Japanese TV tends to draw its inspiration from the bountiful well of manga, but Fuji Television and Tokai Television looked overseas to come up with their version of the hit Canadian series “Orphan Black,” which began airing Dec. 2.
In the past decade, reworkings of overseas series have found their way onto mainstream television with mixed results. The most successful is likely the highly rated “My Boss My Hero,” which was adapted from a South Korean series and aired on Nippon TV in 2006. Last year there was “Hope: Kitai Zero no Shinnyu Shain,” which also came from South Korea, and in 2015 there was “The Last Cop,” remade from a German series. Adaptations don’t always work; the Japanese “Saturday Night Live” was a rather short-lived experiment in 2011.
“Orphan Black,” which includes the subtitle “Nanatsu no Idenshi” (“Seven Genes”), is an ambitious undertaking. The main star is South Korean actress Kang Ji-young (formerly of pop group Kara) who plays seven different roles. Her co-stars include veteran actor Naoto Takenaka, but it’s clear upon first viewing that this is Kang’s vehicle every step of the way. With her supermodel looks, Kang is bound to attract the attention of fans, but some critics have complained her Japanese can be “hard to understand.” Fans of the original series have also said she lacks the scope and power required for the role, which won Canada’s Tatiana Maslany an Emmy for best actress.
I’m not sold on the idea that her Japanese needs to be perfect, but the first episode did feel top-heavy with exposition. Instead of drawing the viewer into the world of Sala Aoyama (Kang), we’re given a list of facts: Sala grew up in an orphanage; she’s on bad terms with her foster mother, Saeko (Yumi Aso); and she’s a single mom to daughter, Moe (Rin Shono). Sala comes across as more manicured than Maslany’s fierce portrayal of Sarah Manning. And it was a bit disappointing that the first episode emphasized the “mom” factor over thrills and mystery.
Perhaps going this route is indicative of what to expect from future Japanese reimaginings of foreign TV series. Media analysts point out that remakes should “feel Japanese” and reflect domestic social trends if they want to secure an audience.
With that in mind, what would happen if “The Walking Dead” were picked up? Japanese audiences would have no problem with the idea of the undead having seen herds of salarymen shuffle through crowded stations on the way to work — many’s the time I’ve felt and probably looked like a zombie while riding the train to work. Or imagine the vicious power struggles of “Game of Thrones” transferred onto a circle of mamatomo (moms who are friends) as they fight to get their kids into elite kindergartens. Or how about getting ex-Cabinet minister Mayuko Toyota to play the lead in a Japanese remake of “Veep”? Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ tart-tongued Selina Meyer has nothing on Toyota when it comes to flinging abuse at male underlings.