The beauty of stories are the lives you live through them. The beauty of especially epic stories position you to grasp the expanse of life manifold. Lives coexisting, in their short intersections and junctions, their parallel tracks, their divergences and convergences. At least, these were the tired takeaways that kept looping through my head as I watched Apple TV’s latest drama, Pachinko, based off of Min Jin Lee’s book of the same name. 

Pachinko is a chronicle of the rise and fall in fortunes of a fictional Korean family that settled in Japan prior to the Second World War. By metaphorical extension, it tells of the rise and fall in fortunes of a homeland that they cannot excise from their being. I say “being,” because the fact of belonging to a native land is baked into their heartaches, their jubilation, their food and habits, and their treatment by outsiders. The characters may or may not be physically present in Korea, but Korea treads alongside them always. The “Korea” here refers to the previously unified state. Following its division, those abroad, including our main characters in Pachinko, became a stateless people. The female lead, Sunja (played at different stages of life by Youn Yuh-Jung, Minha Kim, and Yu-Na), had moved to Osaka when Korea was still a protectorate under the thumb of the Japanese Empire, and this fateful choice has reverberated throughout her life since.

The title is the name of a Japanese pinball-esque game. The reaping of its prizes are left to chance alone, so pachinko has become rather a mainstay among avid gamblers. Like the erratic trajectory of the pachinko ball and the ever-shifting boundary that separates the winners from the losers, life itself deals its lots quickly and indiscriminately. A lucky few strike a windfall, some are merely compensated, others leave sorely disappointed. And then they are back again the next day for more. In the show, we see time and time again how the universe’s pachinko plays out in vivo

Realism is the name of this game, and it is everywhere in Pachinko. The dialogue very seldom feels forced, though I admit my bias as a fluent speaker in only one of the three languages used, and it being very little heard. And even that is a testament to its realism, where languages are only used in the contexts they make ideal sense in. I cannot point to any one of the named characters as being the primary antagonist. All are propelled by their own motivations, all feel as deeply as the other. The story is largely about the Japanese occupation of Korea and the continued prejudice against South Koreans. We see horrific acts by the hands of Japanese people who do not see Koreans as their equals. Even then, the narrative takes care to humanize and differentiate between the individual Japanese characters that we meet. If anything, the conflict is driven instead by chance. The time, the place, the circumstances. Just like the show’s namesake.

Realism also saturates into the stunning cinematography. It is almost somber: colors are muted, flourishes withdrawn. The camera favors only what it must show. Watching it as a college student, you think: Ah. Here is a Serious Show. At first, the opening credits cements that impression. Grainy snapshots click by—actual photographs and clips of Koreans going peacefully about their lives, busying themselves with idle amusements, picture-posing with family. A vigilant reminder that this is indeed a show rooted deeply in the lived reality of many such generations past. Serious Show. But then, wait, the mood shifts, and suddenly the viewer is confronted with the bright neon aisle of a 1980s pachinko parlor, upon which the actors start dancing. The music picks up speed, shoes tap to the beat, actors shimmy and twirl and slide, and laughter is clear on their faces. This spirited opening is a microcosm of Pachinko’s strange plot progression. It is a story told in two separate timelines: one in Sunja’s past, and one in Sunja’s present. What results resembles an unraveling mystery as the events of each timeline inform the other. The past affects the future, and the future forebodes the past. You will find that the old and the new are not opposites here (and technically, the two time periods eclipse at most a span of one lifetime). They are, in fact, reflections. The emotions shared by and between people then are still the same emotions of now. There is always sorrow in the lowest pit and there is always joy at the highest loft. This is a Serious Show, yes, but just because it is Serious does not mean it is without emotion. Its job is to grab you and to lull you into feeling what its people are feeling, not to estrange you with pretenses of an untouchable history. Who is to say that the monochromatic children seesawing in the opening sequence were not feeling the same, if not greater, amusement than the actors waltzing down their stage?

But why all the realism? Why does this story stand out among the countless about life (as much as there are stories themselves)? Pachinko’s theme is the resilience of life. Senseless death and loss happens, but life still must go on in spite of it. After all, loss is inevitable; part and parcel of living. A common refrain you will hear throughout the series is: “What family hasn’t suffered?” Everyone has their own story to tell, and each story comes with its fair share of obstacles. As someone entering into adulthood, resilience in the face of the uncertain future resonates with me. In spite of all your best efforts, you will confront failures, setbacks, losses. And it will be alright, as long as you don’t give up. Sunja and those around her have weathered through countless storms, and they have likewise found respite in the moments of happiness and normal living in between.
If I had a loose thread to pick at, it would be about the purported subject matter of the story. The show draws to a rather abrupt close, presumably leaving space for a second season. In the final episode, the story cuts away to a series of interviews with elderly women—the Korean women who moved to Japan prior to the division of Korea and henceforth became stateless. It is their story that is being told in Pachinko, through the surrogate characters of Sunja, her sister-in-law Kyunghee (Jung Eun-Chae), and the inflexible landlady (Hye-Jin Park) who Sunja’s grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) contends with. This grafted segment tells us that the show is specifically about these stateless women. Yet, that was not the impression I came away with as the viewer. It is true that in the past timeline, we follow Sunja, but in the present, we follow the successes and struggles of Solomon, a Korean-Japanese man who had studied in the States. The elderly Sunja makes her appearances, but aside from dropping the occasional wizened aphorism and her eventual decision to go visit Korea, it seems the modern timeline is very much still the Book of Solomon. There are eight episodes in total, and one of them is entirely devoted to the backstory of Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), a cunning Korean-born fish broker who is the father of Sunja’s first child. For all the show intended the story to be about Sunja and the women like her, there is a hefty balance of the men who populate their stories. Sunja is characterized as being tough, and yet it is told far more than it is shown. This is especially so at the end, where we see Sunja finally begin to take agency, free of the decisions of her mother, her brother-in-law, and her husband…only to have her shining moment dissolve to the interviews. It is a jarring transition, considering the purpose of conducting the interviews is precisely to demonstrate that very agency that had been robbed by the cut. I find myself unsatisfied with the portrayals of the women, who suffer the most from being jerked around by the whims of their circumstances and the men around them, a hole deepened by the fact that the showrunners intended to spotlight women in the first place. I grant it is a consequence of the times, and that the show is just as much about their emotions regarding what I recognize as the primary antagonist: the setting. However, I still hold that the screen time the women have been afforded is disproportionate to the intended moral. Now that the show has been greenlit for a second season, I am hopeful that Pachinko will begin to narrow in more on Sunja’s and Kyunghee’s own story of resilience at last.