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Why is Studio Dragon such a strong force in Japan's 4th South Korean drama boom?

A scene from "Crash Landing on You" (C) Studio Dragon Corporation

TOKYO -- The fourth South Korean drama boom in Japan looks likely to retain momentum in 2021, with the mega hit "Crash Landing on You" serving as the catalyst for many people to start watching South Korean dramas. In fact, I'm one of them. While watching works that people were talking about, I noticed that many of them were created by Studio Dragon Corp., a production company founded in 2016 based in Seoul. What is the secret behind this single production company that has produced a string of hit dramas? I tried to dig deep for answers by tracing the history of South Korean dramas.

    "Crash Landing on You" is serial drama in which the daughter of a South Korean conglomerate family crash-lands in North Korea in a paragliding accident and falls in love with a North Korean elite military officer she happens to encounter.

    "Crash Landing on You" became a hot topic again after the Korean media reported on the relationship between the two lead actors on New Year's Day. The video streaming service Netflix, which distributes the drama, was subsequently overwhelmed by fans accessing the site to see the on-screen romance again in light of the actors' true-life romance, and the drama regained the top spot on the popularity list.

    In addition, a "Crash Landing on You" exhibition, showcasing the drama's sets and unreleased footage, opened in Tokyo on Jan. 8, and enthusiasm for the drama has not waned even now, more than a year after it began airing in December 2019.

    Studio Dragon, which produced the drama, is a subsidiary of CJENM, a general entertainment company affiliated with the Samsung conglomerate, which invested in the Oscar-winning film "Parasite." In Japan, production companies are often thought of as subcontractors to TV stations, but Studio Dragon handles everything from planning and financing to production and distribution on its own, and sells its products to TV and video distribution services.

    Last year, the company established a branch office in the U.S. and is working on a joint project with a U.S. film production company to globalize its business. The global spread of video distribution services seems to be spurring the company's momentum, as "Crash Landing on You" is distributed in 190 countries through Netflix.

    The "Crash Landing on You" exhibition, which recreates a set from the drama, is photographed on Jan. 7, 2021, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Yukiko Ono)

    Something noteworthy about the company's inventiveness are the creators who sign exclusive contracts with the company. The company has a staff of about 230 people, including many of South Korea's ace scriptwriters.

    For example, Park Ji-eun, who wrote "Crash Landing on You," wrote "My Love from the Star," a drama about the romance between an alien and an actress. Kim Eun-sook, who wrote "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God," has produced hit dramas including "Secret Garden," a romantic comedy in which the souls of a stuntwoman and a business tycoon are swapped. Kim Young-hyun, known for the period drama "Dae Jang Geum," which is also popular in Japan, is a member of the company too. In Japan, it would be like having scriptwriters Koki Mitani, Miho Nakazono, and Ryota Furusawa in one production company.

    Is such a strategy common in the South Korean entertainment industry?

    Chikayo Tashiro, a Japanese authority on South Korean dramas and author of several books including "Koisuru Hanryu," published by Asahi Shimbun Publishing Inc., explained, "Studio Dragon has been able to sign exclusive contracts with popular scriptwriters by acquiring existing production companies and offices of the scriptwriters and putting them under its umbrella. As a result, other production companies are also focusing on securing creators, and the South Korean entertainment industry is now in a battle for star writers (scriptwriters). At present, Studio Dragon is the sole winner, and it is able to deliver many high-profile works to the world."

    The strong companies get more and more powerful by swallowing other companies. It is clear that the way of doing business is very different from in Japan, where TV stations have power in program production and distribution, and creators on the other hand are dispersed among relatively small companies.

    Let's take a look at the content that attracts viewers. Those who are new to the South Korean drama world may have a strong impression that they are melodramas of pure love or love-hate relationships. However, such preconceptions are overturned when one looks at the dramas released by Studio Dragon so far. The following are some of the most popular works.

    "It's Okay to Not Be Okay," a human drama about a popular children's storyteller who doesn't know love and a man who works in a psychiatric ward healing each other's emotional wounds; "Start-Up," a story about young people who want to start their own business in South Korea's high-tech industry; "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God," which depicts the strange fate of an immortal warrior; "Stranger," a suspenseful story about a prosecutor and a detective who investigate organizational fraud; and "My Mister," which depicts the interaction between a man who works for a construction company and a female contractor with a sad past.

    Looking at the themes, dramas with strong messages that relate to the problems facing modern society stand out. Studio Dragon produces about 30 dramas a year which are rich in variety.

    Kim Sung-min, associate professor of cultural sociology at Hokkaido University, who is an expert on South Korean entertainment culture, commented on the trend.

    "For more than 30 years since the democratization of South Korea in the 1990s, films and dramas projecting social criticism have been produced in the country. In the past, most of the dramas were about love, but they also depicted social issues such as domestic violence and the gap between the rich and the poor. The current 'Netflix phenomenon,' driven by internet video distribution services, can be said to be the culmination of such experiences," said Kim.

    A scene from "Crash Landing on You," which became a hot topic even among people who were not familiar with South Korean dramas before, is seen on a screen. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

    He points out that after South Korea's declaration of democracy in 1987, which marked a turning point in ending the military regime, politics became "ordinary" for people in South Korea.

    "As freedom of thought, speech, and expression became guaranteed, the people of South Korea began to change their own society through social criticism, which they had not been able to do during the military regime. Such changes were projected in real time in movies and TV dramas. In other words, entertainment became a forum for debate," Kim explained.

    In the 2000s, South Korean directors such as Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook, and Bong Joon-ho emerged in the world's film industry, drawing attention to the country's entertainment industry and spreading the trend mainly in Asia. In Japan, the first South Korean drama boom began with the 2004 blockbuster "Winter Sonata." The further rise of South Korean dramas in recent years has become a global phenomenon involving the United States and Europe. Kim explained this phenomenon by referring to the movie "Parasite," which depicts the desperate gap between the rich and the poor.

    "In current South Korean society, the effects of rapid globalization and neoliberalism are extremely evident. In response to widening gaps in society and excessive competition, the term 'Hell Korea' became a buzzword among the youth in 2015. Films and TV dramas of that time actively portrayed such perceptions and feelings. I believe that this attitude of depicting reality with a critical spirit is gaining sympathy from viewers around the world who are facing similar problems," he said.

    Strong reflection of the times or social situations can also be seen in "Crash Landing on You" and "It's Okay to Not Be Okay." Aiko Kodama, a columnist who is familiar with South Korean drama productions, takes notice of the period from 2018 to 2019, when "Crash Landing on You" was planned and produced.

    In 2018, there was a summit between North and South Korea, and the following year, the first-ever summit between the U.S. and North Korea was held.

    "In South Korea at the time, there was a mood of reconciliation between the North and South, and there were several drama projects themed on North and South Korea. 'Crash Landing on You' is one of them," Kodama said.

    "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" also has a very challenging setting. The film is set in a psychiatric hospital and features three characters: a probation officer, whose mother was murdered when he was a child, who lives with his autistic brother and sees no hope for his life; a children's story writer who has lost her emotions due to hunger for her parents' love; and a group of hospitalized patients. It is a story of characters healing their emotional wounds through their relationships with others despite their difficult lives.

    "The message of this work is 'It's OK to be different from others.' Some say it is still difficult for people with mental illnesses and minorities to live 'normally' in South Korea without prejudice. However, with the changing times, there is a growing momentum to eliminate prejudice, and this drama reflects such social trends," she explained.

    A scene from "The Uncanny Counter" (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

    What dramas will we encounter this year? The top recommendation among Studio Dragon's works is "The Uncanny Counter," which started airing from the end of January on Netflix. The story is about a demon hunter pretending to be a noodle shop employee who exterminates demons that have returned to Earth. It is a fantasy, an action-packed hero story and a human drama.

    When I asked Studio Dragon about their creative stance and their own strengths, I received the following response in writing.

    "While dramas are fictional, they also reflect reality. Viewers want fantasy, but they also want reality ... We believe that the fierce competition in the South Korean market has led to our competitive power in the global market. South Korean dramas have a universal appeal that everyone can relate to, and the fact that they portray an excellent plot with a fresh perspective is probably the reason why they are accepted around the world ... We hope to establish ourselves as a 'premium storytelling group' that will captivate and entertain audiences worldwide."

    As Studio Dragon talks about its grand goals, I look forward to seeing the world of South Korean dramas unfold this year as well.

    (Japanese original by Yukako Ono, Integrated Digital News Center)

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