Japanese Netflix drama review: “Tiger & Dragon” (タイガー&ドラゴン)

By | June 22, 2023

For anyone who is even the least bit picky about what they watch, it’s easy to get annoyed by the lack of quality shows and movies available on Netflix, whether it is anime or live action productions. I try to limit the amount of time I spend watching Netflix, but with a few exceptions most of that time feels like watching the first 5-10 minutes of something before I shut it off out of boredom or general lack of interest.

“Tiger & Dragon” (タイガー&ドラゴン) is a drama that I randomly stumbled upon for which I was hooked after the first episode, and I ended up watching through all 12 episodes (which is also very rare for me).

The basic premise is that a Yakuza thug is enamored when he sees a man performing in a classical style of Japanese comedy called “rakugo”(落語), and decides he wants to leave his life of crime and become a rakugo performer. While undoubtedly unrealistic, if we just suspend our disbelief “Tiger & Dragon” becomes a very wonderful series indeed.

Rakugo itself actually is something I’ve been interested in for quite a while, but I admit it can be a bit difficult to understand and have a high barrier to entry. It turns out that “Tiger & Dragon” is the perfect introduction to rakugo; not only does it feature interesting rakugo performances by a variety of actors and actresses, there is even some explanation of how rakugo works and some of the traditions behind it. In contrast, in the past I tried to watch a video or two about rakugo on YouTube, but I got bored after a few minutes.

In addition, the story writing in this series is quite impressive, and manages to integrate scenes of storytelling and live-action elements together. For example, one minute someone is sitting on a stage talking, the next you see a set of characters acting out the story that is being spoken, or a similar story––and sometimes the characters are set in an old village in Edo Japan, wearing traditional garb from back then. The writing is a bit cheesy, but given that the cast does an excellent job fulfilling their roles in a compelling and entertaining way.

Despite having the dramatic elements of organized crime and rakugo, what I really loved about this drama was the realistic, down-to-earth atmosphere that makes you feel at times like you are actually living in Japan (the everyday settings, like a traditional Japanese home, help contribute to that), what you can call “seikatsukan” (生活感), meaning “a sense of everyday life”.

I guess in some ways you could say the scriptwriting of this drama is quite “pure” in the sense of characters being more true-to-life instead of speaking in an overly manufactured way. It made me nostalgic for Japanese dramas in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which I’ve seen a huge number of), and I was surprised a drama in this same style got released in modern times. But partway through watching this series I realized it was actually released in 2005, which explains the style. Nonetheless, I don’t know of many other dramas from that time period that are available on Netflix.

The Japanese in this drama is quite difficult for a variety of reasons. The characters tend to speak fast, not to mention there are a lot of uncommon styles of speech like Yakuza-speak and even regional accents where the pronunciation is very difficult from typical Tokyo dialect speech. Rakugo performances themselves are rife with words and topics not common in modern language (a few times the main character is confused by an unfamiliar word); I’ll admit that while I intellectually understood some of the jokes, I very rarely broke out laughing. Generally I try to watch Japanese dramas in their original language without subtitles, but I watched the majority of “Tiger & Dragon” with Japanese subtitles on. Being able to see the kanji in words, even when I didn’t know a word often I could guess its meaning.

In spite of the difficulty of the Japanese (or rather because of it), I think the drama is a wonderful way to enrich your language learning with words and expressions you wouldn’t normally pick up in your average textbook, or even manga. Each episode is a good mix of everyday language and literary-sounding rakugo dialog to keep you from getting bored. “Tiger & Dragon” is one of the rare dramas that brings to mind a Rosetta Stone, in the sense that so much language is packed into the series that you can learn an amazing amount in one (if not two or three) viewings.

This is now my most recommended Japanese drama on Netflix, especially for Japanese learners. While “Alice in Borderland” is more entertaining, it has very little in the way of Japanese culture or language enrichment––though its language overall is simpler than “Tiger & Dragon”––not to mention the heavy violence and gore. Even if you don’t end up wanting to quit your job and become a rakugo performer, “Tiger & Dragon” is an excellent showcase of Japanese culture and language that is sure to be worthy of your Netflix viewing time.

As a final note, I should mention that the drama does contain a few scenes related to sex, drugs, and violence, so I can’t recommend it categorically to viewers of all ages.

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