Apple+’s adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s historical-fiction epic Pachinko bounces back and forth between several phases of its heroine Sunja’s life: growing up in Korea under the yoke of Japanese rule, where she’s played as a girl in the 1920s by Yu-na Jeon, and as a young woman in the 1920s played by Minha Kim; then her late-Eighties retirement in Japan (where she’s played by Youn Yuh-jung), reflecting back on her life’s many triumphs, tragedies, and compromises. In one scene in 1989, Sunja and her banker grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) are in the home of a fellow Korean expat, who surprises her guests by serving them Korean rice. Solomon can’t tell the difference from the kind he grew up eating in Osaka, but Sunja explains that rice grown in Korea is nuttier and a bit sweeter, albeit harder to chew on. It’s too subtle a distinction for Solomon to grasp, but it means everything to his grandmother.
The pleasures and depths of Pachinko, adapted by Soo Hugh, and directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, are so tactile that by the time you reach the end of this magnificent first season’s eighth episode, you will feel as if you can taste the sweet nuttiness that fills the elder Sunja with so much unexpected joy.
Japan’s occupation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 through the end of World War II, hasn’t been chronicled much by Western art. But even if this were well-trod territory, Pachinko covers the subject with such artistry and grace that it would still feel special. It’s a family saga that combines the denseness of prose fiction with the specific advantages of television.
The first and foremost example of the latter comes from the ability to have actors bring characters from the page to flesh-and-blood life. All three Sunjas are wonderful. This is not surprising from Yuh-Jung Youn, a legendary star of Korean film and television who won an Oscar last year for her performance as the grandmother in Minari. But this is essentially the first screen role for both Yu-na Jeon and Minha Kim, and they hold the screen just as effortlessly as their revered septuagenarian counterpart. And their mannerisms are perfectly in sync, so that when one Sunja smiles, or cries, it instantly conjures up memories of the others doing the same.
There are fewer opportunities for the Kim version to smile, as she exists in the most emotionally and politically challenging phase of the story. After growing up in the relative tranquility of the boarding house her parents run in a rural village, the teenage Sunja falls under the spell of Hansu (Lee Min-Ho), a sharp and charismatic local official who has decided that the best way to survive the occupation is to collaborate with the Japanese and adopt as many trappings of their culture as he can. (A later, incredibly powerful episode, involving the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, offers more insight into how he wound up this way.) Their affair inevitably grows messy, requiring the intercession of Isak (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh), a kind traveling Christian missionary.
Sunja recedes a bit for the Eighties scenes, which feature Solomon returning to Japan from his life in New York to help close a huge real-estate deal, and to search once again for his long-missing stepsister. He and a Japanese colleague swap stories about how every American they meet likes to play the “Which Asian am I?” guessing game. Because Korea is rarely a top guess, Solomon says he just nods if anyone suggests he is Japanese. Over the course of the season, we see how he feels caught between the country he grew up in, the one where he built his career, and the one his grandmother tells him about. And those questions of cultural identity wrap satisfyingly around an examination of the go-go Japanese economy of the era, which feels hauntingly similar to the moments before and after the bursting of the housing bubble over here in the late 2000s.
Pachinko is technically impressive on all levels — it’s visually stunning, with a knockout score by Nico Muhly. The show is also gorgeous to look at in in each era it covers, with the lush greens of Sunja’s pastoral childhood just as vivid as the cool blues of Solomon’s modern world. The earthquake episode not only shifts its perspective to Hansu for an entire hour, but adopts a rawer and more impressionistic style to capture both the devastation of the event and its uglier aftermath, in which Japanese citizens used it as an excuse to murder Korean immigrants. But even subtler devices like color-coding the subtitles to clarify when characters are speaking Korean or Japanese — or sometimes both in one conversation — work wonders at making the story feel more immersive and poignant. And the opening credits — a dazzling musical sequence scored to “Live for Today,” by the Grass Roots, and set at the pachinko parlor run by Solomon’s father, Mozasu (Soji Arai) — are, like the ones from Peacemaker, a great reminder that every show would be at least five percent better if it began with a dance number.
In the Eighties scenes, Solomon works for the American-born Tom (Jimmi Simpson), an American assigned to their bank’s Tokyo office for mysterious reasons. When the subject of Japanese-Korean tensions comes up, Tom wonders, “Why can’t people just get over that? It’s the past. It’s done.” He is far from the only character who only wants to, like the theme song says, live for today. But early and often, Pachinko makes clear that where our people come from, and what they’ve been through, is always a part of who we are in the present. And it delivers that message with precision force throughout. Don’t miss it.
The first three episodes of Pachinko will begin streaming March 25 on Apple TV+, with the remaining installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen all eight episodes of this first season.