Parasite, BTS, and Netflix Big Hit Squid Game: a Look into the K-Wave Phenomenon

People in deep debt compete in deadly games to reverse their lives—the viral South Korean TV series Squid Game is based on the entertainment world’s recurring theme, the survival game.

By Sumire Ishigaki

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People in deep debt compete in deadly games to reverse their lives—the viral South Korean TV series Squid Game is based on the entertainment world’s recurring theme, the survival game.

Just 20 days after its release, Squid Game with a rather classic theme became the most-watched series for Netflix worldwide. Neither Crash Landing on You nor Itaewon Class, both gaining huge popularity in Japan in 2020, achieved this feat. Considering its launch alongside the latest season of Sex Education, the British hit series, Squid Game’s success came as quite a surprise.

Once I started watching Squid Game, although some brutal scenes made me cringe, I binged through the whole series in just two days. Here is my analysis on why it captivated the world, with reports from South Korea and some personal views.

The “Universal Design” of the Story and Games

We could say that the “survival game” genre was Japan’s specialty in entertainment—such as Gantz, As the Gods Will, and Alice in Borderland, an original series by Netflix Japan, just to name a few from the endless list. As for Squid Game, there is especially much talk about the similarities with Kaiji.

In an interview with the U.S. Variety magazine, the director Hwang Dong-hyuk says, “When I started, I was in financial straits myself and spent much time in cafes reading comics including Battle Royale and Liar Game.” So, there is no doubt Squid Game is inspired by Japanese works.

The “death game” plot has also been around for a long time in the West, like the Saw series, Cube, and The Hunger Games. Therefore, the climate was already ripe for viewers in any country to get the idea of the storyline. And the genre also attracted male viewership, who were not previous fans of Korean dramas.

Since all the competitions in the show were children’s games, it helped even non-Koreans to understand them. “The Daruma fell over” (“the rose of Sharon has bloomed” in Korean) is a familiar game in Japan, called “red light, green light” in the U.S. and “un, deux trois, soleil” (“one, two, three, sun”) in France. There are similar games in South America and other Asian countries.

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If the games were complex, it would be hard to explain just by subtitles, or viewers may get distracted in understanding the rules instead of focusing on the point of the story or the characters’ emotions. The universality of the story and the games probably contributed to the success of Squid Game.

Who wins or loses in a game and the shocking violence are only a part of Squid Game’s highlights. Rather, the doubts and messages for modern society expressed in the dialogues and portrayal is the gist of the series, leaving a lasting impression on the viewers.

Food for Thought on Social Issues and Discrimination

The first impression of Squid Game was, like Parasite, an opposition to social inequality. The protagonist Seong Gi-hun is an unemployed and divorced man in his 40s. In heavy debt, he relies on his elderly mother for livelihood.

He used to work for an auto manufacturer, but an incident cost him his job. From there, his fall is rapid, and he loses his wife and daughter, stable life, and modest happiness.

Once fallen, crawling back up requires an enormous effort. This is probably true not only in South Korean society but also in Japan and other countries. The show suggests, tomorrow, you could be in Gi-hun’s place.

The contestants in Squid Game have diverse backgrounds, including the old and young, doctors, North Korean defectors, foreigners, and members of anti-social organizations. On the “other side,” a mysterious organization monitors the games, and even here, disparity exists between those in power and those exploited. It seems like a microcosm of society.

Further into the show, you realize that besides disparity, it pictures all kinds of discrimination, including those based on education or occupation, and towards foreign workers and North Korean defectors. Some are easy to recognize, detailed in specific episodes, while others are implied in the characters’ words.

When I talked about the show with my acquaintances who also watched the series, I found it interesting that each person had a slightly different “discrimination” that struck their chord. My heart ached at scenes of sexual discrimination—because I knew what was going on in the extraordinary arena of the death game, was observed at schools and workplaces in the real world. You could view Squid Game to find out what kind of social issue touches your mind.

And Squid Game has this strange power that makes you want to discuss these things with other people. This must be the very reason for the expanding viewership.

Parasite and BTS—the Trust Built over Several Years

Would it have become this popular if Squid Game was released two years ago? Probably, it would just have been a regional success in Asia, mainly in South Korea.

In 2020, Parasite won an Oscar. On the music scene, BTS became a top star in the U.S. and other countries, and on Netflix, there has been a constant hit of K-dramas, with Crash Landing on You, Itaewon Class, and Sweet Home ranking at the top in 10 countries.

Korean content has earned significant trust and expectations from the global market in the last two years. For Squid Game, this is a situation with maximum tailwind.

Now, with Squid Game becoming a hit, South Korean companies in the entertainment industry, including those unrelated to this show, such as STUDIO Dragon, Jcontentree, and Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), have enjoyed soaring stock prices. A hit in one series enriches the whole industry, which creates another hit, fuelling a virtuous cycle.

Squid Game Implies the Age of “Trust over Money”

Near the end of the Squid Game series (spoiler alert), a person asks the protagonist, “Do you still believe in people?” This is the core of the whole story, also making the viewers question themselves. “Money or life” and “money or love”—these themes have appeared in many works in the past, but the final stake in Squid Game was “trust.”

In the world today, those who trust others sometimes pay the price, while “trust” can also create “money.” Above all, Squid Game became a global success owing to the “trust” viewers have in Korean content.

I am looking forward to the next exciting work this virtuous cycle, further enhanced by Squid Game, will bring.

This is a translation of the Japanese article posted on Bunshun Online on October 9, 2021.

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