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Pachinko is already one of the best shows of 2022—and its opening credits reign supreme.
Minor spoilers ahead through episode four of Pachinko.
The story told in Pachinko, Apple TV’s new sweeping intergenerational saga, is not a particularly happy one. Though the show chronicles the experiences of one Zainichi family and the pain of the Japanese occupation of Korea, it never feels tragic. (Zainichi Koreans are ethnic Koreans residing in Japan, who left Korea during the Japanese occupation and never returned.) Rather, the series, created by Soo Hugh and based on the bestselling novel by Min Jin Lee of the same name, is fundamentally about resilience and the strength of one woman to carry on—despite all that life throws her way.
The balancing act of the two storylines in Pachinko is impressive to watch. The ’80s plot centers on Sunja’s grandson Solomon moving through just one year; whereas the other spans Sunja’s childhood in Korea in the 1910s to her time as a young mother in Japan in the 1930s. And the opening credits—the glorious, joyous, colorful opening credits with the actors in their period costumes, dancing to a 1960s rock hit—tie it all together.
Pachinko‘s title sequence starts with historical footage of occupied Korea, with real childhood photos of the cast interspersed. Nearly all of the actors on Pachinko are Korean, and two cast members are Zainichi: Soji Arai, who plays Sunja’s son Mozasu, and Kaho Minami, who plays Mozasu’s Japanese wife Etsuko. However, Minami doesn’t feature in the opening credits—those dancing are exclusively Sunja’s family.
The decision to include vintage pictures of the actors goes to the point Pachinko is trying to make, Nadia Tzuo, one of the creative directors of the opening sequence, tells Town & Country. Since the cast is made up of Korean, Zainichi, and Korean American actors, and “everybody’s family has a story,” Tzuo says including these photos speak to the real stories behind the one told onscreen.
After the historical footage, the chorus kicks in—one, two, three, four / Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today—and suddenly, the actors are all dancing, together, in a pachinko parlor.
From the start, Hugh had a distinct conception of the title sequence in a pachinko parlor set to a catchy, nostalgic tune. As Tzuo explains, the Pachinko showrunner “wanted a very iconic song—like the old days, when we were sitting in front of the TV, excited to hear the theme song and dancing to it, waiting for the show to begin.” The song they ended up going with is “Let’s Live For Today” by the Grass Roots—a 1967 cover of a song by the Rokes, a British band.
The lyrics can be read, almost, as a thesis statement of the show. The band’s bassist Rob Grill sings, When I think of all the worries / That people seem to find / And how they’re in a hurry / To complicate their minds / By chasing after money / And dreams that can’t come true / I’m glad that we are different / We’ve better things to do / May others plan their future / I’m busy loving you. Mainly, this speaks to Solomon’s arc: While he begins the show desperate to succeed at an American bank and climb the corporate ladder, by episode four, he has an epiphany and quits his job. As the chorus swells, and the band sings and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, the viewer is reminded of the strength of the characters to continue on, day after day.
This transition from historical imagery to scenes of the actors dancing is intentional. “We needed to connect this part of the history inquiry to the generation right now,” Tzuo explains. “This is a story of a journey across time. We need to explain that before watching the story.”
Following World War II, running pachinko parlors was one of few paths to economic success for Korean families barred from other professions in Japan; around 80% of pachinko parlors are owned by Zainichi. Pachinko is a type of gambling arcade game that looks like a vertical pinball machine; in Japan, gambling for cash is illegal, but pachinko parlors exist in a legal loophole. This loophole is where Koreans in Japan have found a niche; as Korean studies professor Sung-Yoon Lee told the Japan Times, “Its links to organized crime, shady cash transactions and the social stigma of shame associated with gambling made it a very unattractive industry to mainstream Japanese.” Thus, the setting of pachinko parlors—given their significance to the Zainichi story—made it the natural and obvious choice for the sequence.
Tzuo explains that the idea for the title credits emerged before Mozasu’s pachinko parlor was finished being built, so parts of it were actually constructed to have enough space for the actors to dance. Mozasu’s parlor, outfitted with vintage pachinko machines, also became the color palette for the filters in the historical section of title sequence—from the very specific pink to the neon bluish purple to, as Tzuo says, the “iconic eighties orangey-red” of the pachinko machines.
The childhood photos of the actors, the historical footage, the pachinko parlor set, the vibrant colors, the nostalgic music—these are all potent ingredients that make the opening credits work. But what makes them stand out, and succeed, is that in an era of television shows where credits are often ignored or outright skipped, Pachinko‘s title sequence is an over-the-top fête, in the best way possible.
“I knew that because there are some heavy moments in this show, I really wanted the opening titles to be a celebration,” Hugh told Digital Spy. “It’s a gift to the audience, to say, ‘It’s important to laugh and smile as well.’ The word that I told everyone is ‘exuberance’. I want the titles to feel exuberant.”
The credits are not only a delight to watch, but they were a joy to film, star Jin Ha tells Town & Country. “It was Soo’s brilliant idea. I don’t know how last minute that was, or maybe she had been thinking about it from the beginning, but I remember her sort of whispering to me while we had already started shooting.”
Hugh wasn’t sure what song they were going to end up using, so as they filmed, they reportedly put on a variety of different tunes for the actors: When Steve Sanghyun Noh and Minha Kim dance together, she played Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication,” for Lee Min-ho, she played Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback,” and for little Yuna Jeon, “How Far You’ll Go” from Moana.
“It slowly sort of developed into like, I think we’re just gonna have a bunch of people just dance,” Ha recalls. “We’ll just have music playing. We don’t know what song’s gonna be yet, but we’ll just play different music, and let’s just have a great time. Fuck timeline, fuck character.”
“It was such freedom,” he adds.
Lee Min-ho concurs, telling Digital Spy, “I didn’t really have a scene where I was laughing or smiling for the entire shoot. There weren’t many scenes where I was joyful. So the opening credits was the only time when I felt happy and liberated.”
And the exuberance, and happiness, delivered. I couldn’t look away. I am never one to skip credits—trust me, you’ll find me singing along to Law & Order’s theme song on every rerun I watch—but there is something special about Pachinko’s credits that I’ve never seen before.
I asked Tzuo, who has worked on numerous title sequences for movies and TV over her career, why she thinks Pachinko‘s work so well. Her hypothesis: Good opening credits should ultimately serve the story, and showcase the essence of the show. “The title sequence really should be a celebration [of] the crew and the actors,” Tzuo says. “Personally, I was really happy to be working on a title that celebrates people.”
After watching, there’s no doubt Pachinko‘s opening title celebrates its people and its story. Each actor is magnetic in their dancing. There’s Minha Kim looking ethereal as she leaps in an all-white hanbok; acting legend and Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung hamming to the camera in a pink ’80s tracksuit; Korean superstar Lee Min-ho looking as sexy and suave as ever. Soji Arai, in particular, steals every moment. Wearing a checkered jacket, he cycles through disco dance moves, jumps into the air, kicks, and just lets go.
Tzuo says the dancing in the credits is about “expressing the personality of each character, or even the actor themself.” Overall, the aim was to have all the generations to celebrate together, “just for a minute.” The credits, she says, “are an afterparty of the story.”
So when little Yuna Jeon (the youngest Sunja) is dancing as actors Jin Ha and Soji Arai, or rather, Solomon and Mozasu, play air guitars, you cannot help but smile. You cannot help but remember: Though this story is tough, though there are undeniably moments of devastating hardship and oppression, there was still a lightness. There is still joy.
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