How — and Why — Pachinko Re-created Japan’s Dual Kanto Disasters

Photo: Robert Falconer

The television adaptation of Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s 2017 best seller about four generations of a South Korean family living in Japan, has taken a few liberties with its source material. Lee’s novel begins in 1910 with Hoonie and Yangjin — parents to the main character, Sunja — struggling to make ends meet as boardinghouse owners in the South Korean fishing village of Yeongdo; their labor and sacrifices provide a blueprint for their descendants, whose stories follow chronologically. But on the decade-spanning Apple TV+ series, the plot jumps fluidly between timelines, seamlessly mirroring the suffering and joy of one generation into another and providing a modern anchor in Sunja’s grandson Solomon (Jin Ha), who grapples with the reverberations of his ancestors’ decisions while pursuing a career in finance in the 1980s.

But the biggest departure from the book comes in the penultimate episode of the first season, “Chapter Seven,” which flashes back to Koh Hansu’s (Lee Min-ho) lower-class upbringing in Yokohama, Japan. Lee’s novel left Hansu, a wealthy fish merchant and father of Sunja’s first child, as an enigma, offering only slight details about his personal life — he’s married to a Japanese woman and works for her father — and almost nothing of his past. Series creator and showrunner Soo Hugh was fascinated by Lee’s rendering of the stoic, secretive Hansu and knew early in development that she wanted to use one of the first season’s eight episodes to explore his character and backstory.

Hugh foregrounds Hansu’s hard exterior with tragedy: He’s a survivor of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the subsequent Korean massacre by Japanese vigilantes. “Chapter Seven” is a stand-alone episode that feels like a departure from the rest of the series, from the visual language down to the absence of its joyful title sequence, which was written into the script. “I wanted audiences to know from the very beginning that we’re not watching a regular episode — that the vibration of this episode was going to be unsettling,” says Hugh.

The 1923 Kanto earthquake had a magnitude of 7.9 on the moment-magnitude scale and was so devastating that, to this day, Japan acknowledges the tragedy by practicing emergency drills across the country. Hugh first learned of the disaster while researching Japanese history in the months prior to launching the writers’ room. She was shocked she had never heard of it before. “I felt like something of this magnitude should be studied and learned,” she says. “As I started to piece together the Kanto-earthquake research, it felt perfectly in line with Hansu’s backstory.” She describes the earthquake as a “sliding-doors moment” for the character, who was set to chase the American Dream via an offer to move to the United States with the Holmes family, which employed him as a tutor. “He has two paths in life, and the earthquake completely shuts off one path,” Hugh says. “He could have lived a completely different life if he hadn’t been in Yokohama in 1923.”

America’s looming presence in Korea and Japan during this period manifests not only in Hansu’s What if story but also in the costuming. Though Hansu wears a worn-down kimono as a sign of his forced assimilation into Japanese culture (Hugh and director Kogonada “wanted Hansu to look young and fragile,” according to costume designer Kyunghwa Chae), his father dons western garb. “His father has a strong aspiration for western society and is dressed in just that: his desires,” Chae says. Hansu’s father saw America as the answer to his family’s plight and the only way out of their fate in Japan — the same mind-set that sends Solomon abroad for education and instills in him a reverence for his job at a western bank.

Once the writers established the story line for episode seven, Kogonada, who also directed the first three episodes of the series, pitched the idea of adding a scar to Hansu’s face. The mark above his eye, which is present from the Pachinko premiere onward, stems from a blow from his father during an argument about Hansu’s future in Japan and serves as a physical reminder of what Hansu lost that day. “He carries with him the loss of his father and the loss of hope. On this day, he sees the ruthlessness of history and realizes what it means to survive,” Kogonada says.

For “Chapter Seven,” war films provided a touchstone for all aspects of production. To help Lee embody this traumatic event and map out Hansu’s emotional journey, Kogonada assigned him a viewing of the 1985 Russian film Come and See, which depicts the effect of war on a boy’s life. “We knew we wanted to end on Hansu’s face and that we were going to linger there and feel this transformation in his eyes,” Kogonada says. The episode is shot in a different aspect ratio from the rest of the series to showcase it as a portrait of Hansu. “This was a parenthesis in our story to step back both historically and in regard to Hansu,” the director says. “Wider aspect ratio is not suited for portraiture, so we added height because it’s shaped more for the face.”

Survival is at the heart of Pachinko’s framing of the Kanto earthquake, which killed over 100,000 people on September 1, 1923, including thousands of scapegoated Koreans. But much is still disputed about these murders at the hands of Japanese vigilantes in the earthquake’s aftermath, and the show made fact-checking a priority. Employing historians, consultants, and experts, the series’ preproduction team went to work translating Japanese texts and watching documentaries to understand what exactly happened.

Episode seven of Pachinko is likely the first time western audiences will learn of the Kanto earthquake and massacre, and while accuracy was of the utmost importance, Hugh wanted to make sure the show didn’t feel like a history lesson. She scaled back on the horrors of the violence; in her research, she read accounts of Koreans being lined up against the canals and then either shot or lit on fire. “I didn’t want to bring that kind of visual imagery to the show or to the real world,” she says. Instead, the episode depicts a shack hiding Koreans set on fire — still conveying the brutality of the moment without indulging in explicitly gruesome images.

Hugh also took liberties with the time stamps present throughout the episode. 12:10 is the accurate timing of the earthquake — records showed stopped clocks indicating the initial impact — but the rest of these moments within the episode serve as a creative expression of Hansu’s fictional journey that day. In fact, Hugh acknowledges that much of the violence in the aftermath didn’t actually take place the night of the earthquake: “It was spread out over days, but because of the compression of time with the narrative, we moved it up.”

One of the visuals the production team kept coming back to was the dust, which oral histories described as tinged yellow and hanging thick in the air. Production designer Mara LePere-Schloop focused on re-creating the texture and color, importing samples from the U.K. and Malaysia to their shooting location in South Korea. The production team dealt with COVID restrictions, supply-chain limitations, and film-industry standards around what was deemed safe for use. “There was a difference between what we would use as set dressing versus airborne dust from canons,” LePere-Schloop says. The special-effects team would spray different layers of watered-down dust onto set pieces to get the desired effect, while cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister tweaked the lighting to reflect the thick, smoglike quality in the air.

Kogonada and Hugh identified the initial trembling and subsequent collapse of the city’s buildings as impactful moments in the episode. For the scene in which Hansu, his father, and Ryoichi experience the first quakes, LePere-Schloop’s team built the set onto a giant steel box that could torque and move in all directions so the scene wouldn’t rely on camera movements to convey the shocks. The cast rehearsed the earthquake scene many times and shot it in one take. “Most of the set was resettable, but the enemy was actually time,” LePere-Schloop recalls. “If it was a movie, we would have had a week to shoot that sequence. Instead, we had one night.”

Over and over again, the people behind Pachinko describe working on “Chapter Seven” as akin to shooting an epic movie during the eight months of series production. “The ambition and scale of the episode was really memorable, though it was a herculean task,” Kogonada says.” It required new locations, costumes, props, and crucial attention to detail from everyone involved — even as production shot the series out of order. But to bring such a significant moment for the Korean diaspora and Japanese history to life, Kogonada says, “all of the challenges were worth it.”

How Pachinko Re-created Japan’s Dual Kanto Disasters