Japan's TV Samurai Dramas Stand the Test of Time

Fuurin Kazan, NHK's 46th annual Taiga DramaFuurin Kazan, NHK's 46th annual Taiga Drama

As television continues to lose both audience and relevance in a society increasingly fascinated with online and wireless media offerings, Japan's classic "Samurai Dramas" buck the trend by providing exciting and engrossing entertainment the old fashioned way.

First broadcast from April through December of 1963, so-called "Taiga" or Historical Dramas average 50 hourly episodes in length, shown weekly and usually on a Sunday evening. For the past few years, subscribers to TV Japan in North America have been able to view these fascinating period dramas with English subtitles. The current, 46th drama serial is "Fuurin Kazan", which relates the story of Yamamoto Kansuke, a one-eyed masterless samurai (ronin) who rose to become one of medieval Japan's most respected generals and strategists.

Komyo ga Tsuji, NHK's 45th Taiga DramaKomyo ga Tsuji, NHK's 45th Taiga Drama

One might think that trying to retain an audience for a historical drama over the better part of a year is an impossible task, but Japanese government broadcaster NHK has succeeded by tailoring the message to match the medium. To elaborate, the dramas are lavishly produced (episode costs can run upward of $500,000 each) and are skillfully paced with cliffhanger endings to each episode. The audience is given time to get to know, even care about the characters because the producers have 50 hours to play with. It matters not that in most cases the ending is already known, it's HOW the events play out that create the interest.

Katori ShingoKatori Shingo One factor that helps the Taiga Dramas capture younger viewers is that popular singers and actors are brought in to play pivotal roles. One example is Katori Shingo, member of the wildly popular J-pop group SMAP who played the lead role of Kondo Isami in 2004's drama, "Shinsengumi!". 2006's drama "Komyo ga Tsuji" featured top-ranked actress and "idol" Nakama Yukie in the lead role. Established actors are not neglected, however: Sonny Chiba puts in a powerful performance as chief retainer Itagaki Nobukata in Fuurin Kazan.

Nakama YukieNakama Yukie Viewers of Japan's Taiga Dramas, while impressed by the visual splendor, will notice differences in the style of presentation. Mainly, there is no gratuitous sex or violence - I have yet to witness a single kiss. Battle scenes, though frequent, typically suggest violence rather than show it in a graphic way. Adult issues are at the forefront yet the drama as a whole is family-friendly. It works, and works very well! Wikipedia has devoted extensive coverage to the more recent Taiga Dramas and is worth looking into for background information. Should you ever have the chance to watch a single episode of NHK's Taiga Dramas, you're definitely in for a treat. Your only regret may be in not being able to see the other 49! (images via NHK)

You can check out a preview of the show (without English subtitles) here:

and this:


Steve Levenstein
Japanese Innovations Writer