If you’re like me and can’t watch a kdrama without English subtitles, you’ll rank fansubbers way up high on that totem pole called “The People Most Deserving Of Blame For My Kdrama Addiction.” Said pole also nicknamed “Kdrama Folks That I Lurve The Most Who Aren’t Actors.”
Fansubbers. What will we do without them?
Long before the emergence of major fansubbing groups like WITHS2 and Viki, one lone person was quietly translating Korean dramas for a small but growing community of international viewers. This was back in the days when downloading a drama was as familiar a concept as wearing flip-flops on our head. (The next step—joining subtitles to raws—even caused the technically-challenged among us to cry.)
Totuta, who was attending graduate school in the States, ran a one-man show. Not only did his website provide the raw videos and English subtitles, there was an array of articles that helped non-Korean viewers better understand the real world depicted in the dramas he translated (for example, the oktapbang, soju, ramyun, Korean bar exam, garlic, and cohabitation in Attic Cat). All of the articles written by Totuta himself.
I do not know what magic dust Totuta sprinkled on his subtitles, but the first two dramas he subbed were also the first dramas I watched thrice in quick succession. I was in kdrama heaven. I was also in trouble. I had discovered quality fansubs (aka subs-by-people-who-really-know-their-stuff) and would henceforth refuse to accept anything less.
As one of my first kdrama enablers, Totuta is a legend in my books. His pioneering work will always have a special place in the annals of kdrama fansubbing; many of us, whether as fansubbers or just appreciative viewers, owe it to him for our foray into the world of fansubs. I’m thus thrilled to bring this interview to you, and also highly embarrassed that my interview questions are so unwieldy and wordy. No wonder (and thank goodness) I’m not a journalist!
Would you like to tell TP readers something about yourself? Hi everyone. I am TOTUTA. You can just call me ‘T’, if you want, and it’s a great honor to be interviewed here on THUNDIE’s PRATTLE, nice to meet you all. Currently I’m working in Japan as a hardware engineer/manager for a Korean company. I was born in Korea, and educated mostly in Korea, partly in U.S… And last but not least, I’m a Korean citizen.
How long have you been watching Korean dramas and are you still watching them as avidly these days? I’ve been watching Korean dramas since I was very young (around 6?), but recently have no time to watch them, because my life is getting busier and busier all the time.
Do you have a keen interest in history and languages because I notice from your writings that you are also fluent in Chinese and Japanese? Yes, I do. Although my job is engineering, history (and culture too) and languages are my love.
Back when you first started, the fansubbing of Korean dramas hadn’t taken off in a big way yet. What made you decide to take a leap into what was (and still is) a tedious, time-consuming and often thankless endeavor? My first fansubbing project was Ruler of Your Own World (2002). The reason why I dived into the job was very simple. I loved ROYOW. And I like the dialogues which I thought were very much modern, great and cool. Many Korean people insisted this kind of Korean language cannot be translated into other languages, not even into Japanese (which is very close to Korean in a grammatical sense). What a pity only Korean people can enjoy this great drama! So I decided to give it a try myself, hoping many people in the world will love this great piece.
Was ROYOW one of the early mania dramas and have you loved others that were similarly underrated but critically acclaimed? Yes, ROYOW is one of those dramas with fandom. I don’t exactly know how it became one. It just ‘clicked’ with young Korean people back then. I remember everyone was talking about this drama, saying ‘Oh, this one’s different. I loooove this one.’ And as for me, I know no drama other than ROYOW which is underrated but great. But it doesn’t mean that there are none. There must be many. It’s just that I’m not watching a lot of dramas.
What was the fansubbing landscape like when you started? As far as I know, there was no one fansubbing Korean dramas back then.
Your Sentimentalism piece, one of the thirteen articles that you wrote for Sandglass, is a fascinating insight into the historical and cultural background of the drama. It’s especially eye-opening because you make a strong and startling assertion: “Sentimentalism has been the dominant trend of South Korean culture so far.” Do you find this to be still true of Korean dramas? That is, are the “make us cry” weepies outnumbering comedies? No, it’s gradually going away now.
Are you a bigger fan of romantic comedies like Attic Cat or the knife-in-your-gut realism that makes dramas like ROYOW and Sandglass so moving and compelling a watch? I like both, but if I have to pick one, I’ll go with realism.
In one of your articles, you lumped Damo with Summer Scent in the category of “mediocre melancholy dramas.” I protest! One is far superior, isn’t it? Yes, Damo is definitely better than Summer Scent & Co. What I wanted to say is that Damo still has some melancholy flavor with all those greatness.
What makes a drama mediocre? Lack of own view. Conversely, what makes a drama great? Novel perspective. Could you give us examples of the ones that sank like a shipwreck? Recent films of Kang Je-gyu. Those that made every hour spent on them feel so worthwhile? Ruler of Your Own World!
Many viewers of Ireland (your 4th and also final fansubbing project) come away feeling befuddled and also disappointed. They are confused by the writing and let down by their high expectations following ROYOW. On the other hand, some viewers have praised the drama’s brilliance and courage. What are your own thoughts? How would you convince someone to give this drama a shot and not dismiss it as too quirky and weird? Well, to be honest with you, I myself didn’t really get the point of Ireland, either. But let me say that, if you are fed up with those same ol’ fashioned Korean dramas with triangle love and bla bla bla, give Ireland a try.
In one of your ROYOW articles, you described the Korean rock music scene. I know you dabbled in indie rock because I had the privilege of listening to one of your pieces. It was very good! How did you get started and how long have you been involved with your band? What instruments do you play and do you also compose music? I play guitar, bass, and little bit of drums, but I can’t write songs. It’s beyond my ability, I have to say.
I know work keeps you very busy. Have you ever thought of returning to fansubbing and writing (about Korean dramas) someday? Someday, yes, why not? But I’m hell of a busy these days so I can’t spare my time to watch dramas, not even subbing and writing about them.
To wrap, if you could recommend five favorite dramas (other than the four that you subbed), what would they be? Sorry, I have no time to watch dramas recently…. Nice talking to you all. Good bye!
Haha, Totuta does sound so relieved to be done, doesn’t he? But he really is very sweet to agree to this many-months-in-the-making interview. Thank you, sir! I love rekindling memories of the good ole days and I especially love the opportunity to talk about fansubbing and three adored dramas (oops, never did finish Ireland). Perhaps TP readers will use this post to sing their praises of fansubbers who dedicate so much time to helping us all enjoy dramas. If anyone wants to discuss the four dramas that Totuta subbed, go right ahead and don’t hold back!