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MediaBeat: “Pachinko” transfers well to the small screen

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“History has failed us, but no matter.” So opens Min Jin Lee’s 2017  novel “Pachinko,” recently adapted into an Apple TV series. It follows four generations of a Korean family that migrate to Japan, telling the story of how the twentieth century shaped the family’s experiences from 1910 to 1989.  

Lee masterfully blends the narrative of a single family into the historical context of the book’s setting. It touches on life in Korea under Japanese colonization, the life of Koreans in pre-war Japan, the division of the Korean Peninsula, and the continuous struggles of post-war Zainichi — a group of ethnically Korean people who migrated to Japan during the occupation of the Korean Peninsula. She also explores the emotions of people involved in the historical circumstances she describes, humanizing historical experiences that many people have forgotten. 

For nearly 500 pages, the book is like an unbroken narrative that captures the reader’s attention and makes connections across time, space, and characters. The writing occasionally breaks from this type of narrative especially when important scenes of death occur between the chapters seemingly resembling a historical text. 

Apple TV adapted the novel into a mini-series earlier this year with plans for a second season. The ambitious series features grand film techniques that highlight the scenery of the 1910 seaside Korean village and the bright colors of the Pachinko parlors. An added cultural component of the show is the chosen dialogue in three different languages — Japanese, Korean, and English — which capture the cultural conflict at the heart of the story. The series draws parallels between the family’s ongoing struggles by switching locations and periods.

The plot of the series focuses less on the extensive interconnections between the generations of the family and their environment. Instead, it narrows the scope to focus on two family members which reflects on generational similarities and differences throughout the novel. 

Either way, when you experience the story of “Pachinko,” you must immerse yourself in the narrative. Both mediums are not easily bingeable, forcing the audience to sit with the story over an extended period of time instead of watching the series quickly. Unlike other streamable shows, Apple TV released episodes weekly, ultimately removing the possibility of binging it in one sitting. Like the show, the novel also breaks up the story into three sections — Book I from 1910 to 1933, Book 11 from 1939 to 1962, and Book III from 1962 to 1989. 

As a result, you must ingest the experiences of people living in an untold historical period piece by piece. The breadth of a massive saga encompasses nearly a century’s worth of stories told by a rotating cast of characters across geographical boundaries. It requires the audience’s attention and constant reflection on the emotional impact of such events. 

In recent years South Korean media has exploded in the United States, gaining widespread popularity and acclaim. Implicit in the media is the legacy of imperialism that Korean citizens faced. Unfortunately, these messages often go unnoticed by non-Korean audiences. “Pachinko”, however, displays these messages in a powerful way: through literature and visual entertainment. 

The story’s account of hardship, joy, loss, and love draws attention to the historically forgotten lived experiences of many Korean families. As a book and TV series, “Pachinko” is a masterful piece of media in style and story.


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