How dramas use nostalgia
Korean dramas, like all good stories, are designed to take us on a journey. We experience the highs and lows with the story’s characters, and often, we feel their feelings right alongside them. Sometimes it’s the giddiness of falling in love, or sometimes it’s the all-consuming need for revenge. It can be as simple as the search for full-time employment, or it can be as deep and personal as an exploration of grief. No matter the story, it’s designed to make us feel.
Of all the emotions K-dramas can evoke, one of the most powerful is nostalgia. It might be a personal bias, but I often feel like nostalgia gets a bad reputation as a wistful and sentimental emotion that you can only feel when you page through an old photo album. That might be true, but there’s such more more to the concept of nostalgia. And, in the world of dramas, it operates on several different levels.
Because it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t start off with some classic Greek literature, let’s look at where the word nostalgia came from. The Greek word nostos describes the epic journey of Odysseus back to his home country and his family in Homer’s The Odyssey. But it’s about more than the journey itself — the emotions behind it are important, too. The yearning for home. The longing to return to where you came from, and where your people are. It makes sense that this is the root of our word “nostalgia.”
While K-dramas tell a wide variety of tales, stories about the longing for home are surprisingly rare. Maybe this is because most dramas are set in Seoul and its environs? (In these dramas, Seoul seems to represent the concept of home on a cultural and geographical level.) But even the dramas that utilize a foreign setting, and juxtapose them with the idea of home, are not often about the ache to return.
More often than not, the protagonists in these dramas find freedom on foreign soil, like Song Hye-gyo in Boyfriend, and Lee Min-ho in Heirs. Rather than the yearning to return home as the basis of the story, the return home for these characters means stepping back into the suffocation of their lives — and there’s no nostos in that. Similarly, many other dramas that feature a hero returning home start the story instead of finish it. Again, this means there is very little nostos around the idea of home or homeland.
But are there are other ways to think about nostos and nostalgia in dramas without thinking about place or setting or geographical location? Absolutely. I think one of the strongest ways K-dramas employ nostalgia is through stories about family and loved ones. After all, at its root, the yearning for lost loved ones, or for the past you shared, is a very similar emotion to the longing for home. In fact, the word nostos only describes half of the modern word for nostalgia — the other half is algos — the word for pain or ache.
Family and loved ones are often represented as home, and it’s a beautiful metaphor for the “safe haven” feeling that the people we love evoke. In other words, there’s a reason the quintessential K-drama hero is known to give swoony one-liners to woo the heroine like, “You have me,” or “I’m your home.”
How can nostos be related to romantic love? One way might be stories about love that has faded (like the couples in Go Back Spouses or Valid Love); another might be one about lovers that have been separated, thwarted, and/or forced apart (insert every drama ever written). In stories like this, the longing to be reunited acts as the nostos, and many dramas have leveraged the power of this emotion as a basis for their entire plot. Lastly, let’s not forget the ever-present concept of one’s “first love.” The nostalgia for that person has lingered in many a character’s heart.
But it’s not just romantic love that holds the power of nostalgia. In fact, I think the nostalgia around family is often more poignant. While there are a lot of dramas about parents doing crazy things to protect, save, or get revenge on behalf of their children, the real sense of nostalgia comes with the reverse: a story where the child is looking back on their past. And most of the time when they do this, it’s towards their parents.
With all the time slips and time jumps that K-dramas are famous for, it’s interesting that there aren’t more dramas that play around with this sense of adults looking back into their past. I’m Sorry, I Love You is a drama that did this for me, featuring a hero whose revenge scheme against his birth mother actually masked an unbearable sense of yearning for the mother and childhood he did not have.
Go Back Spouses was another drama that featured this kind of nostalgia. In the drama, the married couple played by Jang Nara and Sohn Ho-joon return to the year they were college freshmen. While there’s certainly a sense of nostalgia in reliving your heyday (especially when your present circumstances have worn you to shreds), the true nostalgia in this drama was around the heroine’s mother.
Going back in time to re-experience your youth and correct your course is one thing, but going back in time and being reunited with a parent that has passed away is another. I loved that Go Back Spouses was so much about Jang Nara’s character soaking up her mother’s presence… and learning how to let her go when the time came.
We’ve looked at the ways that dramas use yearning and nostalgia to drive their stories, but what about dramas that work by evoking a sense of nostalgia in the audience? These kinds of dramas — like the Answer Me series, which did it particularly well — are less about the characters’ nostalgia, and more about them eliciting that emotion in you.
In a way, these kinds of stories capitalize on our own nostalgia towards our past, and it’s a big part of how we connect to them. Maybe this is also the reason why high school and/or youth dramas are so well-loved: we’re able (and encouraged) to relive our youth.
The Answer Me series works the same way, but uses its time and setting to do this with even more impact. These stories are carefully set in the past, often in a similar time frame to the viewers they are targeting. So, the audience not only gets to re-experience the emotions of their youth, but reminisce about the music, games, books, technologies, etc. that were popular then.
And for one final twist on this idea of nostalgia and dramas, what if watching a drama actually creates your own nostalgia when you look back on it? In other words, watching the drama becomes a part of your past, since it captured you at a certain time and place in your own life story.
Many times for me, a particular drama brings (or maybe drags) me back to certain memories in my life. Like when I watched City Hunter my first few weeks living alone and felt like I had Yoon-sung and Kim Nana (a.k.a Lee Min-ho and Park Min-young) to keep me company, or when I cringed through weeks of lunch hours watching Heirs with a friend in our work cafeteria. Anyone who loves stories and experiences them fully can have this kind of experience, because the stories leave their mark on us.
As we’ve seen, nostos and the concept nostalgia evoke strong emotions. In dramaland, sometimes the nostalgia is expressed within the world of the story, and we experience it vicariously as we watch the story unfold. Other times, a story is created to evoke our own nostalgia for our past. Nostalgia can even be something we create for ourselves unknowingly, as we consume stories and they become a part of us. No matter the method or delivery, the concept of nostalgia is deeply embedded in K-dramas, and one of things that makes them so universal.