Episode 1 of Pachinko begins with a brief background to the opening time period that sets the foundation for the rest of this sprawling epic.
In 1910, Japan colonized Korea to expand out its empire. Under Japanese rule, many Koreas were forced to leave their homes for greener pastures on foreign soil. However, the people and families endured despite this hardship.
One family in particular is the one we’re focusing on for this sprawling epic, jumping from 1915 forwards to 1989, New York.
This family believe they have a curse on them, and while a ritual takes place in 1915 to try and banish this, fast forward to 1989 and a Korean businessman called Solomon, who has lived in Japan all his life, decides to try and close a lucrative deal for a hotel. Solomon believes he can close the deal and in exchange, wants a big promotion and a hefty payday.
Staying in 1915 for now, the weary mother gives birth to a baby girl, by the name of Sunja. As they head to a fish market together, Sunja is encouraged to keep her head down when two Japanese soldiers walk past.
It’s a subtle moment, but one that reinforces the iron grip squeezing Korea by the throat. Despite promising to ease up on the Koreans, the soldiers certainly are not, especially when they reprimand a man and drag him away.
When Sunja questions what’s happening, her father, Hoonie, promises to shield her from the ugliness in this world, doing his utmost to keep this family unit together. And as the camera pans out, we see them on a ferry boat heading back home.
These are hard times, and Sunja’s parents, Hoonie and Yangjin, disagree over whether to send Sunja to school or not.
Hoonie is down by the shore, and watches as Sunja dives deep to uncover abalone, which are marine snails. This is a big find and with this prize, the pair head back home and cook it up, revelling in this small prize. And small is the key word here.
There’s a lot of hostility toward the Japanese and one among the tribe speaks of rebellion, crushing soldiers’ skulls and the pain of living this way, unsure when it will end.
Talking like this is dangerous and much like what happens in North Korea nowadays, speaking ill of the current establishment has huge consequences, potentially even death.
Up until this point though little Sunja has been shielded from the world but upon hearing this man run his mouth, police begin sniffing around asking questions the following day.
Hoonie and Yangjin are eventually questioned by the officers, with Hoonie in particular rattled and struggling with the questions.
Given he’s supposed to report them, the officers decide whether to punish Hoonie further or not. Eventually though they settle on just a warning. The thing is, Sunja was the one who warned this guy originally, presumably saving his life by encouraging him to leave town.
In 1989, we jump over to Osaka as Solomon touches down and catches up with his father. He’s doing well for himself, in charge of a pachinko parlour.
It’s a small family reunion, as Solomon returns to the place he grew up and meets his grandmother. Solomon is worried about his father, borrowing money from the bank to even open up a second shop.
One of the more erratic members of this family is Etsuko, who comes bounding in with a thick layer of make-up and an eccentric attitude. We don’t see very much of her this episode but it seems clear that there will be more to this storyline going forward.
Right now her ties to this story are kept hidden but for those who know how this story goes, she plays a big part in another timeline which I’m sure we’ll get to soon.
As she holds Solomon’s hand that night while he’s looking over old memorabilia from the past, she tells him that his parents would be proud of him.
The sound of a piano sends this old grandmother back in time to 1915. It’s clear that this elderly woman is Sunja, as we see that the man has been captured by Japanese soldiers.
Despite Hoonie’s desire to try and shield her from the harsh reality of this world, Sunja is forced to watch as he’s beaten to the ground by these men.
But let’s get back to 1989 for a moment. Solomon heads to Tokyo to try and close this hotel deal, meeting Mr Andrews. Solomon admits he’s not there to stay but before they can continue, news breaks that Japan’s emperor, Hirahito, has died of cancer.
Now, that’s significant because he’s the man who was in power during Japan’s colonization of Korea.
Rewind to 1915 and Sunja’s world is turned upside down. Hoonie coughs up blood and eventually passes away, with his final word “Sunja.”
We then cut forward 9 years later. Sunja heads down to the market where she stands tall, defiant to the Japanese soldiers walking past. She refuses to bow her head just like everyone else, but she also catches the attention of a businessman in a white suit across the way. As they lock eyes, the episode comes to a close.
The Episode Review
Pachinko begins with a really beautiful episode; a sweeping historical epic that perfectly captures the mood and time period. The production design is outstanding here, as we’ve come to expect from Apple shows, while the story is actually moving at a decent pace so far.
The editing choice of splicing these two time periods together – 1915 and 1989 – is an interesting one and early on it actually feels a tad messy and almost like everything is going to spiral out of control.
However, the story soon settles into a more consistent rhythm and the episode is all the stronger for it.
The soundtrack is brilliant, with whimsical string segments that feel quite similar to last year’s Underground Railroad.
There’s not a sniff of fantasy in this though, Pachinko is a well-worked, meticulously crafted period drama and if this first episode is anything to go by, we could be in for quite a journey.