Five Asian Dramas Which Make Me Feel Better About Living Life, Honestly
So, you’re online, and you feel bad about the world. What can help? And for cheap-to-free? Asian Dramas. They’re long, they’re lengthy, and they’re full, at their best, of the spectrum of human emotion. And when you feel bad, that’s what you need, something to take you by the nose and lead you through the bad times right back into the good. The shortest series in this list lasts ten forty-five minute episodes. The longest will take you a full 24 hours. Turn on, tune in, and bliss out.
49 Days (Dramafever, Korean) – The Power of the Sympathetic Sad Cry
You’re getting married, at last, in a week–! But shit happens, you just crashed your car, and now you’re a ghost in a coma. Can you use the borrowed sleeping hours of a desperately lonely night-worker to put right everything that once went wrong in your life (and her life)? Can you gather the tears, honest tears shed in pity of your plight–with no personal selfishness mixed in to poison them–that you need from the only true friends you didn’t realise you had? Let’s hope so, because you’ve got forty-nine days to try, and if you fail you’re dead. On the bright side, we can all see which guy you’re supposed to end up with, and he wears really great knitwear. Baby, it’s not all bad.
The premise is fairly Quantum Leap-y, the drama melodramatic full-on soap business, but the execution is serious and heartfelt. Ji Hyun has to save her own life, but her father has a secret brain tumour and is being fraudulently ousted from his business by Ji Hyun’s own faithless fiancé who’s been seeing her best friend behind her back for the entirety of their manipulated relationship. It all sounds ridiculous, but imagine how you’d feel if that happened.
Beautiful globular tears swim in the eyes and down the cheeks of both principle actresses Nam Gyu Ri (playing Ji Hyun) and her meat-puppet Lee Yo Won (playing Yi Kyung) and, most likely, in and down your own. 49 Days fully commits to its tragedy (I should say tragedies), which it reveals slowly, slowly, through a thousand backstory paper cuts. If you want to purge your emotional backlog by feeling someone else’s pain in a safe, magical way, 49 Days is waiting to take you away, with twenty episodes.
Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia’s Case Files (Crunchyroll, Japanese) – The power of the Glad Cry For the Beauty of Compassion
A man who gets headaches when he tries to read novels finds work in a secondhand bookshop. A woman who places value on books comparable to the heavy worth she sees in human dignity hires a man who doesn’t love reading. What a mismatch! Ironic! Hilarious! Yes? No. They are a perfect partnership, equals in compassion and the natural effort they expend when the opportunity to help someone arises. And the upset that’s caused by ignorance of what one’s intimate companion takes for fundamental (in this case, the deep importance of reading, stories, and books in their physical specificity) is given respect. Quiet moments of sadness, accusations hurled in the heat of passion, humble apologies, and evidence of the determination to grow together abound. It’s not technically a love story, but it’s totally a love story. Love of books, love of truth, love of family, and loving partnership. Maybe Daisuke and Shioriko don’t kiss, but maybe they don’t have to.
But what they do do is solve mysteries. Not murders, not major heists, but everyday puzzles, everyday domestic thefts, everyday grievances. People come to their shop with a book, and Shioriko can see that they have a problem too. The kind of problem people cry over, in their private moments before work, and that you’ll cry over too when it’s solved without anyone punished and with the opportunity for reparation of relationships and self-respect coming, against all odds, to the table. I cried during every episode of this show, and I did that because of how kind every denouement is. If you’ve ever loved a book, or loved a person who’s loved a book, this show is written to tell you you’re connected and that both can love you back. For eleven forty-five minute slots, you’ll feel more than okay. You’ll feel good.
Love Myself Or You (Dramafever, Taiwanese) – So you’re telling me people really can grow when faced with their own weakness?
When looking for a really uplifting drama, I suggest honing in on the details. I picked Love Myself or You because the blurb identified its heroine as someone who only wants to read comics and cook and eat. Hey, that’s me! What’s not to like? And the answer, it turned out, was “nothing.” This is a story about a woman trying to raise herself into adult success out of the deep shadows of her abusive father’s many oppressive impacts on her younger life. She wants to do that by becoming a great French chef, but fate (and charming writing) wants her to do it by facing the loneliness she’s enforced for herself out of fear, pride, and trauma, working through it, and finding true community, true familial duty (raising her orphaned nephew, as opposed to holding herself accountable for her father’s debts), and, at the centre of the slow, slow-burn narrative, true love.
In the beginning, Kai Qi is blunt, brusque, private, and demanding, and her standards for herself are getting in the way of all her social opportunities. She rebuffs overtures of friendship and avoids providing the support she knows is needed to her friendly acquaintances out of misguided, empathetic respect for their coping mechanisms (gettin’ drunk solo). She’s a kind person, but she acts like a neutral one; she’s a loving person, but she acts like an autocrat.
But as her forgotten childhood friend Ah Jie works to earn her trust and open her heart, she learns to keep pace. After Ah Jie reunites her with the emotionally significant college boyfriend-who-wasn’t (they cosplayed One Piece together, excuse me, that counts as official)–he can’t fight his own feelings and kisses her–Kai Qi is horrified by her positive response and avoids discussing it with him for as long as possible, but tells her old flame about it immediately, breaking their scheduled date. Her strict honesty–established as something that regularly bites her, because she doesn’t understand how to apply it to any emotional response beyond the immediate (a reflexive leave me alone)–becomes the strength it always should have been. Kai Qi’s integrity, at last, begins to benefit her. Everybody heals, on Love Myself or You. It really makes you feel like there’s hope for us all. For twenty-two hour-plus episodes. Nice.
Please Love the Useless Me (KissAsia, Japanese) – So you’re saying you don’t have to be more than who you are to find friendship, fulfillment, or love?
Please Love the Useless Me (previously discussed in original comic form) is about growth as much as the previous entry, but it focuses much more on what’s important outside of growth: the parts of you that are already fine, and sweet, and intrinsic to your youness.
A loser in her late twenties has to rely on the charity of her ex-boss, who tells her all about how she brings her troubles on herself. It’s good because he’s right, and because he shows her friendship because she’s worth it anyway, and because she gives as good as she gets. They fall in love by each making the other look at themselves and by each simultaneously showing affection for the huge mess the other sees in the mirror. Please Love the Useless Me doesn’t reward self-debasement, but it does reward self-pity, in the best of ways.
Picture two friends: one goes “waahhh” and one goes “awwww.” Except most of the time both of those friends are one person, and the separate friend who’s really there says, “Lol, idiot.” It’s a very comfortable drama, where despite our heroine moving from safety net to safety net–living in a state of emergency, at any half-earnest inspection–the atmosphere allows the audience to appreciate the isolated fact that said nets are safe. People get looked after, no matter if they deserve it or not, because everyone deserves it. This is the shortest option on the list, but it’ll keep you warm all year.
Detective vs Detectives (Crunchyroll, Japanese) – Fuck it up with that pipe girl, hit those bastards, and break their bones.
This is a story about two women, but makes for fascinating meta-commentary about masculinities. Men adapted, directed, and cartooned the original manga. The male gaze is at its most interesting here, because it is determinedly sympathetic, non-sexual; in consideration with the plot, it’s almost vengeful against patriarchy. Rena’s younger sister Sakura was molested and murdered by her stalker, despite the family’s efforts to protect and hide her. A private detective had provided intel on where and how best to perform the kidnap that resulted in her death.
Rena, when we meet her in full flow of the story, has dedicated her life to busting the rackets of corrupt detectives. She is professionally, though largely non-legally, fighting rape culture. She beats up rapists and kidnappers and perverts where she finds them, but the rage in her character is predicated upon the scale of the problem, the loopholes, and trade that allows and perpetuates the worst excesses of individuals. She does this by being smart and brave and clever, by daring without doubting, and by hitting men with steel pipes. There’s a catharsis in her violence that I’ve rarely seen on screen; without glory or virtue, it exists entirely in necessity and survival. It says, I will not die.
Centring Rena’s growing bonds with new hire Kotoha and clear-eyed widower-policeman Miura and showing the viewer the way old colleagues Kirishima and Suma protect her from the wings, the show creates a supportive environment for Rena and her single-mindedcrusad even as it acknowledges the horrible sabotages and betrayals that the world at large presents women with. Rena is allowed a masculine story–“I will avenge the sexual killing of my female loved one”–and a masculine approach–barge in, say something smart, hit a guy, roll out–and all the non-specific, desexualised framing of a masculine character, whilst being a (beautiful, as per tradition, and there’s a whole essay in that) woman facing women’s problems protecting women. It doesn’t exactly feel like a show made for an audience of women, but it does make a fierce change. Do I want to watch things that feel like they made the effort? Yes. Without a doubt. Eleven forty-five minute episodes won’t seem enough, but they’re a lot better than none.