Episode 1 -| Review Score – 5/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score – 4.5/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 5 –| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 6 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 7 -| Review Score – 5/5
Episode 8 -| Review Score – 4.5/5
Pachinko is a special show. Adapted from the bestseller by Lee Min-Jin, AppleTV’s sprawling drama does an admirable job adapting this multi-generational story. With some excellent cinematography, brilliant acting and an effortless switch between English, Japanese and Korean dialogue, this period drama is an absolute must-watch – although it’s not without its faults.
For those confused by the name Pachinko, the title echoes back to an allegory for the Korea people trying to eke out a living in Japan back in the 1930’s.
The game of Pachinko is one of luck, hoping that you’ll get lucky and win big. The thing is, the machines have been rigged to make sure you never win – just like the claw machines at the arcade. It’s worth bearing this in mind because we’re even given this exact explanation early on – but it’s unlikely to click on first viewing without realizing what these characters come up against.
In its simplest form, Pachinko feels like a combination of Roots and Mr Sunshine. Unlike either of those though, Pachinko chops and changes its story to blend multiple timelines from the book together. This is both the best and worst part of the show, but we’ll get to that shortly.
The basic premise centers on Sunja, as we see her journey through the years and how all the ups and downs she faced have shaped her into the woman she becomes in the future.
The first story begins in the early 1990’s, with an introduction to Sunja as a teenager. She’s the daughter of a crippled fisherman and about to find her life changed forever. Part of this comes from meeting a handsome stranger down at the docks called Hansu.
As the pair grow closer together, he promises her the world and they sleep with each other. Only… Sunja falls pregnant. When she finds out Hansu is married, she refuses to be his secret mistress. Instead, she marries a gentle minister called Isak, who quite literally falls at her doorstep. She decides to move over to Japan with him, setting off ripples through the generations of her family.
This journey is then interspersed around another plot taking place in the present, involving Sunja’s grandson Solomon. He works for wealthy Americans and is desperate to make a name for himself. The deeper he journeys into the chasms of his work, the more he realizes that the game is rigged against him, setting up an intriguing bit of soul-searching as Solomon learns who he is and what his destiny entails.
These two plotlines interweave and dance with one another all season long. While most of the moves are synchronized and nicely paced, there are a couple of missteps that feel like poor directorial choices.
Early on, a character dies in the Solomon timeline and it feels like an inconsequential death while watching. Only, as the episodes tick by we soon learn that this person was an integral part of Sunja’s upbringing during the earlier timeline with our younger Sunja. These small moments lose the emotional impact they could have had with a more linear storyline. And that much is especially damning given the show has been renewed already.
Ironically, the one episode that actually stands out is the best happens to be episode 7, which is a stand-alone chapter that serves as a bottle episode to explore more of Hansu’s backstory. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind and psyche of a character who – up until that point – has only really been featured fleetingly.
That’s not to say the editing in this show is poor or this is the wrong choice though. There are some genuinely great moments that make a lot of sense to tell the story in this way.
Words of wisdom being instilled to Sunja in the past, only to then be echoed by Sunja telling Solomon the same thing in the later timeline, is a great way of keeping this idea of generational wisdom, honour and familial ties in the forefront of this show’s run. And what a run it is.
Alongside the excellent story is the aesthetic. Now, I’ve mentioned the visuals already but even the soundtrack is spot on. Cocomposer Nico Muly has done such a great job with this one, bringing a combination of somber, reflective string segments alongside some beautiful piano instrumentals. This is actually one of the more understated parts of this show, but it’s an important one nonetheless.
Pachinko is a beautifully written, tragic, epic period drama that’s not just one of the best Korean dramas this year, it’s easily in the running for best TV show too. This is an absolute must-watch and a definite highlight on AppleTV’s growing list of shows.
Verdict - 9/10