Pachinko Is Moving, Sublime—And at Odds With Itself

Apple TV+’s adaptation of the epic novel is stirring and sumptuous. But it also underestimates its protagonist’s appeal.

Lee Min-Ho holds Minha Kim's face in his hands as a tear rolls down her cheek in a scene from "Pachinko."
Apple TV+

Skilled players of pachinko—an arcade-style, pinball-like game found mostly in parlors across Japan—know how to launch the game’s small steel balls at just the right moment, with just the right force. But expert ones understand that luck can play an even more important role, because parlor managers tend to interfere with the machines, changing players’ winning potential. A single adjustment can improve the chances of victory—or of failure.

In Min Jin Lee’s best-selling 2017 novel, Pachinko, the game is a key motif. The story primarily follows Sunja, the only child of a boardinghouse owner, over the course of the 20th century. Born and raised in Japanese-occupied Korea, she leaves her native country for Japan as a young woman and goes on to become the matriarch of a family that eventually thrives because of her son’s pachinko business. But like other ethnic Koreans living in Japan at the time, she’s discriminated against and treated as a second-class citizen. Lee examines how Sunja forges her life through a combination of skill and chance, despite the invisible hand of history shaping her journey like a tampered-with pachinko machine. Even with its sweeping scope, Pachinko never reads like a textbook. The pleasure of taking in the novel comes from its unpredictability: Sunja seems fated for poverty and hardship, but her decisions—along with the kindness and cruelty of those she meets—produce an engrossing saga that feels both epic and intimate.

AppleTV+’s eight-episode adaptation, out March 25, is equally epic. But the series has, in liberally altering the novel’s structure, lost some of that thoroughly personal touch. Instead of telling the story chronologically like the book does, the show bounces forward and backward through time: Sunja (played at different ages by Yu-na Jeon, Minha Kim, and Minari’s Yuh-Jung Youn) is a young girl weeping in her father’s arms in one moment, and in the next, she’s an old woman sitting alone, lost in thought. Rather than prioritize Sunja’s perspective, the drama spends ample time tracking her grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), a banker who returns to Japan from America in 1989 on business, bringing with him a more modern attitude shaped by his education in the States that conflicts with Sunja’s.

Directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, the series is visually sumptuous, and the weaving of timelines yields some cinematic, transcendent moments: The cacophony of pachinko balls careening through machines in 1989 echoes the sound of rain pattering against the boardinghouse roof in the 1910s. A shot of Sunja’s mother carefully tucking Sunja’s few possessions into a sack for her to take abroad as a young woman transitions into a scene of older Sunja packing her own suitcase to prepare for a trip. Pachinko overlaps and intersects such images, creating a tapestry of memories.

Yet as gorgeous and masterfully made as the series is, that tapestry comes loose through many alterations. Taken cumulatively, they weaken the novel’s emphasis on Sunja and the subtle influences history can have on one person’s life. The novel was remarkably attentive to such details, with Lee’s stoic prose illustrating the profundity of mundane experiences, such as a prayer or a shared meal. The show, however, manufactures drama at Sunja’s expense, turning characters’ arcs into intricate mysteries and following a prestige-TV trend of complicating timelines for the sake of suspense. Sunja’s tangled affair with Koh Hansu (Lee Min-Ho) is depicted as a star-crossed romance, their large age gap downplayed. When her husband, Baek Isak (Steve Sang-Hyun Noh), runs into trouble with Japanese authorities as in the novel, the adaptation invents a more theatrical reason for his arrest. The older Sunja often references events from decades earlier, as if creating knots for the viewer to untangle later. The intimacy on the page—Sunja’s personal strife, the blessings and sorrows that make up a life—struggles to reach the screen, the texture of her journey sacrificed in service of flashier storytelling.

Jin Ha as Solomon in 'Pachinko'
Jin Ha as Solomon, Sunja’s grandson and a banker who returns to Japan from America in 1989 on business (Apple TV+)

Modifying the source material to fit a new medium isn’t unreasonable; indeed, doing so can work impressively well. But here, these moves reframe a deeply Korean story through an American lens. The show remains as precise as the book—the characters speak Korean and Japanese interchangeably, with multicolored subtitles showing how the languages can blend even in the same sentence—and the conflict between Korean and Japanese communities is depicted and discussed. In pivoting away from Sunja so often, though, the drama becomes less about the rift between neighboring cultures, a specific conflict rarely captured in Hollywood projects, and instead about the differences between American and broadly Asian perspectives.

These adjustments would come across more organically if Sunja’s story weren’t told so quickly in comparison with Solomon’s. Lee meticulously tracks Sunja’s progress in the book, but the show rushes through her coming-of-age while drawing out her grandson’s fight to convince an elderly Korean woman to sell her land to his client. As Solomon tries to connect with the woman, he recruits Sunja to help him understand her point of view. The shifting focus transforms the story from a close examination of one woman’s life in a particular historical context into a more contemporary culture-clash narrative. Like the rest of her generation, Sunja is a riddle for Solomon to solve rather than a character with an evolution worth exploring on her own.

The result is a drama that can feel sublime and unsatisfying at the same time. Take the scene with Sunja and Solomon eating a meal with the potential seller Solomon is after. The seller makes Korean rice, and Sunja sobs when she tastes it, overwhelmed by a memory of her mother purchasing a small bag of white rice for her wedding when the grain was still a hard-won luxury. That memory, however, isn’t shown until the next episode—and even then, the sequence fades into a conversation about the differences between Korea and America, underlining the show’s principal focus on cultural contrasts. Such scenes are exquisitely filmed, and all three actresses who play Sunja deliver excellent performances, but the show views her life through her grandson’s eyes. Sunja’s past becomes a series of lessons for him to learn.

Pachinko didn’t need such an audience proxy in Solomon. Lee’s novel was unapologetically specific, trusting the reader to connect with a character whose story may not resemble anything they’ve encountered in American media before. The show seems to second-guess its audience, and thus tries to be more conventionally accessible with flourishes that feel at odds with how immersive the series is otherwise. As if uncertain whether the show has done enough to make its audience invest in Sunja, the finale even ends with a short documentary of interviews with real-life Sunjas, elderly Korean women who recount why they remained in Japan. “They endured,” a title card reads before the sequence begins, summarizing their lives before they’ve even spoken.

To be clear, I am happy to see a series like Pachinko arrive. The show is well intentioned and well made, and many scenes stirred my own memories of conversations with my grandparents about their experiences living through conflicts I’ve only read about. But if Pachinko returns for a second season—which I hope it will, as the first mostly omitted a significant third of the book—it would do well to be bold in its telling of Sunja’s story, to spotlight history through her eyes rather than in retrospect. The television landscape can be challenging, discouraging new shows from alienating any audiences at all costs. As Lee’s novel posits, however, life is a gamble; pachinko players know the game might be rigged, yet they play nonetheless. The show should take a similar risk.