Like most, we spent a good portion of this year in lockdown, self-isolating away from the rest of the world. So it’s a relief that we could count on streaming giants like Netflix and cable networks to keep us entertained with their banks of endless shows.
Live-action adaptations, sequels and a sprinkle of anime make our year-end list of the best television series from East and Southeast Asia. As we binged on sci-fi adventures, zombie thrillers and wholesome sports dramas, these shows have miraculously turned this strange and forsaken past 12 months into something memorable.
10. Alice In Borderland (Japan)
Season: one (limited series)
Based on Hara Aso’s incredibly popular manga and anime series, Netflix’s Alice In Borderland centres on an aimless gamer named Ryōhei Arisu and his two friends. Upon their return to Tokyo, the trio are stunned to find their home city totally empty of human beings – save for a mysterious woman called Usagi. (“Usagi” is Japanese for “rabbit”, in another nod to Lewis Carroll’s tale.) Trapped in this parallel reality, the gang is forced to compete in a series of deadly games in order to survive.
Buoyed by grand production values and an intriguing mystery, Alice In Borderland proves to be the rare anime to live-action adaptation that actually works.
Biggest fan: Former anime snob who is finally convinced that not all live-action adaptations are bad.
9. The Gifted: Graduation (Thailand)
An adaptation of Dhammarong Sermrittirong’s novel of the same name, The Gifted is essentially the Thai version of X-Men, using sci-fi to explore notions of privilege and equality. The initial 2018 Gifted series followed a group of superhuman students learning to hone their powers in Ritdha High School. This sequel series, Graduation, jumps ahead a couple of years to chronicle their struggle to topple the school’s powerful director and his oppressive system.
Fuelled by an endless supply of plot twists, great character arcs and smart egalitarian underpinnings, the climax to The Gifted saga proves to be a thrilling, fast-paced, and perpetually surprising ride.
Biggest fan: Someone whose Netflix queue includes I Am Not Okay With This, The Umbrella Academy, Warrior Nun, Ragnarok… the list goes on.
8. Emperor’s Gift (Vietnam)
Helmed by Huỳnh Tuấn Anh, this expensive and gorgeous period series revolves around the palatial intrigue within the court of Emperor Thiệu Trị, the third monarch of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Reconstructed through anecdotal tales about the life of Honoured Consort Phạm Hiệu Nguyệt – a concubine who rose to become a powerful Dowager Empress – this Vietnamese historical drama is a riveting crash course on the cunning deceptions and deadly conspiracies of the imperial family.
Furnished with grand costumes and meticulous set design, Emperor’s Gift (titled domestically as Phượng Khấu) is a sumptuous and enthralling watch.
Biggest fan: The person who hasn’t stopped talking about season four of The Crown.
7. Itaewon Class (South Korea)
Season: one (limited series)
Hit K-drama Itaewon Class is a vibrant tale of revenge, love and ambition set in the competitive world of South Korea’s restaurant industry. We follow the underdog story of Park Saeroyi, a dignified and personable ex-convict who plots to avenge his father’s death by taking down Jang Dae-Hee, the dastardly CEO of the Number One food company in South Korea, and his eldest son Jang Geun-Won.
Sparked by a decades-long blood feud, class warfare, and overlapping love triangles, this addictive series is a fun, twist-laden journey filled with betrayal, murder, a cooking competition, and lots and lots of pining.
Biggest fan: Your friend who swears they’re not into Korean drama but recently discovered Park Seo-Joon and is now secretly binging on all his shows.
6. My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (Japan)
After five years, the high school anime is finally back for its third and final season, which continues to be an engaging and emotionally truthful look at the social hang-ups of Japanese youths.
Essentially a comedically deadpan deconstruction of the rom-com genre, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU follows cynical loner Hachiman and the beautiful and intelligent Yukino. Both are members of The Service Club, an after-school activity where they help students with any problems they might have.
Bristling with sharp wit and compelling human drama, the series remains a delightful gem even as it careens into its emotional climax.
Biggest fan: That stan in the comments who wants everyone to know that this is not your average high school anime.
5. Titoudao: Inspired By The True Story Of A Wayang Star (Singapore)
Based on the life of Madam Oon Ah Chiam, Titoudao charts the rise of the popular wayang (street opera) icon from her humble beginnings. This stage-to-screen remake of Goh Boon Teck’s acclaimed 1994 play expands into a 13-part biopic here, allowing for greater insight into Ah Chiam’s personal and professional challenges.
Spanning from the 1940s to the present day, this gorgeous immersion into a lost art form is anchored by an absolutely sparkling lead performance from Malaysian newcomer Koe Yeet. Sweeping, intimate and emotional, Titoudao is a nostalgic series that vividly transports you to the days of pre- and early-independence Singapore.
Life can be unfair, but she'll never give up. How did a poor kampong girl overcome poverty, abandonment, and more to become one of Singapore’s biggest wayang celebrities? ✨Catch #Titoudao: Inspired by the True Story of a Wayang Star for free on meWATCH from Tue, 18 Feb! #madeforyou
Posted by Mediacorp Channel 5 on Wednesday, February 5, 2020
4. The Ghost Bride (Malaysia)
Netflix’s first Malaysian Mandarin-language original series follows Pan Li Lan, a 20-year-old woman in 1890s colonial Malacca, who is pressured to wed into wealth. The only catch: her betrothed is long dead.
Adapted from the eponymous best-selling novel, The Ghost Bride gets its unusual premise from the old Chinese practice of ghost marriages, which involves a living person “marrying” somebody deceased. But that’s not even the weirdest part: the spirit of her husband haunts Li Lan’s dreams and tells her that he was murdered.
Part supernatural mystery and part quirky romance, The Ghost Bride is a binge-worthy, soapy pleasure.
Biggest fan: Asian film nerd who runs a Twitter account to share screengrabs of their favourite stills.
3. Haikyuu!! (Japan)
One of the greatest sports anime ever made returns for an exhilarating and emotional fourth season. Haikyuu!! is a series that follows the heartbreaks and triumphs of Karasuno High’s volleyball team. With the addition of two talented freshmen – the short but athletic spiker Hinata, and technical genius setter Kageyama – the team are poised for a comeback, but only if the two bitter rivals can get along.
After a stunning upset victory in the prefectural tournament, the latest season follows them to the Nationals, and the dynamic match-ups they face here against Japan’s top school teams are riveting.
Biggest fan: The TikTok cosplayer who wishes they went to Karasuno High instead.
2. Kingdom (South Korea)
Taking place in medieval Korea during the Joseon dynasty, this zombie epic’s second season picks up where season one left off, with crown prince Lee Chang and his battalion setting up camp to ward off the horde of invading, flesh-eating undead. But upon learning that the zombies can now also appear in the daytime, the survivors head to one of the last few unaffected cities: Sangju.
Although the series is filled with bloody and gruesome action, Kingdom is still driven by court intrigue and social strife, as corrupt politicians scheme to take power while the poor commoners suffer.
Biggest fan: Tallahassee from Zombieland, because no one enjoys slaying the undead in as many different ways as much as he does.
1. Aggretsuko (Japan)
Office lady Retsuko has spent two seasons of her hilarious and relatable anime series expelling her professional and romantic frustrations via death metal karaoke. But in the third season, financial woes have forced everyone’s favourite hapless red panda into the world of J-Pop.
In addition to the stressful demands of her day job and continued misadventures in love, Retsuko now finds herself first managing, and then joining an underground idol group. But despite the exhausting toll of workplace politics, added responsibilities and frightening experiences with toxic fandom, this new environment might be just what Retsuko needs to finally thrive.
Biggest fan: Apartment dwellers who sink into their couches, flip open their laptops and use Netflix like a drug to escape city living. In other words: pretty much all of us.