The Chosun Ilbo looks at the contrasting fortunes of the Korean Wave in Japan and the Japanese Wave in Korea. More specifically, it notes that unlike the Korean Wave, which receded as quickly as it struck, Japanese dramas, novels and music have been steadily gaining popularity in Korea for about a decade.
The Korean Wave — which basically lasted from 2004 to 2006 — has burst like a bubble. The problem, says the Chosun, was a lack of followup hits to Bae Yong-jun’s “Winter Sonata” and Lee Young-ae “Dae Jang Geum,” which did remarkably well in Japan. Sin Seung-il, the director of the Hanryu (Korean Wave) Strategy Institute, also noted that after the first couple of hits, Korean dramas grew expensive, damaging exports. He faulted an insufficiently strategic approach to drive the Korean Wave for the long term.
Contrast this with Japanese films and dramas in Korea. In 2004, 29 Japanese films debuted in Korea. In 2005, the number climbed to 34, and in 2006, it climbed still further to 51. This year through November, 81 Japanese films had debuted in Korea. Moreover, the upward trend has not been dependent on a handful of well-known stars — the faces in the films keep changing, but the films’ popularity continues to increase. Kimura Takuya has been popular for about 10 years, but behind him has come younger stars like Odagiri Joe, Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, Tsumabuki Satoshi. Japanese actresses like Ueno Juri, Sawajiri Erika, Aoi Yuu and Miyazaki Aoi have also enjoyed steadily rising popularity.
Japanese “Korean Wave” fans can see their favorite Korean actors in perhaps one or two films a year. Japanese actors, however, star in many films a year. For example, in the 17 films that debuted in Seoul’s Sponge House theater this year, Odagiri Joe was in five of them. The director of Sponge House noted that Japanese actors appear in many films regardless of commercial potential, and accordingly, their fans don’t get sick of waiting.
Another point of contrast is content — Korean content has been, sad to say, pretty weak, while the Japanese have been producing fairly good content. In fact, a number of Korean films released this year, including hit “200 Pound Beauty,” “Highway Star,” “Black House,” “Going by the Book,” “Kidnapping Granny K” and “Lovers Behind,” were cinematic version of Japanese novels, comic books or dramas. From last year to this, some 21 Korean films based on Japanese original content were produced. Between 2001 and 2005, only five were produced. This would suggest that Korean film and drama content is so lacking that producers are looking to Japan to satisfy their content needs.
The greatest strength of the Japanese Wave, in fact, is content. Novels and comic books with great story lines get remade into dramas and films, creating a synergistic effect. The Korean Wave, meanwhile, is limited to dramas only.
Finally, we have subject matter. Japanese Wave products cover a wide range of subject matter. What’s hard to find, says the Chosun, are the simple Cinderella-like stories so common to Korean films and dramas. From “normal” personal stories told in complex fashion to incredible, imaginative tales, Japanese films and dramas are diverse in their topics. Said the VP of Cine Qua Non Korea, “Japanese films spark curiosity with stories hardly dealt with in Korean film, like the story of a fire inspection team, the life of a diver, and the tale of a wine master.”
Moreover, Korean fans who have read Japanese comics tend to watch the films and dramas based on those comics. A researcher at Samsung Economic Research Institute said that if the Korean Wave is to gain steady popularity like the Japanese Wave, Korean content needs to strengthen its competitiveness, including producing dramas not just for the middle-aged crowd, but also for teens, and producing films Japanese folk like, such as thrillers.
Meanwhile, another piece in the Chosun notes that the Japanese public and private sectors have been working closely to promote Japanese culture and the Japanese Wave, and succeeding despite anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. And as mentioned above, the Japanese Wave isn’t tied to particular stars — it’s Japanese culture itself that Koreans dig, particularly young Koreans in their teens, 20s and 30s.
My take on it is this. I don’t believe that the Korea Wave was a fluke. I think there were unique aspects of the Korean wave that made it popular throughout Asia. For China, it was dramas set in a modern setting with good looking actors. The fact that the dramas were not from Japan or Taiwan helped because culture from both nations was problematic for political reasons. Dae Jang Geum was a phenomenon throughout the Chinese speaking world because it exemplified confucian values long deemphasized due to Communism in China, anti communism in Taiwan and Westernization in both Hong Kong and Singapore. To see values on the small screen from China’s premodern (but often turbulent) past was both refreshing and enthralling to the Chinese speaking world. It could also be enjoyed by Mainlander and Taiwanese alike because it was not originated by either, but a relatively politically neutral party (South Korea).
Now the Korean Wave in Japan primarily centers around Winter Sonata. Yes, there were other vehicles that promoted the wave in Japan, but Winter Sonata was the impetuous. Unfortunately, Winter Sonata didn’t grab the most dynamic demographic. Popularity among old ladies do not allow for deep and wide penetration within a market, unfortunately.
Also, although the very dramatic nature of Korean dramas, you know, the seperated at birth fraternal twins, car accidents, amnesia, impromptu cancer deaths, etc. worked for Korean audiences year in and year out, but soon got tiring for Chinese and Japanese audiences that didn’t have the cultural background to constantly suspend belief at the scale that Korean audiences were willing to do. When other Asians recognized the familiar patterns in Korean dramas, the novelty wore out.
Lastly, the Korean Wave shot itself in the foot a few times. A drama such as Bulmyeolui Yi Soon Shin had tremendous potential to be big in Asia. However, the directors and producers of that drama made a decision to make most of the Chinese and Japanese characters behave like mad men, warmongers, and corrupt officials. Hell, if that drama could make an f-up like Won Kyun look good, why couldn’t it make a few Chinese and Japanese look good also? Look what Dae Jo Yong and Yon Gae So Mun dramas did. They also uniformly painted the Chinese in a bad light. Much of the good will established by Korean historical dramas by Dae Jang Geum and Jang Bogo was erased away by shortsighted displays of extreme nationalism in Dae Jo Yong, Yon Gae So Mun, Jumong and others.