One fun aspect of watching foreign shows is learning about the folklore of other lands; whole unfamiliar mythologies. One of these is the fashion in Korean drama for the last few years of shows about “grim reapers”, messengers of death come to earth. But these are not skeletons wrapped in black rags and clutching a scythe. These are business-like bureaucrats in sharp black suits, often dealing as much with office politics as with collecting souls. What is usually translated to English as “grim reaper” is the Korean phrase “Jeoseung Saja”, literally a messenger (“saja”) from the afterlife (“jeosung”). In myths dating back to the Joseon era, the Jeoseung Saja would come to earth, garbed in black finery and wearing the wide-brimmed black hat (a “gat”) of a civil servant. They carry a list of names of those destined to die, written on a piece of red cloth, and if they says your name three times then you have to come with them out of this world.
While the Jeoseung Saja has been a part of Korean mythology for centuries, it owes its recent popularity to an incredibly popular 2016 drama called Goblin: The Lonely & Great God. (This is sometimes localised as Guardian: The Lonely & Great God, because the word “goblin” has a different meaning in English-speaking culture now from what it had when the translation for Korean words was established.) Goblin tells the story of a general from the Joseon period who has been cursed with immortality. His best friend is a Jeoseung Saja played by Lee Dong-wook, who was a firm fan favourite. Goblin isn’t currently available on streaming services, the first of the shows inspired by it is: Black.
The Jeoseung Saja in Black are very much in the traditional mold, dressed in black and known only by numbers. Some of them are “created reapers”, apparently born out of nothing, while the others are the ghosts of suicide victims working off their karma. They are all known only by their numbers, and reaper number 444 (a pun on the Korean words for “four” and “death”), better known as Black, is the most respected of them all. Black (as played by respected film actor Kim Tae-Woo) is not pleased to be partnered up with a newly minted “suicide reaper”, and is even less pleased when his partner vanishes. (Incidentally Black’s name, like the name of the show, is actually the English word “black” sounded out in Korean characters.) Black realises that his partner has stolen the corpse of a human in order to try to get himself a new life, and if he isn’t brought back it’s Black who will be punished.
Meanwhile on Earth, the lives of Kang Ha-Ram (played by Go Ara) and police detective Han Moo-Gang (played by Song Seung-Hoon) start to collide. Ha-Ram is a woman traumatised by her ability to foresee people’s deaths, while Moo-Gang is trying to find out more about the mystery threatening his girlfriend Yoon Soo-Wan (played by Lee El, who was in Korean Odyssey). Matters take a turn when Moo-Gang dies preventing a mass shooting that Ha-Ram had foreseen, but then he miraculously revives – having been possessed by Black who is searching for his missing partner.
If I had to pick one phrase to describe Black, it would be “tonal whiplash”. It features both crude humour and witty banter, but also an on-screen suicide attempt, violence against animals, and two separate plot threads centring around sexual assault. Basically, it’s a mess. The dramatic plot lands a lot better than the humour, though, and the character development is well done. While it wasn’t hugely successful in Korea it was notable as one of the first Korean dramas to get simultaneously broadcast globally on Netflix (the first being MAN x MAN in April 2017). As a result it was highly promoted on the service and served as the gateway into Korean drama for a lot of Western viewers.
The Uncanny Counter (2021)
A more recent Netflix simulcast was The Uncanny Counter, another show based around the Jeoseung Saja. This time the Reapers do not directly interact with the human world, and instead they make deals with humans in a coma that they will awaken them in exchange for their service. (This notion that people in a coma are partially in the spirit world is a popular one in Korean drama, being a feature of shows like The Master’s Sun and Bring It On, Ghost.) Being in a contract with a particular Jeoseung Saja gives these “Counters” superpowers – strength, speed, and other more specialised skills. Three of our main cast are part of a group of counters working in a noodle restaurant in Jungjin (a fictional city) – the grumpy amnesiac assistant chef Ga Mo-tak (played by veteran actor Yoo Jun-sang), the fiery waitress Do Ha-na (played by singer and actress Kim Se-Jeong), and the motherly chef and cafe owner Choo Mae-ok (played by Yeom Hye-ran, who won a prestigious Baeksang Arts Award for her performance.) Together they hunt down evil spirits that have escaped from the afterlife and possess humans on earth. The series begins as the fourth member of their group is killed by one of those evil spirits, and in order to prevent dispersing the Jeoseung Saja he had formed a contract with is forced to possess a teenager named So Mun (Jo Byeong-kyu). Initially reluctant, So Mun is eventually persuaded to join the team.
While the focus is on the Counters, the Jeoseung Saja they have made a contract with are as much part of the cast. One of the major sources of conflict in the show is that the Counters are forbidden from using their powers for Earthly affairs, something they chafe against as it becomes clear that the death of So Mun’s parents is connected with Ga Mo-tak’s amnesia and some wider criminal conspiracy at work. The show never gets too deep, and it’s all good pulpy fun. A second season has been approved, though with the actors currently busy with other projects (and Jo Byeong-kyu having his career temporarily derailed by bullying accusations he was later cleared of), it’s unlikely to be out any time soon.
The third show I want to talk about has just finished airing on Netflix, and it’s one that comes with a massive content warning. While Black features a suicide attempt, and all of these shows are about death of some sort, Tomorrow is explicitly a show about trauma, PTSD, and especially suicide. This isn’t part of some sensationalised shock value, though – instead Tomorrow is intended to educate the public about what suicide victims go through and to promote awareness of associated mental health issues. In the first episode, a character points out the true fact that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. This is exacerbated by the stigma around mental health – it’s estimated that two million of the 52 million people in South Korea suffer from clinical depression, but only fifteen thousand of them (less than one percent) are being treated for it.
In this context, then, Tomorrow’s story about “a group of grim reapers who save people” hits hard. Even without it, it hits hard. Led by Koo Ryeon (industry vet Kim Hee-sun, with an amazing dye job), they work to save people driven to the brink by trauma, stress, sexual abuse, and even the scars left on Korean society by World War 2. Mocked by the other departments of Jumadeung, at the start of the show the only other person willing to work on the cases is Lim Ryung-gu (Yoon Ji-on, a name to watch out for in the future). Jumadeung literally means “running horse lamp”, in other words an old-fashioned magic lantern. This fits with the organisational model used in the show (which is very much like a film production studio). The third member of Ryeon’s team is Choi Joon-wong (played by Kim Seok-woo, better known under his idol singer name Rowoon). Joon-wong is a young job seeker who gets caught up in a case when he tries to save a homeless man from committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. He succeeds, but is left in a coma. In recognition of his brave deed, the director of Jumadeung (the legendary Kim Hae-sook, known in Korea as “the national mother”) offers him a deal – work for them for six months and he will wake from his coma early. A straightforward and kind young man, Joon-wong soon realises that other people carry much more sadness in their hearts than he had realised.
Tomorrow exemplifies the hope behind the portrayals of Jeosung Saja in Korean media. The most famous version of Death in modern Western literature is the one created by Terry Pratchett, who wrote: “What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the reaper man?” The idea that the messengers of the afterlife can have compassion, and that those who collect the dead can understand the pain of life, underlies these dramas. Despite the difference in the folklore of death I think it’s a thought we can all sympathise with.
All images via imdb.com