When I became a hardcore fan of Japanese dramas, I thought I'd discovered the alpha and omega of Asian entertainment.
Crammed with manga-esque storylines, good looking pop stars, and dream romances, J-drama was perfect. When friends mentioned Korean drama, I turned my nose up at them, uninterested in anything that didn't stoke my Japan-centric obsession.
Older, wiser and having developed an insatiable appetite for Asian idol culture, I've now warmed up to Korean media.
Korean pop music was my gateway drug - I couldn't resist the catchy songs. Google reinforced my new interest not long after that, promoting an all-Korean concert at their headquarters and pushing the trend called "Korean Wave" (also called Hallyu) to a whole new audience of potential fans. By that time, I was completely converted when it came to the music, even finding indie Korean acts such as Guckkasten and Glen Check to fall in love with. Fully enticed by these Korean stars, I was ready to find out why Korean dramas inspired equally devoted fans.
"The Korean entertainment industry has grown immensely over the last few decades, and dramas are now being produced with enormous budgets, aimed for export more so than ever before," said Girlfriday, writer for the highly active drama community Dramabeans.
"They're produced slickly, enough to compete with American entertainment, and tend to be romance-centric. They also tell a complete story in 16 to 20 episodes, so its just long enough to get you addicted to something and just short enough that you don't feel burdened by picking up a show," Girlfriday said.
Like the Japanese dramas I'm used to, K-dramas are broken into subcategories by genre. The most popular shows are referred to as "trendies" in fan circles, and usually feature popular casts with young protagonists. There's also "ajumma" drama, which feature older or divorced female characters who find new love, "sageuk" drama, which plays out fictionalized versions of Korean history, and "makjang" drama, which is the closest thing to the American soap opera, traditionally taking a sensational approach with lots of absurd twists and turns. Korean dramas also include thrillers, action/intrigue and procedural genres.
But for all their similarities, K-drama has some major differences from J-drama. For instance, Korean shows air two episodes a week, whereas Japanese shows only air one. The biggest difference of all, however, is a key one: availability. While Japanese shows are rarely licensed for the American market, Korean shows are readily available through American-based services such as Hulu and Dramafever. Therefore, audiences outside of Korea can get their hands on them sooner.
Part of the magic of Korean drama is its finite length, said Dramabeans' founder, known online as Javabeans.
"Because every Korean drama is one season long, whether that's 16 episodes or 100, it means you get the story you're meant to get, that the writers meant to tell, " she said. "One season allows for sufficient time to bond with the characters, to watch them grow and fall in love with them, but it isn't so vast a space in which to lose sight of what makes them so appealing in the first place."
So the formula makes Korean dramas addictive for fans and keeps us coming back. But with the growing presence of the Korean Wave, it seems like dramas may have a greater significance than just entertainment factor. "Winter Sonata," the second installment in a four part series from director Yoon Seok-Ho, has gained credit for pushing the Korean drama movement into Japan thanks to its tremendous commercial success. The show's impact was so major that it has often been suggested that it helped to bridge relations between the two countries.
" 'Winter Sonata' wasn't necessarily created with the intent of making it big in Japan, but it struck a chord there whose reverberations can still be felt a decade later," Javabeans said about the show. "Dramas and pop culture bridge a gap that can't be achieved through official policy or political maneuvering. What people respond to is the universality of the themes, coupled with the unique perspective of this one particular culture. It's fresh, without being quite foreign. In cultivating Hallyu abroad, you've exported your cultural perspective in a warm, friendly package."
This goes both ways, said Javabeans. Anime, pop music and dramas from Japan are popular in Korea as well.
"Pop culture provides a connection between the two countries that has been depoliticized; it enables communication and exchange while removing ideology and policy from the conversation."
As more and more fans become aware of what Korean entertainment has to offer, the demand for it will continue to grow. But will fans outside of Korean continue to follow drama, even if the Korean Wave comes and goes? Dan Acton, a blogger and the official representative for Dramafever, thinks that they will.
"People might first be drawn to k-dramas out of curiosity, but pretty soon they get hooked on the story and just have to find out what happens next," Acton said. "It's feel-good TV in the best possible sense: romantic, sexy and fun, but also really moving and intelligent. There's a fresh, genuine quality to the storytelling and characters that American audiences find refreshing. You get the complete story in a relatively short number of episodes, so you get your fix, and then you move on to the next one."