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How the colors of subtitles in ‘Pachinko’ nod to decades of colonialism

Jin Ha appears as Solomon in the first episode of “Pachinko.” (Robert Falconer/Apple TV Plus)
5 min

There was no question as to whether the television adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” would be told in three languages, according to series creator Soo Hugh. It was vital to the story, a multigenerational tale stretching from a woman born and raised in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century to her grandson, an ethnically Korean businessman working in 1980s Japan.

When the woman, Sunja (Minha Kim as a teenager; Yuh-jung Youn in her older age), speaks Korean, English subtitles appear on-screen in a yellow font. When her grandson, Solomon (Jin Ha), speaks Japanese, the subtitles appear in blue. But when Solomon addresses his grandmother, the yellow and blue mingle, each of his words color-coded based on which language it originates from.

Viewers who speak multiple languages may be familiar with the meld; a similar cultural phenomenon exists with the concept of Spanglish, for instance. In “Pachinko,” the visual representation of Solomon’s words nod to the complicated colonial history his grandmother navigated firsthand and the reverberations of which he continues to grapple with as an adult. The yellow and blue capture how his Korean heritage both challenges and intertwines with his Japanese upbringing.

“It just felt so intuitive because most people outside Korea and Japan would never know when the languages handed off,” said Hugh, who is Korean American. “I always knew they were going to be color-coded.”

“Pachinko” picks up in Korea a handful of years after the start of Japanese occupation, which ended in 1945 with Japan’s surrender in World War II. After Sunja marries a Zainichi Korean man, a term used to describe the ethnically Korean population living in Japan, she moves with him to Osaka and raises her family there. The show switches back and forth between the different eras of Sunja’s life as smoothly as it does the two languages.

In a memorable award speech for his Korean-language film “Parasite,” filmmaker Bong Joon-ho said that “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” It was a call for open minds and an appreciation of the authenticity that comes with telling a story in the languages natural to its characters.

Bong’s message spread wide, and “Pachinko,” already in development by that point, embraces its sentiment. In writing the series for Apple TV Plus, Hugh, who also serves as showrunner and executive producer, said she never received pushback on a U.S. show whose characters speak almost exclusively in Korean and Japanese. “It was really reassuring to know that wasn’t going to have to be a battle,” she added. (The scripts were written in English before portions of them were translated to different Korean and Japanese dialects, specific to each character.)

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When “Pachinko” begins, Solomon, born in Japan but educated in the United States, convinces his bosses to transfer him to the company’s Tokyo branch so he can broker a major deal involving land owned by a Korean woman of his grandmother’s generation. Long made to feel inferior by his Japanese peers due to his Zainichi Korean family (which runs a Pachinko gambling arcade), Solomon commits to his business endeavors above all else. He capitalizes on whichever aspect of his identity best serves those interests at any given point, in this case his Korean ethnicity.

“There is a lot of language in the show about economic forces and how so many of our characters are at the whim of forces outside their control,” Hugh said. “Solomon believes that those concerns don’t affect him anymore. The past doesn’t matter. The present for him is a clean slate.”

With this storyline, the subtitles reveal power dynamics between the characters. At work, Solomon toggles between English and Japanese, for which blue subtitles appear. When he pays a visit to the landowning woman — both alone and with Sunja — the words switch to yellow. The woman is tough to convince; the land is symbolic, a rare source of power in a country that has been hostile to her people. But Solomon eventually convinces her to come to the office to sign it over.

The businessmen receive blue subtitles, as does the woman when she narrates her family’s history to the room, still hesitant to part with their hard-earned property. But then she switches to Korean, shutting everyone else out as she expresses her deep misgivings directly to Solomon.

In this scene, the blue and yellow subtitles denote two simultaneous, contradictory conversations. As the Japanese men look on in confusion, the woman asks Solomon what he would advise his own grandmother to do. He pauses, considering, before his answer appears in yellow: “Don’t do it.”

When the woman walks away, Solomon’s bosses reprimand him in blue.

“Characters like Solomon, who can traverse between different languages — that’s part of his burden, but it’s also his calling card,” Hugh said. “It’s the thing that gets him access to both places. If we as an audience aren’t able to feel the fluidity of how language works in the show — and also the restrictions of it and the imprisonment of it — then I don’t think the show works at all.”