Animals of dramaland: From props to metaphors
The animal kingdom has always had an interesting presence in dramaland. Animals, and pets in particular, can act as a catalyst that’s responsible for an important reveal or moment, can become a telling metaphor — or, in some cases, they can become a drama character in and of themselves (Let’s Eat Barasshi shout-out!). Let’s take a look at some recent and memorable appearances of animals in dramaland.
The many animals that have graced the screen seem to be divided into two groups: pets and pests. Pests are pretty easy to define — they’re the spiders, roaches, flies, and other insects of dramaland. And why do we need insects in dramas? Mostly for comedy, and comedy that often takes the shape of gender role reversal: heroes that are more terrified of bugs than the women around them.
Yoon Shi-yoon had a positively outlandish scene when he encountered a bug in The Best Hit and wound up losing his towel, so to speak. In Your House Helper, housekeeping hero Ha Suk-jin also encountered a drama roach with equal terror. My favorite, though, was Seo In-gook’s falsetto screech in Shopping King Louis when he sees a spider. “It has so many legs,” he whimpers.
Whether these scenes are strictly for comedy, or if they’re comedy to drive romantic attractions and physical closeness, the insects of dramaland are mostly relegated to “prop” status. In other words, the insects and arachnids of the world function as a quick drama trick to jazz things up.
The Park Min-young and Park Seo-joon rom-com What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim gave us an interesting spin on its insect component. Arachnophobia? Of course! Dramas are full of seemingly irrational fears like this one — but this drama took the phobia and built it into the childhood trauma of our hero and heroine. It was a good connection, and a nice change for arachnids to be frightening people for other reasons than just being many-legged and creepy.
After pests, we have the pets of dramaland. They’re not always fuzzy and fluffy, as we’ll see, but more often than not they evoke warm, happy vibes instead of sending characters screaming into the night.
The companionship animals provide is as real and wonderful as any, and it’s nice when dramaland portrays this. The lonely foodie played by Lee Soo-kyung in Let’s Eat had Barasshi to keep her company in her office-tel, and drama characters often cling to the pets that represent a simpler time, or their childhood, like Kim Jung-hyun with his pet turtle in Time.
For the introverts of dramaland, a pet can also mean a convenient reason to escape a team dinner like Lee Min-ki’s hero in Because This Life is Our First. His blank-faced determination to properly recycle and feed his cat where probably my favorite scenes in the drama — and they later became a way to bond him to Jung So-min’s character, too.
In dramaland, the notice and care of animals is often used to signify a good person. Or a bad one. Think of every serial killer/baddie and the dogs that winced just to be around them — a prime example is in Come Here and Hug Me. The belief that animals can “read” people is as prevalent in dramaland as it is in real life: good-hearted characters are always shown noticing and caring for animals.
In Go Back Spouses, Jang Ki-yong’s second lead character was painted as aloof and military, but just so we know he has a tofu heart, he’s often shown caring for a stray cat. The same goes for Nana in Kill It. She might have inadvertently injured it while driving, but the cat she adopts becomes a symbol of her warmth and desire to care for the wounded people (ahem!) around her.
Cats make great pets, but dogs seem a bit more popular in dramaland. Pseudo-siblings Park Seo-joon and Hwang Jung-eum famously walked their golden retriever together in Kill Me, Heal Me, which was an important bonding time for them. It was also such a nice touch to the drama; this was one pair that actually felt like siblings to me (well, until it got complicated), and it’s little moments like dog walks that add a layer of richness of the story.
Romance is a Bonus Book also featured another golden retriever, and he was equally responsible for bonding time (hmm, I wonder if this is actually the same dog?). The second lead played by Wie Ha-joon walked his dog and ran into the heroine (Lee Na-young) on many an occasion.
Man’s best friend can also act as a strong dramatic metaphor in dramas — or try to, as in the case of Kill It. The drama opened with some strong conceits around the hero (Jang Ki-yong) and his connection to canines, and his dog Gray was meant to act as a metaphor for the hero and his story. Both had shocking blue eyes, a deep loyalty to their “pack,” and strong fighting instincts. The drama never made the most of it, but at least the symbols were lurking in the background.
The dog in That Psychometric Guy also served as a metaphor, but was the fluffy abandoned puppy of cuteness — in other words, a symbol for the hero played by Jinyoung. Outside of the flashback scene where the lost puppy finds the lost puppy, the dog isn’t much besides a prop in the drama. But, because the dog’s story was set up so intentionally, every time the dog was shown on camera it served as an unconscious reminder of the hero and his scars.
An outlier in the pets category is the recent arowana fish in The Secret Life of My Secretary, which was such a dramatic example of plots built around a K-drama pet, that this article isn’t complete without it. The eponymous secretary (Jin Ki-joo) took better care of this pet fish than she did herself. At first, the fish symbolized her minionhood, and the haughtiness of her boss (Kim Young-gwang) who put this $100,000 fish above the lives of the people around him.
Later in the drama, however, the fish came to symbolize so much more — from the good luck charm from the father he lost, to the reason a character died a gruesome death, to a crucial revenge scheme trigger — this fish sure accomplished a lot in one drama.
We’ve seen how animals can work as both prop and metaphor, enriching the plot, or sometimes moving it forward. But can animals ever work to its detriment? Normally, I would have said no. Even the weaker or more trite use of an animal in a drama plot can’t cause much damage… but that was before animal CPR took over dramaland.
One bad scene can’t undermine an entire drama, but it sure can weaken it. When I was forced to watch Jang Ki-yong perform some weird-looking cat CPR in Kill It, I was in stitches for days. I’d never seen anything like that in dramaland before. Whether it was medically accurate or not, the scene was so terribly done it killed his credibility as a vet, and it killed the credibility of the drama for the rest of the episode. Because how much subterfuge and revenge can you take seriously after you’ve just watched two-finger cat compressions?
I can safely say I never expected to see animal CPR in a K-drama again, never mind a mere month after Kill It finished airing. Dramaland sure has a way of making a girl eat her hat, though, and that’s what happened during the now-infamous fish CPR scene in The Secret Life of My Secretary.
The arowana (discussed above) that was responsible for so much plot shake-up got sick at one point, and was rushed to “the doctor.” We can’t really call him a real doctor though, because, well, last time I checked fish need water to breath. Laying on a gurney getting CPR from a doctor doesn’t help them much. It shouldn’t surprise us that there was a table death that night.
It was supposed to be funny, but by gosh it was so painful to watch I couldn’t even laugh (I think I used up all the laughter on the cat in Kill It). I watched the rest of the episode in stunned silence — until the “this episode was shot with fish care experts” or some such message popped up at the end credits. *teehee*
As we’ve seen, the animal kingdom has had a long and lasting relationship with K-dramas — as complex as it is diverse. From metaphors that tell us about drama characters and their situations, to the props, symbols, and devices that can become an integral part of the story — the animals of dramaland sure have done it all.
The animal presence in dramas seems to have grown lately, in some effective and telling ways. And in some cringe-worthy ways that make you do the audible K-drama blink of disbelief. Either way, pets and pests are sure to continue to make an impact on dramaland, and I look forward to seeing the many ways they’re integrated into the stories we love so much.
- The Secret Life of My Secretary: Episodes 1-2
- That Psychometric Guy: Series review
- Kill It: Episode 1
- Romance Is a Bonus Book: Episode 1
- Ha Suk-jin cleans away your worries in Your House Helper
- Because This Life Is Our First: Episode 1
- Go Back Spouses: Episode 1
- The Best Hit: Episodes 1-2
- Shopping King Louis: Episode 1
- Kill Me, Heal Me: Episode 1
Tags: Because This Life Is Our First, Go Back Spouses, Kill It, Kill Me Heal Me, Romance Is a Bonus Book, Shopping King Louis, That Psychometric Guy, The Best Hit, The Secret Life of My Secretary, Your House Helper