“Mr. Sunshine” settles historical scores, whether it means to or not

Last week, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, to settle a wartime labor compensation dispute between his country and its former colonizer brought about by Koreans who say they or their forebears were forced to work for Japanese companies before and during World War II for little or no pay. These people sued Nippon Steel Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 3 separate cases, and in 2018 South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but the Japanese government instructed the companies not to pay, saying that the agreement signed between the two countries in 1965 settled the compensation matter for all time. The plaintiffs and their supporters, which at one time included the previous South Korean president Moon Jae-in, claim that this is a private matter not covered by the 1965 agreement, which was between governments. 

Yoon plans to set up a foundation that will compensate the plaintiffs. The Japanese government is very happy, since no Japanese entities are required to contribute to the fund, but the plaintiffs and their supporters are not, since the main reason for their suit was for the cited companies, and by extension Japan, to acknowledge their actions toward Korean workers under Japanese rule, since Korea was a Japanese colony at the time. General opinions in both countries differ accordingly. A recent survey found that 59 percent of Koreans do not approve of Yoon’s plan, while 57 percent of Japanese do. 

Yoon’s purpose is to normalize diplomatic relations (and please the U.S. government, which approves of the plan) by removing at least one of the historical obstacles to such normalization. As a member of the right-leaning People Power Party, Yoon wants to move forward in Korea’s relations to Japan, mainly for the benefit of trade, but he is also following a policy that Korean nationalists have advocated since the 1965 agreement, which is that Korea needs Japan to ward off its communist neighbor to the north. Many in Korea have always maintained that Japan should more fully acknowledge the brutality of its colonial rule from 1910-45, especially with regard to the suffering of specific groups, such as forced laborers and women pressed into sexual service at front-line brothels. Right wing elements, some of whose fathers and grandfathers fought and worked for the Japanese during the war, tend to see left-wing elements as being easily manipulated by North Korea, and, in fact, one of the planks of the nominally liberal-leaning Democratic Party of Korea is to reunify the peninsula. 

What commentators have noted about this contention is how it has not dissipated over the years, even though Korea achieved its independence in 1945 when Japan surrendered and since the late 80s has become an economic powerhouse in its own right. The position of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which has pretty much governed the country since the mid-1950s, is that Japan did nothing wrong in Korea; it certainly did nothing illegal, since the annexation treaty of 1910 that brought Korea under its control was considered internationally valid at the time. How that treaty came about and how it was enforced afterwards is something they don’t talk about. But the Koreans do. In fact, they don’t just talk about it. They dramatize it all the time.

I write about this now because I just finished watching all 24 episodes of the 2017 Korean historical drama series Mr. Sunshine on Netflix. Mr. Sunshine can be further categorized as a romantic melodrama, and while the main characters are all fictional, the background is the pre-colonial struggle within the kingdom of Joseon (Korea) against various foreign elements that, for all intents and purposes, invaded the peninsula to gain influence. Of these elements, which include Russia and the U.S., Japan is the most aggressive, and the series depicts this aggression in the most dramatic ways. (China, which used to control Joseon as a tributary, doesn’t get mentioned much in the series except as a sanctuary for rebel movements.)

I’ve never been a fan of Asian historical dramas, be they Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, and while Mr. Sunshine contains all of the genre’s requisite attributes, I found its focus on how Joseon came under Japanese rule compelling. As it turns out, while the series was immensely popular when it was first aired on the Korean cable channel nTV, it was criticized for the way it presented its Japanese characters, which to some was too lenient and to others too harsh. I confess to bewilderment regarding the former charge, since almost all the Japanese characters are villainous in a cartoonish way, practically twirling their mustaches (they all have mustaches) in glee as they subjugate the natives while comparing them to the lowest forms of life. As someone who watches a lot of Korean cinema, I found this depiction both amusing and surprising. In most Korean films that take place during the colonial era, the Japanese overlords tend to come across as oppressive but also cold and distant. It is their Korean factotums who tend to be despicable, since they are betraying their birthright for the benefit of their conqueror. Mr. Sunshine does away with this nicety. The Japanese are evil and sadistic.

But while this depiction may seem unnecessarily harsh from a historical perspective, it conveys an inescapable truth. Almost all the major events in the story are based on acknowledged facts. It is the emotional component that’s exaggerated, because it has to align with the dramatic contingencies of the Korean romantic melodrama, which calls for epic suffering on the part of all the sympathetic characters, in particular the lovers at the center of the tale. 

In this case they are two people whose love is doomed from the get-go. Choi Yu-jin (Lee Byung-hun) is the son of slaves whose parents are killed by their nobleman master after his mother resists being given to another nobleman for sexual recreation. Yu-jin, still a young child, escapes death himself and is taken in by an American missionary who brings him to New York and raises him as his own son, renaming him Eugene. The boy grows up and joins the marines, becoming a war hero during the Spanish-American War. He is promoted to captain and later assigned to the American legation in Hanseong (present-day Seoul), where he intends to exact revenge on the family who murdered his parents. In the meantime, he continually crosses paths with Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri), a member of another noble family whose own parents were killed by a treacherous compatriot in an underground patriotic movement to fight against foreign intruders. Ae-shin, with the quiet approval of her grandfather, a mentor to the Joseon king, has become an expert marksman and anti-foreigner sniper. 

The dynamic of the love story is irresistible: the former slave vs. the woman of high birth; the repatriated citizen of an interloping foreign country vs. the single-minded protector of the homeland. Through love, the two eventually find a common ideological goal that seems inevitable in the final analysis, but it relies—again, dramatically—on there being a common enemy, and that’s Japan in this case.

What makes this dynamic unique is the total absence of a countervailing narrative. Korean viewers watch Mr. Sunshine hip to the aforementioned dramatic contingencies and accept it as a work of fiction that is nevertheless built upon a historical foundation. Japanese viewers—and Mr. Sunshine, with Japanese subtitles, has been a hit in Japan, as well—have no such equivalent understanding because Japan’s historical actions vis-a-vis Korea have been obscured in Japan. Japanese citizens may accept their leaders’ vague argument that Japan did not oppress Korea before and after the annexation of 1910, but they have no details to work with the way the Koreans do. As the oppressed party, Korea has been free to discuss and dramatize its interaction with Japan, while Japan, as the oppressor, has avoided any such discussions and dramatizations in an effort to make it fade from history—or, at least, fade from the minds of the Japanese people. 

The Battleship Island

This makes for a significant imbalance with regard to popular culture. Some years ago I saw the Korean movie, The Battleship Island, at the Busan International Film Festival. The movie is set on the coal-mining island of Hashima off the coast of Kyushu during the colonial era. In the story, Koreans are fooled into going to the island for work and upon arrival pressed into slave-like labor conditions, the women relegated to providing sexual entertainment for the officers and mining executives. The movie ends with a fictional worker revolt that destroys the island. While in Busan, I heard that a Japanese distributor planned to release the movie in Japan, but it never happened because Japanese right-wing groups, claiming it was anti-Japanese propaganda, badgered the company to drop it. The director, Ryu Seung-wan, derisively dismissed the controversy, saying that The Battleship Island was indeed a work of fiction, an action movie that catered to people who like action movies. But it was also based on a historical situation—a mine where workers, and not just Koreans, were treated abominably—that has been accepted by historians. He was using this situation for purely dramatic purposes. It was not meant as an attack on present-day Japan.

It seems unlikely that Japan would ever make a dramatic film about Hashima, because that would necessitate coming to terms with what really went on there, even if, like Ryu, they wanted to use it as a jumping off point for entertainment. It’s easier just to avoid the subject altogether, which is why there are almost no Japanese movies or TV shows that deal directly with Japan’s experiences in Korea during the colonial era. Anything of a dramatic nature that does address Korea during that period is made by Koreans. They control that narrative as far as pop culture goes. If you check the Wikipedia category, “Films set in Korea under Japanese rule,” you find 46 movies, mostly from South Korea, but also from North Korea and two from Hong Kong. No Japanese movies are listed. 

And the South Korean films are not all earnest dramas about the independence movement. Some are comedies. One is a musical. Whatever else it means to the Korean people, the colonial era has been a fertile source of storytelling art, allowing filmmakers to grapple with the meaning of community and sacrifice, and most, unlike The Battleship Island, have enjoyed theatrical distribution in Japan. One of the best, Mal-Mo-E, is about the underground effort to preserve the Korean language as the Japanese occupation authorities forcefully replace it with the Japanese language. In line with commercial requirements, the movie is sentimental, violent, and suspenseful, but it is also didactic in an edifying way. Japanese narrative art works within a much narrower imaginative space. Stories that take place during the war address the suffering of Japanese soldiers and civilians without necessarily interrogating its source, which is usually identified in abstract terms as something beyond comprehension, such as “war” or “politics.” Anything more specific entails explanations of why Japan was at war and what it was fighting for, which require complexities of meaning that the current regime in Japan is unwilling to address. Instead it resorts to misleading generalities (“Japan was liberating Asia”) and half-truths (“Korea was modernized under Japan”). Because Korea has, relatively speaking, been able to have a fuller conversation, even to a certain extent under authoritarian rule until 1988, it can produce a body of work that encompasses these complexities.  


Mr. Sunshine‘s overarching subject is imperialism, and not just Japan’s. Eugene Choi returns to Joseon to punish his personal enemies and is torn between his hatred for Joseon, which, in essence, murdered his parents, and a moral impulse to defend its people from outsiders who would impinge on their autonomy. As a naturalized American who fought in the Philippines, he has to face up to the fact that he now represents a country that is only different from Japan in the degree and quality of its international ambitions, as a Japanese acquaintance who is now persecuting Koreans points out to him. It is the right and prerogative of powerful nations, this officer says, to oppress. At the same time, the rulers of Joseon do not come away as heroes. The bureaucrat-nobility class is corrupt by definition, and works with the Japanese to betray their own people. The rigid class system that maintained slavery, relegated certain trades to the lowest layer of society, and controlled every aspect of a woman’s fate from birth to death, is the series’ most active plot engine. If anything, the Japanese invaders use the system to their advantage as they dismantle it. 

This broader confrontation of history is why Korean narrative art, right now, is so much richer than its Japanese equivalent. The great postwar Japanese directors like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu lived through the war and its moral contradictions, emerging from it with emotional resources they tapped to forge penetrating insights into the human condition. Since this generation died out, Japanese filmmakers, with some exceptions, have been oriented toward either pure fantasy, idol-focused studio fare, or small, safe, personal films of no lasting impact. One of the exceptions is Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose 2018 Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, was an internationally lauded social study of Japan’s lower depths. But it was criticized in Japan for being too negative, and Kore-eda followed it up with two movies produced overseas—one in South Korea—in languages other than Japanese. 

It would be irresponsible to explain this development as the result of a lack of experience with war. What has been lacking is an open, dialectical discussion of what the war and its outcome has meant to Japan beyond all the terrible sacrifice. There’s a hole in history as far as Japanese artists are concerned. South Korea, however, has always been having this discussion, if for no other reason than that it is still technically at war with North Korea, a situation that was brought about by Japan’s colonial rule. 

So if Japan has prevailed in the dispute over acknowledging Korean forced labor during the war, it’s only within the parameters of bilateral diplomacy. For sure, the government’s stance will continue to be reflected in the Japanese public’s relative ignorance about what happened during the colonial era, but Koreans will think of it as they may and continue to make art about it; art that, thanks to the increasing influence of K-cinema, K-drama, and K-pop, is spreading all over the world with much greater penetration than Japanese pop culture, with the exception of anime. Much is made at the moment of young people in both Japan and Korea looking past the arguments over their common history to fully embrace each other’s culture, implying that whatever sins were committed in the past haven’t been blamed on subsequent generations. The difference is that Korean young people have grown up in an environment that’s effectively exploited this history from every possible aesthetic and interpretive angle, while Japan’s youth have not; unless, of course, they watch a lot of Korean dramas and movies, in which case they can hardly avoid it.

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