NHK's "taiga dramas" are a popular form of entertainment in Japan. They are a great way to enjoy Japanese history, bringing together a grand cast, amazing visuals, and a gripping story. So, here are the top five most-watched NHK taiga dramas in Japan!
What Exactly Is a "Taiga Drama"?
The word "taiga drama" refers to historical drama television series aired by the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation; Japan's public broadcaster). They first began airing in 1963. Themed around historical figures or events, these long-running dramas showcase the story of the protagonist(s) and what the world was like back when they were alive, as well as how they interacted with those around them.
Each taiga drama is shown on NHK TV channels for an entire year, from January to December.
One distinct characteristic of any taiga drama is its large scale, with a grand cast, gorgeous and colorful outfits, and gigantic filming sets and locations. Each episode costs around 60 million yen to make, and yearly taiga dramas can run up to a whopping three billion yen in costs!
Since care is put into ensuring faithful depiction of the historical setting, people, and events, you can enjoy the show while learning more about Japanese history. When I was little, taiga dramas were what made me interested in Japanese history.
There are many popular as well as legendary taiga dramas, but in this article, we'll introduce the five with the highest average viewer ratings of all time.
*By "most-watched" in the title, we refer to how many households have watched the drama among those who own televisions.
1. Dokuganryu Masamune (1987)
This drama focuses on the tumultuous life of Sengoku military commander Date Masamune (1567-1636), feared for his rampage across the Oshu region (present-day Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and northeastern Akita Prefectures).
This is the biggest taiga drama hit of all time! It has won numerous distinctions: it had the highest annual average viewership rating of all time for taiga dramas (39.8%), its final episode covering the last years of Masamune's life was the third most-viewed episode in Japanese history with a whopping 47.8% average viewer rating, it was chosen as the most popular taiga drama in an NHK survey, and so on. It is widely loved even today, 30 years since its airing.
The Hollywood star Ken Watanabe became famous through this drama. His acting was so superb that as I watched the drama, I really thought that his depiction of Masamune showed how the real Masamune must have been!
2. Takeda Shingen (1988)
This taiga drama focuses on the life of Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), the military commander of the Kai Province (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture) during the Sengoku Period, when it was said to be the strongest around. It is told from the perspective of his mother, Oi Fujin. The show was immensely popular, to the point where the final phrase of every episode of the drama, "I will leave it at that tonight," (Koyoi wa koko made ni itashito gozarimasuru) became the most popular phrase of the year when it was airing.
With an average viewer rate of 39.2% and a peak viewer rate of 49.2%, it has cemented itself as the second most-watched taiga drama of all time.
You need to watch this drama for the thrilling battle scenes complete with horse-mounted warriors. The death match between Shingen and his longstanding foe Uesugi Kenshin—the military commander of Echigo Province (present-day Niigata Prefecture)—during the Battles of Kawanakajima was particularly riveting, so much so that it's talked about as the best battle scene in all of taiga drama history! The beautiful shots of mounted warriors sprinting through thick fog, the dynamic battle scenes... Everything was so high quality that you wouldn't think the drama is 30 years old. When watching this drama, you'll definitely feel as though you're right on the battlefield watching everything in person!
3. Kasuga no Tsubone (1989)
This taiga drama puts the spotlight on the volatile life led by Lady Kasuga (1579-1643), the wet nurse of Tokugawa Iemitsu—the third leader of the Edo shogunate (feudal military government during the Edo Period (1603-1867))—as well as the one who laid out the foundations of Edo Castle's inner palace (where the children, wife, and concubines of the leader lived). As Iemitsu's wet nurse, Lady Kasuga is often depicted as strong or scary due to her being in a position of power, but this show portrays her maternal devotion to Iemitsu.
At the time, this taiga drama was seen as unique for having a female protagonist. It is third in terms of average viewer rating of all time (32.4%) and had a peak viewer rating of 39.4%.
The grave of Lady Kasuga at Rinshoin Temple in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo
4. Ako Roshi (1964)
This taiga drama tells the tale of how 47 ronin (lordless samurai) that once served under Asano Takumi no Kami—lord of the Ako Domain (present-day Ako City, Hyogo Prefecture) at the time—got revenge for their former lord, who committed ritual suicide after causing bloodshed within Edo Castle.
As it featured a revenge plot which the Japanese love, as well as a star-studded cast including movie stars and kabuki actors making their first appearances on television, this taiga drama gained a lot of attention and became the first-ever major hit taiga drama.
Ako Roshi had an average viewer rating of 31.9%, with its most-watched episode being the climax when they finally act on their revenge plan. The episode had an extraordinary 53% viewer rating that, even 50 years later, has not yet been beaten.
5. Onna Taikoki (1981)
This series covers the tumultuous period (about 1560-1615) that was the end of the Sengoku Period and the beginning of the Edo Period. It does so from the perspective of Nene, the principal wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the farmer who became the ruler of Japan.
This drama stood out for putting the spotlight on women during the Sengoku Period, a rarity at the time, and for its leisurely pace focused on the day-to-day.
It was easy to enjoy even if you didn't know much about Japanese history, as complex topics such as the political situation during the Sengoku Period were broken down and made easier to understand through regular, light conversations. For this reason, it had an average viewer rating of 31.8%, with its highest being 36.8%.
By the way, apparently 50 different outfits were prepared just for this taiga drama, from Japanese-style farmers' clothing to luxurious kimono. Pay close attention to how splendid Nene's outfits become as Hideyoshi rises through the ranks of society!
Entoku-in, Kodaiji Temple; where Nene spent her final years
59 taiga dramas have been released between 1963 and 2020, so there are definitely a lot of interesting shows that we didn't manage to cover in this article. If you have the time, please do check them out!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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