TV | 2019 in Review

Netflix led the streaming race with original Japanese content in 2019

by Alyssa I. Smith

Staff Writer

The battle between online video streaming heavy hitters is well underway in Japan. While Hulu got a head start in the market in 2011, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have quickly caught up since their launches in 2015 by expanding their libraries with original Japanese content.

The number of subscribers has been steadily growing, and a recent Jiji Press survey showed that the number of people in Japan using such online streaming services now stands at more than 20 percent of the population.

This year’s winner, though, has to be Netflix. Its aggressive push for content creation has paid off in a big way, with Japan-centric films and TV series capturing a range of audiences here and abroad. While the streaming service does not release audience numbers, making it difficult to make out the exact viewership of its offerings, the wealth of critical acclaim and media attention given to its original content over the year was hard to ignore.

2019 kicked off with “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” Japanese decluttering guru Kondo, who was named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 influential figures in 2015 for the international success of her bestselling books, including “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” presented her cheery persona and spartan philosophy just in time for Netflix audiences to buckle down and commit to New Year’s resolutions. The show spread Kondo’s trademark KonMari method and set off a wave of memes on social media, thanks to her belief in throwing out items that do not “spark joy.” In July, Netflix and Kondo had something to be joyful about — two Primetime Emmy award nominations.

Netflix continued to clean up with crossover hits throughout the year.

On Aug. 8, the service launched “The Naked Director,” a series based on adult film director and entrepreneur Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada), his star actress, Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita), and their rise to notoriety in 1980s Japan. The sex-laden series sparked a commotion after it hit screens, garnering positive reviews from international audiences and film critics alike and scoring a green light for a second season.

Unburdened by the restrictions of commercial films and network TV, streaming services like Netflix allow for projects like “The Naked Director,” with its sex scenes and debauchery, to play around with big budgets while skirting conventional Japanese standards. The same thinking likely allowed film provocateur Sion Sono, with a cult following for films such as “Suicide Club” (2001) and “Love Exposure” (2008), to release his latest gorefest, “The Forest of Love,” on the service.

Not all of Netflix’s new releases were about hedonistic exploits, however. In fact, “Terrace House,” the Japanese reality series about six adults living together, can attribute its global sleeper hit status to the fact that it offers the exact opposite. Publications such as The New York Times, BuzzFeed and The New Yorker have applauded the show for its unusual approach to reality TV — its unscripted format of watching young, attractive people interact with each other on a daily basis while juggling burgeoning romances, careers and personal aspirations is calming and heartwarming. The fifth season of the show, titled “Terrace House Tokyo 2019-2020,” began streaming in May.

In an effort to get a firm grip on the cash cow that is Japanese animation, Netflix has been ramping up its production of original anime, as well as rebooting much-loved classics. 2019 saw the release of the second season of “Aggretsuko,” a show based on a Sanrio character named Restuko (who is also an anthropomorphic red panda) going through the ordinary aggrievances and discomforts of life as an office worker living in Tokyo. Adorable San-X character Rilakkuma made its debut in stop-motion form in April with “Rilakkuma and Kaoru.” To nab the attention of more hardcore anime fans abroad, Netflix launched an animated reimagining of the classic Japanese superhero, Ultraman.

Online video streaming wasn’t all about enticing international audiences with Japanese sensibilities, though. In some cases, Western hit shows jumped over the Pacific.

Amazon Prime debuted the third season of “The Bachelor Japan,” a reality series based on the hugely successful American franchise, on Sept. 13. While the Japanese version of the dating competition is far less messy than its American counterpart, it still delivers shady moments and romantic intrigue that pass for risque here. Happy with the reception so far, Amazon Prime has announced that a spin-off show, “The Bachelorette,” is in the works.

Similarly, Netflix brought “Queer Eye” — the hit American reality TV series about five men from the LGBTQ community who give life makeovers — to Tokyo to film a mini-season of four episodes. The show could have fallen into the trap of relying on stereotypes or exotifying Japan, but it gracefully sidestepped culture clashes by making an effort to understand Japanese norms, rather than forcing Western ideals.

Finally, while the launch of Disney+ made waves overseas in November, Japan has quietly been enjoying a similar service called Disney Deluxe since March. Slightly cheaper than Netflix’s basic monthly plan and offering a slew of exclusive content in a country that has an infatuation with Disney (its two Disney theme parks received a record high of 15.74 million visitors between April 1 and Sept. 30), the new streaming platform has the potential to be a major contender here.