Satoshi Kon’s Christmas tale Tokyo Godfathers is a heart-warming story of three homeless people in Tokyo finding an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. The film follows them on their miraculous misadventures as they try to locate the babe’s birth parents.
Gin (Tooru Emori) is a middle-aged alcoholic man, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) a former drag queen and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) is the teenage runaway staying with them. They are a makeshift family making their way on the streets. In a bid to find a suitable ‘Christmas gift’ they rummage through the items abandoned by people and in that rubbish, they find a baby. Hana is ecstatic and seeing it as an apt Christmas gift, names the baby Kiyoko which means ‘pure’. Hana does not want to return Kiyoko, after all she was abandoned. She wishes to raise the child, which for Gin is unrealistic considering their circumstances. In their journey to return the child, they cross paths with yakuza, foreign assassins, worn out taxi drivers and dysfunctional people who are striving to live.
Right from the opening sequence, Kon fuses the Nativity narrative into the film. Much like St Joseph, Gin is a foster father, reluctant he might be but his concern for Miyuki, the baby Kiyoko and his own daughter, coincidentally also called Kiyoko, is present. He and another homeless man (Ryuuji Saikachi) are attacked by the local delinquents who do not see any point in ‘trash’ living around the city. The lack of space to exist itself mirrors the Bethlehem inn’s lack of accommodation.
Kon emphasises the idea of the found family and yet also acknowledges the fact that while the traditional family set up might be flawed, it can still be worked around. At every point that Hana stresses that she would like a family of her own, she equally backtracks and believes that things must go back to how they are supposed to be. This might be because she has been conditioned to accept a certain idea of the family. Yet every moment of the film reiterates that a found family is just as important.
Tokyo Godfathers explores homelessness with heart. People end up homeless for various reasons. Financial instability may be one part of it but it could just as well be because they feel let down or abandoned or the guilt surrounding their actions make facing up to the realities of life hard.
The animation style veers between realistic and exaggerated realism much like the story which while set within tragic circumstances is moved along through moments of humour and miracles. The kind of miracles that could happen in daily life but here all the miracles come together to make it a touching and oddly hilarious Christmas story.
The Tokyo in the title is a reference to the other main character of the film. A silent, passive presence; the city fuels homelessness through market action and yet attempts to and sometimes fails to provide a haven to the homeless.
Set in a fictional forested land called Kaadubettu, Kantara fuses myth, magic, horror and the supernatural in a film that is a commentary on land politics. It starts with the story of a king who looked for peace and comfort and found it in a forest god. However, his descendants looked to soothe their greed by taking back the land bequeathed to the gods and the people they protect.
Shiva (Rishab Shetty) the son, of the erstwhile Bhoot Kola performer, who disappeared during a particularly charged performance, carries trauma from that incident. His response to it? Distance himself from his calling. He and his friends are known as the vagabonds of the community. He participates in the annual Kambala competition, goes hunting and generally lives a free life. He also seems to enjoy an easy relationship with the benevolent landlord Devendra Suttooru (Achyuth Kumar). Despite his unwillingness to fulfil his calling, he does enjoy the respect of the community who knows that whatever his antics, he is the one to turn to if the people need help.
The primary antagonist seems to be a rigid forest officer Murali (Kishore) who wants the forest protected and puts a stop to animals being hunted, bursting firecrackers for celebrations, and people cutting wood. Now, all of this sounds perfectly reasonable but forest communities have practised sustainable living for centuries. The aim is to live alongside the land, the animals and not in opposition.
There are internal restraints in how they consume. Shiva’s mother Kamala (Manasi Sudhir) tells him off every time he goes hunting. It is not out of fear of government retribution but because animals are sacred and must not be indiscriminately killed. Most certainly not for sport of to prove some ability. They are to be consumed only on occasion. Also, the forest god Panjurli is a boar god and hence one must not ill-treat his likeness. In fact, there is a rather significant moment when Shiva himself acknowledges how his people are satisfied with a frugal meal and do not give into excess.
Greed is a running theme within the film which ties with the ideas of land ownership that settled communities, that claim rights of being civilised by mere virtue of land possession, believe in. The lack of consideration for forest communities is shown playing out on one hand by feudal forces and on the other by government systems. One is not claiming that the communities that have lived by the land are repositories of complete knowledge but that their expertise is not even considered, is problematic.
The story is rather simple but the simplicity of the story is layered with much symbolism about identity and space. The characters in the beginning seem like stock representations of certain ideas but it curves making the characters more rounded figures capable of growth and learning. This is not just for Shiva and Murali but others as well. For instance, Leela (Sapthami Gowda) is the female love interest and does fulfil certain traditional romantic frameworks but she doesn’t just retire into the scenery but holds her own in how she expresses her autonomy in everything including desire.
The film is aware of the changing socio-political and ecological climate and anticipates it in how it seeks to communicate its resolution. It also uses supernatural horror to drive the action of the story, making the viewers fall deeper into a mystical experience.
Cast: Vikram; Aishwarya Rai Bachchan; Jayam Ravi; Karthi; Trisha; Jayaram; Aishwarya Lekshmi; Sobhita Dhulipala; Prabhu; R. Sarathkumar; Vikram Prabhu; Prakash Raj; Rahman; R. Parthiban; Lal
Genre: Historical; Drama; Action
Run Time: 2 hours 47 minutes
Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan I is an adaptation of Kalki’s eponymous epic historical fiction series. It looks at the rising power and expansion of the Chola Empire during the reign of Rajaraja I or Ponniyin Selvan. The film sets the stage for the conflicts and political machinations that would complicate the story going forward.
Battles are being won and kingdoms are being annexed but besides resentful enemies, there are disgruntled courtiers who want to replace the powers that be so as to have more control over the functioning of the empire. This political plotting is complicated by personal vendettas – Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), the Pazhuvoor queen wants to destroy the Chola Empire from within because of her ill-fated past with Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), the Chola crown prince.
Our introduction to the complex world of the time is through the charismatic presence of Vallavaraiyan Vanthaiyathevan (Karthi), a confidante and spy for Aditha who uncovers the courtiers’ plot and then gets further instructions that intertwine his narrative with that of the other players of the story.
The story traverses the length and breadth of the southern lands as well as Sri Lanka. Besides geographical diversity, there are race and ethnic concerns that add to the already murky undercurrents. However, on the surface, it is beautiful, witty like the charged exchange between Kundavai (Trisha), the Chola princess and Nandini. Nothing is openly revealed, but in this political chess game, the women seem to puppeteer a lot of the moves.
Kundavai, for instance, is the astute mind behind many of the ruling powers’ decisions as is Nandini in prodding her husband Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (R. Sarathkumar), the treasurer, in the direction she wants him to take. Even the erstwhile Queen, Ponniyin Selvan’s betrothed, Samudra Kumari and Oomai Rani, expertly weave the plot.
Like a true historical, it doesn’t become a cult of personality but shows how many players have to come together, how the many different actions taken will finally lead to the events we read about in history books. History books can after all be bird’s eye in its viewpoint and depending on the teller, limited in its framework. While there are fictional elements to this film and novel saga, it does create an important balance in the lopsided historical retellings of our nation.
The music and the score are exhilarating in how it accompanies the storytelling. Also, the gold figurines that were used to give the premise of the narrative were beautifully done.
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor; Alia Bhatt; Amitabh Bachchan; Mouni Roy; Nagarjuna Akkineni; Saurav Gurjar; Rohollah Ghazi; Shah Rukh Khan
Genre: Fantasy; Action-adventure
Run Time: 2 hours 47 minutes
Ayan Mukerji’s Indian mythic fantasy film Brahmastra Part One – Shiva follows a young DJ Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) who has an uncanny relationship with fire. At a Dusshera celebration he locks eyes with a beautiful woman Isha (Alia Bhatt) but when the fire from the burning effigies seems to take a life of its own, he collapses from the experience.
Destiny throws him along Isha’s path and also awakens a strange power within him that shows him visions of things that are happening. In a bid to uncover the truth behind them, he travels with Isha to understand the forces at work. This puts him on a collision course with Junoon (Mouni Roy) and her two associates Zor (Saurav Gurjar) and Raftaar (Rohollah Ghazi) who are in search of an ancient power that slumbers. His journey leads him to the Ashram and under the tutelage of Guru Raghu (Amitabh Bachchan), he learns both about his powers and his past. While Shiva learns about his powers, Junoon too is amassing power under the guidance of an older being.
The idea of bringing the divine astras from mythology into modern times is rather cool and coupled with the phenomenal VFX, it is a great experience. The more you learn about Shiva’s past and the equation between the powers and his ancestry; the story does get exciting and yet feels rather familiar. The familiarity comes from drawing on various popular culture sources not the least of which are Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Star Wars.
That realisation is a little unpleasant but the film being a fun watch cannot be taken away. The true dampener was the rather uninspired cardboard consistency dialogues that were neither current nor an honest portrayal of the characters feelings and complex experiences. However, the acting was truly remarkable – actors of a lesser calibre could not have put the soul in a performance with such soulless language.
All in all, Brahmastra Part One – Shiva leaves a lot of expectations for the next instalment since much of Part One is a rushed affair possibly to lead up to the actual conflicts that are hinted at.
A side note: Shah Rukh Khan’s cameo was star power at its best.
I have been watching anime for years. To be honest, I haven’t even scratched the surface of it because the world of anime is vast. My fascination with the field is primarily of love but there is an academic interest to it as well. So while I have many more to delve into, these 20 are my two bit in that direction.
No 20: DEVILMAN Crybaby
Akira Fudo and his friend Ryo Asuka are trying to face off a race of demons who want to eliminate humans. Ryo’s solution to the problem? Turn Akira into a demon. The transformation becomes key to the deconstruction of what is human.
Devilman Crybaby is not an easy series to like. The psychedelic animation, gratuitous violence, explicit sexuality might be a little overwhelming. But if you can get past that, it is an incredibly powerful commentary on violence and humanity.
No 19: Forest of Piano
Kai grew up in the red light district of the town. Playing on the abandoned piano in the forest becomes his escape from a world that is prejudiced against him for the bare details of his background. When young pianist Shuhei ends up in the forest on a school dare, he meets Kai. Their friendship introduces Kai to Ajino sensei who wants to train him to play better.
Music animes happen to be one of my favourite genres. Forest of Piano is wonderful because it is not just about some divine talent in playing an instrument but how the world of classical music decides who can and cannot play music publicly. The series’ ability into entering the politics and pressures of the world of classical music, its demands on the artistes is deftly handled.
No 18: Fruits Basket (2019)
The Sohma family suffers from the zodiac curse – when touched by a member of the opposite sex, who is not a fellow zodiac, they transform into the animal. Tohru Honda, a plucky girl trying to make her way in the world after her mother’s death, ends up as Shigeru Sohma’s housekeeper. The role gives her a roof over her head and financial independence. So begins her close interaction with the Sohma family and their strange curse.
While the transformations sound comic at best and inconvenient at worst, the series is actually a lot darker in that it explores abuse, absentee parents, abandonment and trauma. It may seem like there are far too many bad parents in the Sohma clan, but it actually makes sense because being a zodiac animal brings prestige to the individual family so there is tacit approval of the abuse meted out to them.
No 17: Kyo Kara Maoh
Yuri Shibuya is an idealistic, conscientious high schooler who steps in when he sees his classmate being bullied. The bullies annoyed by his preachy attitude, leave the classmate and frogmarch Yuri into the nearest bathroom to flush his head as punishment. Being flushed in a toilet bowl however becomes Yuri’s least problem when the water opens a portal into an alternate world. In this world, Yuri is proclaimed the next Demon King.
Kyo Kara Maoh is a brilliantly funny isekai (another world) anime that combines with the reverse harem concept in that there are really good looking men in it. Yuri’s lack of knowledge about the world’s customs leads to some wacky situations like his engagement and duel with the previous ruler’s son. It is also an adventure series, in that there is a reason why the two worlds are connected and why Yuri had to be brought here.
No 16: Psycho-Pass
Clearly inspired by Minority Report and similar futuristic narratives, Psycho-Pass is set in a world where the Sibyl System measures the psycho-pass of its citizens. The rating decides your education, your career and more importantly your criminality index. Akane Tsunemori is a rookie inspector who has an ideal psycho-pass measure. When she and her team come across a criminal mastermind who cannot be judged by the Sibyl System, they are forced into dangerous moral territory by the situations he creates. This flaw in the system throws up a question, who or what is Sibyl?
An intense series, Psycho-Pass can be a little too much to stomach in that it is rather violent. The world that the characters inhabit is seemingly perfect but one wonders how much of free will is surrendered to create such a space.
No 15: Nodame Cantabile
Shinichi Chiaki is a gifted pianist who wants to train as an orchestra conductor. To do this, he needs to relocate to Europe to learn under his mentor Viera among others. But he has phobia against flying and the ocean. Stuck, and in a particularly low point in his life, he gets drunk and passes out. Only to wake up in a garbage dump, that is actually his next door neighbour’s living room. While scandalised by Megumi Noda’s general untidiness and eccentricities, he is irresistibly drawn to her captivating cantabile style of piano playing.
The viewers are introduced to the narrative through the straight-laced Chiaki and his reaction to Nodame as well as the other strange characters like his new mentor Stresemann. It is one of my favourite romantic comedies with the most unlikely slob-like female lead. The animation does seem a little repetitive at times but the accuracy of the finger movement while playing instruments is laudable.
No 14: Steins; Gate (2011)
Steins; Gate is about an oddball group that run a ‘future gadgets’ lab. They design a microwave phone capable of sending “d-mails” – messages across time that alter events. Masquerading as a comic series, Steins; Gate hurtles forward, transforming into a slick thriller on time travel. With its eccentric cast, including a self-proclaimed mad scientist, it puts forward probably one of the most plausible explanations regarding time lines. I love it for how it stumps you at every turn.
No 13: Assassination Classroom
An overpowered alien has destroyed 70% of the moon. He has claimed that he will destroy Earth in a year’s time. He however, has an offer – he will teach class E students of Kunugigaoka Junior High School and they are free to try to assassinate him. So begins Assassination Classroom with Koro-sensei teaching the students regular Junior High subjects as well as the finer points of assassination.
When I watched it, it emerged as one of my favourite animes. You may wonder as I did if Junior High students should really be exposed to something so harsh, but in the course of the series you realise that they are already accustomed to it. They live in a world that judges them on their grades; cementing their status in society on something so arbitrary. It is deeply critical of the education system, asking poignant questions on what a teacher should actually do and by extension, society.
No 12: Run with the Wind
Based on the novel by Shion Miura, Run with the Wind has been adapted into a manga, live-action and an anime. Kakeru, a first year Kansei University student, is chased after shoplifting from a convenience store. Haiji, a senior saves him while marvelling at his running style. He invites him to join the Chikusei-so dormitory – a cheap university housing facility; incidentally also the track and field team’s official dormitory. With Kakeru joining, there are exactly ten members. This allows Haiji to put into motion his long-term dream of running the Hakone-Ekiden.
A sports anime unlike any other, it focuses on long-distance running as an individual and as a team. The question that echoes throughout the series is Haiji’s to Kakeru – Do you like running?
No 11: Banana Fish
Banana Fish is a moving series with action elements. Since the story is set in America each episode is named after a prominent American text. Vividly constructed with tight pacing, it draws you into a heartbreaking world. A child growing up unprotected, groomed as a sex slave, grows up to be the well-respected gang leader Ash Lynx. He wants to take down his ‘master’ Golzine and protect the people who matter to him, be it his men who follow him or friends like Eiji Okumura who might get caught in the conflict. He also wants to find out about the mysterious drug ‘Banana Fish’ corrupting the streets and impacting the lives of the people around him.
Banana Fish straddles two different demographics – shoujo (girls) and shonen (boys). It has BL (Boy Love) themes and yet does not fall into the usual BL rape fantasies trap.
No 10: One-Punch Man
Saitama is a ‘hero for fun’. After he saves a child from a monster, he decides to train as a hero. He loses his hair in the process but his rather unremarkable training regimen awakens his talent and he is now the most powerful hero in the world. Since he can defeat anyone with one punch, there is no one to challenge him so he slips into depression. Along the way, he gets a disciple and through him meets a host of new characters.
One-Punch Man is an improbable yet relatable superhero series. Saitama’s existential despair mirrors our own feelings and more importantly his cardboard -like personality is such a refreshing change from the staple of larger-than-life hero figures. The unpredictability of the story and the characters actions make it genuinely fun.
No 9: Paradise Kiss
Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss follows the serendipitous meeting between Yukari, a high-schooler at a prestigious school and the students of Yazagaku fashion school who are looking for a model for their annual show. The students run an atelier to promote their brand Paradise Kiss or ParaKiss. Torn between the parental pressure to excel academically and her fascination with these passionate students she yearns to find herself. Her tempestuous relationship with the enigmatic Joji ‘George’ Koizumi, the main designer of ParaKiss is a catalyst.
Paradise Kiss was my first josei (adult woman) series and in 12 episodes it took me through an emotional roller-coaster. NANA is probably Ai Yazawa’s most famous work but the manga has been on hiatus for years (stuck at an unbearable cliff-hanger) so I won’t push you to start that. But, if you like mature themes, compelling stories and gorgeous fashion, you may find Ai Yazawa’s works your thing (as someone who has binge-read everything – I vouch!). Her art style is one of my favourites. Since she’s a fashion design student, you can understand why she takes great effort with the sartorial choices of her characters.
No 8: Bungo Stray Dogs
Atsushi Nakajima, on finding out that he has supernatural abilities, is recruited by Osamu Dazai into the “Armed Detective Agency” to handle cases beyond the abilities of the police and the military. They have many clashes with the Port Mafia, a sketchy organisation controlling the underbelly of the alternate Yokohama that the series is set in. Bungo Stray Dogs’s style is reminiscent of the 20s but it is actually a modern narrative.
The most fascinating thing about Bungo Stray Dogs is the characters themselves. Each character is named after a famous author and their power is based on a quality represented within that very writer’s work. The scale gets grander in season 2 when American ‘authors’ join the plot as new antagonists. It is a book lover’s dream plotline.
No 7: Demon Slayer
Tanjiro returns from a trip into town to find his family slaughtered in a demon attack and his only living sibling Nezuko turned into a demon. So begins Tanjiro’s journey to avenge his family and find a way to turn his sister human.
Demon Slayer has stunning animation with a 3D-like feel. The characters are stunningly drawn; it almost feels like they’ll leap out of the screen. The story has great pacing with its competent handling of humour and pathos.
No 6: Hunter x Hunter (2011)
Getting a Hunter license gives a person access to almost any space in the world. The economic benefits and the free reign to your desires to ‘hunt’ anything mean that one is even granted immunity for murderous actions. While the apparent amorality might raise a few eyebrows, the unpredictability of the story despite using classic shonen tropes is what makes it fun. Gon Freecss wants to be a hunter because his father Ging put parental affection aside to pursue hunting. It is not anger at the abandonment that prompts Gon to become a Hunter but the fact that hunting must be truly exciting for Ging to leave him behind.
If you’ve watched Yu Yu Hakusho, by the same mangaka, you may recognise patterns here but also notice how Hunter x Hunter is such a level up in friendships and queer depictions.
No 5: Haikyu!!
Karasuno High Volleyball team or the Crows, was a once great team that went to the nationals. Its then member, nicknamed the ‘Little Giant’, is a huge role model for Hinata who is short as well but passionately in love with volleyball. When he joins Karasuno as a high schooler, he finds Kageyama, his middle school volleyball rival, his new teammate. The Karasuno team isn’t really that strong but they want to be and work hard to make the crows fly again.
Sports animes frequently have unlikely premises, over the top abilities that self-parody the genre but Haikyu!! is different in that they truly are an underdog team. There are no miraculous implausible wins it is just blood, sweat and tears. With an adept portrayal of athletic spirit, desire and an accurate psychological profiling of sportsmen – their fears and inadequacies, Haikyu!! succeeds in showing a different sports anime.
No 4: Kaguya-sama: Love is War
The student council president Miyuki Shirogane and vice president Kaguya Shinomiya are in love with each other. For their relationship to go to the next level, a confession needs to happen. But neither of them wants to, because to confess means to lose, so they each use different stratagems to get the other to confess.
A parody on the romance genre, Kaguya-sama: Love is War is put together like a game show – who will win the game by forcing a confession out of the other? Wickedly funny, it mocks the bizarre games of flirting and courtship that have been played out for centuries.
No 3: Violet Evergarden
Violet is an orphan who in living as a child soldier and being treated as a weapon, is out of touch with emotions – her own and everyone else. Unable to find her senior officer Major Bougainvillea, she is taken in by former Lt Col Hodgins to work in his postal company. Working as an Auto Memory Doll – women who write letters on behalf of others, she slowly learns to communicate emotions.
Violet Evergarden brings back the soulfulness of letter writing. An anime about healing from trauma, we join Violet on her journey as she meets people from different walks of life, helping them, her and us by extension, in understanding the importance of words in conveying heart and humanity.
No 2: A Place Further than the Universe
The premise of four high school students going to Antarctica might be implausible but A Place Further Than The Universe takes great pains to make it as realistic as possible. Well-researched, it authentically portrays life on a ship and on the coldest continent.
The four girls are each grappling with their personal trials, but forging ahead together to make the dream of one of the girls a reality, gives all of them a chance at growth. It is a beautiful slice of life and coming of age anime.
No 1: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
Devastated by the death of their mother Trisha, Edward and Alphonse Elric, attempt a forbidden alchemy technique – human transmutation. The price? Edward loses a leg and Alphonse, his entire body. Edward sacrifices his arm to bind his brother’s soul to a suit of armour, and so begins the boys’ journey to find a Philosopher’s Stone and get their bodies back.
They encounter many people on their search, including coming face to face with human ‘sin’. On the way, they uncover a sinister plot that could jeopardise the country’s fate. The anime manages to weave humour into a heavy narrative about war, genocide, bloodshed, loss, with Machiavellian figures who desire power and immortality at the cost of others. The rounded character building is a huge plus for me because it gives an intimate perspective even on characters that discomfort a viewer.
Unlike the 2003 version which differs from the manga after a point, this follows the plotline faithfully. I would suggest that both versions should be watched because Brotherhood rushes through the segments already covered in the 2003 anime.
Ouran Koukou Host Club: High school boys who start a host club to give the girls a chance at playing romance. It is a parody on the romance genre, especially the reverse harem type. It frequently breaks the fourth wall.
Given: Mafuyu has been ‘given’ a guitar. It holds bittersweet memories. His meeting with Ritsuka opens up a world of music for him A BL music anime about a band.
Food Wars: Set in a world where students training to be chefs are expected to fight with the taste of their food if they want to sit at the top of the culinary world. With sexually explicit imagery it parodies the impact of food on a person.
Yuri On Ice: Ice skating BL anime about a skater at a low point in his career being coached by his idol.
Cardcaptor Sakura: A magic girl anime about an elementary school girl who needs to capture the magic cards that have been released from the Clow Book.
Shirobako: An anime about a group of girls who ran an anime club in school and as adults want to make an anime.
Prince of Tennis: The young tennis prodigy Ryoma Echizen joins his father’s alma mater hoping to become better so that he can finally beat his dad at the game.
Welcome to the Ballroom: Tatara finds motivation in his life when a chance encounter with ballroom dancing opens his heart.
A Corpse Buried Under Sakurako’s Feet: A high schooler who ends up in odd situations while working with an osteologist whose fascination with bones leads them into mysteries.
Orange: Naho receives a letter from her future self telling her to prevent something regretful from happening. It deals with issues like self-harm.
Gosick: Set in a fictional European country in an alternate 1920s, a young Japanese transfer student gets acquainted with a strange girl who solves improbable mysteries. A Sherlock Holmes’ inspired series.
Kuroko no Basket: A basketball team trying to make it to the nationals by using an unexpected player.
The Seven Deadly Sins: A princess who wants to save her kingdom from a coup goes in search of seven banished knights. Funny and a little problematic at times, at heart the series is a romance.
Yu Yu Hakusho: An occult martial arts anime about a young delinquent whose altruistic decision to put himself in the way of harm to save a young child’s life gives him a second chance, by becoming a spirit detective.
Irregular at Magic High School: Two mysterious siblings making their way in a world where magic is weaponised.
Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun: After being sold by his parents to the demon Sullivan, the kind-hearted Iruma is officially adopted as his grandson. He must now hide his human identity and survive in demon school.
Scum’s Wish: Two students who get into a physical relationship with each other because they cannot be with the ones they want.
Yowamushi Pedal: Sakamichi is an anime-loving nerd who is the unlikely recruit of the school cycle club. Picked for his climbing abilities, the reason he is so good is that he wants to travel fast enough to Akihabara to give free rein to his anime desires.
It’s been five years since I fell down that rabbit hole called K-drama and during the pandemic I pretty much doubled my watching. Korean dramas have great aesthetic, brilliant performances and are beautifully shot. Its compelling stories, well-sketched out characters that are flawed yet fascinating really draw you in. So these are my top 20 recommendations.
No 20: The Moon Embracing the Sun
Like all historical dramas, The Moon Embracing the Sun is rife with political machinations only here since it has supernatural elements, there is shamanistic intervention when ambition needs to be furthered. The young Crown Princess, Heo Yeon-woo is ‘killed’ just before her marriage is officiated. The Royal Concubine Yoon Bo-kyung is put in her place but the devastated Crown Prince Lee Hwon refuses to consummate the marriage and falls into a psychosomatic illness. The young girl however, now an amnesiac, grows up ironically trained as a shaman, till fate places her before her betrothed, the King.
While the last two episodes sort of lose steam, I love how the series successfully portrays the anguish of the lovers, the cruel ambition and blind passion that puts them on this path. They really have to struggle to come to terms with their memories and reconcile with what has been done.
No 19: Nevertheless
Na-bi is a Fine Arts major who has closed herself off emotionally after a rather toxic relationship. Her chance encounter with Jae-eon, an enigmatic college mate, has her irresistibly drawn into a passionate label-less relationship. Nevertheless through four different pairings including Na-bi and Jae-eon look at commitment, toxicity in relationships and cynicism in the world of dating.
It works because it is well-crafted, does not become overlong and keeps the tension in the narrative palpable, aided by the haunting OST. With its intelligent storytelling, it doesn’t over-explain situations, leaving it to the viewers to understand the characters and their motivation.
No 18: Misaeng
Misaeng is a workplace dramedy about a washed out Baduk player (Game of Go) who for various reasons was unable to go pro. Armed now with just a GED, he gets into a corporate workspace and has to prove his mettle. And just maybe, baduk may become useful.
The term ‘misaeng’ means an incomplete life and it is accurate in how it presents workplace politics, colleagues who are frenemies but still there for you and how you may have to work against the inevitable judgement that comes with being too incompetent and sometimes too competent. Based on a webtoon, the realism of the story is because the writer drew on actual interviews with people in the corporate life.
No 17: SKY Castle
A dark comedy about education and material accomplishment, SKY Castle follows the lives of the residents at the eponymous housing society for the prestigious graduates of Seoul University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Behind the glamour, the pleasant faces and the gorgeous cutlery lies ruthless murderous ambition to be better than everyone else. No one wants it more than Han Seo-jin who lives her life hiding her less than accomplished past.
SKY Castle is that series that works against every expectation a viewer may have. Midway through when you think you have an idea of where it’s going and you begin to wonder, ah this is predictable; it drags the carpet right under your feet. One of the most beautifully shot television dramas, the camera tells a captivating story.
No 16: Two Weeks
Jang Tae-san, a low-level gangster finds his life in a tumult when he his former girlfriend, whom he abandoned, that they had a child. The child is undergoing treatment for cancer and he is a bone marrow match. Him being a match seems like a shot at redemption, that is till he finds himself framed for murder and possibly eliminated to keep the truth from coming out. He now has two weeks to prove his innocence, stay alive and make it for his daughter’s surgery.
Except for the first two episodes that set the framework of the story, the next 14 episodes are literally a nail-biting day to day record of Jang Tae-san’s life. If you are familiar with the profile of the lead actor Lee Joon-gi who is a known action star, Jang Tae-san inability to fight competently can nearly give you an aneurysm.
No 15: Boys Over Flowers
Based on the famous shoujo manga Hana Yori Dango by Yoko Kamio, Boys Over Flowers is a Cinderella-inspired story. Geum Jan-di joins Shinhwa School on a swimming scholarship and ends up targeted by the F4 – the four senior boys who run the school like a power hierarchy. Power, class divisions, bullying and violence feature in this series about a plucky Cinderella who tames the four ‘princes’ by getting them to access their vulnerabilities, rethinking the world they inhabit. An emotional rollercoaster, Boys Over Flowers never lets the tension drop.
Hana Yori Dango has been remade many times and in manga, it has established many shoujo conventions. It also happens to be my first Korean drama since I had read the manga, knew how brilliantly messed up the story was and it more than fulfilled my expectations. It does however, divert on some points from the original manga. What makes the female lead so much fun is that she does not suffer fools and she has no qualms in making her opinions known.
No 14: Hyde, Jekyll, Me
Like the name implies, it is a series about dissociative identity disorder (DID). Goo Seo-jin is a cold-hearted amusement park owner who lives unwillingly with his kinder personality Robin. The two are aware of each other’s existence and leave video messages so that a façade of normalcy can be maintained, for his prominent family’s public image. Their identities seem to be tied to the new circus manager Jang Ha-na, who might end up evicted from the amusement park if Seo-jin has his way. With Seo-jin’s psychiatrist kidnapped so close to his possible complete recovery, there might be something more sinister afoot.
It is a refreshing depiction of DID in that the two alters do try to communicate with each other. It looks at trauma, childhood abuse and unreasonable parental expectations.
No 13: My Love from a Star
Do Min-joon is an alien, who due to certain circumstances, ended up stuck on Earth, 400 years ago. The planetary event that might send him back home is finally nearing. But when his life gets entangled with the temperamental movie star Cheon Song-yi, who might have ties to his past, he may not feel inclined to leave. Especially since, she seems to be somebody’s target for murder.
Alternating between comic and thrilling, it is a rollicking watch. The opposites attract trope is used well in how straight-laced Do Min-joon can be to Cheon Song-yi’s dramatic responses.
No 12: Coffee Prince
Coffee Prince is a gender-bender romance drama. Choi Han-Kyul has to take charge of a failing café if he wants his grandma’s approval and financial support. He decides to start a prince-style coffee shop and hire good-looking men to attract female customers. When he accidentally hires tomboyish Go Eun-chan, she hides the truth because of her family financial constraints. When feelings get involved, the whole equation gets a lot more complicated. A mature series, Coffee Prince effectively handles complexities in relationships that stem from commitment and desire.
Gender-bender stories inevitably look at queer romance even if it gives it a socially acceptable conclusion. But its ambiguity is fascinating, especially since it does not follow the route of mocking that desire but faces it head-on. The female characters are strong, independent and want to be the ones to make decisions regarding their bodies and career – that’s a huge plus.
No 11: Mr Queen
Jang Bong-hwan is a talented, arrogant playboy chef who after a drowning accident ends up swapping his soul with a young noblewoman Kim So-yong, who about to be is crowned Queen in the Joseon era. His anachronistic and unfeminine actions add to the comedy of the series as does his attraction to the King’s concubines. His decision to stay apolitical doesn’t work in a world of political intrigue. So he uses his extensive knowledge of history as a weapon to protect himself and gets unwittingly drawn into his ‘husband’, the King’s life.
It is Shin Hae-sun’s convincing performance in playing a woman, and a man trapped in a woman’s body that make it gold. The tension of the story is deftly handled in that it constantly switches between intrigue, humour and romance.
No 10: Signal
Detective Lee Jae-han makes his last transmission to his friend and colleague Park Hae-young before he is killed by an unknown person. His colleague? A young profiler in 2016 and these transmissions start in the 80s. The two detectives across time, united by a walkie-talkie, need to solve some deadly cases and possibly get insight into why they are being targeted.
The drama uses real-life criminal incidents including the Hwaseong serial murders (which have incidentally featured in many films and series). Since it is also a time narrative, what is bound to occur is that tampering with time, will have consequences.
No 9: Iljimae
Iljimae is a popular Chinese folklore about a Robin Hood figure from the Joseon-era. This is an origin story of a young nobleman Lee Gyeom who loses his memory after witnessing his father’s brutal murder, and the selling into slavery of his mother and sister. Renamed Yong and raised by a former thief and a woman connected to his father’s past, he is a Machiavellian figure who will do whatever it takes to survive. But when Gyeom regains his memories, will it only be for personal gain that he dons a mask?
What makes this story great is that the characters, even if they are romantically inclined towards someone, they do have something of their own that matters to them. The female lead for instance, isn’t reduced to just some damsel in distress, she is her own person.
No 8: It’s Okay to Not be Okay
The series explores emotional and psychological healing for the three main characters from their traumatic past. Moon Gang-tae, as the main caretaker of his older autistic brother Moon Sang-tae, has been living emotionally repressed. His chance encounter with an anti-social children’s writer Ko Mun-young sets off a series of events that take them back to their hometown. Each episode uses a different fairytale to express trauma, affect healing and peel away another layer of the story.
Not only are the episodes titled after different fairytales (a couple of them are originals, written for the series) but it uses the story of the fairytale, the darker side of it and ties it up with the plotline. The drama uses animation in some instances to tell the tale, blending different cinematic techniques.
No 7: Vincenzo
Vincenzo is like an upgraded dark comedy take on Lawless Lawyer that pits an unsavoury corporation with a not so upstanding lawyer. Vincenzo Cassano is an Italian mafia lawyer who is in Korea to take care of some ‘personal business’ (getting the gold stashed under his building – Geumga Plaza). While at first thwarted by the strange residents of the Plaza, he ends up butting heads with the unscrupulous conglomerate Babel Group. The group wants the building for their expansion project and will get rid of anybody to achieve that. Vincenzo sides with the residents but he is a consigliore that imparts amoral justice according to the mafia code. What then occurs is a devil against devil thriller.
Vincenzo is peppered with fun references, my favourite being the comic recreation of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
No 6: Memories of the Alhambra
Memories of the Alhambra is an AR game designed by the 18 year old Jung Se-joo, who after a frantic call to Yoo Jin-woo, the CEO of a game developing company, disappears off the grid. Jin-woo comes to Granada to meet the developer and try out the game. Incorporating actual locations and historical elements, it becomes a fascinating live experience for him. Everything goes great that is till, a strange glitch results in an overlap between the real world and the game world with nightmarish results. Pro-tip: run as soon as the guitar starts.
The series takes up till the third episode to establish the setting and then hurtles forward.
No 5: Flower of Evil
Do Hyeon-su is hiding his past by forming a picture-perfect family with his wife and daughter. But his assumed identity Baek Hee-sung comes under threat when his detective wife starts to investigate a cold case related to a serial killing in the past. And the truth behind the case might be closer than she thinks. Flower of Evil is a heartbreaking suspense thriller about trauma and processing emotions.
No 4: Reply 1988
The Reply series recreates South Korea in the year it is set and of the three, 1988 does it best. It is a heart-warming story of five friends and their families, growing up in the same neighbourhood in Seoul. The socio-political and economic upheavals of the country are examined in the microcosm through the five families. Reply 1988 shifts between 2015 and the past, with the adult versions of Duk-seon and her hitherto unnamed husband narrating the story. It keeps the viewers in suspense to the characters’ future. After all, Duk-seon, the only girl in the group marries one of her friends, but which of the four boys ends up as her husband?
No 3: Crash Landing On You
Star-crossed lovers’ stories have always been popular. So when you get a South Korean heiress whose paragliding accident has her crash land onto a North Korean soldier, you know there is an epic romance waiting. That is if the volatile relationship between the nations doesn’t bring danger and death to the characters. With a host of fascinating characters, it is a gripping story that is both thrilling and romantic.
One of the most relentless villains in a drama, the pace of the story does not stop from the go.
No 2: Hospital Playlist
A story by the writer of the Reply series, Hospital Playlist is a realistic portrayal of the medical profession and the emotional and physical demands on its personnel. It is about five friends, now in their forties, who met 20 years ago at medical school. Circumstances ensure that they are working together at the same hospital after so many years. Workaholics, each with different demands upon them from their personal and professional spaces, they jam together in a band. The series delves into adult friendships – its whimsical and petty side while growing together as people.
Watch it for the humour, the music and the truly heart-warming stories. The second season seems slower in comparison but it continues from exactly where the previous stopped.
No 1: Moon Lovers: Scarlet Hearts Ryeo
Based on the famous Chinese novel Bu Bu Jing Xin, Moon Lovers explores the ill-fated relationships between the children of King Taejo as they vie for power in the Goryeo period.
Go Ha-jin drowns during a total eclipse and ends up a thousand years in the past, in the body of her ancestor, a noblewoman Hae Soo. Living in the house of King Taejo’s son the Eight Prince Wang Wook, she becomes acquainted with the other princes especially the Black Wolf of the family, the scarred Fourth Prince Wang So. While there are some instances of anachronistic humour, the story delves into the twisted palace politics which is further complicated when Hae Soo starts to have visions of the future.
Why does this become my number one? Incidentally, it did badly when it released, eventually becoming a cult hit. There are good reasons for that. Despite being a historical fusion, it tries to stay as close to history as possible. Brilliant characterisation is what fuels this story. And the epic romance of the story is raised to great heights by the incredible OST (both songs and background music).
The K2: Snow White meets disavowed secret agent. But honestly, the Evil Queen is far more interesting.
Goblin: A Goryeo general is made into a Goblin, a mythical figure, as punishment and reward. The catch? His bride is the only one who can release him from eternal life but she may also be his first love. The pacing is rather slow but the bromance is just great.
When the Camellia Blooms: Serial killer targets people he thinks are a joke; unfortunately he seems to have turned his attention to the single mother who runs the town bar. Probably one of the best screenplays, also watch it for Kang Ha-neul’s performance.
Oh My Ghost: An amnesiac virgin ghost and a timid chef who sees ghosts get entangled. Worse still, they happen to be in love with the same man.
Something in the Rain: A woman in her late thirties, grappling with workplace harassment finds love with a younger man, who happens to be her best friend’s brother. The melancholic setting of the story can be a little draining even though it is a beautifully told narrative.
The World of the Married: What’s worse than finding out that your husband is cheating on you? That everyone else may be in on the secret.
Stranger 2: A continuation of Stranger, a series that delves into political corruption in the upper echelons of society.
Descendants of the Sun: A star-crossed lovers pairing – a soldier and doctor reunite in a war-torn land.
Love in the Moonlight: A young woman forced to live as man to hide her identity, ends up moonlighting as a eunuch in the Crown Prince’s palace.
Hwarang: A riotous fun with great bromance and comedy. The story is interestingly complex but becomes a little predictable towards the end.
A Korean Odyssey: A modern day adaptation of Wu Cheng-En’s Journey to the West. It is about a woman who can see ghosts and the self-serving God who is her unwilling protector.
Written By: Jon Spaiths; Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth
Cast: Timothee Chalamet; Rebecca Ferguson; Oscar Isaac; Josh Brolin; Stellan Skargard; Dave Bautista; Stephen McKinley Henderson; Zendaya; Chang Chen; Sharon Duncan-Brewster; Charlotte Rampling; Jason Momoa; Javier Bardem
Genre: Science-Fiction; Thriller
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. It adapts the first part of the novel that looks into the journey and rise of Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). Set in the year 10191, the universe is run like a feudal system with different noble houses running planets, all of which owe allegiance to the Padishah Emperor.
On the water-rich planet Caladan, the homeworld of House Atreides, the Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul are preparing to relocate to the planet Arrakis – a desert planet known only for its abundant sources of the mystic spice Melange – known to elevate the limits of the mind. The spice is a highly prized commodity, because it ensures safe inter-galactic travel, besides other things.
The Fremen,the tribes that live on Arrakis, have had to see their land ravaged by Outworlders, like the House Harkonnen, who colonise, extract the spice and destroy the planet. The Atreides relocation is fraught with political danger and combined with Paul’s strange visions, there seem to be other dangers lurking.
The film manages to do justice to the source material, retaining the grandeur of the experience. It also eases viewers into a world that is clearly unfamiliar by weaving the information seamlessly into the story. It explores the various cultural and political aspects in the book, albeit tentatively which justifies the cliff-hanger ending since there is much that needs to be answered.
The haunting soundtrack, coupled with stellar performances heightens the grandeur of the film. The realistic inclusion of the almost mystic techniques of the spiritual/psychological espionage network – the Bene Gesserit; a group who function like a shadow government introduces us to a reality where technology is meant to only assist the human and not become smarter. Yet the medieval attitudes and systems at play makes one wonder as to what human advancement is supposed to look like.
Dune part one sets the stage and whets the appetite for a sci-fi experience, if a little intense. It remains to be seen how part two will build on the ideas of politics and religion embedded in Herbert’s novel and do justice to it as a cinematic undertaking.
Violet Evergarden begins where the war that ravaged the continent ends. Set in an alternate steampunk world with kingdoms that was torn apart by a four-year war. The war has ended but not without leaving its scars on the people. Not the least of which is Violet (Yui Ishikawa) herself. She lost her arms in the final decisive battle between Leidenshaftlich and the Gardarik Empire. A battle she witnessed at close quarters as the Leidenshaftlich soldier maiden or as she was considered, a weapon.
Post the war, she suffers from PTSD but doesn’t know it; purely because no one has treated her like a person. The one person who did, her superior officer Gilbert Bougainvillea (Daisuke Namikawa), is nowhere to be found and no one tells her where he is. His friend Claudia Hodgins (Takehito Koyasu), a former Lt. Colonel in the army who started a postal company decides to help her gets settled in because Gilbert asked him to look out for her. Especially if he did not return after the war.
She decides to work for his company as an Auto Memory Doll – a female scribe who write letters on behalf of other people. Her reason to become one has to do with the fact that she wants to be able to understand people’s emotions. She feels if she does this, she may understand why Gilbert told her, “I Love You” – words she finds hard to comprehend.
A child soldier and an orphan, raised on the battlefield and growing up under violent circumstances that are barely hinted at but obvious in how she seems emotionless like the doll she looks like and is referred to due to her occupation.
Growing up as feral child and branded a weapon by Dietfried Bougainvillea (Hidenobu Kiuchi) who hands her over to his younger brother Gilbert as a ‘present’ – a tool to use during the war. Startled at the child he beheld, he decides to teach her to read and write, treating her as a person even though no one else does.
Her inability to perceive emotions comes in the way of her relationships with people as well as her letter writing but her guileless responses and innocently worded thoughts have a piercing clarity to them. Each letter writing experience helps the people involved tap into memories that they have not acknowledged to themselves and they also teach Violet how to understand her own emotions.
Since it is set right after the war, many of the letters have to do with coping with grief; grief of loss, grief of surviving, grief of being unable to communicate and the grief of not knowing whether you could survive. Much of the story is then about rebuilding; not just physically as a land but as a people.
With Luculia Marlborough (Azuka Tadokoro), Violet learns to write letters that while succinct touch the heart of the matter. With Leon Stephanotis (Yuto Uemura), she learns that recording words of the scholars past can preserve knowledge for time to come. Of course, not all the learning is from Violet’s side. Dietfried, who dislikes Violet for many reasons, not the least of which has to do with his brother’s disappearance, comes to understand the value of kindness.
A story about reclaiming, restoring and healing; Violet Evergarden restores letter-writing, heartfelt communication, the joy of the written word and love.
Nevertheless follows the lives of young arts students in a university who are figuring out their complicated love lives amidst a modern world of cynicism and lack of commitment.
There are four plotlines with the central story focusing on Yu Na-bi (Han So-hee) and Park Jae-eon (Song Kang). The series starts by detailing Na-bi’s rather painful and humiliating break-up with her ex – an older artist. This coupled with her experience growing up with a mum who has never found stable connections, has made her a cynic, unwilling to believe in the possibility of romantic love. And yet, a chance meeting with Jae-eon, a young, attractive and suitably mysterious man makes her want for more. He draws her into a passionate non-relationship relationship that both approach from very different spaces.
Jae-eon is charming and his entry into any room considerably raises the sexual tension because he is simultaneously flirtatious and indifferent to everyone. But even Jae-eon recognises that Na-bi affects him in a manner unlike others.
Na-bi’s friend, Bit-na (Yang Hye-ji) rather perfectly compares him to a flower, beautiful, present but not exclusive – something that really underscores their bond. And since Na-bi means butterfly, it becomes a recurring motif in the series.
Nevertheless explores toxicity in relationships and does so realistically by exposing its many facets. In the sense, some people are just toxic to everyone because of how they interact; it may be gaslighting, putting them down, manipulation, stringing them along and more. But sometimes, even if you are not the toxic one in your primary relationship, your half-hearted response to someone else could make you the toxic one over there, such as Na-bi with her childhood friend Yang Do-hyeok (Chae Jong-hyeop). Hence the title track has a male and female take on it.
Other such toxic spaces would be Seo Ji-wan’s (Yoon Seo-ah) possessive ‘friendship’ of Yun Sol (Lee Ho-jung) which is matched by her unwillingness to actually be there for Sol. Or Bit-na’s simplistic definition of being a couple that leaves Nam Gyu-hyun (Kim Min-gwi) unfulfilled and unhappy.
In contrast to this we see the older graduate students and teaching assistants Ahn Kyung-joon (Jung Jae-kwang) and Min-young (Han Ee-ddeum) who probably with relative stability (not that they have everything figured out) show a mature development. However, the series doesn’t claim that age or time means that you will figure things out – case in point being Na-bi’s mum and Jae-eon’s mum.
But, one of the nicest things about hope in romance comes from Na-bi’s aunt Jung Sook-eun (Yoon Sa-bong) who mentions that she admires her sister for her willingness to try again and again every time she meets someone and there is a spark.
Nevertheless looks at the possibility of resolution and it doesn’t have to do with one person changing but with them finding a middle ground. Any relationship that fails to commit or forces one person to give up their essential needs becomes toxic and yet, if love can colour your world brighter, it can teach you hope.
The series has beautiful camera work that uses close-ups of the eyes and lips to show heightened emotion such as desire and sometimes to show disconnection. It thus mimics the style of a webtoon. Added to the intimacy created by the camera is the soft sensual lighting that makes the series a sensory experience especially when coupled with the beautiful haunting OST.
Steins;Gate is an animated series that deals with time travel. It is about a group of friends who run a ‘future gadgets’ laboratory wherein they make a phone microwave that allows them to send mails to the past and affect the future as a result. The lab is headed by self-proclaimed mad scientist Rintaro Okabe (Mamoru Miyano), the super hacker Itaru “Daru” Hashida (Tomokazu Seki) and his childhood friend and ‘hostage’ Mayuri Shiina (Kana Hanazawa) who calls herself Mayushi.
The series starts off with a science conference on time travel and this is the first time we are introduced to the name ‘John Titor’, an enigmatic figure who claims to be from 2036. His theories become the base for the scientific plausibility of time travel. Titor is also the reason they start looking for an old computer, the IBN 500. Supposedly because it can decode the time research done by the organisation SERN.
The conference is where Okabe meets Kurisu Makise (Asami Imai), a science prodigy, for the first time. She eventually becomes a lab member and helps him perfect the device that sends their “d-mails” – futuristic messages. Kurisu even helps Okabe create other gadgets that become pivotal to the storyline. However, their first meeting ends on a traumatic note when he finds her in a pool of blood, sends Daru a message about it and accidentally sets off a d-mail that alters events.
Steins;Gate camouflages itself as a comic series because even when Okabe realises that he is the only one who is able to remember events before and after time alteration, his eccentric mannerisms and the fascinating characters he meets, hoodwink us.
For instance, Suzuha Amane (Yukari Tamura), the part-timer who works for Okabe’s landlord Yugo Tennouji (Masaki Terasoma), calls herself a warrior and eventually becomes a lab member. Moeka Kiryu (Saori Goto), a socially awkward young woman who prefers to communicate only through text messages becomes another lab member especially when Okabe and she find out that they are both in search of the IBN 500.
The changes wrought by the d-mail are minimal at first but much like the butterfly effect, everything begins to spiral out of control pretty fast and they are left dealing with consequences they did not anticipate. As the story progresses, one realises that even the seemingly delusional stories they tell each other become a mask for latent concerns.
The series starts off as a story about an oddball group but quickly snowballs into a fast-paced thriller where time becomes an entity to combat. It is a series with undercurrents of violence that throws up questions about identity and morality.