Soji Arai: «Pachinko tell the story of a hurt population that must not be forgotten»

The last episode of Pachinko’s first season was uploaded a few days ago on Apple TV+. The end of an era, we might say. But the beginning of a new one for the drama lovers. Because the Cupertino-based network announced that Pachinko would be coming soon with a season two, which is already a work in progress. And there’s more. The expectation for this colossal tv show to rewrite once again the history of the television with nominations in Emmy’s main categories is now skyrocketing.

While we wait for some news, we wanted to focus with you on one particular character in the show: Mozasu. Who is Mozasu? Six years younger than Noa, Mozasu is Sunja’s and Isak’s only surviving biological child. His name came from Moses, and as his family, he is a Zainichi. In the tv drama, Mozasu is played by Soji Arai. Born in Niigata, Japan, he is a real third-generation son of a Zainichi family. He’s now living in the US, a well-known actor. He appeared in Netflix’s Cobra Kai, and in 2009 was Toshi, Brittany’s Murphy love interest in the movie The Ramen Girl.

When I reached out to him asking for an interview, he revealed that he spent a few years in Italy and - spoiler alert - he’s good at speaking Italian.

Mozasu is what someone may consider “just a side character”, but it’s so much more. In Min Jin Lee's book, Mozasu Baek was only 16 when he started working at a pachinko parlor. A peculiar choice, but made to stray out of the streets. He soon became a name in the pachinko industry, first in Osaka, then, by the time he turned 20, he became somehow a millionaire parlor owner in Yokohama. We see in the drama a small side of Mozasu’s life, focused on his strong relationship with her mother Sunja and his son, Solomon, whom Mozasu raised as a single father dreaming for him to become a man of the world, far away from Japan.

We had the chance to connect with a heart-to-heart interview, exclusive for the Italian public and Panorama, with Soji Arai, who plays such a complex role on Pachinko.

«If I had to describe Pachinko in one word,» he told us, answering the question that became our signature on Pachinko’s interviews, «I would say “me”. Pachinko tells the story of my life, the stories of thousand and thousand of Zainichi».

If you are not familiar with Korean-Japanese history, the term Zainichi came from the Japanese word meaning “staying in Japan” and describes the millions of Koreans that moved to Japan during the Japanese occupation of their country, looking for a new chance in life. With Japan’s defeat in World War II, most ethnic Koreans left Japan to come back to Korea, but over 600.000 of them remained in Japan and constituted the Zainichi population. Soji Arai knows this side of history well and the stigma hidden inside a simple word like Zainichi. «Even now, there are a lot of celebrities in Japan that are Zainichi,» he revealed, «but they will go saying that they are Japanese. And I totally understand why. My parents' generation was highly discriminated against and had to find a way to survive. Like it happens on Pachinko to Sunja and her family. Some become singers, some others opened parlors, and some others, like Hansu, walked down the road of the yakuza». Even though someone being called a Zainichi might see some embarrassment, Soji stands tall «I’m very proud of who I am and my background». Asking him if Pachinko will be of any help to heal this deep wound, he smiled at me on our Zoom meeting. «No,» he said, «because sometime Zainichi is also discriminated against by Koreans too for choosing to keep living in Japan. But I think Pachinko will help a lot the Korean side to know more about our story outside the homeland». The critics defined Pachinko as a work of art, but for the cast is so much more. «It’s a way to let people know another part of history that is somehow forgotten and most of the people don’t study at school,» Soji Arai continued «there will always be people and politicians that will take advantage of this side of misread history, but now, thanks to Pachinko too, more people will know what happened and will embrace the true side of the history». Being a Zaninchi and playing a Zanichi on a tv show might be overwhelming. Speaking about the most sensitive scene to shoot, Soji Arai told us, without hesitating a second, that was «when Mozasu and Sunja went back to Busan, and they were looking for Sunja’s father tomb. At that moment, I could feel the rage growing in Mozasu, that scene is so intense and really screams “We are Zainichi. This is what it means to be Zainichi”».

Being so close to his character was a real challenge for Soji Arai. Despite being in the business for more than twenty years, «Mozasu was a real game-changer for me». «I started acting soon after college, but Mozasu was too close to me, to the real me and while playing it I couldn’t find space to really act,» he admits «at some point, I was like: “What can I do? This is me. This is my father”. I kept thinking about it for a while and then one day it suddenly came to me. I threw away everything, and become Mozasu».

We wanted to highlight a detail in our talk with Soji Arai: the meaning of the Baek’s family names. Isak, Noa, Mozasu. They are all Biblical names. «It never happens in Japan to give a newborn a Biblical name,» he told us. «I think that Noa and Mozasu's names are what shape our characters. While Noa is smart but might look too intelligent and someway delicate, I think Sunja and Isak wanted their second son to be strong. A leader, able to lead his family to a safer place, as Moses did».

The star-studded cast of Pachinko was nothing new for someone like Soji Arai used to live in front of the camera. But working with Lee Minho and Yoon Yuh Jung was probably scripted in the stars. «The first time I met Minho was ten years ago or more,» he recalled. «I was in Japan working as a journalist, and there was this K-drama called City Hunter, and there was a meeting and so many ladies waiting for him. I actually told him. He was always very nice; after all, we had the same goal acting in Pachinko. We were part of a very brave project». The real surprise came after shooting the first scene with the Oscar winner Yoon Yuh Jung. «When I first heard her speaking Japanese I suddenly saw my grandma. It was like having her there, again. Hearing her almost make me cry, and I think it would be something that will really touch the Zainichi’s hearts». «She was really interested in my side and vision of the story,» he revealed, «she asked me a lot of questions about everything. Asking is really important for actors, a lot of them don’t do it for pride, but with Yoon Yuh Jung it was different. We ended up drinking every night after filming and we talked about everything».

Soji Arai is deeply connected to Italy. «I was in Rome when I was 20 years old; I lived there for a while and studied Italian. My father always talked about Italia, so I chose to live there for a while. Even now, I still listen and sing to Italian songs, my favorite are Mina and Lucio Battisti, and I love the song “E Penso a te”».

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