Pachinko (파친코/パチンコ) is a breathtaking television event. The eight-episode (first!) season of this Apple TV+ series is truly a stunning experience. It is the kind of grand epic production and storytelling that you rarely, if ever see on Korean television or even from any of the recent streaming exclusive local series. It is certainly a coup for Apple TV+ to have secured the rights to this Kogonada and Justin Chon-directed series as its first foray into Korean drama. And the adaptation of the epic novel from journalist/author Min Jin Lee is the perfect source material for such a production.
Pachinko is a sprawling epic that tells the story of one Korean family spanning not just the 20th century, but spanning the Pacific Ocean as well. Specifically, the series shines a spotlight on the Korean diaspora in Japan also known as Zainichi, permanent ethnic Korean residents of Japan who trace their roots to Korea under Japanese rule.
The series jumps between the time periods, comparing, contrasting and mirroring the family’s situations and circumstances in the midst of volatile world around them, both in Asia and America.
At the heart of the story is Kim Sun Ja. We first meet Sun Ja (portrayed by Yu Na) as a child in 1915, growing up in rural Busan with her parents in the early days of Japanese rule over Korea. Then we meet Sun Ja as a teenager (played by Kim Min Ha) who must navigate the now-oppressive imperial rule while falling in love with merchant and fish broker Koh Hansu (Lee Min Ho), who is a Zainichi Korean living in Osaka. And finally, Oscar-winner Youn Yuh Jung is Sun Ja in 1989, now a grandmother who has lived in Japan since her teenage years.
Pachinko’s back and forth slowly peels back the layers of Sun Ja’s story and how the changing times affect her family. That includes, in the modern day, her son Baek Mozasu (Soji Arai) and grandson, the Yale-educated Solomon Baek (Jin Ha). In the past, it includes Baek Isak (Steve Sanghyun Noh), a Protestant minister who comes to Sun Ja’s side at her time of need.
While unraveling the story of Sun Ja’s family across the decades, Pachinko vividly depicts the historical events that frame the family’s development and experiences.
Simply stunning cinematography and the detailed set design recreating the Korea and Japan of decades past are able to immerse the viewer into both the historical context and the character-driven story of Sun Ja, her family and the people around her.
In telling the seldom-told stories of Zainichi Koreans in Japan, Pachinko delivers an engrossing portrait of immigration, resilience and the struggle to find one’s place in an ever-changing and foreign world. In the series, that is true regardless of whether the moments are happening in the decade before World War II or at the transition from the Showa to the Heisei Era.
Pachinko touches on both Korean and Japanese culture, with a focus on the Korean experience during Japanese rule and later as ethnic minorities in a different countries.
Youn Yuh Jung delivers a powerhouse performance and leads an outstanding cast who never miss a beat. With careful nuance and properly expressive emotion, the cast effortlessly brings to life the superbly enthralling stories that are intertwined between characters and history.
Pachinko is just a stunning epic. Unlike anything you will see on Korean television, whether on a traditional broadcast network or other streaming services. It presents a kind of cinematic experience in both production and storytelling that you just don’t see often, if ever on Korean TV. Or any television, for that matter.
But Pachinko is an experience. An emotional, relatable and captivating experience that you won’t soon forget even as the final credits roll.
And with a second season having been ordered, there’s still more brilliant story left to tell and enjoy.