The gritty Japanese drama that gripped the world

Published: 05 Jun 2021

Online Desk

A little Japanese girl trudges home through a snowy blizzard - an iconic television scene from the 1980s that many around the world would remember.

It's from the drama Oshin, which was a hit not just at home in Japan but also in more than 60 countries. Long before the age of Korean dramas and Crazy Rich Asians, it was that rare and unprecedented thing - an Asian global blockbuster, reports BBC.

Many loved the tale of Oshin, a girl who grows up in extreme poverty in the Japanese countryside in the early 1900s. Despite suffering numerous personal tragedies, she perseveres and eventually becomes a successful boss of a supermarket chain.

There's been renewed interest in the series after its screenwriter Sugako Hashida, one of Japan's most successful TV writers and an Order of Culture recipient, died in April of lymphoma at the age of 95.

Fans everywhere have paid nostalgic tribute on social media in recent weeks. One Sri Lankan viewer tweeted a warm memory of watching Oshin as a child curled up in his mother's lap.

In China, users on microblogging platform Weibo reminisced about how Oshin was the drama that introduced them to Japanese entertainment. One commented: "The show really touched me. I can still hum the theme song today."

In Taiwan, Ms Hashida's death was reported as breaking news, with the China Times newspaper describing her as a "national treasure".

'Bracing green salad'

Oshin debuted in April 1983 as a typical asadora, or "morning drama" - a female-led family drama series that aired in the morning and was targeted at housewives.

But it quickly became a massive hit in Japan, which at the time was in the grip of a materialistic "bubble economy".

Oshin's gritty tale of poverty was a much-welcomed "counterbalance" to that era's "glitz, excess and ostentatious consumption", wrote one Japanese journalist, "like a bracing green salad served to balance out the rich sauces of a heavy main course".

It became a successful global export thanks to its universal values of "love, sacrifice, endurance, and forgiveness", Dr Arvind Singhal, professor of communication at the University of Texas at El Paso, told the BBC.

Oshin appealed to people because of her strength and tenacity in the face of hardship. From being exchanged for a bag of rice as a child, to losing her son to World War Two and her husband to suicide, Oshin never despaired.

"Oshin's story taught us that no matter how difficult your life is, being brave can help us get through it," a Hong Kong fan in her 70s, known as Ms Wong, told the BBC.

Women in particular rooted for her. Themes such as "tensions between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law, as well as pressures to continue the family line, resonated broadly", said Dr Yuen Shu Min from the National University of Singapore's Japanese studies department .