Pachinko is the sort of sweeping inter-generational saga that limited series were invented to tell. Named for the Japanese arcade/gambling device, Pachinko tells the story of a family. Specifically, how one family survives (even when they do not thrive) through a series of traumas.
Pachinko is based on the epic 2017 novel by Min Jun Lee. The eight-part series shaves down some of the book’s plot while preserving the grandeur of its story. As the first episode opens, it is 1915 and. A pregnant mother is in desperate search of a way to protect her fetus after a series of infant losses. The daughter who is eventually born – and grows to adulthood – is the resilient Sunja. She’s the matriarch who will see her family through countless crises. Those crises include unplanned pregnancy, a move to Japan, and the atrocities of World War II. Through Sunja’s life, we see the evolution of her family. It also shows what it’s like to live in the Korean Diaspora.
Pachinko drifts in and out of timelines, alternating between scenes of Sunja’s youth and the year 1989, when her grandson Solomon (Jin Ha) returns to the family home in Japan for work. After finishing a degree at Yale, Solomon has begun working thanklessly as a banker. His white (and racist) higher-ups refuse to promote him until the enterprising Solomon promises to close a deal. That deal involves a wealthy member of Japan’s large Korean diaspora. When the prodigal son arrives home, he finds the inter-generational trauma he left behind.
As nuanced as Panchinko is, it’s not short on excitement. Crime, war, sex, and casinos all play instrumental roles in the show. But while the plot keeps you guessing, the series shines most of all with its actors. Minha Kim dazzles as teenage Sunja, capable of expressing multitudes with a silent closeup on her face. It should surprise no one that legendary actress (and recent Oscar winner for Minari) Youn Yuh-Jung is note-perfect as older Sunja. She’s a woman reckoning with her past – and her family’s future – as she nears the end of her life. If there’s justice in this world, they’ll both have Emmys by this time next year.
Panchinko’s Creator Soo Hugh (The Terror) and directors Kogonada and Justin Chon are a team that understands the power of detail. Subtle scenes, like when Sunja chides her grandson for throwing away edible food (a luxury she didn’t always have), show the viewer the family’s past is everywhere, even when it isn’t addressed head-on. Such moments give the talented cast time to shine. These moments also show the rich and textured world in which their characters live.
Ultimately, the best word to describe Pachinko is special. Its main themes, family and cultural survival, are at once specific to the story told and universal. Many texts tackle family stories and diasporic journeys. But a few capture the odd mix of pedestrian and epic moments that ensure a family survives. Even fewer have a team where everywhere is firing on all cylinders. Do not miss Apple TV+’s new limited series….