When thinking of sweeping epic family sagas — think 1992’s Indochine — that pretty much sums up the scale and gravity of Apple TV+’s new series, Pachinko. For those unfamiliar with the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, Pachinko is the epic journey of four Korean generations starting in 1915 through the ’80s and how the decisions of our ancestors impact us for generations to come. Taking its name from the popular Japanese gambling machine, Pachinko is told in Japanese, Korean, and English and is shown through present-day scenes and flashbacks. Given the format, it’s is a slow burn that gives you just enough to keep you tuning in.
“Chapter One” opens in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1915 with the young Sunja (Yu-na Jeon) as her “misfit” parents try to shield her from the harsh realities of the inequalities of life under colonial rule. Sunja is a daddy’s girl who is whip-smart and headstrong even though her mother doesn’t want her wasting her time with school and education as she needs her help running the boarding house they operate. As the episode unfolds, we see how oppressive colonial rule was for the native Koreans and how even a whiff of dissent and rebellion wasn’t tolerated and could be met with public violence. As the Korean live in fear and almost poverty, Sunja’s father tries his best to shield her from the bad things in the world while trying to provide for her and give her the best that he possibly can. The father-daughter connection in this episode is so sincere and touching. And the young actress playing Sunja is a natural.
Then we fast-forward a couple of generations to the 1980s in Japan, where we meet the older Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung), now a grandmother, and the family she has made. Her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) is trying to make his mark in the financial world. He has a somewhat strained relationship with his family because his quest for financial power and professional gains keep him away. Meanwhile, his father, Mozasu (Soji Arai), is trying to keep his Pachinko business afloat. As the episode unfolds, we start to get a glimpse of the family dynamics among the three.
Through Sunja’s flashbacks, which at first seem confusing and scattered in the way they are presented throughout the episode, we see the effects of the cultural erasure that is a consequence of colonization. Immigrants are forced to assimilate into their oppressor’s culture and way of life, but they never really become one of them. And Sunju is still haunted by her past, not only the effects of that oppression, but we also see hints at maybe something else from her past that still haunts her — a love story, perhaps? Pachinko’s first episode sets up that this will be Sunja’s story of survival and how the decisions and choices she made in her past affect the storyline of her children and their children. The sacrifices of the first generation become a burden for the third generation as Solomon has to deal with the past of his elders in his day-to-day life and his career.
Pachinko is a story that unfolds on a grand scale, and credit must be given to the production team on this one. Excellent production and wardrobe design really transport viewers to a different time. The story is shown through a global lens that gives viewers a glimpse of the history and culture of the people involved in this story. This first episode gets off to a slow start, but it hooks you enough to make you tune in for the second episode to see where the story will take you.