Japanese TV stations often adapt popular manga into drama. Shows like What Did You Eat Yesterday? (きのう何食べた？; Kinou, Nani Tabeta?), which focused on the life of two gay men, and Tomorrow I’ll Be Someone’s Girlfriend (明日、私は誰かのカノジョ; Ashita, Watashi wa Dareka no Kanojo), which explored Japan’s relationship and sex economy, are just two recent examples of stories that show the diversity of manga as a genre.
Sexy Tanaka-san was one such manga. Written by author Ashihara Hikano (芦原妃名子), the story focused on themes of self-expression, self-determination, and happiness among working adults.
The manga ran between 2017 and 2024, with seven total collected volumes published by Flower Comics, a label of mega-publisher Shogakukan. Due to its popularity (it topped 1 million copies sold in August 2023), TV station NTV picked up the series for a 10-episode dramatization that ran last year, with the last episode airing on December 24th, 2023.
But a month after that last episode, Ashihara was dead. In the wake of her loss, fans are pointing fingers at NTV and her publisher, Shogakukan, for failing to stay true to the author’s original vision. And other mangaka are recalling their bitter experiences with the adaptation process and calling for change.
Content warning: This story discusses suicide.
Ashihara’s Sexy Tanaka-san explores the relationship between two women. 23-year-old Kurahashi Akari is a temp office worker with an eye on getting married and settling down. Kurahashi’s youth, beauty, and outwardness stand in stark contrast to another of her co-workers, the titular Tanaka Kyoko, a 40-something unmarried office worker.
In the first volume of the manga, one of Kurahashi’s colleagues talks about unmarried “after-40” women who either invest in their looks or give up and start preparing for retirement. Someone asks, “What about Tanaka?” To which she replies, “Tanaka? She doesn’t belong to either group. She didn’t give up – she was never even at the starting line.”
But one night Kurahashi goes to a local restaurant and sees a woman named Sali bellydancing. Based on the curves of her body, Kurahashi quickly recognizes Sali as Tanaka-san.
Tanaka swears Kurahashi to silence about her nighttime hobby. Infatuated, Kurahashi becomes a fan, kickstarting a relationship between the two women that spans the manga. The relationship also changes Kurahashi, who, enamored of Tanaka’s inner strength, suddenly finds herself bored with the marriage dating scene and doubting her own life direction.
Changes over the author’s stated wishes
The dramatization, starring Kinami Haruka as Kyoko/Sali and Nukumi Meru as Akari, didn’t make a splash on TV. The first episode premiered with a middling 7.2% rating. Viewership decayed until the last episode, which only drew 3.9%. Fans seemingly panned the last two episodes in particular.
In January, fans got a small idea of what might have gone wrong. Some noticed in the end credits for the final shows that Ashihara, the original author, had been given credit for writing episodes 9 and 10. The previous 1st to 8th episodes had been penned by screenwriter Aizawa Tomoko.
On her own Instagram, Aizawa alluded to the change saying she’d had to deal with something that’d “never happened to me before” in her career. She didn’t elaborate.
Ashihara posted an explanation to her own X (formerly Twitter) account in a three-page letter as well as on her own blog. She wrote that she “had concluded that I had to take on overseeing the writing of episodes 9 and 10”. Ashihara further revealed that, before that, she had never met the series’ screenwriter or even been given access to speaking to the production staff.
Controversial scenes cut
Ashihara says that, before agreeing to the adaptation, she made it a condition that the broadcast version would reflect the manga “from the plot up to the phrasing.” But she says that the scripts submitted for episodes 1 to 7 deviated significantly from the plot. Even the characters, she said, were completely different from the original work.
Ashihara also said the show changed several plot points that she took extra care to render. A few of the changed scenes included an incident of near-sexual assault, discussion around use of the morning-after pill, and themes around how difficult it can be for men to find their way in Japanese society.
“Their erasing of the individuality from my story Sexy Tanaka-san makes me want to quit drama adaptations anymore,” Ashihara wrote.
The author says she pushed back on the first seven episodes and made multiple corrections. The scripts eventually came closer to the original story as a result. But the scripts for episodes 9 and 10, she says, had multiple inaccuracies, including misuse of lingo used in the bellydancing world.
As a result, Ashihara says she ended up taking on rewriting them herself under a strict deadline and with no prior experience in screenwriting. “I have extreme regret. I was a beginner and writing by example. The end product reflects that I was out of my depth.”
“I don’t know if I made the right decision. Once again, I apologize with all my heart.”
A tragic death, some shady explanations, and a host of questions
Shortly after making her post, Ashihara made a follow-up post that simply said, “I never meant to attack anyone. I’m sorry.” She also deleted her previous post.
Then, she disappeared.
Police in Tochigi Prefecture discovered Ashihara Hinako’s body not long after. NTV announced her death on January 29th. Reports indicate the cause of death as suicide.
What happened next ignited a controversy that continues to smolder online. In its announcement of Ashihara’s death, NTV proclaimed:
“We created the adaptation by asking the original author’s opinion through her publisher, Shogakukan, and broadcast the program after creating a finalized script with the author’s consent.”
That comment hit a couple of sour notes. First, it ran directly counter to what Ashihara had written on X. Second, the timing was awful. As someone at NTV put it, “Putting out nothing but ‘we did nothing wrong’ comments right after the author’s death is downright tawdry.”
According to press reports, even NTV employees were shocked by the statement. To make matters worse, fans caught the official NTV TikTok account liking some of the negative comments about the final episode.
Was the screenwriter not involved in revisions?
The statements from publisher Shogakukan haven’t been much better. In two statements, Shogakukan has tried to maintain that they communicated to NTV that the scripts should “faithfully” follow the manga.
That was news to…the screenwriter. Aizawa Tomoko said on Instagram that she was shocked when she read Ashihara’s blog about what she had experienced. “This was the first time I’d heard that. When I read it, I was speechless. What’s true? Who should I believe?”
Aizawa also apologized for her posts that seemingly took swipes at Ashihara. “I deeply regret and am reconsidering my posts on social media. I should’ve tread more carefully.”
The post is still live and is the only one on her Instagram account; the text is accompanied by a plain white photo.
Other mangaka, pros speak out
The controversy has other manga authors speaking out about the issues they’ve had with adaptations in the past. Soryo Fuyumi, whose motorbike racing series MARS was adapted in 2016 by NTV, says she didn’t have much interest in even commenting on the scripts at the time.
“Like so many authors have said, it’s common for them to make major changes to the story,” she said. Her publisher wasn’t much interested in pushing back, either, as they believed the publicity from the show would boost manga sales.
However, she says the situation was different when a Taiwanese company wanted to adapt MARS. “When the director said they were a fan of the original and wanted to remain faithful to the story, I initially thought they were just being polite. So when I looked at their work, I was surprised to see they’d truly fashioned it after the manga.”
Shinjo Mayu, author of the series Sensual Phrase (快感 フレーズ), published by Shogakukan, said on X, “If an author gives their opinion about mixed media [interpretations of their work], people will say they’re being obnoxious and picky. Publishers too will tell you, ‘We can tell [the TV producers] once, but it’s a difficult situation’. You come to believe that you’re the only one suffering.
“You’re told, ‘others authors are handling it well.’ No they aren’t. The bulk of us are just argued down.”
“Nodame” author speaks out
The author of the popular manga Nodame Cantabile (publisher: Kodansha), Ninomiya Tomoko, also spoke out in the wake of Ashihara’s death.
“It’s too painful….I’m remembering the day I cried buckets when I realized that I was the one who cared most about my work. Even now I can’t stop crying.” In further comments, Ninomiya said she doesn’t think changing the original work is necessarily bad. “The issue is whether the conditions that were set forth beforehand were protected.”
For its part, Shogakukan says it vows to prioritize protecting authors going forward. One can only hope they remain true to their word. This tragedy should leave both TV producers and manga publishers more thoughtful about how they handle works that are so deeply meaningful and personal to their original authors.
If you or someone you love is in crisis, please reach out for help. If you are in Japan you can call the following numbers:
0570-064-556 for kokoro-no-kenkou-soudan (こころの健康相談) operated by prefectorial and city organizations
0570-783-556 for inochi-no-denwa (いのちの電話) operated by Federation of Inochi No Denwa.
For English language help in Japan, reach out to TELL.
If you are in the US call 911 for emergencies and 988 for the suicide hotline.
『セクシー田中さん』ドラマ化「必ず漫画に忠実に」条件守られず…原作者が経緯説明、謝罪と感謝も. Oricon News
脚本トラブル「セクシー田中さん」原作者・芦原妃名子さん《突然の死》訃報の直後に日テレ報道フロアでは「えーっ！」と悲鳴が…芦原さんが「やっぱり怖い」と漏らした数年前の“ある被害”. Bunshun Online
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