The unique word that the Apple TV+ series uses as its title, Pachinko, is not Korean. The limited series based on the novel by Min Jin Lee tells the story of a family’s diaspora over four generations. The scenario takes place during the Japanese occupation of South Korea. What does a basic Japanese arcade game have to do with the Pachinko series? And what is a “pachinko”?
[Warning: The article contains mild spoilers for Pachinko.]
Solomon’s dad owns an adult arcade parlor in ‘Pachinko’
Audiences can see how a Korean/Japanese family has managed to thrive over the years in the face of adversity and conflict. In Pachinko, Sunja (Youn Yuh-jung/ Kim Min-ha) immigrated to Japan with her pastor husband to seek a better life outside of Korea. In the series of journeys between past and present, fans meet Baek Mozasu (Soji Arai). He is Sunja’s son who becomes a wealthy pachinko parlor business owner.
The game of pachinko becomes a central motif in the large scope of the storyline. Sunja’s family is wealthy thanks to her son’s success in running salons. The audience sees how Solomon (Jin Ha) grew up helping watch the players and how to fix the pins in the machine.
In one scene, Solomon sees a woman, who is probably a regular, playing the game but walks away with no winnings and looking sad. Audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture will not be aware of the loud and bright ball game and how it relates to Pachinko.
Pachinko is a popular Japanese adult game considered gambling
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Certainly some viewers watching Pachinko saw the bustle of a casino where adults try their luck at winning a fortune or losing it all. The game of pachinko has the same disastrous or grand outcome which is a mixture of strategy and luck.
According to Medium, “Pachinko machines are complex pinball games.” Like any other game, they involve bright lights, attractive colors, and resonant sound during play that can be heard from outside the living room door. The mechanism of pachinko is simple. Players pay for the steel balls they insert into the machine at a specific time. The interior of the pachinko machine has steel pins leading the balls to a prize.
“The concept is simple. You throw a ball onto the board, and it hits some pins, changing its trajectory. Depending on the power you put, the ball is thrown more or less far at the top of the board. The goal is to make him reach certain reward points,” says Medium.
There is a legal rule to the game. Medium explained that Japan banned the game in 1907. Players can hone their skills to earn pachinko. Therefore, owners manipulate pins to make them unpredictable. Japanese law also prohibits direct cash prizes. Instead, pachinko offers rewards and tokens. Tokens have no real value until they are sold to an outside store. Most pachinko parlor owners also own the shop. This leads to a loophole in gambling law.
The Japanese game is a motive for the story of ‘Pachinko’
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After understanding the game that Apple TV+ and the original novel are named after, what is its overall purpose? Sunja’s immigrant story is about doing the right thing and trying her luck. During his youth, the world was uncertain as Koreans were expelled from their homeland and ostracized in Japan.
The search for a better future involved risk with a slim possibility of reward. Sunja had to take a risk leaving behind her family and everything she had known to follow her new husband to Japan. The Atlantic explains that pachinko players may find tricks to winning, but understand that there is pure luck involved. A simple tampering of the pins by the owners can change the result.
“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 pachinko machine,” said The Atlantic. The same game from which Sunja’s son earned his living is a motif of the life story of Sunja and her family.
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