As we draw to the end of the so-called Year of Korea and Japan, which was sort of forced on the two neighbors by FIFA, we should take a moment to reflect on just how much closer the countries across the Sea of Japan have grown in the past 10 months.
For the most part, the Japanese have been cordial, though the strain of being cordial has sometimes shown. Koreans, not noted for subtlety or restraint, have been less cordial, but hardly rude. We know these things because the Japanese media has spent more time covering Korea (South and North) this year than ever before, and they’ve inevitably tried to compare the Korean mind-set to that of the Japanese.
It’s a difficult endeavor, and probably the best way to do it is not by comparing people, but by comparing the means of expression that happen to be similar. Several Japanese broadcasting companies have imported South Korean television dramas this year.
In terms of themes and general technique, they are almost identical to Japanese “trendy dramas.” Japanese people who watch them may flatter themselves by thinking that the Koreans copied the Japanese style, but that’s unlikely since until only a few years ago, Japanese popular culture was banned in South Korea.
A more likely reason for the resemblance is a similarity in dramatic re-creation. Both Korean and Japanese actors tend toward an exaggerated style of declamation. Directors from both countries favor close-ups and reaction shots.
The stories themselves offer clearer contrasts. “All About Eve” (TV Asahi; Friday, 11:15 p.m.) seems not unlike a lot of classic Japanese trendy dramas: Two beautiful young women are hired as announcers by a major TV station and compete with each other in terms of career and romance. But that’s where the similarity ends.
On the surface, the difference seems to be one of scale. The hierarchical social structure that is the basis for most of the conflict in “Eve” can be found in Japan in a less pronounced form, but it’s the effect that this structure has on both the characters and the viewers that’s different.
The “good” announcer, Chin Son Mi (Che Lim) grew up in a loving, well-connected family, while the “bad” announcer, Ho Yon Mi (Kim So Yon), had to struggle to survive. Son Mi gets ahead through brains and pluck, while Yon Mi gets ahead through cunning and deceit. According to an article in the magazine Telepal, Yon Mi was a much more popular character among Korean viewers when the series was first broadcast on the peninsula in 2000.
In South Korea, the differences between poor and rich are clear and open, and breeding is only a matter of blood. Self-improvement has nothing to do with it.
Yon Mi is helpless to avoid her fate, so she embraces it by bullying Son Mi at every turn, messing up her romance with the son of the president of the TV station, and using her considerable sexual wiles to break the heart of Son Mi’s saintly cousin. In Japan, Yon Mi would be portrayed as a she-devil. In Korea she is seen as a tragic but heroic figure.
The male cognate is “Mr. Duke” (MXTV; Monday, 10 p.m.). In this drama, also from 2000, the daughter of a proud company president balks at the husband her father has chosen for her. Having studied in England and wishing to return there, she invents a boyfriend, a Korean scholar pursuing his doctorate at an English university. Naturally, dad wants to meet this fine fellow, and the girl’s maid hires a local deliveryman to impersonate the fictional scholar just for a few days. The guy is rough and low-bred, but he does a passable job. Unfortunately, he also falls in love with the girl (and she with him), and the jilted paramour, who has designs on the president’s company and not just his daughter, finds out about the subterfuge.
In Japan, such a story would make for an average romantic comedy, but “Mr. Duke” is a fairly serious drama. The impostor is messing with the social structure, and the consequences of his masquerade seem to be dire.
Since the conflict in all trendy dramas is romantic, it’s helpful to compare attitudes toward gender and sexuality. The Telepal article includes a box that lists the prominent characteristics of Korean men and women.
In a nutshell, desirable men, regardless of their social status, are buff and macho; while women, regardless of social status and viewer sympathies, use their sexuality aggressively. It’s perfectly justifiable for a woman to sleep with a man to get what she wants.
In Japanese dramas, male romantic leads are typically soft and feminine so as not to threaten female viewers, who tend to equate “macho” with hairy samurai for whom rape is something you do after lunch. Japanese female leads, while not always virginal, are nevertheless sexually tame.
These differences have less to do with mores than with matters of distinction. Koreans seem to prefer their characters sharply drawn, while the Japanese like a bit of blur around the edges, even some flaws. The most noticeable attribute of Korean actresses is the inordinate amount of makeup they wear. There is a single standard for beauty, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish one female character from another. They all have absolutely perfect teeth, whereas a slightly crooked bicuspid is a “charm point” for a Japanese idol.
All Korean actresses wear the same mauve lip gloss, and the short, efficient hairstyle sported by Son Mi has since become the rage. More significantly, Korean women are very open about cosmetic surgery. Many actresses, even those as young as 20, have been under the knife and aren’t embarrassed to say so. As far as I know, male actors aren’t as forthcoming about hairpieces, but there is such a thing as being too frank.