The Problem With ‘Pachinko’

Beautifully shot, excessively bleak

When Apple TV+ first announced it last year, Pachinko seemed like a possible champion for the streaming service’s international and artistic ambitions. Pachinko is based on the bestselling novel by Min Jin Lee, and stars Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung and worldwide K-drama megastar Lee Min-ho in major roles, with two Korean-American directors.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

All of the right elements were in place for Pachinko to be a tour de force for genuine diversity. Yet the actual response to Pachinko has been lukewarm at best. The reviews have been glowing, but it’s not at all clear anyone is actually watching the show. On the day of Pachinko’s premiere on HanCinema, Hope and Dope–a low-production-value web drama about a teenage drug dealer–considerably outperformed the prestige product. What in the world happened?

Well, if I had to single out any one culprit, it would definitely be the drama’s genuinely baffling editing. See, here’s the problem with having both Youn Yuh-jung and Lee Min-ho in your adaptation of Pachinko. They’re playing characters from entirely different eras of the story. Youn Yuh-jung plays the old version of our heroine Sunja, while Lee Min-ho plays the love interest she had as a teenager. A faithful adaptation of the book would only have Youn Yuh-jung in the last couple of episodes at most, while Lee Min-ho is in even fewer than that because he’s a mysterious figure who disappears for huge stretches at a time. The TV show actually has to add several more scenes compared with the book just to justify his presence on the payroll.

The very imperfect solution the production team came up with is to jump back and forth between young Sunja in the pre-WWII Japanese Empire and old Sunja in 1989. This disjointed mode of storytelling has the effect of making Pachinko incredibly disorienting to anyone who hasn’t read the book. They introduce characters like Hana and Kyung-hee in 1989 long before they actually show up meaningfully in the story, to very poor effect. They both read as pathetic women from the get-go, an especially weird choice considering that the book presented both as admirable and desirable and the TV version otherwise presents a hard feminist edge that wasn’t present in the original story.

I wouldn’t say that the Pachinko novel was particularly antifeminist. But rather, it did tend to show occasional moments where women could be happy. The book presents Sonja’s mom as quite content with her less-than-ideal marriage. In the TV version, she’s bitterly resentful and seems to regard all men with suspicion and hostility. Kyung-hee’s introduction in the book emphasizes how happy she is to have another girl to talk to in Sunja. In the TV version, her negativity is constant, rather undermining old Sunja’s very serious bedside vigil of a figure she clearly considered to be a person warranting great respect.

The all men are rapists angle that Pachinko presents isn’t even the most nakedly political one that the show espouses. It presents Japanese brutality against Koreansso ham-handedly as to be melodramatic. I’ve seen literal Korean propaganda films, from both sides of the DMZ, that treat the Japanese with more nuance than  Pachinko does. This reaches a crescendo in the ferry scene, where the Japanese brutally murder a popular singer because she begins singing a Korean song in the midst of doing a popular performance of…opera. Because apparently the Japanese are really into opera.

Lest you think that was just empty sarcasm, let me assure you, it’s not. Korean music was actually extremely popular in the Japanese Empire during the occupation period. Gisaeng musicians were major celebrities. They invented trot music, and while gisaengs themselves have disappeared from the Korean peninsula due to their association with collaborators, trot music remains popular to this day. The biggest music shows in South Korea right now are competitions to become great trot performers.

This is quite the inaccuracy to include in a show that’s purportedly about expositing the true tragic story of the Korean peninsula to a worldwide audience. But Pachinko manages to be even worse with its depiction of Zainichi Koreans, which is even more of a niche topic. Zainichi Koreans are ethnic Koreans who immigrated to Japan during the Korean Occupation for work reasons. Many remained even after the end of World War II, partially due to political reasons, but also just because by the time the war ended they saw Japan as their home, ethnicity notwithstanding.

Pachinko only acknowledges the first half of that, engaging in racial essentialism that defies the entire confounding nature of Zainichi identity. Perhaps the most famous Zainichi, the wrestler Rikidozan, somewhat infamously never identified as Korean for his whole adult life, and was dismissive at the idea that the land of his birth was important to who he was. There’s a whole movie about it . Yet he is briefly and somewhat inexplicably referenced here as if he was some kind of role model to ethnically Korean children in Japan.

You can easily chalk this up to the American gaze. While racial essentialism is an extremely common way of looking at race today in the United States, this is a fairly recent development and still isn’t very common in the rest of the world. By complete accident, Pachinko provides a strong argument as to why that is. A production consisting of input from a huge number of Korean-Americans has managed to come up with a shockingly ignorant piece of work that quite unsubtly substitutes personal experience as an ethnic Korean growing up in the United States and extrapolates that to completely different cultural, economic, and historical contexts while assuming only changes of intensity and none of effect.

Such is the power of racial essentialism that even now, I can predict the fury in the comments that I, a white person, would dare to suggest that Pachinko, made by Korean people, is inaccurate and poorly researched. I honestly doubt there’s anything I could possibly write to convince you otherwise. So for a brief iteration of the aesthetic: Pachinko is confusingly edited. It’s excessively bleak. It presents no character as having a worthwhile goal, on the rare occasion it presents any character as having a goal at all. It is, however, beautifully shot.

Yes, that’s an unambiguous compliment coming at the end of an extremely negative review. If you like pretty pictures, Pachinko is the show for you. And we may well hear of it again next awards season. As was seen at the Academy Awards, Apple+ TV is taking its pretensions at being a prestige brand far more seriously than it is making shows that people actually want to watch.

 You May Also Like

William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

24 thoughts on “The Problem With ‘Pachinko’

  • April 6, 2022 at 6:02 pm
    Permalink

    The reason I stopped watching is because the closed captioning is so poorly done. Most of the time the translation appears seconds after the actor is finished speaking and is on the screen for a microsecond, leaving me feeling frustrated at not knowing what was just said. I was looking forward to watching the series, but I had to give up on it for that reason.

    Reply
  • April 8, 2022 at 2:44 am
    Permalink

    Yes, I highly agree. I’m very disappointed that Apple approved of this blatant Korean propaganda to be dispersed to the world. I commend you for taking a neutral stance on the Japanese empire, while others are almost being paid (probably by the Korean government) to write glowing reviews.

    Reply
    • April 23, 2022 at 9:59 pm
      Permalink

      This drama is based up on facts.. Why did the Japan built the infrastures in Korea? Simple, you need the road and infrastructure to pillage the Korea’s resources.. The Japanese built the mines and factories to enslave Korean.. They took Korean woman as sex slaves.. And the female weren’t volunteered or contracted sex slaves.. They were fraudulently taken asa banner of a well paid employment doing something other than offering sex..

      Tell me if you were a female in war times, would you locate yourself to a war front to have a sex with many many soldiers, unpaid and die? Why would anyone volunteer or sign an employment contract for that purpose?

      And you do not have historical knowledge at all..

      The germans delunoced and condemn Nazi for the act and trialed all of their war criminals. But what did the Japanese people do? The Japanese still pays respect to the war criminals and do not accept their faults and mistakes, rather, they are changing the text books and history to fit their narratives…. For that reason, I condemn the japanese people for it..

      Shame on you to twist the facts and history…

      You will not be saying the same comment if you knew the facts and history..

      You are no different to invading Japanese army..

      Reply
    • April 23, 2022 at 10:22 pm
      Permalink

      Why don’t you rebut it with history and facts? what is your so called blatant wrong history?.. Pls share with us with your facts and history.. Do you have any? I don’t think so..If not share it..

      Reply
    • May 4, 2022 at 1:23 am
      Permalink

      I read the novel and truly enjoyed the series as well. It does present additional insight into the story and challenge the audience to think compared to linear storylines. Episode 7 was not in the book but gave us insight into Hansu’s innocence and the reason he ended up with the Yakuza. Lee Min Ho’s adaptation of Hansu was masterfully done. The entire cast was perfect and the cinematography exceptional. I look forward to season 2 with more of Hansu and the adult Noa. Seeing a glimpse of Noa and his encounter with Hansu in episode 8 was an invitation to viewers for season 2.

      Reply
  • April 8, 2022 at 2:54 am
    Permalink

    I never read the book and I’m following along just fine. Juxtaposing Sunja as a child and young woman with her in 1989 is often incredibly poignant.

    You also seem to have missed that the Korean singer died by suicide, not murder. Melodramatic and triggered by brutality, yes, but an act of defiance her character owned.

    As for the show being too bleak and vilifying the Japanese too much… I am no more qualified to comment on that than you, but my Chinese mother, aunts and uncles and grandparents witnessed firsthand what they were capable of. While nuance enriches any drama, you’ve only to go to Japan to see how a lot of this history is swept under the rug.

    Reply
    • April 8, 2022 at 7:41 pm
      Permalink

      My issue with Pachinko’s depiction of the Japanese Empire isn’t that it’s overly negative, but that its revanchist tone inaccurately cites the Japanese Empire as being motivated primarily by racial animus rather than political concerns. In addition to just being wrong historically, this creative decision also introduces obvious plot holes. If the Japanese hated Koreans so much, why were Koreans allowed to immigrate to Japan at all?

      The full answer to that question is complex, but the short version is that the colonization of Korea was seen by the Japanese then (and is still seen by many of them today) as a mutually beneficial economic development program. Many Koreans also believed this, which is why collaboration was so rampant, and nearly every Zainichi Korean initially immigrated to Japan because they believed it would improve their personal opportunities. The ones that stayed behind after World War II was over did so in part because they still believed that was true, and they weren’t necessarily wrong considering that a civil war broke out in Korea hardly five years later.

      I don’t think the appropriate response to Japan’s denial of what they did to Korea is to engage in bad history, even in the service of alleged entertainment. Apologists for the Japanese Empire frequently seize on these inaccuracies to discredit any culpability for Japan’s crimes. And even regarding modern-day Zainichi, obfuscation of their financial motives leads to some fairly goofy contrasts. Take Solomon’s quest to get the old Zainichi woman to sell her property. It’s presented as bad only because it benefits racist Japanese people, when it’s the exact same kind of exploitative economic activity that’s seen in the pre-War part of the story.

      Reply
      • April 10, 2022 at 10:58 am
        Permalink

        Exactly. If the Japanese hated Koreans so much, why even build up their infrastructure, give them education, improve their standard of living, etc? If the Japanese truly hated Korean, they should’ve just killed them all. Instead, it decided to modernize Korea. In fact, many Koreans preferred to live under the Japanese empire than the corrupted Joseon government.

        Another myth: that comfort women were sexual slaves. In reality they were willing prostitutes. If they were forced to do it, why didn’t the Korean men rise up? Are they that spineless? It’s these inconsistencies with the anti-Japanese narrative that doesn’t make sense when properly analyzed.

        Yes, there were a few hiccups along the way, but If it wasn’t for Japan, Korea would still be living in the feudal era.

        Reply
        • April 10, 2022 at 2:07 pm
          Permalink

          Even if Korean men did know about comfort women, there wasn’t much they could do about it. But typically speaking comfort women were recruited via work programs. As the war went on, recruiters became more dishonest about what these work programs entailed, as the demand for sex workers overwhelmed the supply of women who were actually willing to engage in that kind of work. The situation wasn’t widely known, and the Japanese-sympathetic government that took power in South Korea after the war had no interest in improving awareness of an issue that would cause a rift with their new post-war ally.

          I was actually a little surprised when the most recent episode of Pachinko made reference to factory jobs in late war Manchuria for young Korean women, implying that these jobs actually existed. Usually, such references in fiction only come up when the writer wants to make a reference to comfort women. Although I suppose there’s still plenty of time for that.

          Reply
        • April 18, 2022 at 12:50 am
          Permalink

          The argument about providing infrastructure and education and raising standards of living sounds incredibly familiar to the rhetoric of the Romans, the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French and yes, the Americans whenever they conquered another region and subjugated it according to their standards. And you know full well that racism and was intrinsically linked to most of these campaigns.

          Reply
        • April 23, 2022 at 10:43 pm
          Permalink

          What nationality and age are you?.. The only reason Japan allowed the Koreans to live in Japan was to pillage the labour and they also claimed that the Koreans were part of Japanese people….. The colonial Japanese government forced the Korean to use Japanese surnames and language and rules, and they tried their best to erase Korean history and its people.. The Koreans were worse than South Africans under the majority white government in 1950s.

          Why did the Japan build the infrastructure? really.. are you 13 years old? in order to rob and pillage, they need a transport, road, infrastructure such as electricity to mine and force slave labour to aid their WW2 expansion..

          Just like the Japanese whaling hunts that kills over 1000 whales and the Japanese calling it as a research purpose.. The country run by liars and overly proud idiots ..”

          ” Yes, there were a few hiccups along the way, but If it wasn’t for Japan, Korea would still be living in the feudal era”… You might be thinking that you are defending the country you love but you are the reason your beloved Japan will fall.. You can’t hide the facts.. tying to hide or disguise the history and facts, will bring more problems than the benefit..

          After the WW2, the German people condemn Nazis Germany and their actions. And trialled all of their war criminals..
          But not in Japan.. the Japanese people still respect and pay tributes to the war criminals every year, and the Japanese emperor kept his position, and only had to renounce that he wasn’t an immortal to his people after WW2.
          They have killed millions, experimented with over 500,000 alive captives as a lab guinea pigs and forced 500,000 or more innocent young girls from Korea and Asian nations to treat their soldiers as a comfort women or sex slaves.. the Japanese still denies their dark history..
          Only if you understand what their real faces are behind the friendly persona..
          Furthermore, the Japanese government is just about to discharge billions litres of untreated highly concentrated toxic raw nuclear waste water into the seas, just because they want to save storage costs..
          Read about their actions and the history.. don’t fall for their friendly masks..
          They have rewritten their history text books to stating that they have invaded other nations due to the request by other nations during WW2. Just like their commercial whaling hunts that kills over 1,200 per year, and the Japanese calling it as a research purpose..
          What a laughable delusional government and it’s far Right Wing people..
          I will not buy Japanese products any more..

          Reply
      • April 18, 2022 at 1:09 am
        Permalink

        Koreans were allowed to immigrate to Japan because they could be used for cheap labor. The show could have included characters speaking to the economic or even altruistic Japanese POV of their occupation, but portraying Zainichi as feeling trapped in a closed loop between Korea and Japan that they had little agency to break free of justifies plenty of the frustrations on display in the series, including that of the woman who refused to sell her home to the hotel group. The Japanese reaction to her refusal may lean too hard into cheap racism, but then again, Japan isn’t exactly known for being the most welcoming country for immigrants. I’ll say this for them though: never have I been more politely told that I don’t belong in a country and will never truly belong there than when I was in Japan.

        At the end of the day, Japan committed numerous atrocities and humiliations which we still don’t learn enough about in school or Hollywood, so trying to address the good side of the occupation of Korea and its repercussions feels more ambitious than this show needs to be. It’s one family’s personal story living through economic and social hardships, not a window into Japanese foreign policy, and it feels entirely plausible to me.

        Reply
        • April 18, 2022 at 11:26 am
          Permalink

          The idea that Zainichi felt (or for that matter feel) trapped in a closed loop between Korea and Japan due to the essential nature of their racial identity is the main aspect of Pachinko I’m criticizing here. Zainichi Koreans didn’t feel like they were bullied into going to Japan. They felt they were being given an opportunity they didn’t have in their homeland. Even granting that the Japanese Occupation was a racist crime against humanity, their impoverished situations both in late Joseon and the early modern era were such that the colonialist elements would not have seemed very obvious or relevant compared to their more immediate problems.

          I actually agree with your comparison to the modern colonial powers. But that’s the thing. No one frames the mere act of immigrating to a colonial master country as an expression of racism in nearly any other context. In the United States, such immigration is quite literally baked into our national origin myth, when in reality South Korean immigrants had almost identical reasons for coming to the United States as united Korean immigrants had for going to the Japanese home islands.

          Reply
  • April 12, 2022 at 2:10 am
    Permalink

    This article IS written with misleading information about the plot of the Apple TV series Pachinko. It stands, given the writer’s unapologetic shamelessness to the integrity of the content of the article, as a case of cowardly bigotry towards Koreans. Not only does the writer misinterprets a scene in the plot, the examples of the “problem” of the series provided underwhelm to entertain a hint of criticism as they adhere to the “problems” of Koreans as an ethnic homogeneity, vis-a-vis the “Japanese Empire” (sic). The article and its writer’s subsequent comments clarify and confirm the dubious approach that comes from a place of superiority complex or an Imperialist apologist or both. A case of bigotry is resounding here. It may all be too easy for an innocent “American” to write on the history between the two “Asian Nations” but taking the side of the “Japanese Empire” at the expense of the colonial legacy at that – absolutely shameless. Read up on the novel or, at the minimum, learn about the history of Zainichi, on top of that some serious soul searching, will help.

    Reply
    • April 19, 2022 at 6:23 pm
      Permalink

      I agree. Japan was absolutely evil in its rape of East Asia. I’m not convinced the author of this article read the novel or knows much about the intricate history between Japan and its absolute disregard of humanity in Korea. I’m suspicious of people who overlook these crimes throughout history but even more suspicious of individuals who disregard the victims of cruelty. This article is offensive and disrespectful to the Koreans who suffered from the cruelty of the Japanese; the writer should stick to enjoying anime and leave the complex opinions regarding Korea’s history to Koreans.

      Reply
    • April 24, 2022 at 8:37 pm
      Permalink

      I hardly think this “writer” will care, what a loser he is.

      Reply
  • April 17, 2022 at 10:59 pm
    Permalink

    Apples re write of a great novel is unwatchable for me. Am I the only one who finds the characters completely different from the book to the point of it being an unreal experience. It’s very similar to the adaptation of “Underground Railroad”. (Pure crap compared to the novel). I guess most people who sit thru this are illiterate and would rather watch a disjointed travesty with little resemblance to the original story. I find it inexplicable that there are so many positive reviews of this shit-show.

    Reply
  • April 19, 2022 at 4:19 pm
    Permalink

    I don’t understand why people who watch shows based on books would want a frame by frame similarity to the source. You have already read the book, why would you want a simple translation to a different medium? Why still watch when you already know the story? I prefer adaptations that present additional insights into the story. The juxtaposition of past and present scenes in the drama more powerfully show how much Sunja’s family survived, from almost being obliterated when Yangjin couldn’t raise a child to maturity in 1910 Korea, to her great grandson Solomon navigating the rat race in the world’s top business arenas in 1989 – the US and Japan. And I can’t wait for the additional story about Koh Hansu that tells in more detail how he survived his harsh experience, in contrast to how Sunja survived.

    Reply
  • April 23, 2022 at 10:53 pm
    Permalink

    William Schwartz— This guy is never heard of.. He is not a most largest english Korean movie drama data base.. look at the website.. I have seen work from home ebay website better than his website..
    He is biased and not a based up on fair analysis and facts..

    William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world’s largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

    Reply
  • May 2, 2022 at 3:05 pm
    Permalink

    First things first – original write is a clown, does not get what this show is trying to accomplish whatsoever

    Secondly – very clearly that some Japanese right wingers stuck in denial peddling their same sorry revisionist garbage arguments are commenting here

    Reply
    • May 3, 2022 at 10:05 am
      Permalink

      What do you think Pachinko was trying to accomplish? And why do you think it succeeded?

      Reply
  • June 25, 2022 at 11:05 pm
    Permalink

    Pachinko no es monedita de oro para gustarle a todo mundo habra gente que le gustan series comicas,de violencia etc a mi personalmente me gusto el libro y la serie al principio debo reconocer q la iba a ver por Lee Min Ho pero me sorprendio la serie todos los personajes estan magistralmente interpretados, la musica, el vestuario, los lugares representados, la historia es lo que tuvo que pasar Sunja y yo no entiendo porque critican que hay personajes que en el libro no estan o hechos como el capitulo 7.Es una adaptacion del libro le tienen que agregar para que resulte atractiva al espectador o en crepusculo al final lo cambiaron no hubo accion y en la peli si. A mi me gusto mucho y valoro el esfuerzo y trabajo de todos los que trabajaron en ella. Hoy en dia a la gente le gustan series como squid game, strangers things que uff tienen mucha violencia y no series historicas como lo es Pachinko no entiendo porque tanta mala critica para esta serie sino les gusta pues no la vean y ya pero no se vale criticar solo por tener un espacio en un medio de comunicacion.

    Reply
  • August 8, 2022 at 9:47 pm
    Permalink

    Mr. Swartz,

    You are entitled to your opinion but I think you missed the mark here. I was captivated by the story from start to finish. As an intelligent person, it was not difficult to follow the story in the past and the one in the 1980’s. I have read some of the history of Japan’s occupation of Korea and its role in WW2. I think you needed to do some more historical research. Korea has had to pay due to occupation and it is divided country today because of Japan. After WW2, Russia received north of the 38th Parallel and US policed the South. I believe it was suppose to be only for 5 years after WW2. Japan’s war criminals were not tried for the most part. Koreans were promised a better life, LIES! Japan wanted cheap labor to build up infrastructure in order to invade other countries. The women went through torture, rape and murder. If they survived (which many did not) a lot of them committed suicide. Japan atrocities were on par with Nazi Germany. Atomic bombs were dropped because the US President and his cabinet believed Japan would never surrender and more lives would be lost if the Allies had to invade Japan.
    Pachinko delves into the story of Koreans from a Korean point of view. It touches on moments in history. If you do research, you would see fiction based on facts. Some drama is added because it is a movie for entertainment, it is not a documentary. As a fellow American, I am embarrassed by your review.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.