Squid Game Stills
(Photo : Netflix )

As mentioned in this Deadline article, 2021 was the year of "Squid Game." The runaway Netflix hit grabbed the world's attention and refused to let go, quickly nabbing the title "Netflix's biggest show ever" as the title lived rent-free in everyone's heads and endless discussions raged about what angry anti-capitalist messages writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk embedded in his now iconic work.

However, even as the world marveled at the phenomenon that is "Squid Game," industry insiders anxiously discussed where in the world the next "Squid Game"-like hit will materialize? The Asian continent has such a rich history of churning out pop culture properties with fans around the globe, and each industry is different with its own strengths and setbacks.

The Deadline article asked the question of which Asian market will produce the next "Squid Game"-like sensation. They asked a panel of industry experts to get their answer (spoilers! I believe they concluded on India). However, I wanted to think about the answer to this question in a more systematic fashion.

I have a theory.

What Made K-Pop and K-Dramas a Global Phenomenon?

Even though Hwang Dong-hyuk made "Squid Game" with Netflix after unsuccessfully shopping it to South Korean broadcast companies for over 10 years, since we're talking about which "Asian market" will produce the next big streaming winner, we need to examine what about the South Korean entertainment industry made "Squid Game" and other popular South Korean entertainment properties, such as the globally appealing K-Pop and other K-Dramas favorites, possible.

1. An Eye for the International Market

One aspect of the South Korean entertainment industry that's always peaked my interest is how focused on the global market it is. It's a common inside joke among international fans of K-Pop, for example, that the K-Pop groups that are known internationally are actually almost no-name groups to local South Koreans.

One listen to Busker Busker's "Cherry Blossom Ending," a song that's actually popular with the South Korean public and reappears on South Korean song charts every spring, will show you how different the tastes of South Korean people are from international fans and how outward-facing South Korea's entertainment output is.

"Squid Game" also originally suffered from this disparity, with South Korean broadcast companies rejecting it for over 10 years due to these company executives finding "Squid Game"'s content too gruesome and unsuitable for domestic consumption.

However, this focus on the outside is what brought us everything from Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" to BLACKPINK. After all, if we go back 20 years ago, back to what fans call the first generation of K-Pop (we're now on the fourth generation), you'll find an American public with very little knowledge of South Korea and its culture. You would never have guessed that 20 plus years later, BTS would be invited to the Grammy's.

2. Heavy Government Support

So, how can South Korean entertainment companies even make these high-quality entertainment properties? It's all due to heavy government support. Another interesting aspect of how South Korea's industries work in general is that everything receives heavy government sponsorship, even massive companies like Samsung or LG. This logic follows the entertainment industry as well, with broadcasting stations being government sponsored, which then of course affects which K-Dramas are greenlit and what K-Pop groups get exposure.

Remember, what I said before about "Squid Game" being rejected by South Korean broadcast companies? That means, "Squid Game" was essentially being rejected by the government as material not suitable for the public.

However, why would the government pour so much resources into entertainment? Simple answer: To increase the proliferation of soft power. A nation can gain influence in the world through hard power, which usually refers to military might, but they can also gain influence through soft power, or how their nation is perceived overseas.

Soft power can be spread through the media or aspects of culture - anyone a fan of K-Beauty products? - that are known to the outside, but it can also take the form of food, such as the case with the Thai government sponsoring Thai restaurants abroad. Yes, that Thai food you had the other night, sponsored by the Thai government to help create happy feelings toward a country halfway around the world. South Korea does the same with its films, dramas, and pop music.

3. A History of Great Cultural Technology

It's not a fluke that the term "cultural technology" was coined in South Korea by Lee Soo-man, the head of SM Entertainment, one of the Big Three K-Pop companies and home to popular groups like EXO, Red Velvet, NCT, and Aespa.

According to the New Yorker, "Lee and his colleagues produced a manual of cultural technology-it's known around S.M. as C.T.-that catalogued the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups)."

In addition to South Korea's strides in pop music, the nation is also known for its rich cinematic tradition of which Bong Joon-ho's work is merely the tip of the iceberg. South Korea has also been riding the Hallyu or Korean wave with its popular K-Dramas that have been a staple to many around the world's media diets for decades. With such in-depth knowledge of how to make globally appealing entertainment, are we surprised that the biggest streaming hit also came from South Korea?

4. Western Influence, But Not Too Much of It

Now, on to a more serious topic: Western influence. We don't like to talk about it, but ever since the Korean War, South Korea has been under a lot of American influence due to the military forces which are stationed there.

Additionally, South Korea has a significant Christian population, which also shapes its storytelling traditions. "Hellbound," the next Netflix series to break "Squid Game"'s streak is also from South Korea. However, this series centers around a police investigation into three mysterious monsters who drag wrong-doers to Hell by a certain announced date. If that doesn't sound like a Christian-influenced idea, I don't know what is.

And while, South Korea has had plenty of Western influence over the years, the country as a whole is still wary of it. If you decide to visit South Korea in hopes of joining a "Squid Game"-esque tournament to the death, you will quickly find that Google Maps doesn't work as well there as you'd like. That's because South Korea's government wasn't too fond of the idea of a foreign company (Google) knowing the layout of their entire country. Thus, if you ever visit, be sure to download South Korea's own Naver Maps, and try that instead.

5. A Punishing Industry Willing to Exploit Its Workers

If you're into following entertainment industry news, you may recall that the U.S. struggles with its own punishing industry with the recent IATSE strike that nearly happened. However, this exploitation of workers isn't solely an American problem. South Korea deals with similar issues as well.

Have you ever heard of the K-Drama live-shoot system? The live-shoot system is when a K-Drama's production starts a month or two prior to the series premiere, with the rest of the episodes filmed while episodes are airing so that broadcasters can change the direction of the series to garner better audience response. As you can imagine, under such a system, the cast and crew of K-Dramas can be intensely overworked with all-night shoots being commonplace. Add to that the fact that some of your favorite K-Pop idols also star in your favorite K-Dramas, such as SF9's Rowoon having to shoot Netflix's "The King's Affection" during the promotion period for the SF9 comeback track "Trauma," and you can see how punishing live-shoots can be. Yes, your favorite fluffy romantic shows were made under brutal circumstances. We don't even need to mention the numerous car accidents that happen due to overworked stars trying to get to and from set.

All of these factors figure into how South Korea became the powerhouse entertainment provider that it is today. However, will the next "Squid-Game"-sized sensation once again hail from South Korea?

So, Which Country Will Make the Next International Show That's a Global Hit?

If you ask for my guess? Japan.

Let's go through each of the points above and see why Japan may be the country up next to create the next big global entertainment phenomenon. And, with Netflix unveiling a massive Japanese-language expansion, there are more and more reasons to believe that the land of the Rising Sun is where we should put our hopes.

 1. An Eye for the International Market

True its history of isolationism, Japan has traditionally been a closed-off market that mostly focused on creating for domestic fans, which is seriously impressive considering that Japan has the second largest music market after the U.S. and third biggest cinema market behind China and North America.

However, after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional methods of earning profits, entertainment companies in Japan began to finally look outward. Consider that prior to the pandemic, Johnny's Entertainment, the home of Japan's boybands (yes, basically all of them!) didn't start opening up YouTube channels for its artists to hold virtual concets and release music videos until they established the SixTONES YouTube channel in August 2019, Similarly, Johnny's artists were not allowed social media until 2019 as well, with SixTONES creating their first Instagram post on August 8, 2019.

While this sudden leap into the present might be interpreted as Japan playing catch up, this change in view on where their audience lies coincides well with the search for the next international hit series. As the country sees the rise of "Squid Game," Japanese creators will also start thinking of ways to create works that are appeal to the outside and domestic fans, especially since many of the genres popularized by South Korean properties either have Japanese source materials or are inspired by Japanese properties. Iconic K-Drama "Boys Over Flowers" is an adaptation of the Japanese manga "Hana Yori Dango," and we still refer to "Squid Game" as a "Battle Royale"-esque series, which is a reference to the Japanese movie released in 2000. Hwang Dong-hyuk has cited the Japanese manga "Liar Game" as a particular influence to "Squid Game" as well.

2. Heavy Government Support

Similar to South Korea, there are some Japanese broadcasting stations that are sponsored by the government, which also indicates some degree of control over the content broadcast on Japanese TV.

However, even more interestingly, Japanese entertainment companies may also be able to support themselves purely through the appeal of their entertainment properties. I mentioned previously that Japan has the second biggest music market. How did the island nation do it? Purely through the fact that Japanese fans are old-school actually buy music and merchandise due to Japan's strict anti-piracy laws. It's the reason why K-Pop boybands and girl groups have had a long history of "debuting" in Japan after first working in South Korea - it's because the real money lies in Japan.

Similarly, Japan has the third largest cinema market because Japanese fans seem to prefer their own country's cultural products, with Japan's anime films grossing higher than Hollywood films in 2021. The highest grossing Hollywood film, "F9: The Fast Saga," placed eighth. These figures indicate that Japan's entertainment industry is for the most part self-sustaining, allowing Japanese creators to explore topics that don't have to be government sanctioned.

3. A History of Great Cultural Technology

If I had to describe J-Pop's attitude towards churning out hit acts, I would probably sooner use the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra than true cultural technology. However, if we turn to film, then we immediately see a nation with a rich film tradition that has long been turning in great work and influencing Hollywood.

Think about Hirokazu Kore-eda winning the 2018 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for "Shoplifters," or how Akira Kurosawa is the go-to filmmaker pretentious film students like to cite when discussing Japanese film. Kurosawa's films also famously inspired George Lucas to create the "Star Wars" films, to the point that he originally asked Toshiro Mifune of "Seven Samurai" fame to play Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader. "Seven Samurai" took inspiration from American Westerns and was so well-loved by Hollywood that Hollywood later adapted "Seven Samurai" into both "The Magnificent Seven" and also Pixar's "A Bug's Life."

With such prestigious film history, I wouldn't be surprised if Japan's amazing film production houses were able to make a high-quality, high-concept series that capitalizes on the success of "Squid Game."

4. Western Influence, But Not Too Much of It

Similar to South Korea, due to World War II, Japan also fell under Western influence due to the American military also being stationed there. In fact, a whole genre of music, enka, was created as a result. However, unlike South Korea, Japan doesn't have as much Christian influence among its population. While this means, the next "Hellbound"-like story probably wouldn't come from Japan, we also won't have to worry about as much Christian prudishness when it comes to the content generated.

For example, 2021's "Kieta Hatsukoi" launched the careers of its leads Michieda Shunsuke and Meguro Ren, both incidentally members of Johnny's boybands. However, what's interesting about this J-Drama is its wholesome exploration of a relationship between two possibly bisexual men who gradually fall for each other. While some K-Dramas can have LGBTQ+ themes or subtext, they often fall short of straight-up addressing a LGBTQ+ relationship due to South Korea's uneasy relationship with recognizing the LGBTQ+ community. This openness to topics could be a real strength and could lead to a Japanese production's success abroad.

5. A Punishing Industry Willing to Exploit Its Workers

At this point, it probably wouldn't be surprising to hear that every entertainment industry thrives on exploitation. While I haven't heard about live-shoot dramas being a thing in Japan, I'm curious whether more sketchy practices will take hold with the increased Netflix investment - I guess only time will tell. However, considering how bustling Japan's film and music industries are and how much more cross-promotions there are between the two worlds, I wouldn't be surprised if people were being overworked (consider that most, if not all, Johnny's talent are active in both music and film).

So, those are my conclusions about which Asian market will produce the next "Squid Game"-like hit international show. Do you agree with me? For more entertainment news and commentary, check out Enstarz! We bring you the latest on your favorite celebrities, TV shows, and films.