First off, let me share that I believe that everyone should, no MUST, follow their own personal preferences when it comes to selecting learning materials. In order for you to learn Japanese voluntarily, it has to be enjoyable, and for it to be enjoyable, you have to be able to watch, listen to and read whatever you want that is in Japanese — or, indeed, any language. So these aren’t the best Japanese shows, they’re just the ones I like best as of right now (late 2007). Having said that, if you’re just getting started with Japanese, and/or you don’t know many Japanese shows, and you don’t live in Japan, it helps to have someone who’s watched a lot of stuff give you some tips.
Take note: a lot of these shows don’t have subs, Japanese or otherwise. But that’s fine, believe me, you’ll work it out somehow — even being able to understand only small bits and pieces is fine and normal. Also, all these shows are either comedies, dramedies, or somehow funny. Now, a lot of people will go “in learning a new language comedy is the hardest thing to understand”. No. It. Isn’t. (Dewd, I don’t know who went around spreading the bad news and deciding what’s “the hardest” in the world of everything…whoever they are, they suck!). Comedy isn’t intrinsically “hard” to understand, no more than news or a children’s book is. What perhaps sets comedy apart is the necessity of prior knowledge in order for the comedy to be enjoyed. That prior knowledge may be the source of whatever reference or parody is being made (by the way, a lot of really good comedy often contains a lot of internal, self-contained references, so that abbreviates the prior knowledge requirement right there). Or it may be prior knowledge of whatever social norm/status quo is being inappropriately ignored or applied. So, if, as Stephen Colbert and others have suggested, comedy is about status change and betrayal, then you need to know what the original status is or was, in order to recognize the change and therefore (perhaps) find it funny.
Anyway, the comedy itself is not very hard. Like I said, a lot of the best comedy is actually very high in self-references. This may be because, as Jerry Seinfeld suggested in his comedy book, a comedian generally needs to be able to build some kind of semi-realistic logical baseline from which to launch her jokes. As such, a skilled comedian may build a very good baseline: so good that she re-uses it. Or not, I don’t really know. My point is that you can do it. You can enjoy comedy: a lot of it is physical, low-brow or self-referential (and therefore, more or less universal) anyway, so the bar is nowhere near as high as many people appear to contend. Furthermore, the comedy itself can serve as a place for you to learn what the social norms are, such that the next time you see a joke based on the same material, you’ll be informed, and therefore in a position to enjoy it as comedy.
Oh, and by the way, if there’s ever some comedy you don’t seem to get, it may just be the case that it simply isn’t funny. Like any country, Japan is subject to a variant of the Pareto principle, whereby maybe 90% of the consistent laughs (high LPM rate throughout the show) are produced by only maybe 10% of the comedy shows — the rest of the shows suck and aren’t funny. It’s not a bad thing and it’s not a rare thing — after all, Comedy Central is built almost entirely on Chappelle, Stewart and South Park.
Where was I? Yeah, comedy is good, and I watch a lot of it. So here is my list of the best Japanese TV shows (highly biased towards comedy), for informational purposes rather than for recommendation purposes. Do with it as you will. The list is in no particular order.
- エンタの神様 (Enta no kami sama/The kami of entertainment).
A cross between stand-up and sketch comedy, comedians (usually in duos, sometimes alone, rarely in larger groups) perform on stage in front of a live studio audience. The Enta no kami sama people seem to work really hard to make sure that the people on the show are funny, so…highly recommended. It also has subs for the punchlines.
- トリック (Trick)
[Season 1, vol. 1] [Season 1, vol. 2] [Season 1, vol. 3] [Season 1, vol. 4] [Season 1, vol. 5]
トリック2 (Trick Season 2)
トリック: troisieme partie (Trick Season 3)
トリック：新作スペシャル (Trick: The New Special)
トリック劇場版 (Trick: The Movie)
トリック劇場版2 (Trick: The Movie 2)
トリック 堤幸彥演出研究序説 (The Making of Trick, behind the scenes footage and discussion with director TSUTSUMI Yukihiko)
I don’t know if you can tell yet, but…I love this show. The plot is basically UEDA Jirou (an arrogant, cowardly, well-endowed physics professor) and YAMADA Naoko (a modestly-chested magician who’s useless on stage and chronically strapped for cash but also something of a genius in term of investigation), go around busting a string of shady psychics, cult leaders and other pretenders to paranormal abilities. Ueda pretends to use physics to bust them while Naoko does all the real work. Hilarity ensues. So, I guess it’s a mystery-dramedy, with LOTS of laughs, and great supporting characters, and all kinds of random regional dialects. Most Japanese shows don’t run more than one season. Trick ran for not one but three seasons and had not one, but two movies released in real theaters. A show has to either (a) be backed by the Illuminati, or, (b) be really good, to get this far. The answer is (b).
- ハンドク (Handoc/half-doctors)
NAGASE Tomoya was one of my surrogate parents for Japanese (he doesn’t know this, but…). Anyway, so this show’s about new doctors (who only have half the skill of experience doctors, therefore half-doctors), working in a top-flight whiz-bang super-elite hospital run by a chief surgeon who is as unethical as he is skilled. But it’s not like your typical American medical drama. This one is genuinely funny, has actual direction, and doesn’t try to use blood-spewing emergency room patients to push up its ratings…oh, did I say that out loud?
- ごくせん (Gokusen/Yakuza homeroom teacher)
[Season 1, vol. 1] [Season 1, vol. 2] [Season 1, vol. 3] [Season 1, vol. 4] [Season 1 Special]
ごくせん2 (Gokusen, Season 2)
Usually, when a show has a formulaic plot, it’s a bad thing. But Gokusen uses that to its advantage and just takes things to a whole ‘nother level. NAKAMA Yukie plays a homeroom teacher who’s secretly a yakuza. She’ll roundhouse kick her wayward students (all boys) for going out of line, but also beat up anyone who tries to harm them. And try to keep her yakuzaness a secret from the school board. By the way, my spoken Japanese became really vulgar as a result of watching this show (テメエ、▲▲▲じゃねえぞぉ！). That’s not meant as a warning, but actually as recommendation — this show is fun. Just be sure to pretty-up your Japanese later. Gokusen has two seasons. [Edit: the name ごくせん is a portmanteau (?) of 極道 (ごくどう -- the road of crime, gambling, drugs) and 先生 (せんせい -- teacher), so, yakuza teacher: for some reason, I missed the part where this was made clear on the show, if there was such a part, so this is for everyone who's wondering].
- タイガー＆ドラゴン (Tiger & Dragon)
+ Tiger & Dragon special prequel double-length episode
This show is in terms of structure, content and characters, one of the best shows I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. I don’t mean to talk it up, but it’s an AMAZING show, and super-rewatchable. Go judge for yourself. P.S. — it has exact subs!
- ココリコミラクルタイプ (Kokoriko Miracle Type)
Viewers send in real-life stories which become sketches which make you laugh.
- ワンナイR&R(Wannai/One Night Rock & Roll)
Along with Kokoriko Miracle Type, part of a Wednesday night line-up called 水10 (すいじゅう/suijuu). The two shows are separate, they just run/ran back-to-back. Both are really funny. Wannai is a sketch comedy show, more fictional, but like In Living Color, having a lot of recurring characters like 轟 (Todoroki), ゴリエ (Gorie) and チョコボーイ山口 (Choco-boy Yamaguchi). The names alone will get you giggling.
- アイチテル! (Aichiteru/I rabu you)
A roomful of foreign women from around the world (Africa, East Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and cetera) who speak fluent Japanese, and two of the guys from Wannai combine for fast-paced, talk-based and often pretty biting humor. Really funny.
- はねるのトびら (Haneru no tobira/you knock on a jumping door)
About 6 comedy duos (most comedians in Japan run as duos and do or can do 漫才/manzai) combined to make this youth-oriented sketch comedy show. A big hit with the twentysomething crowd, and with good reason…I don’t think that’s proper English. Anyway, funny stuff. カワイイ！
- サラリーマンNEO (Salaryman Neo)
First, this show will have you on the floor laughing. Then…you’ll break your jaw when it hits the ground when you realize that NHK, the GOVERNMENT station, made one of the funniest and most sardonic TV shows to ever hit Japanese TV screens. Who says the gubmit can never get it right!? Semi-prerequisite: have worked in a Japanese company or know what it’s like to do so.
- 池袋ウェストゲートパーク(Ikebukuro West Gate Park/IWGP)
If you only buy one Japanese TV series, buy Tiger & Dragon. If you only by two, buy Ikebukuro West Gate Park. IWGP is one of the best TV shows ever to be produced in any language…ever. It’s no surprise that it was written by the same guy who wrote Tiger & Dragon, one 宮藤官九郎 (くどう かんくろう/KUDOU Kankurou). It also stars the same guy as T&D, namely Nagase Tomoya, in the role of Makoto. IWGP has lots of laughs, lots of action [a little violent at times, actually], great characters and a bumping soundtrack. It also serves as a great window on contemporary Japanese youth and street culture; Kudou has a real ear for dialogue and a sense of situational realism. I’m not going to tell you any more, you have to watch it for yourself. It’ll have you saying “面倒臭ええナァ！”…I can’t believe I almost didn’t add IWGP to this list. It brings the total to eleven, but whatever. Definitely an example of “last but not least”.By the way, if you only buy three shows, buy Trick…