As a milestone in Japan’s ongoing love affair with Korean entertainment, which has been deepening over the past few years, “The Hotel Venus” is a big one.
The movie’s star, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of SMAP, has said that he first felt an affinity for Korea after seeing the film work of actor Han Suk Kyu and realizing there was a physical resemblance between himself and the Korean star. And had Kusanagi not pursued his interest in Korea and the Korean language, it’s unlikely that “The Hotel Venus” — the first Japanese-made Korean-language movie — would have been made.
The Korean boom began in 2000 with “Shuri,” a high-powered action flick that starred Han and became the first Korean blockbuster in Japan. Since then, general interest in Korean pop culture has been growing steadily, gaining momentum in 2002 when the two countries co-hosted the FIFA World Cup and promoted cultural exchanges. Eventually, Korean entertainers, such as singer BoA and actress Yoon Sona, found a foothold in the Japanese entertainment world.
The demand for Korean movies shows little sign of fading, with more than 30 films slated to open in Japan this year. According to Kim Kang Sik, an official at the Korean Cultural Center in Tokyo, this is the largest number so far, at least two times more than the annual imports of the past few years.
Similarly, Korean TV dramas, which used to attract a limited number of viewers, are finding a wider audience. Last week, NHK’s terrestrial channel began airing the hit Korean TV series “Fuyu no Sonata (Winter Sonata).” The decision is notable since this 11-12 p.m. time-slot has traditionally been reserved for popular American TV series such as “The West Wing,” “ER,” “Ally McBeal” and “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Originally aired in South Korea in 2002, the series focuses on a woman whose high-school sweetheart died in an accident 10 years ago. Just before she becomes engaged, she meets a man who looks exactly like her lost love, and the memories come flooding back.
The show, which is dubbed but has the original Korean on the subchannel, already struck a chord in Japan when it was broadcast twice last year on NHK’s satellite channel. The broadcasting company said it received 20,000 positive responses, many from women in their 40s and 50s, and numerous requests for reruns.
The popularity of “Fuyusona” (the nickname Japanese have given the show) has spilled into other areas. NHK’s publishing arm has already sold 860,000 novels based on the “Fuyusona” screenplay, 280,000 program guidebooks and 150,000 DVDs and videos — and those are just a few of the related products. Meanwhile, travel agencies have begun to offer tour packages that feature visits to the shooting locations of “Fuyusona” and chances to meet the cast.
The huge success of “Fuyusona” has also ignited an interest in Korean dramas and spawned a network of Web sites and magazines that enthusiastically catalog and recommend shows. Currently, fans in need of a fix can download some shows for a fee on the Internet. Another source is through the digital broadcasts of SkyperfecTV!, which offers several channels of Korean entertainment. A SkyperfecTV! spokesperson said the boom has spurred an increase in subscriptions since last autumn and, to meet the demand, more Korean shows will be added to its programming this spring.
It’s about time
The popularity of Korean entertainment is not limited to Japan. Referred to as hanryu, the trend has caught on in Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
“From our point of view, Japan seemed to be a bit late in appreciating Korean entertainment, but I’m happy that more people are interested now,” said Im So Yeon, 30, a Korean-born shop clerk who works near JR Shin-Okubo Station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward and who has lived in Japan for three years. Im, who said she usually watches Korean dramas on the Internet, has seen “Winter Sonata” already, but she’s looking forward to NHK’s rerun. “The way the two were madly in love really moved me,” she said.
Kim Song Ta, a fortysomething hairdresser who works in the same neighborhood and has lived in Japan for more than 15 years, said she likes the drama (though she has a problem with the heroine crying so much). Moreover, she’s happy that her elementary-school-age children, who were born and raised in Japan, will have more exposure to Korean culture.
The success of Korean TV dramas overseas partly follows the international success of Korean movies, according to Baeg Seong Soo, a Korean lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies who specializes in Asian media culture studies. This success, Baeg said, has been helped significantly by the Korean government’s support of the entertainment industry since the 1990s.
“Broadcasters who thought dramas are usually consumed domestically learned that they can also sell their products abroad,” Baeg explained, “and their supply met the demand from satellite channels who were in need of quality content.”
The talent and star power behind “Fuyusona” are formidable forces. To promote the NHK broadcast, “Fuyusona” director Yun Suk Ho and actress Choi Ji Woo, who plays heroine Jung Yoo Jin, held a press conference in late March. Over 150 reporters and cameramen turned out, there especially to cover Choi’s first visit to Japan.
Meanwhile, actor Bae Yong Joon, who also stars in “Fuyusona,” generated a similar buzz during his first visit to Japan. To promote his movie debut, “Untold Scandal,” opening here in May, Bae met with 2,000 fans Sunday in Shibuya. (They had been chosen from a lottery of 60,000 “Yon-sama” lovers.)
When asked about the drama’s wide-reaching popularity, director Yun said he believes that was because “the story depicts pure love, which is something that many people desire.”
Baeg agreed and pointed out that this kind of love story seems to be noticeably absent from Japanese TV dramas, despite the potential demand for it.
“In general, the relationships between families, friends and lovers in Korean society tend to be closer than those in Japan, and the happiness, sorrow or anger felt in real life are almost excessively depicted in dramas,” Baeg explained. “On the other hand, many Japanese ‘trendy dramas’ seem to be populated with only young people, and the conflicts tend to be less emotional than those people actually experience in life.”
Among the various genres of films and dramas entering Japan, Baeg said love stories and war-related stories (such as “Shuri”) are the most popular. “As entertainment, their war-related films are well made, and be it battles and spies, Korean stories may seem more realistic,” she said.
Baeg believes that the current Korean entertainment boom is reaching its peak and will soon level off, though she doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing: “When Korean movies and dramas become a category that Japanese people choose just like they do with movies from Hollywood, Europe or Hong Kong, that is when the meaning of this boom will really be defined.”