Looking for a love story this holiday season? Or perhaps you’d rather indulge in some messier romantic competition? Either way, streaming services have you covered with two Japanese shows that blur the line between reality and drama.
Netflix’s “The Future Diary,” which premiered on Dec. 14, aims to re-create the romance-fueled absurdity of a Japanese television drama in the real world. Two strangers are brought together and act out a love story guided by the titular book, which gives them instructions and prompts to further their relationship. The plots are ripped from familiar tropes on Japanese TV shows except for the fairy tale ending — in a truly melodramatic touch, the couple must say farewell at the end, even if they’ve fallen for one another.
The premise is one that originally debuted as the popular centerpiece segment of the late-1990s variety show “Unnan no Hontoko!”
The Netflix reboot, made in conjunction with TBS, focuses on Maai Nakasone from Okinawa and Takuto Wakamatsu from Hokkaido. The pair get to know one another in ways both familiar (coffee at a cafe) and ridiculous (forced to cook dinner for a boat full of impatient people). The Future Diary itself directs them, telling them things like when to have their first kiss.
Between segments, a panel of four Japanese celebrities — singer Daigo Naito, Exile member Taiki Sato, TV personality Saya and TV Tokyo announcer Reina Sumi — offer analysis of what they see. This is a format familiar to audiences in Asia but may only be recognizable to fans of the show “Terrace House” elsewhere. That show’s commentators were one of the best parts of the viewing experience, but on “The Future Diary,” at least for the first three episodes, their contributions are somewhat unnecessary.
Despite knowing how it all ends — the very first scene of the first episode shows Maai and Takuto tearfully accepting the fact that they have to say goodbye — “The Future Diary” is fun because it focuses on the romantic journey rather than the bittersweet result, and it makes for great comfort viewing. The real world might not resemble a rom-com, but Netflix can at least make it seem possible for 30-minute bursts.
Amazon Prime’s “The Bachelor Japan,” which premiered on Nov. 25, ignores the Japanese drama tradition in favor of the current American approach of turning everything into a contest. The show, now in its fourth season, follows the same beats as the U.S. version of the reality competition with women from across Japan vying for the affection of one man, this time a quadrilingual Chinese businessman named Kou Kou, taking part in various competitions to grab his attention. Similar to “The Future Diary,” a panel offers commentary in between the action, though the “Bachelor” crew — singer Rino Sashihara and comedians Koji Imada and Shingo Fujimori — is much funnier than the subdued cast “The Future Diary” brought together.
The series differ drastically in tone — “The Future Diary” aims to re-create a drama while “The Bachelor Japan” simply revels in it — but both don’t seem to kid themselves when it comes to the goal of providing entertainment. While centered around real people in the real world, the lovebirds on “The Future Diary” are basically improvising over a loose script, while “The Bachelor Japan” provides fantastical scenarios in a tropical Thailand backdrop — when was the last time you had to perform rhythmic gymnastics to get a second date?
We all just want a little love, even if you can see the entertainment industry strings holding it together.
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