end. Usually the single life dramas feature young characters and are aimed at a young audience, although dramas with older characters (who are typically divorced, widowed, or both) are not uncommon.

Romance in married life invariably revolves around infidelity. Quite often it is the wife who is unfaithful, no doubt as housewives are the primary audience. The plot then tends to center on the wife, who meets some man she is attracted to, but resists this attraction. Meanwhile he does everything he can to seduce her, and eventually she succumbs. Then the affair is discovered by the husband, and there are difficulties for a while, but eventually things return to the status quo. This seemed almost inevitable in earlier infidelity dramas, but more in recent ones such as "Hitonatsu no rabu retaa" (A Summer's Love Letter; 1995) and "Age 35 koishikute" (Age 35 Longing; 1996) the couples do end up breaking up.

Scenario writer Kamata Toshio could arguably be the most influential writer of renzoku ren'ai dorama. His landmark "Danjo shichinin natsu monogatari" (A Summer Story of 7 Men and Women; 1986) created a standard which was followed by most later single life dramas, and his series "Kinyoubi no tsumatachi e" (For Fridays Wive's; three series from 1983-85), both created a new word "kintsuma" (used to refer to an unfaithful wife) and set the standard for many similar dramas to follow.

Television Networks and Trends

Aside from NHK, the public broadcasting network, there are three major networks in Japan: TBS, Fuji-TV, and NTV. Since I started watching Japanese TV in the late 80's, I've developed the impression that each network has its particular strength: TBS is the "dorama" station, Fuji the "variety" station, and NTV the "sports" station. This is not so clear-cut, though, as we'll soon see. NHK's morning and historical dramas have always been very popular as well, but as these are very different in feel from the private networks' dramas and tend to stay away from romantic themes, I am not considering them in this paper.

Although I don't know the history of Japanese television well, it seems that TBS was perhaps the strongest private network for dramas in the early and mid-eighties. However toward the end of the 80's Fuji became a major force in dorama thanks to producer Ohta Touru, who created a series of dramas that would be known as "trendy dorama". It's not clear how you would define exactly what these were, but common themes seemed to be that they concentrated on having a big cast filled with the currently most popular idols (whether or not they could act), plots concentrating on romantic single life and being fairly light, and were aimed at young people. Some extremely popular dramas came out of this period, including "Tokyo Love Story" (1991; based on a comic) and Nojima Shinji's "101-kaime no puropozu" (The 101st Proposal; 1991).

The trendy drama gave way around 1993 to what I would call the "kurai" (gloomy, depressing) drama trend; again scenario writer Nojima led the way with a series of more and more kurai dramas: "Koukou kyoushi" (High School Teacher; 1993), "Kono yo no hate" (The End of this World; 1994), "Ningen Shikkaku" (Human Failure; 1994) and "Miseinen" (Juvenility, 1995), all extremely popular.

The most recent trend, starting around 1995 and seeming to finally be dying out recently, is the "handicap" drama in which one character suffers from some mental or physical handicap. This has produced several popular dramas such as "Hoshi no kinka" (Heaven's Gold Coins; 1995; there was a sequel in 1996, although it apparently falls more into the "kurai" category), "Aishiteiru to ittekure" (Say you Love Me; 1995), and "Pure" (1996).

It is difficult to tell what the next trend will be. I'm hoping that the popularity of "Long Vacation" (1996) will encourage the return of a fairly forgotten genre, the romantic comedy (although "Long Vacation" was not completely a comedy). Good comedies are extremely scarce in recent years, and it is not hard to see why. Nojima Shinji, whose first three dramas ("Kimi ga uso o tsuita" (You Lied; 1988), "Aishiatterukai!" (Are You in Love?; 1989), and "Sutekina kataomoi" (Wonderful One-Sided Love; 1990)) were all comedies, said regarding "Aishiatterukai!", which is particular dense and brilliant, that it was exhausting to write, and that writing comedy is ten times harder than writing serious drama. ([Nojima, 1992], p. 17). Nojima's next drama ("101kai-me no puropozu") was a more serious show, and when it was extremely successful he abandoned comedy, a real loss. Other writers followed.

TBS and Fuji, among the private stations, then, dominated dorama in the late 80's and early 90's, with just about every good dorama being produced by one of them. NTV tried to enter into this area as well in the 90's, and their strategy seemed to be to hire as many famous actors (but not necessarily the currently most popular ones) to be in a single drama at a time, and couple this with a particularly lame story. These didn't fare very well, but they eventually figured out they had to hire good writers as well, and for example got Kamata to write "Otona no kisu" (Adult Kiss; 1994) for them, which although it was a rehash of his earlier "Otokotachi ni yoroshiku" (Give My Regards to the Men, 1987) was pretty good. They did eventually produce some fairly popular dramas including "Waru" (Evil Woman; 1992; based on the comic) and "Hoshi no Kinka". More recently, the minor television networks TV Asahi and TV Tokyo seem to be trying to make dramas in the earlier NTV fashion, with about as much success.

As mentioned above, popular dramas are often followed by specials or sequels. Specials tend to be two hours long and not very good--more of an attempt to make some extra money than anything else. They may try to extend the plot (as in the very poor "Aishiatterukai!" special) or simply show highlights from the original show (as in the even worse "Long Vacation" special).

Sequels tend not to be straight continuations of the original story, both since they must be self-contained (one cannot be sure the audience has seen the former drama, especially since reruns are so rare in Japan, although releasing dramas on video has become common lately) and it is difficult to retain the entire cast of the original. For example "Danjo shichinin aki monogatari" (1987), the sequel to "Danjo shichinin natsu monogatari", featured only three members of the original cast, and a story that, while connected to the original story, was still quite distinct. An even more extreme example is Kamata's three "Kintsuma" dramas, which feature stories with entirely different characters but all on the same basic theme, and with considerable overlap of cast. In fact "Kinyoubi ni wa hana o katte" (Buy Flowers on Friday; 1986) written by Matsubara Toshiharu, is in a sense part of that series as well.

A popular drama might also spawn imitations, which tend to be very bad. Examples that come to mind are the horrible "Gakou ni ikou!" (Let's Go to School!), a clear rip-off of "Aishiatterukai!", and "Chounan no yome" (The Daughter-in-Law; 1994), a rip-off of Nishiogi Yumie's "Double Kitchen" (1993), which was popular enough to have its own sequel in 1995. What is most interesting about these two dramas (aside from the fact that both star Asano Yuuko) is that both were made by the same network (Fuji and TBS respectively) that made the original being imitated!

Story and Structure

Stories of ren'ai dorama vary considerably, although there are some common elements. Let's look at the story and structure of two particularly good dramas, both dealing with single-life romance. The first is "Danjo shichinin natsu monogatari" (A Summer Story of 7 Men and Women; 1986) by Kamata Toshio; as mentioned above almost all later single-life romantic dramas seem roughly patterned after this show. It consists of ten episodes, on the short side for a renzoku dorama. I'll refer to it as "Danjobi" (my own abbreviation) in the remainder of this paper.

The first episode starts with a rather "dramatic" scene--a man (Ryousuke) wakes up to find a woman (Momoko) he doesn't know sleeping in his bed. Most dramas start with similar dramatic events to catch the viewer's interest from the beginning. Some more recent (1996) examples include "Long Vacation", which starts with a woman running through the street in a traditional Japanese- style bridal outfit, and "Kyousoukyoku" (Concerto), which opens with a man drawing a large floor plan of a church on the beach, and noticing another man washing up to the shore.

The story of most dramas also begins with two or more people who didn't know each other before meeting--this produces a sort of definite starting point. In the case of "Danjobi" the first part of this meeting happens right away, but they quickly part, apparently never to meet again. Of course by the end of the episode they do meet again, and in fact the four women (who are friends) and three men (again friends) of the title all meet each other in a beer garden.

As in many dramas after the dramatic first scene, most of the rest of the first episode is fairly slow, as it contains the bulk of the exposition of the series. The seven main characters are introduced along with their initial relationships, jobs (always important in dorama as it is in real life in Japan--the job partly defines the person), and so forth. By the end of episode one the background is set up and the story ready to proceed. The episode ends with a "cliffhanger" of sorts--Ryousuke and Momoko recognize each other in the beer garden, and the action freezes. Thus the viewer is encouraged to watch the next episode (highlights of the next episode are generally presented as well).

In the second episode the story starts developing--the characters talk, and initial attractions are created. Ryousuke and Sadakurou are both attracted to Chiaki, Kimiaki and Kaori are mutually attracted to each other, all the woman are attracted to Kimiaki, and Chiaki seems somewhat attracted to Ryousuke. Nobody seems attracted to Sakakurou or Miwako (the latter ends up as somewhat of a secondary character in the show). Of course the viewers know that Ryousuke and Momoko are the "main" characters of the drama (and most ren'ai dorama have a pair of main characters), so the primary suspense is how those two will end up with each other, with the secondary suspense being what will happen with the other characters.

It turns out that Ryousuke and Momoko live near each other, and here lies one element of unrealism in the drama--although they'd apparently never met before, now that they have met they run into each other with remarkable frequency, in particular at a restaurant they both like and at a laundromat. Thus although they start out disliking each other, they get to know each other from this repeated contact.

By episode three the set up is more or less complete and the real meat of the drama begins, lasting until the last couple episodes. This is my favorite part of a good dorama, and what really distinguishes the dorama from any other kind of TV show or movie. The writer is given several hours to leisurely develop the plot (which is thus deemphasized), and can concentrate on dialog, character and situation to an extent just not possible in other types of programs.

In "Danjobi" the story develops through the middle episodes, which although not at all episodic often have primary themes to them, such as a bus tour the characters all take together in episode 6. Relationships shift and evolve. Ryousuke goes out with Chiaki, encouraged by Momoko, who in turn goes out with Kimiaki, to the displeasure of Kaori. Meanwhile Momoko and Ryoukou continue to interact and their relationship grows. Things start to solidify toward the end of this middle section: at the end of episode 7 Ryousuke realizes it is Momoko that he loves and he tells her in dramatic fashion in the middle of a rain storm. (Rain is used for emotional emphasis in just about every dorama.)

Once this confession has been made the third and final stage of the drama begins--the "fun" middle section is over and now plot is again emphasized as the drama works its way to the conclusion.

Since all dorama come to a definite end, the ending is a particularly important part of the show, but after watching a lot of ren'ai dorama one finds the endings tend to fall into a small number of categories. For light dramas, having the main characters finally get together (getting married is especially popular) is the most common ending; for serious or dark dramas having one character die is always an easy way out, or for infidelity dramas the affair is discovered and the characters either return to their normal married lives, or else perhaps break up.

Kamata opts for a somewhat more ambiguous ending in "Danjobi", with Momoko going off to America. I don't know if this was the first drama to end this way, but many others have since copied this type of ending. It turns out the show had a sequel, "Danjo shichinin aki monogatari" (An Autumn Story of 7 Men and Women; 1987), in which Ryousuke and Momoko do end up finally getting together, but it is not a very happy ending as they have to hurt a lot of other people to get to that point. The whole drama, like the season, is much darker than its predecessor.

Kamata has actually been one of the best at coming up with excellent endings to his shows. Another example is "Kintsuma 2" (1984) in which the last scene shows a new family, cheerful and oblivious, moving into a house vacated by one family involved in the adultery of the plot. And "Sono ki ni naru made" (Until I Feel That Way; 1996), which was a sort of "Danjobi" ten years after (now everyone is divorced and bitter), featured a very strange ending which wasn't really happy or sad or ambiguous either. At a time when all endings were starting to look alike, it was very refreshing.

Let's now look at a very different dorama, Nojima Shinji's "Aishiatterukai!" (Are You In Love?; 1989). This is also a single life romantic comedy, and indeed does parallel "Danjobi" in some ways, but here the romance is secondary to the comedy, and the show is a very fast-paced farce. Something of a rarity among renzoku dorama, it is essentially episodic--each individual episode is nearly self-contained, the ten episodes having the following themes: Opening; Amusement Park; Kyoto school trip (part 1); Kyoto (part 2); Triathlon; Jishuusei (student teacher); Baby; Gaijin (foreigners); Omiai (arranged marriage); Closing (Christmas Party). Nonetheless, through them all runs a continuing plot, of sorts, with a beginning and an end. The plot is extremely de- emphasized in this drama, though. As can be seen from the episode themes the show does have the three major subdivisions, but the opening and ending are strictly limited to an episode each. Also the opening episode does contain a dramatic event to start the action and cause the characters to meet: One high school girl gets sick, apparently pregnant, and in her bag is found the ID of a high school boy from a nearby school, who is then presumed to be the father.

The story of the drama concerns high school teachers, students, and their relationships. What is most interesting about the show, however, is the very intricate structure that Nojima creates. The number three is very important, as is symmetry: There are three male teachers (at the boys high school), three female counterparts for them (two teachers at the girls high school and either their non-teacher friend or the boys high school nurse, depending on the situation--this slight break in symmetry is itself quite interesting), three primary boy students, three primary girl students, three male administrators in the girls school and three female administrators in the boys school. Minor characters added in specific episodes often come in threes as well: three teachers at the elite boys schools, three students at that school, three salarymen, and so forth.

Relationships are fairly complex but again have a great deal of symmetry. Ippei (male Japanese teacher) and Fubuki (female English teacher) are the main characters, who have a relationship similar to that of Ryousuke and Momoko in "Danjobi" (this type of relationship appears in many other dorama as well). Takumi (male phys ed teacher) likes Fubuki, and Satomi (female phys ed teacher) likes Takumi. Makoto (male art teacher) goes out with Miki (female make up artist) but never seriously. The two groups of students each have a big, medium, and small student. The big students are both in love with the main teachers (Ippei and Fubuki) of the opposite sex, although these are both non-serious. The only serious attraction is of the medium girl for Makoto. The small girl likes Takumi non-seriously to complete the series. The medium and small boys like the medium and small girls (respectively) although this is very minor. Finally, all the male characters (teachers and students) are after the nurse at the boys school. Characters added in specific episodes (most notably the male and female foreign students) increase the complexity and maintain the symmetry.

In addition to this complex structure and symmetry, Nojima makes great use of contrast in the drama. For example Fubuki's clean, bright, very modern apartment is the exact opposite of Ippei's dark, old and traditional Japanese style dwelling. There is also a great use of recurrence--the characters always meet at the same bar, the Funky Rhinoceros, and every episode features a scene in which the boy students visit the nurse. Each time she says she will do something "good" for them using language that can be interpreted sexually, but just before she does it Ippei appears, kicks the boys out, hears the same talk and gets excited, but of course it turns out to be some painful medical procedure. He then usually tricks Takumi into doing the same thing.

There is a continuing story of sorts, mainly concentrating on the developing relationship between Ippei and Fubuki, along with the Fubuki-Kai-Satomi love triangle, the medium girl's crush on Makoto, and some flirting between Ippei and the big girl. This is all somewhat secondary as the main point of the drama is comedy. The humor is excellent, similar to Monty Python's Flying Circus in a sense (although not nearly up to their level) in that it seems very silly on the surface but is quite intricate and sophisticated when you look at it within the overall structure. An example of the silly humor is when the two schools suddenly discover themselves next to each other in Kyoto--they had unknowingly taken their school trips there at the same time of course. When the boys and girls see each other they take turns making sounds of surprise--"aaa", "iii", "uuu", "eee", "ooo"--which happen to be the five vowel sounds of Japanese in order.

The drama moves at an extremely fast pace, primarily driven by the manic acting of Jinnai Takanori (Ippei). The cast is uniformly excellent. Language is extremely colloquial and full of "bad" expressions (I learned more colloquialisms and bad language from this drama than any other source), making it the most difficult to understand of any drama I've seen. There is also liberal use of singer Sakai Noriko's "Noripii" language in which endings of words are replaced with "pii" (for example "ureshii" (happy) becomes "urepii"), primarily by Ippei, and no doubt because Nojima was attracted to Sakai Noriko in real life.

Unfortunately although it is mostly excellent, there are some very weak spots in the show, particularly in the fifth and last episodes, which would presage Nojima's later works in which he diverted his considerable talents from comedy to manipulating the viewer emotionally, something he also turned out to be quite good at. In "Aishiatterukai!" these parts appear as contests (the triathlon in episode 5, and a boxing match in the final episode).

"Aishiatterukai!" is somewhat unique among dorama, but it is an excellent example of how innovative one can be within the genre "renzoku ren'ai dorama".


To me good dialog is a major attraction to dorama, and the writer the most important factor to a good dorama. However, while there are a few writers, such as Kamata Toshio and Matsubara Toshiharu, who have been fairly consistently excellent (and even then they've created some duds), more often it seems writers have only isolated moments of greatness, such as with Nojima Shinji ("Aishiatterukai!"), Nishiogi Yumie ("Sweet Home", 1994) and Kitagawa Eriko ("Long Vacation", 1996).

Although a part of the talent in writing involves coming up with an interesting story, characters, and situations, the expression of this writing is entirely through dialog, which makes it perhaps the most important element of dorama. And when the dialog is very good it can be a real pleasure to listen to.

The best way to give a feeling for good dialog is to give some examples. Unfortunately one loses a lot by merely writing it down, since the delivery of the dialog by the actors is nearly as important as the original words, and in fact comparing scripts that appear in DORAMA magazine and scenario books with the final product, one can see that the words get changed quite a bit, to the point where you sometimes wonder if they just memorized the essence and improvised the details. The end product tends to be quite a bit better than the original script, and the examples here are transcribed from the dramas themselves. I have provided some fairly poor translations; Japanese and English are so different that English cannot nearly capture the beauty and nuance of the original.

The first example is from episode four of Kamata's "Danjobi"; as mentioned earlier this is the middle, fun part of the drama and this scene is representative of that. In it Momoko (played by Ootake Shinobu) visits Ryousuke (Akashiya Sanma) in his apartment to ask him a favor.

 M: Demo mou kuru no yo. [But he's going to come soon.]
 R: Dare ga. [Who?]
 M: Otoko. [A man.]
 R: Nani shi ni. [For what?]
 M: Watashi to kekkon shitaindatte. [He says he wants to marry
 R: Heee!? [What!? (exaggerated surprise)]
 M: Otousan mo issho ni kuru no yo. [His father is coming too.]
 R: Hoooo! [(more exaggerated surprise)] (She throws a cushion at
him.) Itai! [Ouch!]
 M: Atashi souiu noni yowai no yo.  Oyako de semerarete sa, 
ukkari unte yucchau kamoshirenai janai. [I'm no good at this kind
of thing.  If they both press it, I might say yes by mistake.]
 R: Kono sai, soushihattara dou desu ka. [Well, why don't you.]
 M: Iya yo.  Atashi, kekkon nanka shitakunain dakara.  [No way.  I
don't want to get married.]
 R: De, boku ni nani o sei to ossharu no?  [So what do you want me
to do?]
 M: Dakara anata ni koibito ni natte hoshii no. [I want you to be
my lover.]
 R: Koibito!? [Lover!?]
 M: Atashi ni soushisouai no hito ga itara mukou datte akirameru
janai. [If I have a lover, they should give up.]
 R: Moshimoshi. [Hello?]
 M: Hai. [Yes?]
 R: Boku to anata ga soushisouai? [You and me, in love with each
 M: Mochiron sono ba dake yo. [Of course just for this.]
 R: Atari mae yanai ka.  Sonna mon tanomaretakate kocchi wa
kotowarimasu! [That's right!  I wouldn't do something like that if
I was asked!]
 M: Atashi datte kotowarimasu! [The same for me!]
 R: De, nani o sei to iuno?  [So what do you want me to do?] (She
gives him a piece of paper.)  Nani kore.  [What's this?]
 M: Kore o sono hito no mae de itte.  [Say this in front of him.]
 R: (Reading) "Boku wa Momoko-san wo aishiteimasu.  Boku ni totte
Momoko-san wa sekai de ichiban subarashii hito desu.  Boku wa
isshou Momoko-san o hanashimasen." ["I love Momoko.  To me she is
the most wonderful person in the world.  I'll never let her go."]
Kore, boku ga iu no? [I'm supposed to say this?]
 M: Sou. [Right.]
 R: Kore, jibun de kaita no? [You wrote this yourself?]
 M: Sou. [Right.]
 R: You konna jibun kattena koto o kakeru naa. [I can't believe
you can write something so self-centered.]
 M: Atashi datte sono ato chanto iu wa yo. [Well I'll say
something too right after that.]
 R: Nante. [What?]
 M: Atashi mo Imai-san ga suki desu tte. [I'll say that I like you
 R: Sore dake?  Honja ore ni wa isshou toka subarashii toka nashi?
[Just that?  So nothing about me being wonderful or never letting
me go--nothing?]
 M: Datte ikura uso datte sore ijou wa ienai janai! [Even if it's
a lie I can't bring myself to say more than that!]
 R: (throwing the paper at her) Kocchi mo iyaja, sonnano! [Well
the same for me!]

The dialog is delivered at a fairly fast pace, energetically, and with good rhythm. It's typical of their dialog and their relationship, a distinctive type of relationship which was imitated by many later dramas.

The second example is from the first episode of Nojima Shinji's "Aishiatterukai!". Here the teachers are all getting together for the first time at the Funky Rhinoceros bar. The characters and the actors that play them are:

I: Hiiro Ippei (Jinnai Takanori)
F: Shiina Fubuki (Koizumi Kyouko, who is short)
K: Kai Takumi (Yanagiba Toshiro)
S: Shinoda Satomi (Fujita Tomoko)
H: Fuwa Makoto (Kondo Osamu)
M: Kanda Miki (Toyota Maho)
W: Waiter
Ippei, Fubuki, Takumi, and Satomi have already met; Satomi has fallen in love with Takumi, and Takumi has fallen in love with Fubuki, as quickly becomes clear in the following conversation.
 W: Irasshaimase.  Gochuumon wa. [Welcome.  What would you like to
 S: (blurts out) Atashi, Kai-sensei to issho no. [I'll have the
same as Kai-sensei.]
 K: Iya, ore wa minna to onaji. [Well, I'm having the same as
everyone else.]
 F: Ja, minna to issho de.  [Then, we'll have the same too.]
 W: Kashikomarimashita.  [Okay.]  (leaves)
 F: (pointing to Miki) Eetou, kono ko ga, joshikou jidai no
tomodachi desu. [This is a friend from high school.]
 M: Kanda Miki desu. [I'm Kanda Miki.]
 I: Donna youna shigoto o nassateirassharun desuka. [What kind of
work do you do?]
 M: Furii no hea meeku. [Freelance hairstyling and makeup.]
 I: A, doori de, kesshou umai mon na. [Ah, just as I thought, your
makeup is good.]
 M: Suppin ja mirarenai mitai. [You make it sound like you don't
care about the face underneath.]
 I: Iya, messoumonai.  Demo suppin mo mite matai na nante na. [No,
not at all!  But I'd like to see you without makeup too...]
 M: Misechaou ka na.  Furo agari no.  [Maybe I should show
you...right after I get out of the bath....]
 F: Miki.
 S: (suddenly) Kai-sensei wa gokekkon nasaranaindesuka? [Kai-
sensei, are you planning to get married?]
 K: Hai? [What?]
 F: Ikinari nani kitenno.  [Why are you asking that so suddenly?]
 I: Koitsu wa ne, yome no kite ga nain desu yo. [Nobody would
marry this guy.]
 K: Sonna koto wa nai. [That's not true.]
 S: (suddenly standing up, at the same time as Kai and drowning
him out) Sonna koto wa nai desu! [That's not true!] (sitting down,
embarrassed) omoimasu kedo. [ least that's what I
 I: Shinoda-sensei wa konna no ga konomi nan desuka? [Shinoda-
sensei, this is the type you like?]
 S: Iyada.  [(a sound of feminine protest)]
 K: Uoo!  [Woof! (barking angrily at Ippei)]
 H: Shiina-sensei wa nanno kamoku desu ka? [Shiina-sensei, what
subject do you teach?]
 F: Atashi wa eigo desu. [English.]
 K: (affected low voice) Bo-bo-boku, eigo naraou ka na to
omotterundesu. [I-I-I'm thinking of learning English.] (everyone
 I: Nani o bokettenda.  Omae nanka sonna mono hitsuyou nee darou
yo. [What are you jabbering about?  There's no point for you to
learn that.]
 K: Ore datte guamu ka saipan gurai iku be. [Hey, I might go to
Guam or Saipan sometime.]
 H: Nihongo tsuujirundayo. [They'll understand Japanese there.]
 I: Uuu. [Right.]
 F: Fuwa-sensei no kamoku wa? [Fuwa-sensei, what subject do you
 H: A, bijutsu desu. [Art.]
 M: Soieba, geijutsu no kaori ga suru wa. [Come to think of it,
you do seem like an arts type.]
 I: Koitsu wa nuudo ga senmon nandesuyo. [His specialty is nudes.]
 M: Atashi, moderu shigan shiyou kashira.  [Maybe I should
volunteer to be your model.]
 H: (excited) Ee?  [Eh?]
 F: Miki.
 I: (to himself, as he uses his breath spray) Oioi, koitsu wa
konya ikeru kamoshirenee zo. (Hey, she might put out tonight.)
 S: (again suddenly) Ano, Kai-sensei wa donna jousei ga konomi
desu ka? [Kai-sensei, what kind of woman do you like?]
 K: Iya, desu kara...eigo o...janakute ano kogarana hito ga ii ka
na nante... [Well, like, an, uh, someone petite...]
 S: (sinking into her chair) Atashi saikin sei ga chijinjatte...
[Lately I've been getting shorter and shorter...]

As you can perhaps tell, the dialog is very rapid and highly rhythmical, consisting entirely of short phrases (with some variation in length). The direction supports the dialog well with many cuts. Also note the extremely colloquial language. This kind of dialog pervades the entire show.

Our last example is also from a romantic comedy, the "Danjobi"-like drama "Kekkon shitai otokotachi" (Men Who Want to Marry; 1991), written by Matsubara Toshiharu. This is a somewhat more serious scene (from episode 8, in the middle section of the drama), however, in which Ryouko (played by Toyota Maho, who has appeared in an amazing number of excellent dramas, but always as a supporting actress) dines at a restaurant with Chiyonosuke (Fuse Hiroshi). Ryouko has been going out with "Chiyo-chan" (as she calls him) but feels he is losing interest in her and is starting to like another woman, Mai. To make him jealous she has pretended to go out with a younger man and she now tells Chiyonosuke about their date.

 R: Sukoshi, yotta furi shite ageta kedo ne.  Soshitara annojou
watashi no koto toumawashi ni hoteru ni sasou yo na koto iu no.
[So I pretended I was a litle drunk for him. But then sure enough
he tries to get me to go to a hotel.]
    Otoko nante minna onaji. Chigatta no wa Chiyo-chan dake.  Ima
da ni sasowanai mon ne. Un un. [Men are all alike.  Well, you
might be the only exception.  Even now you wouldn't invite me to a
hotel, right?  Yeah.]
    Wakare giwa ni wa sa, kondo wa itsu aeru ka nante techou nanka
dashichatte.  Mendokusai kara tekitou ni yuttoita kedo. [When we
parted he pulled out his appointment book and asked when we'd meet
again.  Just to please him I made up some date.]
    Mou Chiyo-chan ga au na to iu nara awanai kedo...dou? [But if
you tell me not to meet him I won't...what do you think?]
 C: Mou ii yo. [That's enough.]
 R: Ee? [Huh?]
 C: Yuube wa 6ji sugi kara zutto Ushijima-san no mise ni
itandarou.  Kyou, Shun-kun no oneesan ga mise ni kite sa.  Kiitan
da yo. [Last night from 6pm you were at Ushijima-san's bar all
night, right?  Today Shun-kun's older sister came to my store.  I
heard all about it.]
 R: Atashi datte, ato de shinakya yokatta na, to omotta wa yo. 
Dakedo hora, shichatta ijou, ato no foro mo shitokou ka to omotte.
[Hey, afterwards I was thinking I shouldn't have lied to you.  But
then I thought, well, since I already did it, I might as well
follow up.]
 C: Nande sonna kozaiku surunda yo. Kirai da na ore, soiu
kakehiki.  Daikirai da yo.  [Why do you try to trick me like that? 
I hate that kind of trickery.  I really hate it.]  (He says
something we couldn't make out.)
    Ore ga asette, kyou asu ni demo puropozu suro to omotta no ka. 
Shizen de ii ja nai ka yo.  Shizen no nagare ni mi o makaseriya
sa.  Oretachi ima made umaku yattekitarou.  Soiu koto suru kara
ore datte shirakechaun da yo. [Did you think you'd get me worried,
and then I'd propose to you this morning?  Why don't you just let
things happen naturally?  Let yourself be carried by the natural
flow?  We've been doing pretty well so far, haven't we?  It's
because you say these things that I lose interest.]
 R: Atashi datte shizen no nagare ni mi o makasetai wa yo.  Demo
Chiyou-chan no ho mo shizen no nagare ga okashi kara. [I also want
to be carried by the natural flow.  But it's because there's
something strange about your "natural flow" as well.]
 C: Ore? [Mine?]
 R: Nagare ga Mai no ho ni kawarou to shiteru kara. [Your flow is
trying to change to flow toward Mai.]
 C: Nani ittenda yo. [What are you talking about?]
 R: Onna ni wa wakaru no.  Dakara fuan na no.  Dakara. [A woman
realizes these things.  That's why I'm anxious.  That's why.]
    Nani yo.  Hitokoto suki datte iwareta gurai de sa. [So what? 
So she told you she likes you.]
    Tashikani kozaiku shita.  Kakehiki shita.  Jibun demo iiya na
koto yatchatta.  Dakedo Chiyo-chan ga sou sasetan ja nai.  Atashi
no fuan ni saseta no ga ikenain ja nai. [That's right, I tried to
trick you. I lied.  I did something that even made me feel awful. 
But you were the one who made me do that.  Your making me anxious
was what caused it.]
    Iiyo nagare.  Mai no ho ni ittemo.  Kakehiki shita penaruti. 
Dakedo Chiyo-chan.  Zettai atashi no ho ni modotte kuru.  Atashi
jishin aru mon.  Itchae, itchae.  [Okay, let your flow go toward
Mai.  That's my penalty for trickery.  But Chiyo-chan.  I know
you're going to come back to me.  I've got confidence.  Go ahead,
go ahead!]
(She runs out of the restaurant.)

This dialog is quite different from Nojima's in that it is not so rapid-fire--each character generally speaks for a while rather than answering each other with short phrases. Still, it is quite rhythmical in its own way, with long and short sentences and repetition of words such as "nagare" and "kakehiki". Ryouko likes to pepper her speech with English words, and two such words appear in this excerpt: "follow" (for "follow up") and "penalty". Overall, though, the dialog is more standard Japanese and much less colloquial than Nojima's dialog. It was no less difficult to translate, however.

This is also difficult dialog for the actress playing Ryouko to perform--it would be all too easy to overact here. Fortunately Toyota Maho, an excellent actress, with restraint perfectly captures the contrast between Ryouko's attempt to project confidence and her actual lack of confidence.


Just how realistic are dorama? As can be seen from the descriptions of "Danjobi" and "Aishiatterukai!", the level of realism varies quite a bit, but on the average I would say it is more or less in line with US television. One can point to many elements of unrealism in even a fairly straightforward dorama, one of the most common being the houses and apartments the characters live in, which, given the modest occupations the characters typically have, tend to be far too luxurious.

Nonetheless, even the most superficially unrealistic dramas have an underlying realism to them--the unconscious assumptions underlying Japanese culture in general, which are reflected in the dorama. This is more true of dorama than other art forms such as novels and movies, which tend to be more self-conscious artistically, and is reinforced by the fact that dorama are written for a purely Japanese audience. Thus a foreigner, if he or she can get around the superficially unrealistic elements, can discover quite a bit about Japan by watching dorama.

The best dorama even transcend this realism. For example to me "Danjobi", even though I can't directly relate to anything in it, somehow captures the feeling of single romantic life better than anything else I've seen or read. That is quite an accomplishment.


I recall reading in a Japanese survey that by far the most important factor determining what dramas people watch is the cast. Therefore producers go to great lengths to get the currently most popular personalities and idols to appear in their dramas. The Japanese geinoukai (entertainment world) is much smaller than the US one, with a great deal of overlap between areas such as TV, movies, music, sports and modelling. Therefore someone who was popular from some other area will likely end up in a dorama eventually, whether or not they have any acting ability.

If there is any general weakness of dorama, then, it would be in the area of acting. Whereas in US TV it is rare, despite what other faults a show might have, to see really poor acting, in Japanese TV it is all too common. Indeed, when one does find a show such as "Long Vacation" with a uniformly excellent cast it almost seems like a rare treat.

There are certainly many cases in which idols and so forth have become very good actors and actresses, some examples being Koizumi Kyouko, Nakayama Miho, and Kimura Takuya. But there seem to be just as many examples of really poor acting, for example Asano Atsuko, Tokiwa Takako, and Oe Senri. Interestingly, however, acting ability does not seem to be very important to viewers of dorama--for example although I've thought they were bad enough to nearly ruin dramas they've been in, both Asano Atsuko and Tokiwa Takako have been very popular, even being voted among the best actresses of their season! [Television, 1996]

There have been some extremely good actors and actresses as well--two of my favorites are Okuda Eiji ("Kintsuma 3" (1985), "Kinyoubi ni wa hana o katte" (1986), "Danjo shichinin natsu monogatari" (1986), etc) and Yamaguchi Tomoko ("Kekkon shitai otokotachi" (Men who Want to Marry; 1991), "Double Kitchen" (1993), "Sweet Home" (1994), "29sai no kurisumasu" (Christmas at 29; 1994), etc). Yamaguchi remarkably has also been the most popular actress for the past year or so, and starred in what is perhaps the biggest triumph of casting yet, the Spring 1996 drama "Long Vacation". This paired her with the currently most popular male idol, Kimura Takuya of the music group SMAP, and added a pair of young talented actors, Takenouchi Yutaka and Inamori Izumi, as well as three relative newcomers, Matsu Takako, Hirosue Ryouko, and Ryou. This was combined with a good script by Kitagawa Eriko, competent to excellent direction, and a very good theme song and background music. The result: the most popular drama so far in Japan.


As in the US, in Japan the writers seem to have more power than the directors in making a show (this the opposite of movies); therefore direction tends to be fairly pedestrian, merely trying to not get in the way of the dialog. There have been many solid directors, though, such as Matsumoto Ken and Ikuno Jirou, both of TBS, who have done consistently excellent work, with occasional flashes of brilliance.

In recent years some newer Fuji-TV directors have started to explore more sophisticated and flashy direction, the most promising among them Suzuki Masayuki, who has already directed several distinctive dorama including "29sai no kurisumasu" (1994), "Oosama no resutoran" (King's Restaurant; 1995), "Mada koi wa hajimaranai" (Love Hasn't Begun Yet; 1995), and some of the better episodes of "Long Vacation" (1996). His trademarks include close ups of faces looking directly into the camera, which are used very effectively, and considerable use of visual symmetry. He also created some excellent musical segments in episodes 4 and 5 of "Long Vacation" in which a single song plays while several scenes are cycled through, with the music quality changing depending on the scene (for example in one scene it may sound like it's coming out of a radio). This creates a very interesting combination of continuity and contrast between the scenes.

Suzuki expands his technique even further in his recent dorama "Konna watashi ni dare ga shita" (Who Did This to Me?; 1996), making excellent use of slow motion to deliberately create unrealistic effects in a drama that is something of a fantasy. It should be interesting to see how his work and the work of other young directors evolves.

Opening Titles and Music

The opening title sequence of a dorama ("opening" hereafter), a short segment with the cast and staff credits, has become something of an art form itself over the years. In the US, the opening has mostly disappeared from sitcoms; for example a few years ago the head of ABC banned openings from shows, fearing the audience would change channels during the opening. In contrast the opening continues to be a major element of dorama.

I'm not sure if the show's normal director or someone else is responsible for the opening, but the style is typically quite different than that of the show itself. I can imagine it is the directors then, venting their creative frustration. The best openings capture the mood of the drama in miniature. One of the best is that for "Kintsuma 2" (1984), an exceedingly gloomy drama. The opening features the Odakyuu-sen train departing Shinjuku with its skyscrapers and making its way toward Chuou-rinkan, where the drama takes place. The visuals are treated to make them seem out of focus and particularly bleak. In the background Eric Carmen's song "Almost Paradise" sets the mood perfectly. The opening ends with a tracking shot of the perfect white houses lined up along the street--part of the irony of course is that moving into these dream houses is the start to the tragedy of the drama.

Another particularly excellent opening is that to "29sai no kurisumasu" (1994). This opening is done entirely with series of still black and white photos, giving it both a rhythmic feel and also somewhat of a bleak feel which matches the drama's mood. The action of the opening consists of short segments in which one character sees another, a precursor to the relationships of the drama itself.

Indeed many openings contain hints of the plot of the drama, represented in very stylized fashions. Some openings, such as for "Mada koi wa hajimaranai" (1995) and "Age 35 koishikute" (1996), even contain fragments of the current episode.

"Aishiatterukai!" (1989) is another drama with a particularly appropriate and excellent opening: In this case the opening is extremely short, giving only the main cast credits, and extremely fast paced. It is done in a fake comic-book style that captures the feel of the drama itself perfectly. Full credits are given in a longer ending segment that also has a longer version of the theme song, and features outtakes from the episodes (a fairly common device in endings) which add to the feeling that the drama is intended to be pure fun.

Some other dramas feature both openings and endings, and some endings only. Dramas that have openings will often defer the opening of the last episode and show it at the end (perhaps modified somewhat) for dramatic effect. An example of this is "Danjobi" (1986).

Whether it is in the opening or closing, the theme song is a very important element of a dorama and the relation is symbiotic-- as in the US television is the main means by which music becomes known and popular, but unlike the US it is not done through a music channel like MTV, but rather through theme songs for television shows (not only dorama) and commercial songs. Many of the biggest hit songs have been dorama themes, one of the most famous examples being Chage and Aska's "Say Yes", the theme for "101kai-me no puropozu" (1991). Usually the songs are written specifically to be the theme of a dorama, although occasionally older songs are used. Foreign songs are also not uncommonly used as themes, but these are almost exclusively old songs. The only exception I know of is Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You", which was released in both Japan and the US at about the same time it was used as the theme for "29sai no kurisumasu".

Background music (BGM) is also important for dramas and occasionally popular enough to be released as an album (which generally does not include the theme song, written and performed by someone else and always released as a single). The most successful drama so far musically would probably be "Long Vacation" (1996), perhaps partly because it was about musicians (pianists) and partly because the music used in it was very good; both the theme song and BGM album sold very well, and several supplementary BGM albums (containing, for example, classical piano pieces used in the drama) were also released.

Watching Dorama Outside Japan

Dorama seems to lag far behind other areas of Japanese popular culture, such as video games, music, and anime, in popularity overseas. This is probably due to a number of factors including difficulty of appreciating them if you don't know Japanese, and the fact that the dorama are made only with a Japanese audience in mind. However some dramas do seem to be fairly popular in other Asian countries, such as Hong Kong, in which their stars are known from some other area, such as music.

It is not difficult to get access to dorama outside Japan, however, provided one lives in an area with a reasonable Japanese population. I am only familiar with the United States, but it is ironic is that it is in a sense easier to watch dorama in the US than it is in Japan! This is thanks to the many Japanese video stores that exist in major cities that rent out tapes of Japanese television shows, at typically $1 per tape, which contains two hours of programming (so two episodes for dorama). This tape rental has become a big business in recent years, and very recently the Japanese copyright association has asked the tape distributors to pay the proper royalty fees ([Motoda, 1997]). This may increase the prices somewhat, but in any case this is a terrific resource--not only can one watch the recent dramas, but the larger stores will keep older shows going back for years, so they have become libraries for older works that one might not be able to see otherwise.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, there are many such video stores, some with extensive collections. We are also lucky to have one station (KTSF, channel 26) which broadcasts dorama Saturday and Sunday nights, with subtitles. The subtitles are done in Hawaii, which has several stations that show dorama.

The Internet and World Wide Web have dramatically increased access to and communication about foreign cultures in general, and certainly Japanese pop culture and dorama in particular has benefitted from this. TBS and other stations have created web pages, so now anyone in the world can look to see the latest dorama showing with cast pictures and episode synopses. A few individuals (myself included) have created their own dorama web pages. In addition, in March 1995 I created a mailing list for discussion of dorama in English; there are currently over 170 members from all over the world. (For information on the mailing list, see


This paper has only given an overview of renzoku ren'ai dorama, and a superficial one at that--there is an enormous amount more that could be said. The best way to appreciate dorama is to watch it, and although a great deal of the dorama produced is quite bad, there are still plenty of gems well worth watching. I've given some pointers to some that I personally enjoy, and every year at least a few really good ones seem to get made.

Although dorama is extremely popular in Japan, it is not yet so well known outside the country, with even the exported subtitled shows are intended mainly for an expatriate audience. Popularity does seem to be increasing slowly, however, and I expect this to continue.


My wife Kyoko has over the years helped me a great deal to understand the language used, background, and many other aspects of dorama. She proofread the Japanese in this paper and helped transcribe the dialog from "Danjobi". Mariko Kashimoto provided invaluable assistance in transcribing the dialogs from "Aishiatterukai!" and "Kekkon shitai otokotachi." Thanks as well to the members of the dorama mailing list, especially Takefumi Motoda and Eric Ushiroda, for keeping me up to date with the latest information from Japan and elsewhere.


  [Motoda, 1997] Motoda Takefumi, personal communication, March 2,
  [Nojima, 1992] Nojima Shinji. "Nojima Shinji no kenkyuu". 
Gekkan DORAMA scenario magazine, February 1992, pp. 14-19.
  [Poster, 1992] Poster seen on a train advertising a television
magazine. Circa 1992.
  [Television, 1996] "The Tenth Drama Academy Awards", THE
TELEVISION Weekly, #40 (9/28 to 10/4/96), pp. 154--159.